Climate Change Has Impacts on Hunting Heritage in the Northeast

Photo credit: Wikimedia.org

Photo credit: Wikimedia.org

Game species are being threatened by carbon emissions.

By George Harvey

One of our most important environmental conservation laws is the Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937. It has proven instrumental in maintaining healthy populations of certain species of wildlife. It is credited with restoring populations that had been locally struggling.

A couple examples of results can illustrate the act’s effectiveness. In 1910, the state of Colorado estimated that there were 1,000 elk within its borders, but in 2008, hunters harvested over 45,200 elk there. And in Missouri, low populations kept the 1937 hunting season for white-tailed deer down to three days, during which 108 deer were taken, but in 2009’s 123-day season, the harvest was 295,000 animals. Other species that have benefited from the act include turkeys, especially in New England, and wood duck.

The Wildlife Restoration Act requires that an 11% federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition be spent in the states on ways that relate to stewardship for wildlife and hunting. The states have to match the money they get with a smaller amount of their own, largely obtained from the sale of hunting licenses. The expenditures can be for a number of different things, ranging from hunting safety education to acquiring land for wildlife refuges and hunting reserves. One of the keys to the act’s success has been the fact that the income was dedicated to conservation by law.

Now, the continued success of our game conservation has come into a different phase, with new threats to wildlife arising from climate change. What we are dealing with is not a theory saying some wildlife species will become more stressed, but a continued and growing set of problems that can be witnessed and measured in the real world, in terms of rising temperatures and declining game populations.

In the last two decades, climate-based pressures on some species have made it necessary to reduce harvests and shorten seasons. In some cases, seasons have been canceled altogether. For example, moose hunting has been stopped in northwestern Minnesota since 2013, because the population of the animals is too low and faced with conditions that make it hard to grow. White-tailed deer have been in sharp decline in some areas. Other species are similarly affected.

The immediate causes of stress vary by species, but they derive from the small amounts of climate change we have already experienced. It is easy to misunderstand this. The average rise in temperatures is too small for some people to notice, but the effects in nature can be profound. We might not notice, but pests do.

While temperatures around the world have only increased by about one degree Celsius, this is an average for all locations, all seasons, and all times of day. Here, in the Northeast, our greatest warming has been in the winter, with the greatest changes coming during the night. The result is that though the temperatures have only gone up one degree, the temperatures on the coldest nights have increased by well over five degrees in many places. In New York, winter temperatures have increased, on average, by 4.4° F. (bit.ly/climate-change-in-NY)

That small increase has allowed a number of pests to move north, in some cases hundreds of miles. The invasives include a variety of ticks, midges, and mosquitos, and the diseases they carry. Lyme disease is just an example that human beings get.

Moose are possibly iconic among game animals stressed by climate change. Dermacentor albipictus, called the “winter tick” or “moose tick,” is a main culprit. With warmer winters, the ticks are better able to survive and are found in much higher numbers, sometimes in areas where they had been unknown. Adapted to really cold areas, moose never developed the ability to groom for ticks. With warmer weather, they collect them quickly, in large numbers. Intense irritation has led to moose scratching themselves against trees so hard that very large patches of hair are removed, exposing their bare skin to cold winter weather. This produces what is termed a “ghost moose,” whose skin is bare, exposed to the winter air. There has been more than one case in which a moose has been found to have as many as 70,000 ticks on it when it died.

Some states see more trouble with winter ticks than others. Mark Scott, the Director of Wildlife in Vermont, told us that Vermont’s moose are not as troubled as those in New Hampshire or some other states. He speculated that this could be that Vermont’s policy leads to a lower population density for moose than other states allow.

Deer, which can remove ticks by grooming, have different problems. The warming of our winter environment has led to introductions of populations of midges known in southern areas as “no-see-ums.” These carry viruses producing epizootic hemorrhagic disease in deer and related animals. White-tailed deer are among those that have the lowest immunity. The onset of symptoms comes very suddenly, and the animals can die from internal bleeding within a short time. In some cases, herds are reduced by 50% within days.

We should note that the midges are so small that they can go through most window screens. They can be very annoying to anyone whose house they invade. The epizootic hemorrhagic disease they carry, however, has not been known to infect any human beings. (bit.ly/wikipedia-EHD)

Snowshoe hares have a very different problem. Their molting to a white coat is triggered by days getting shorter, rather than colder temperatures. The result is that their new winter colors make them more visible instead of giving them camouflage.

Another problem some hunters face is that hunting is very dependent on weather. Snow that has made tracking easy in the past is not always around. A description of this problem recently appeared in an article in The Missoulian, “Climate Change Trashing Hunting” http://bit.ly/Missoulian-climate-chage-trashing-hunting.

Birds are under threat, as well. Often, their migrations are timed according to the length of the day, but their food supplies depend on species whose growth is triggered by temperature. As the environment warms, birds may find when they arrive from long flights, there is nothing to eat. Northern bobwhite quail have additional problems if there are drought conditions when eggs hatch. In some parts of the eastern United States, populations are down 80%, which is too low to support hunting.

Green Energy Times will continue its look into hunting and fishing in future issues.

George Harvey was a life member of the National Rifle Association (NRA) until it endorsed Donald Trump for president.

See also the National Wildlife Federation report, “Game Changers” bit.ly/NWF-game-changers-report.

Climate Change Has Impacts on Hunting Heritage in the Northeast posted first on Green Energy Times

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