Ballot Box Biology Bad for Sportsmen

At first glance, many of the issues facing hunters and anglers today seem overwhelmingly complex. On topics as diverse as ATV use to public land development, climate change to predator management, emotionally charged debates spring up at every sportsman’s gathering. None of these issues seems to have a simple answer.

I often am confronted by individuals or organizations asking about the TRCP’s position on the issue of the day. My answer is always the same: What does the best available science tell us?

The TRCP’s mission is, and always has been, to guarantee all Americans a quality place to hunt and fish. To do this we need sustainable fish and wildlife populations and habitats to support them. Our professional wildlife managers intimately understand this and implement policies and procedures to ensure it.

Where the process falls off the rails is when we start trying to manage our fish and wildlife through what is sometimes referred to as “ballot box biology” – a process by which fish, wildlife and habitat management decisions are made not by professionals using sound, supportable, peer-reviewed and published science but by public opinion. Unfortunately, public opinion can be deeply divided, fueled not by the facts but by emotional rhetoric and snappy catch phrases that fit neatly onto bumper stickers.

A good example of this can be seen in the ongoing controversy surrounding gray wolf management, an issue that has splintered the sportsman’s community. Specifically, wolves have been single-handedly blamed for dramatically reducing big game numbers to the point where the absurd claim of “the wolves ate them all” is commonly heard in reference to elk, deer, moose and even bighorn sheep.

It’s an easy bandwagon to jump on. The image of a snarling, larger-than-life predator with blood-drenched fangs can haunt even the most reasonable hunter’s dreams when he’s on a long and unsuccessful quest and not finding the animals he is used to seeing in his favorite hunting spots. But the scientific reality behind recent population declines is far more complex, and to attribute it solely to any one factor, including predation, is an unjust over-simplification.  In fact, a study sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation on the elk declines in the Yellowstone area has determined that wolves have had a minimal effect on elk populations.

Another recent study out of Minnesota, where a 69-percent decline in moose populations has put an end to moose hunting in that state, points toward climate change as the major factor. Milder winters are raising the survival rates of blood-sucking ticks that attack moose in the tens of thousands, when the animal already is stressed by a warmer than normal summer. Unfortunately, despite sound scientific support, “the ticks ate them all” just doesn’t have the same ring to it – and likewise would be inaccurate.

Predators such as wolves or ticks don’t exist in a vacuum. Undeniably, they have an impact; however, a host of other, much less glamorous causes exists, such as habitat degradation and fragmentation, fire suppression, irresponsible development, over-grazing, invasive species and disease.

As difficult as it may be, every sportsman is responsible – for the future of our own and our children’s hunting and angling opportunities – to be factual and credible to ensure we identify and address the actual challenges our natural resources are facing.

We must make the effort to look for the facts of each situation and ask ourselves, “What does the best available science and our professional wildlife managers tell us is best for fish, wildlife and their habitats?” Because ultimately, this also will be what is best for sportsmen.

The science behind sustainable fish and wildlife management is complex. But the decision to use it should be very simple.

Lessons Learned Fishing for Red Snapper

Talking about fishing is great but it doesn’t hold a candle to actually getting on the water and catching fish.

After a month spent traveling to each of the five Gulf  states and asking fishermen to recommend the kinds of habitat enhancement projects and scientific data needed to make our fishing better, it was nice to jump aboard my buddy Capt. Peace Marvel’s new 31-foot catamaran along with a handful of other fishing junkies and head down river out of Venice, La.

Kirk Rhinehart, avid angler and biologist; wrote Louisiana’s coastal restoration master plan.

The crew and I had three goals. The first was to catch a lot of red snapper with a variety of baits on light tackle. The second was to get as much incredible footage as possible to make for a good episode of Louisiana Sportsman TV to air later in the summer. The third was to discuss TRCP’s work with its sportfishing partners to improve recreational fishing habitat and opportunities in the Gulf and beyond. We succeeded on all fronts.

Exchanging fishing stories along the way and eyeing a couple of stray thunderstorms lingering right off the mouth of the river, the 25-minute trek out of South Pass passed in a blink. Ten minutes after clearing the last channel marker, we had lines in the water and were reeling in beautiful eight to 15 pound red snapper.

The cameras rolled. The rods doubled. Smiles abounded and 10 red snapper quickly came over the gunwale.

Chris Macaluso and a snapper caught in 90 ft. of water less than two miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River.

We were fishing a ledge in about 90 feet. The water on the surface was dirtied by the spring rains from the Midwest pushing their way down the river but the massive school of snapper could be clearly seen on the sonar about 20 feet under the boat. More than 25 red snapper came to the boat after eating everything from cut bait to butterfly jigs and soft plastic grubs.

Capt. Peace then pointed the boat east in search of mangrove snapper and bigger red snapper at the South Pass 70 Block, a set of oil and gas platforms in 300 feet of water famous for holding a variety of reef fish as well as big blackfin tuna and wahoo at certain times of the year.

Free-lining chunks of cut menhaden, we quickly hooked into several sizeable mangrove snapper including an impressive 10.6 pounder as well as the rest of our 14 red snapper limit. Mixed in were a couple of 40-50 pound amberjack, two slightly-too-small cobia and a bruising 40-pound gag grouper. The AJ’s, cobia and gag all went back to swim another day. The snapper were destined for the grill.

The trip covered nearly every subject discussed throughout the five Gulf restoration workshops:

Red Snapper:

Clearly, red snapper are abundant in the northern Gulf, something all researchers and fishermen alike agreed upon. Still, there is so much uncertainty in the data regarding stock sizes, catch-and-release mortality and actual angler effort that red snapper seasons have become ever shorter over the last several years.

This year, Gulf anglers get just 28 days to harvest red snapper. Without a judge’s ruling that forced a uniform season for all Gulf States, Louisiana fishermen would have had just nine days from NOAA to catch and keep the highly-prized, hard-fighting, crimson delicacies in federal waters.

Lack of data and improving survival rates:

The same lack of data restricting red snapper harvest forced the release of the two amberjack that wore me out that day. The one that hit the free-lined chunk on the surface swam away with little effort after a bruising 15 –minute light tackle fight. The one that came from 200 feet down had to be vented and revived to be able to return to depth.

Reducing the impact of reeling reef fish up from the depths, technically called barotrauma, was discussed at length at the workshops. Finding the best methods to improve survival rates of fish brought up from the deep and getting more anglers involved can hopefully increase the access recreational anglers have to harvesting more reef fish.

Habitat:

Catching abundant red snapper and other reef denizens on both natural and man-made structures illustrated well the role that both play for the fish and the fishermen. Anglers across the northern Gulf fish rigs and artificial reefs extensively but much is still unknown about what materials make the best reefs and where it’s best to locate the structures. Meanwhile, federal energy policies are forcing the rapid removal of oil and gas platforms with little regard for the fish or their habitat.

The TRCP is working with its partners to try and find solutions to all of these issues. And, it’s very rewarding to be working with federal and state agencies to ensure wise investments of oil spill recovery dollars coming to the Gulf in order to find those solutions and make sportfishing sustainable well into the future.

The chance to experience what we’re all working to sustain has its rewards as well.

Sportsmen and Climate Change: A Long, Hard Look at Reality

Hunter Crossing River by Dusan Smetana

Science has made it abundantly clear that climate change is real, and it already is affecting our natural resources, fish and wildlife and outdoor opportunities. Photo by Dusan Smetana.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the United States writhes in one of the driest and hottest summers in history, with nearly two-thirds of the lower 48 states experiencing some form of drought, millions of Americans (including farmers and ranchers) are struggling from the resulting loss of income and higher prices for food and fuel.  Other recent disturbing news illustrates the practical implications this weather event can have on fish and wildlife. Millions of fish – sturgeon, large- and smallmouth bass, channel catfish and other species – are dying in the Midwest as water temperatures skyrocket to as high as 100 degrees.

What is clear:  both the human toll and the impacts to fish and wildlife caused by a changing climate and warmer temperatures have real consequences and cannot be ignored.

A new NASA report states that climate change is responsible for recent extreme weather events and that the probability of unusually warm summers has greatly increased. Now, Dr. Richard A. Muller, a physicist known for his staunch denial of global warming, has concluded that global warming is in fact real, with human production of carbon dioxide causing the world to slowly warm.

“I’m personally very worried,” says Dr. Muller. “I personally suspect that it will be bad.”

Of course, many continue to refute the science underlying climate change and indict the majority of scientists who accept its existence for promulgating a political agenda. In my opinion, as the TRCP’s climate change initiative manager, these individuals are simply resistant to accepting the reality of what science has made abundantly clear: climate change is real, and it already is affecting our natural resources, fish and wildlife and outdoor opportunities.

I recently wrote a guest article in The Seattle Times arguing that to develop an effective approach to addressing climate change, we cannot rely solely on public opinion polls. We must pay attention to those who are “voting with their feet” – the fish and wildlife that cannot debate habitability in the public square and must adapt to or migrate from changing habitat or die.

At the TRCP, we accept the growing evidence that climate change is real and that changes go well beyond disturbances driven by entirely natural forces. We regularly consult with fish and wildlife biologists in state and federal agencies throughout the United States on the habits, distribution and abundance of fish and wildlife.

The facts leave no doubt that climate change is undeniable. Here are a few examples:

  • Even before this year’s Midwestern fish kills from hot water, smallmouth bass have been migrating upstream nearly 40 miles in the warming Yellowstone River, displacing Yellowstone cutthroat that require colder water.
  • Warming winters and summers have led to an explosion in mountain pine beetle infestations over millions of acres in many Western pine forests, causing a dramatic conversion of forest cover to grass and shrub meadows in elk habitat. This leads to changes in elk populations and distribution during hunting seasons.
  • In a direct response to warmer springs and summers and elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, invasive cheatgrass has out-competed sagebrush and native grasses and shrubs throughout 100 million acres of the sagebrush steppe in the West, leading to decreased mule deer and greater sage-grouse habitat and populations, as well as diminished hunting opportunities.

What is the TRCP doing now? We are actively working to inform, educate and mobilize sportsmen by reporting timely data from state fish and wildlife agencies and federal land management agencies. Our state-specific presentations highlight the implications of a changing environment on fish and wildlife and the consequences for sustainable hunting and fishing. We’ve developed presentations for Montana, Washington and Colorado – with Oregon and New Mexico in the works.

Rather than debating specific points of air temperature or carbon dioxide data, the TRCP focuses on the cascading effects of a changing climate in the biological world, including impacts to species of fish and game most important to sportsmen. We highlight on-the-ground projects that help fish and wildlife adapt to a changing environment.

We are taking these state-specific presentations directly to sportsmen-based clubs throughout the West with the goal of providing factual evidence on climate change. Take five minutes to watch the video below and draw your own conclusions.

The Silence of the Lambs

Bighorn lambs

A single truck accident wiped out one-third of the bighorn lambs in the lower Rock Creek drainage. Photo by Neil Thagard.

If you’ve ever doubted the fragility of our nation’s wildlife resources, a recent incident in western Montana will erase those doubts. A single truck accident wiped out one-third of the bighorn lambs in the lower Rock Creek drainage, the Missoulian reported.

This accident is particularly devastating given that the wild sheep in Rock Creek and across the West already was hammered by an outbreak of pneumonia, which is transmitted to bighorns by domestic sheep and goats. In addition to the wild sheep deaths directly attributable to pneumonia, the lingering effects of the disease are predicted to reduce bighorn numbers even further. Several years of poor lamb recruitment will follow a pneumonic outbreak, making the loss of those lambs in Rock Creek particularly tragic.

Physical separation of domestic sheep and goats from wild sheep is essential to prevent the transmission of the respiratory disease. Earlier this year the TRCP, working in concert with the Wild Sheep Foundation and others, successfully removed a damaging amendment to the House appropriations bill for interior, environment and related agencies. The rider would have prevented the implementation of a management plan designed to provide that critical separation between bighorn sheep and domestic sheep grazing on public lands in the Payette National Forest in Idaho. When you consider the fragile state of bighorns throughout the West, the importance of this initiative to help protect them is clear.

Stories like this drive home the importance of proactive wildlife management and highlight the critical work of TRCP and our partners, organizations that are working to ensure healthy fish and wildlife populations through science-based management and policy. Resource management based in current science remains crucially important to strong natural resources policy – not only to wildlife like bighorn sheep, but also to sportsmen.

The tragedy in Rock Creek reminds us that we can never take our fish and wildlife for granted and we must not falter in our efforts to ensure these precious natural resources remain for generations to come.

Watch an episode of “TRCP’s Conservation Field Notes” concerning wild sheep management.

A Win for Wild Sheep

Bighorns on John Day

The removal of the rider marks a victory for wild sheep and a win for good science. Photo courtesy of Mia Sheppard.

Common sense and the best interests of Western wildlife prevailed last week when Representative Mike Simpson withdrew his policy rider to the House appropriations bill for interior, environment and related agencies. The amendment would have prevented the implementation of a management plan in the Payette National Forest in Idaho that would separate bighorn sheep from domestic sheep grazing on public lands.

Keeping the two species apart is critical in the effort to prevent the transmission of a fatal respiratory disease from domestic sheep and goats to bighorn sheep. The respiratory disease has devastated populations of bighorn sheep throughout the West.

Not only was the removal of the rider a victory for wild sheep, it was a win for science-based policy and the consensus on grazing that’s been forged between wildlife professionals, range managers and the hunting community.

The TRCP,  Wild Sheep Foundation, Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies and others look forward to working with Representative Simpson and others to conserve wild sheep in Idaho and other western states.

Learn more about the issue on WAFWA’s website.

Steven Rinella, host of “MeatEater” addressed issues with exotic and invasive species in a recent episode of “TRCP’s Conservation Field Notes.