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When I started in the wildlife profession a few decades ago, all I wanted to do was study big game and work with the iconic “charismatic megafauna,” as large mammals often are called. I made that dream a reality and worked on deer, elk and bighorn sheep projects as an undergraduate student and concentrated on bighorn sheep for my master’s degree. I read all the scientific literature diligently and learned many things in the field while spending countless hours with our magnificent big game animals.
I thought, as most students do, that I knew a lot – not all there was to know, but a lot. But when it comes to understanding nature and how the biological world works, one adage rings true: “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
I distinctly remember one key lecture in a wildlife management class from a pioneering mule deer researcher, Dr. Richard Mackie at Montana State University. Dr. Mackie once was in a camp of deer biologists who believed winter range was the sole factor responsible for sustaining mule deer populations in Montana and across the West. But in that lecture, after presenting his pioneering research on winter range as a major limiting condition for mule deer, Dr. Mackie pronounced, “We were wrong!” Had it been 2013, he might have proclaimed, “We didn’t know what we didn’t know.” He then told our class about the complexities of nature and how we have learned that several different factors influence deer populations and their ability to survive in different environments. It was an eye-opening lecture I’ve never forgotten.
Fast forward to present day. Land managers still focus heavily, and in some cases almost exclusively, on winter range as the key to protecting deer populations in the West. Winter range is important, but big game habitat use and needs during different seasons goes far beyond just protecting winter range.
One thing we’ve learned from the science on big game is that nutrition on summer and fall range is absolutely vital and that those animals entering winter range in poor condition simply won’t make it, no matter how much winter range there is or how good of a shape it’s in. But we also know that big game animals like mule deer, elk, pronghorn and caribou migrate between areas where they spend their summers and winters. What we don’t always know are the intricate details of migrations, and, in many cases, we don’t even know which populations migrate or how far.
That’s key in a new study released by the University of Wyoming Cooperative Research Unit and the Wyoming Migration Initiative. Research biologist Hall Sawyer recently set out to study a deer population near Rock Springs, Wyoming, that was thought to make only short-distance movements between seasonal ranges. To everyone’s surprise, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. Global positioning system collars (that recorded each marked deer’s location with pinpoint accuracy every three hours) revealed the longest known migration of any mule deer population – 150 or so miles from the Red Desert to the high mountains near Jackson, Wyoming.
Why is this important for mule deer? Sawyer said it best when he likened migration to driving long distances between two cities with no hotels, gas stations or grocery stores in between. Migrating animals need to freely pass through the landscape and stop occasionally to fuel up and rest. These places, called “stopover” habitats, are very important, because without them, deer could unnecessarily burn fat stores just trying to get to their winter ranges. Migration is all about finding and conserving body energy when trying to get from point A to B.
Barriers to movement or procuring food will cost some animals in the long run as they endure long, cold winters in the West. The Wyoming study identified several barriers and other management issues along this 150-mile corridor that could negatively impact mule deer. This study can help guide the management and protection of these important habitats while also pointing out the highest priority areas to target conservation dollars for easements, habitat enhancement and other management projects. That’s good news for this herd if state and federal agencies, private landowners and stakeholders work together to protect and conserve this migratory corridor. But what about other migrating herds of big game?
By learning more about what we didn’t know, scientists have solidified the need to think far beyond just one or two seasonal ranges or habitat types for mule deer populations. A more holistic view and management strategy with policy to back it is needed.
Migration corridors and habitats where big game animals rest and forage during migration are critical pieces in a complex habitat puzzle that is key to the health of populations of mule deer and other big game animals. But the science on migration has yet to make it into policy. Bureau of Land Management resource management plans do not identify migration corridors, stopover habitats or provide for their management. Now, with work like this there is an opportunity to get those lines on the map and start incorporating them into planning. That’s why the TRCP will keep working with partner groups, land managers and other stakeholders to ensure our big game populations are managed for long-term sustainability. If we do not manage and conserve key habitats on all seasonal ranges and the migratory passageways between them, big game populations likely will decline and impact both our outdoor traditions and our hunting-based Western economy.
Watch a video of the mule deer migrations:
When our daughter was three she watched her dad harvest a hatchery steelhead; it was the first time she had ever seen one of us kill a fish. Horrified, she almost started to cry. We had to console her and explain that it was OK, that the fish was from a hatchery and was produced for take. In her mind, all fish should be catch and release, and to this day she still believes all fish should be returned to the water.
I practice catch and release, but don’t take me for a purist. I love to eat fish! I commercial fished in Alaska for three years, harvesting millions of pounds of crab and salmon for consumption. I indulged in eating the catch of crab, sockeye, kings, cod and halibut.
The decision to catch and release is a personal choice. Sport fishing isn’t just about the catching; it’s an excuse to see beautiful places, fish new water and, when I’m lucky, feel the take of a curious fish, watching my reel spin and hang on for the ride. It’s the experience of connecting with a life form that is powerful and mysterious.
Catch and release is also about healthy returns for future anglers. I believe every fish returned is an opportunity for another angler. Returning fish also gives that species a chance to spawn, and more spawners contribute to more angling opportunity and healthier runs. Plus, older fish produce more offspring.
As a sportswoman, I want to see more fishing opportunities in the future, and if releasing fish will increase my opportunity for healthier runs then it’s one less fish in the cooler and one more fish for the future.
Techniques for catch and release:
Pinch down the barbs on all of your hooks
I pinch down all my barbs and have found that I do not lose more fish. You’ll be surprised how few fish you lose using barbless hooks. Barbless hooks allow for a quicker release with less damage to the fish’s mouth. You can use pliers to pinch down the barbs or you can carefully file them off large hooks.
Keep the fish in the water
Lifting fish out of the water stresses them. Remove the hook with your hand or with pliers and let the fish swim away. This should go without saying but do not drag your fish up onto the shore or riverbank. Research has shown that keeping a fish in the water dramatically increases its chances of survival. You can get beautiful photos of the fish still in the water.
Keep your hands wet when handling fish
If you do handle a fish and you do it with dry hands, it can cause some of the protective coating or “slime” on the fish’s skin to come off. This coating is designed to protect fish from disease. Wet hands reduce this risk and can actually make it a little easier to handle your catch. Some anglers prefer soft wet gloves.
Learn more about catch and release practices. Happy angling!
Well, it looks like the recreational fishing industry got an April Fools present. No, really, we did. It’s not a joke.
NOAA Fisheries has committed to establishing a national recreational fishing policy. What does that mean? The real answer is in the future, but the door that some like to say was “rusted shut” has been opened.
During the first days of April and what finally felt like real spring, I attended the Recreational Fishing Summit organized by NOAA Fisheries in the Washington, D.C., area. This summit was the fourth time the recreational fishing industry has come together to try to influence federal policies on fishing in general and specifically the policies that directly impact the recreational fishing industry and the 11 million saltwater anglers.
The first summit was held on the West Coast. Then came St. Petersburg, Fla., in the early 2000s. The last was in the D.C. area four years ago and started the ball rolling to change how the recreational fishing industry has been and is viewed by federal policy makers. This summit produced a fairly long list of changes that attendees wanted implemented. To his credit, Eric Schwab, then head of NOAA Fisheries, committed to getting that list checked off as soon as possible. While 100 percent of the items were not completed, most of did get done. One of the outstanding and frankly most important items is to get the “new” Marine Recreational Information Program, or MRIP, completed and functional. Time after time, at the summits and just about everywhere else, the recreational industry has questioned the data being used to manage the recreational users. There are substantial fluctuations in some of the catch number that just do not make any sense. If bad data are being used to set seasons, bag limits or assess catch, then folks’ suspicion is warranted. MRIP needs to be fully functional and completely trusted.
This year’s summit was a follow-up to the previous one. The output was a list of things to be addressed by NOAA Fisheries. The list was not as long, but it has some fairly complicated issues to address. To a great extent the list is directly reflective of the Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries and the report presented by the Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission, Recreational Working Group. The “vision report” had a short list of important items, but several rise to the top in my mind. They did also at the summit. First, establish a national recreational fishing policy. Next was allocating marine fisheries for the greatest economic benefit to the nation. Also managing for the forage base. All of these were high up on the short list from the summit. All of these would change management policy and finally recognize the value of the recreational fishing industry.
I am happy to report that Eileen Sobeck, the newly appointed head of NOAA Fisheries, concluded the summit with the commitment to move ahead with establishing the national recreational fishing policy. Great stuff! But from the recreational industry standpoint, the real work now begins. We need to make sure that what goes into this policy is the right stuff. John Brownlee, editorial director of Salt Water Sportsman, Sport Fishing and Marlin magazine and keynote summit speaker, put it correctly when he said that the real work begins after we get NOAA Fisheries to say yes!
Yes, I do think that we are making headway. Rather than looking back and saying, “It’s about time,” I look forward and say, “We need to make sure we get it right this time!”
Most sportsmen agree that although fish and wildlife biology is complex, the decision to use the best available science in the management of valuable natural resources should not be. Unfortunately, the management objectives developed by fish and wildlife professionals too often are trumped by policymakers who undermine the science with special interest agendas. When this happens hunters and anglers inevitably lose.
We do not have to look far for examples, including the politically charged legal challenge to a decision made for bighorn sheep in the Payette National Forest of Idaho, which recently was settled after a lengthy court battle.
At the time of European settlement in the West, bighorn sheep were one of the most prominent large mammals on the landscape. Paleontological data indicates that there may have been as many as 2 million of these regal animals in America. But by the mid-1950s bighorn sheep had plummeted to only about 10,000 individuals. This decline was primarily due to unregulated hunting, forage competition from livestock grazing and the introduction of diseases transmitted by domestic sheep and goats. Today, we have regulated hunting and livestock grazing, but the disease transmission from domestic sheep and goats still occurs and is considered the No. 1 limiting factor to bighorn sheep recovery in the West.
According to Dr. Subramaniam Srikumaran, D.V.M., chair of the wild sheep disease research facility at Washington State University, large scale pneumonic die-offs have “decimated bighorn sheep populations time and time again.” These die offs are “unequivocally” the result of wild sheep being forced to share their native range with domestic sheep and goats.
Over the last 30 years bighorn advocates have worked with the domestic sheep industry on the only viable course of action currently available: separation of the two species. Mutually beneficial solutions such as buying out public land domestic sheep grazing allotments, converting them to another livestock type (such as cattle) or moving domestic sheep to alternative allotments outside of suitable historic bighorn sheep habitat all have been proposed. In a number of cases progress was made, yet in others, agreements could not be reached.
Then in March of 2005, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service announced a groundbreaking decision on an environmental impact study conducted in the Hells Canyon area of the Payette National Forest in Idaho. He determined that the forest had a responsibility to ensure there was habitat available to support a viable population of bighorn sheep and that allowing continued domestic sheep grazing in or near occupied bighorn sheep habitat would have adverse impacts on bighorn sheep populations. The final forest plan, completed in 2010, used the best available science to identify suitable rangelands for domestic sheep and goat grazing, while identifying other allotments on the Payette National Forest requiring closure.
This decision was a win for wildlife, wildlife managers, sportsmen and the economies that benefit from sustainable wildlife populations. However, it still came under fire as recently as this year when an appeal, challenging the science behind the transmission of disease from domestic sheep and goats to bighorns, was filed in federal court by the American Sheep Industry and several state woolgrower organizations. They asserted that the analysis performed by the U.S. Forest Service using best science was flawed. The federal judge in Boise, Idaho, denied their appeal and stood with the science and the analysis it supported, declaring that the victory for the bighorns decided in 2010 remained.
When you take a step back and look at all of the pressures our fish and wildlife face due to human induced factors, it is easy to see that this decision is not just a victory for the 500 or so bighorns that now inhabit Hells Canyon or even for single species. From a conservation perspective, the case is much bigger than bighorns.
This verdict set the precedent that science, not politics or special interests, should be the determining factor in wildlife management decisions. A different verdict would have opened the door to challenges of decisions that conserve everything from sage grouse to marine fisheries – and potentially by much more influential industries than the woolgrowers. This decision represents hope for the future of fish, wildlife and ultimately all life.
Neil Thagard is the Western outreach director for the TRCP and has been closely involved with wild sheep conservation throughout North America for the past 20 years, including his direct involvement with the Payette National Forest decision. He was the first U.S. citizen to receive the Lex Ross Wild Sheep Conservation Award presented by the conservation community in British Columbia, Canada, for his efforts.
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More