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May 19, 2014

The tortoise and the … javelina?

Sometimes a hunting trip may be more about what you don’t tag and take home.

Earlier this year my wife Catherine and I were in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona bowhunting javelina. This ecosystem is one of the most strikingly unique anywhere, and any adventurous soul willing to explore this environment will find him or herself rewarded with a seemingly endless display of plants and wildlife.

As our adventure commenced we were hiking to one of the many high, rocky outcroppings to glass, carefully weaving our way through the ocotillo, saguaro, fishhook barrel cactus and jojoba. These prickly obstacles, while impeding our progress considerably, are common and essential sources of food, cover and nesting sites for Sonoran Desert wildlife such as Coues and mule deer, numerous bird and bat species and the desert tortoise, as well as the javelina we were pursuing.

We were carefully making our way during the early morning light and came upon the nearly vertical edge of an old mining pit. The area was heavily mined for copper, gold, silver and lead during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and these remnant exploratory mines are common, reminding us of those hardy souls who settled this harsh landscape in days gone by.

While we observed the pit, which was only about 6 feet deep, we noticed two objects crowded tight in opposite corners of the pit. Catherine and I blurted to one another, “tortoise!” It was obvious that the two tortoises had tumbled down the steep sides into the pit and were unable to escape. After some quick examination in hopes of ensuring that the ground in the bottom of the pit was safe for me to stand on, I climbed down to aid these timeless desert dwellers. Unfortunately, the first one I examined had succumbed to the elements, as there was no water or food available in the pit – there was no way of knowing how long she had been down there. This tortoise, a female, was probably 30-40 years old based on her size. I moved to the opposite corner to examine the other tortoise and realized this male, probably about the same age as the deceased female, was still alive. I gently picked him up and handed him to Catherine, who was standing on the rim of the pit.

I climbed out, and we carried the surviving tortoise to a spot away from the pit hoping to prevent him from ending up in it again. We provided him some much needed water (from the supply we carried) and food – the fruits from a nearby fishhook barrel cactus. Though the tortoise had defensively withdrawn himself inside his shell, he could not resist the meal we had put in front of him. He slowly poked his feet and head out of the shell to check us out, and, realizing we were not a threat to him, he proceeded to enjoy the fruit and water.

After polishing off several cactus fruits and some water, he slowly began his solitary trek back into the desert and appeared to be recovering well from his ordeal, all things considered. The desert tortoise is a resilient creature with evolutionary adaptations that allow his survival in the harsh demands of his desert home. Unfortunately, it is the human-induced factors in his environment that have that have landed him a threatened listing under the Endangered Species Act. Though he is not a critter that we as sportsmen and –women pursue, the tortoise and other keystone species’ well being indicate the future for the species we do hunt. It is not coincidental that President Roosevelt often referred to hunters as the “original conservationists” – in my experience sportsmen are keenly aware of their obligation to be stewards of the land and all its species!

Whether it is abandoned mine pits in the Arizona desert, punching gas wells in sage grouse habitat or paving roads through elk calving grounds, this experience underscores the importance of mitigating the human-induced factors that we impose on the inhabitants of our wild places.

Though this adventure started out as a pursuit of javelina, it became one about providing a hands-on conservation act for a desert tortoise that would have been doomed without a helping hand. Whether or not you believe in karma, we were rewarded later that day with a 30-yard shot that resulted in filling our javelina tag for 2014.

I don’t find it strange that the memories of this hunt are as much about the tortoise as the javelina. It certainly validated to Catherine and me that sometimes our outdoor experiences are not just about what you bring home, but what you don’t.

One Response to “The tortoise and the … javelina?”

  1. David

    Neil,
    While your effort to rescue this ‘endangered’ desert tortoise was heartfelt, benevolent and altruistic, according to ‘them’ you shouldn’t have touched the critter at all. And you actually, likely, violated all sorts of Federal protection laws by giving it food and water. Hopefully you don’t get a visit from the Feds with an arrest warrant for ‘interfering with or molesting’ an endangered species.

    Absurd isn’t it?

    (Nice javelina though 😉

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posted in: General

May 15, 2014

Planting season in America’s heartland

Sprouting spring wheat. Photo by Ryan Wagner.
Sprouting spring wheat. Photo by Ryan Wagner.

Greetings from beautiful Day County in northeast South Dakota! After a long cold winter, spring is finally upon us, and it is planting season on my family’s corn, soybean and spring wheat farm. With this post I hope to give you a brief look into one of the busier times of the year on the farm.

Spring can be equal parts exciting and frustrating as the thrill of planting can quickly give way to the disappointment of a weather delay. We were fortunate enough to start seeding spring wheat on April 15 and finished on April 22. This year seeding conditions were about as good as we have seen for quite some time, and it was especially encouraging considering last year we did not begin seeding wheat until May 4.

As often happens, a good run of planting and hectic activity was brought to an abrupt halt as the first of many rounds of rain showers came through last week. This time of year farmers turn into amateur meteorologists, checking the radar and forecasts regularly, so I knew we would be going into wait mode because this weather system was predicted to hang around for a while (10 days and counting). Patience is a virtue – one that I do not possess – but I know this moisture will be very valuable later in the year, so for now all we can do is wait. A bonus of this rain delay is I will be able to attend my 5-year-old son’s second career soccer game tonight. I plan on bottling up some of the energy the Chickadees are sure to display and use it when I’m getting worn down later.

Planting wheat. Photo by Ryan Wagner.
Planting wheat. Photo by Ryan Wagner.

Soon enough, it will be full speed ahead at 4.8 mph. That may not sound very fast, but as the planter lumbers through the field at about that speed, there is a lot going on. Like many modern planters, ours is electronically controlled and monitored, so I have most planter functions and a view of its performance at my fingertips in the tractor cab. The GPS on board that automatically steers the planter tractor also teams up with various sensors on the planter to create “as planted” maps of many important planter operations. All this information is displayed in real time on a monitor and iPad in the tractor cab. My job is to make sure all these systems are working together to allow the planter to do its job of placing every seed exactly 2 inches deep and 6.2 inches from its neighbor. At more than 300 seeds per second, this is no small task! The first day is always the most stressful as we work out the bugs, but once we get into a groove and things start clicking, the sense of accomplishment is hard to beat.

Ag ap on the tractor iPad. Photo by Ryan Wagner.
Ag ap on the tractor iPad. Photo by Ryan Wagner.

Of course the end goal is to grow a crop and sell it (preferably at a profit), and an increasingly large part of my time is spent analyzing the profit margin for each crop and watching for selling opportunities. Today’s technology allows me to see the Chicago Board of Trade market prices live, not only in my office but in the tractor on the iPad as well. CBOT prices can be particularly volatile in the spring, so there is a lot of money at risk on a minute-by-minute basis, but tracking profit margin is always on my mind regardless of the season.

Farming has certainly come a long way since the days of open cab tractors, as technology continues to improve our productivity and our profitability, while reducing our impact on the land and water. It’s a great time to be an American farmer.

Ryan Wagner operates a family-owned farm near Roslyn, South Dakota. He and his wife Kerri participated in the 2013 TRCP Conservation Exchange Program.    

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posted in: General

April 30, 2014

Sportsmen (and Beer Makers) Everywhere Rally in Support of Clean Water

Clean Water ActionWith the publication of the Army Corps and EPA’s proposed rule clarifying and restoring Clean Water Act safeguards for wetlands and headwater streams, many sportsmen’s organizations, including this one, are mobilizing comments in support of the proposed rule. You can stand with hunters and anglers in support of clean water through any of the following links:

Sportsmen are speaking up in the press, too. Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, penned an excellent op-ed explaining why it is so critical we protect headwater streams. In a Politico ad, nine different sportsmen’s organizations – the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, B.A.S.S., Bull Moose Sportsmen’s Alliance, Izaak Walton League of America, National Wildlife Federation, Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, TRCP and Trout Unlimited – called on Congress to support the rulemaking process to secure clean water for America’s outdoor legacy and the rural economies that depend on hunting and fishing. And Ted Turner, founder of CNN and Turner Broadcasting, demanded a return of clean water protections in an op-ed reflecting on the importance of small streams on his ranch in New Mexico.

It’s not just sportsmen. Businesses are championing clean water, too. The American Sustainable Business Council announced its support for the proposed rule in an ad featuring Kim Jordan, co-founder and CEO of New Belgium Brewing. New Belgium, the third largest craft brewery in the United States, went on to write an op-ed explaining why this proposed rule is so important to its business and many other industries. The National Farmers Union, which welcomed the rule proposal in March, has prepared a fact sheet debunking some of the most common myths and misinformation about the rule.

The TRCP and its partners have prepared fact sheets, video and other information explaining this issue. Visit the “Sportsman’s Tackle Box for Understanding the Clean Water Act Rule” to learn more, then TAKE ACTION so that decision makers in Washington, D.C., know you want clean water for hunting and fishing.

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posted in: General

April 29, 2014

Turn down the heat

red snapper
Red snapper. Photo courtesy of NOAA.gov.

Just before NOAA Fisheries’ Saltwater Recreational Fishing Summit that I wrote about recently, a court in Washington, D.C., issued a verdict in the lawsuit of Guindon (a commercial fisherman) vs. Pritzker (the secretary Of Commerce). It had to do with what some perceive as NOAA Fisheries’ lack of ability to control the catch of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico by the recreational fishing community. However, by any reasonable measure it has a lot more moving pieces.

This issue has been bubbling away down along the gulf for a number of years, and this verdict has precipitated an immediate boiling over. Normally rational people have gone ballistic. People in the “media” are taking verbal shots at those they blame for this mess. The environmental community has jumped on the issue. The net result may cause this to get totally out of control. Or maybe it already is.

For those of us in the Northeast, we might simply turn to another station and go about our business. That might be the normal response, but this issue does have the potential to impact recreational fisheries all along our coasts. Its outcome might even impact the crafting and implementation of NOAA’s forthcoming national recreational fishing policy. This is not just a bunch of “good ol’ boys” spouting off about a decision they do not like. It has the potential to be a very important and impactful decision.

What’s it all about? Going back a few years, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council set quotas for both the recreational and commercial users of red snapper. The commercial harvest was implemented in the form of catch shares, in this case individual transferable quotas, which in its own right amped up the overall angst. The recreational harvest then proceeded to exceed the quotas for a number of years, except in 2010 when the BP oil-rig blowout essentially closed down the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, the commercial quota now was well controlled. But the commercial fishing industry felt that its ability to take its quota and to have that quota increase with the rebuilding of the red snapper population was in jeopardy by the recreational overharvest. In fact, the population has continued to grow, and the potential for them to increase their take has, as well. By the way, because red snapper are slow-growing critters, the rebuilding period was not 10 years, but the built-in flexibility in the Magnuson-Stevens Act allowed a 24-year rebuilding period. Now that is real flexibility, but I’m not going there. A good overview of the red snapper fishery can found here.

As mentioned above, there are a lot more moving parts to this situation, but you get the general gist of it. So the Washington, D.C., judge who has minimal understanding about Gulf of Mexico fisheries supported the plaintiff in the lawsuit and ruled that NOAA Fisheries was not fulfilling its mandate under the Magnuson-Stevens Act to control the recreational catch of red snapper. The judge did not issue any remedial action. Perhaps one of the things that the judge discovered during the trial was that NOAA Fisheries has only a vague understanding of what the actual recreational catch is.

After the decision was rendered, one well-known blogger called the recreational red snapper fishery “embarrassing.” Another writer said of efforts to allocate additional quota to the recreational users, “stop asking for an additional helping when you’ve already taken more than your share.” The commercial industry, environmental groups and the recreational industry all are pointing fingers and shouting at each other. The individual angler is getting creamed and taking the heat. How is it that the individual angler is “embarrassing” or “taking more than their share”? I have not heard that there have been excessive numbers of anglers exceeding the limit or taking undersized fish. They stuck to the limits and season, so what’s wrong with that? Some of the pro-recreational organizations are advocating for more allocation and getting criticized for it. Well, duh, what should they advocate for? Less allocation. As more and more folks move to coastal communities, do we really know the number of angler trips and what their catch is? If we simply say that the current allocations will not change, that means a lot of folks only access to a public trust resource is through the local fish market.

If folks would work on pulling together all this disparate energy, maybe the problem could be solved. NOAA Fisheries needs to finish up the inner workings of the Marine Recreational Information Program. Then there might be a better understanding of what the recreational catch is and what the potential demand will be. There needs to be a new allocation model based on up-to-date and better recreational participation and, yes, it needs to have some element of the socioeconomic value of this fishery. Also, there needs to be some real cooperation and coordination between state and federal fisheries managers.

It is painfully obvious that what is being done now is not working. Solving this is not rocket science, unless folks are only interested in protecting the turf they have staked out.

Ed Arnett

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April 28, 2014

Following the food: Migration is critical for big game

Muley migration
Mule deer need to travel between seasonal ranges to capture greening vegetation in the spring and to reach their winter range in the fall. Photo courtesy of Joe Riis.

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.

WMI Event
On Earth Day, April 22, 2014, the University of Wyoming and Wyoming Migration Initiative held an open house to release their report on the longest mule deer migration in North America. Photo by Ed Arnett.

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:

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