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Drought is readily identified as a stressor on freshwater ecosystems—but how often do you think about the impacts of drought on hunting? The recent headlines about the ongoing megadrought that is affecting nearly 92 percent of the western United States probably call to mind the major consequences for fish and anglers, like voluntary fishing closures due to low flows and warm stream temperatures. But hunters must also contend with warmer and drier conditions that disrupt our seasons or deepen the decline of some game species.
Here are five ways that drought could affect your hunting opportunities.
According to Field & Stream, widespread drought conditions in the Upper Midwest’s Prairie Pothole region are contributing to reproductive stress, low recruitment, and long-term population decline for waterfowl species. Fewer young ducks can mean fewer opportunities for hunters too, as more wary adults avoid even the best decoy spread in the marsh. In California, there isn’t enough water available for rice fields, which provide critical food and habitat for migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway. When birds pack in to what limited water sources are available, disease outbreaks and other impacts can occur. Drought conditions often trigger emergency haying and grazing rules that affect the quality of grassland cover, leading to fewer birds, as well. Finally, heat stress and limited cover and water may have long lasting effects on upland bird species, including poor nesting cover and high chick mortality.
Dry conditions associated with drought are contributing to more frequent, longer wildfire seasons in the West, and data from the 2020 wildfire season shows that wildfire smoke appears to be disrupting the flight paths of migratory birds like geese. Birds are flying longer distances and taking more time to reach their final destinations. These longer flights can result in higher energy expenditure and may lead to increased mortality or lower productive rates.
Habitat isn’t the only thing at risk when drought drives more intense wildfires: Our access could also be temporarily closed as public land agencies struggle to respond to fires and keep people safe. In August, the U.S. Forest Service closed California’s national forests—a total of 20 million acres of public land—to mitigate the potential for additional wildfires. Some state-managed public lands were also closed to keep emergency response routes clear and protect public safety. These closures coincided with the beginning of California’s popular deer hunting season.
Drought is contributing to a wide range of impacts to iconic Western big game species. According to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, mule deer recruitment is declining due to reduced forage availability and increased heat stress. Drought can even make it harder for bucks to grow full-size antlers. In Arizona, the state’s wildlife agency has been forced to haul wildlife drinking water to a network of catchments, but at a significant financial cost to the agency. In Nevada, hunters recently raised more than $180,000 to support water hauling efforts that sustain the state’s revitalized bighorn sheep populations.
It stands to reason that if habitat and critters are in decline, our hunting opportunities will decrease, too. For example, Utah’s wildlife board approved 5,650 fewer general-season permits for the 2021 deer hunt. The decision was based on a recommendation from state wildlife biologists, who found that ongoing drought is contributing to reduced productivity of critical wildlife ranges, decreased animal survival, and lower statewide population levels of many big game species.
So, whether you hunt, fish, or support sportsmen and sportswomen from the sidelines, the ongoing drought and drier, hotter future we’re facing across the West should concern you. Click here to learn more about hunters and anglers who are experiencing the impacts of the Colorado River crisis right now.
Top photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service
Today, Representatives Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) introduced legislation to address a host of state and federal needs in the fight to contain the spread of chronic wasting disease. CWD remains the top threat to the future of deer hunting in the U.S.
The TRCP applauds the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act, which is the result of several months of discussion and debate among wildlife partners and captive industry stakeholders. The legislation would expand the federal government’s role in the fight to address CWD in four key ways:
“The threat posed by CWD to deer hunting in America is difficult to overstate—for too long, funding woes, research questions, and ineffectual enforcement have resulted in a worsening status quo,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Curbing the accelerated spread of this disease each year requires an all-encompassing effort that can only be achieved by the pragmatic, bipartisan approach in this bill. The TRCP and our partners are grateful for the leadership of Representatives Kind and Thompson and look forward to working alongside both lawmakers to bring this critical legislation to passage.”
Photo by Kirsten Strough courtesy of the USDA.
It’s a fantastic time of year to be in the woods, and as much as we’d love to just let you enjoy your deer season, without any nagging sense of unease, there is a critical need for hunters to speak out about the rapid spread of chronic wasting disease.
By now, you’ve heard us repeatedly state these facts about CWD: It’s 100-percent fatal in deer, elk, moose, and other cervids. It is now found in 26 U.S. states, and possibly others where they have failed to detect or even test for it. Infected animals can spread the disease through urine and saliva, sometimes for years, before succumbing to its effects. The prions—malformed proteins that cause CWD—can be taken up in plant matter and transported, and hunters can unwittingly spread CWD by transporting the carcass of an infected animal.
But it’s time that we get real about one more thing: The greatest threat to deer hunting is the movement of live deer within and between states by the captive deer industry.
For those who lack the time, patience, or skills to harvest a deer the old-fashioned way—but who have plenty of money and no qualms about practicing fair chase—captive deer facilities are just the answer. A person can select his or her deer from a menu, and success is guaranteed. Moreover, these facilities can grow deer never found in nature. Genetic manipulation, steroids, supercharged feed, and no challenge from predators can create freaks that true hunters know did not come from the wild but look great on a den or office wall.
When a single deer can be sold for more than $25,000, it is easy to understand why there are 4,000 or more such facilities in the U.S. today. But we can point to at least four examples in the last five months that show the blatant disregard for science by the captive deer industry and the fecklessness of current state and federal regulations.
In northern Minnesota, CWD-positive carcasses from a defunct captive facility were discovered dumped on nearby public land, threatening to introduce the disease to a new part of the state. In Texas, the disease was detected at three facilities outside of Dallas and San Antonio, but only after those facilities shipped deer to more than 260 others across the state.
CWD was then detected in a captive whitetail deer on a hunting preserve in Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier, spreading the disease to a new part of the state and posing a heightened threat to New York’s deer population to the north. Most recently, two CWD-positive captive deer in Wisconsin prompted an investigation into one of the most, if not the most, extensive web of deer shipments from a CWD-positive facility on record—nearly 400 deer were sent to 40 facilities in seven states over the last five years.
CWD was first detected in a captive facility in Colorado in 1967 and since that time has spread to almost every place captive deer facilities exist. Federal and state best practices demand that any facility where a CWD-positive deer is found be depopulated and closed. Science shows that the prions remain in the soil of an infected facility for a decade or more, so just getting rid of infected animals is not sufficient. But the profit motive is so great, it is common for deer breeders to hide infections, or simply not test, and thus spread the disease.
It is past time for state and federal regulators to step in and prevent the threat of CWD to wild deer, as the captive deer industry either lacks the ability or willingness to police itself. Here’s how:
Hunters understand that success in the deer woods is not guaranteed. In fact, most of us return emptyhanded from a day in the woods but generally richer for the experience. But we cannot fail when it comes to stopping CWD. Hunters, politicians, and regulators need to step up and do what is necessary for the deer hunting tradition—and the billions of dollars in conservation funding that hunters generate—can continue into the future.
Do what you can this season: Get your deer tested. Check your local regulations on carcass transport and disposal. Consider boning out your deer in the field to avoid transporting the parts of the carcass that would carry CWD. (MeatEater’s Janis Putelis takes you through the process in the video below.) Finally, take action to push the Secretary of Agriculture to take immediate action to stop the spread of CWD from captive deer facilities.
Top photo courtesy of the National Deer Association.
Even if you drive by an oil and gas field or wind farm to reach your favorite hunting or fishing spot, you may not give much thought to how much is at stake for sportsmen and sportswomen when it comes to developing our energy resources, including renewable sources such as wind.
But it’s a critical time to think about the possible impacts, and here’s why.
After the Trump Administration prioritized oil and gas drilling and coal mining on public lands—rescinding many previous policies and making it easier to lease and develop fossil fuels—the energy development pendulum has swung back in the other direction. Now, advancing renewable energy production on public lands has become a top priority as part of the Biden Administration’s response to the climate crisis.
The impacts of climate change—including steady habitat loss—are undeniable and must be addressed. The hunting and fishing community understands that major shifts in energy policy will be necessary to meet the goals set forth by the Biden Administration, including a commitment to generating a whopping 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030 and permitting at least 25 gigawatts of onshore renewable energy by 2025.
But there are many unanswered questions about impacts likely to occur while achieving these goals.
There is no question that renewable energy sources—wind, solar, and geothermal—have an important role to play in helping to solve the climate crisis, but at what cost? We know oil and gas development can suppress mule deer populations, but what about renewables? The impacts on birds and bats are well documented, but less is known about how expanding renewables on public lands will impact habitat and populations of game birds or big game animals. And the few studies that have been conducted indicate mixed results.
Studies on grouse species, like greater sage grouse and prairie chickens, have shown both neutral response and negative impacts from wind turbines. Researchers have expressed caution about placing wind turbines within a mile or so of occupied sage grouse habitat until we fully understand the breadth of impacts on these birds. In Wyoming, pronghorn antelope were displaced by wind turbines during the winter, but the overall impact on the population remains unclear. These researchers noted that more than a decade of animal tracking data in the Cowboy State can help identify places to site wind turbines to be more compatible with big game species.
Because we need more data, the rush to develop and bring renewable energy resources to the market could negatively impact fish and wildlife and result in the loss of access for hunters and anglers.
A poorly located solar project near a pronghorn migration corridor may be just as devastating as a coal mine or natural gas field—we don’t know for sure. Access roads, fencing, and transmission lines associated with renewable projects could all have negative impacts on wildlife, as well. And while one project alone may not have significant effects, at some point a threshold will be reached where impacts will undoubtedly occur for many species. Too many turbines or solar projects in an area will “industrialize” a landscape, perhaps to a point of no return.
The key to any energy development is avoidance of critical habitats and siting wisely—or being “smart from the start.” This idea is not new. Obama Administration officials coined the phrase and, more than a decade ago, the Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development coalition—led by the TRCP, Trout Unlimited, and the National Wildlife Federation—released a report with a set of ten “smart from the start” principles for developing renewable energy on public lands.
These principles are still valid today in a new and fast-paced renewable energy frontier:
When applied, these principles can help ensure renewable energy development’s compatibility with the needs of fish, wildlife, and hunters and anglers.
There is little doubt that sportsmen and sportswomen are about to see some rapid changes on public lands and more solar, wind, and geothermal projects emerging. As with oil and gas extraction, our community supports the multiple-use mandates on our public lands—and among those uses is energy development. We also demand that these resources be developed wisely and without loss to ever-shrinking fish and wildlife habitats that support our recreational pursuits.
The SFRED coalition members will continue to carry the sporting community voice in land-use planning and policy debates so that all forms of energy are balanced. Our community also knows there must be big policy shifts to tackle the impacts of climate change on the environment. But today’s fish and wildlife cannot be forgotten or sacrificed in the rush to solve the climate crisis.
Top photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.Learn More