Caribou struggling- Seth Kantner
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Sportsmen and sportswomen today applauded a USDA announcement regarding new guidance for the Forest Service’s management of public lands across the country. Secretarial Memorandum 1077-044, signed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, directs the agency to prioritize actions that will build climate resilience and enhance carbon stewardship on national forests and grasslands.
“We appreciate the Secretary’s direction on wildlife connectivity and migration corridor conservation, as well as the renewed focus on watershed health and restoration—this begins to address longstanding challenges facing our national forests and grasslands,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Sportsmen and sportswomen look forward to working with the Forest Service to implement this memo and to see wildlife migration corridor conservation fully integrated into forest management planning and collaborative efforts with other agencies and landowners.”
Among other things, the memo directs the USFS to:
The TRCP plans to engage with our partners and USDA to expand and implement the SO’s directives that are aligned with our mission and relevant to the future of hunting and fishing.
Top photo courtesy of USFS / Scott Dickson via Flickr.
It’s gray, foggy, and cold—the third day of a mid-May snowstorm that makes it feel like October in Northwest Alaska. Patches of tundra that recently melted are turning white again, and wet snowflakes slide down my windows.
As of last night, I’m out of caribou meat and anxious to hunt. Instead, I’m in my sod house working on another necessary task: supporting my walls. With the melting of the permafrost in recent years, the hill under my home has been shifting.
Outside, the wind gusts, while in here I feel like a beaver, impatient for the spring thaw, with woodchips and dirt littering my floor, but also with axes, auger bits, chisels, and trowels heaped on my kitchen counter. Mice rustle in the moss-insulated walls, a kettle sings on the woodstove, and boots and gloves hang drying. My dad’s old .270 is on a peg by the door and other guns lean against the workbench in the corner.
Every few minutes, I step out to scan the river ice for caribou. I’d like one for meals and to dry. But it’s hard to predict the migration anymore; this land has changed so much. Migratory waterfowl are slow to show this spring, and there are fewer songbirds each year. The ice is still solid, 600 yards wide and stretching miles upriver and down. My nearest neighbors are in the village of Ambler, 25 miles east.
From this ridge, I can see across a quarter-million acres of rolling tundra, river valleys, and timber—north into the Brooks Range, south to the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, and beyond. I’ve hunted and trapped here all my life, on foot, and by kayak, dog team, and snowmobile. As a kid, we wore furs, slept on caribou hides, and ate some of nearly everything that moved—moose, bears, ducks, loons, muskrats, beavers, porcupines, otters, and all the rest.
A lot has changed rapidly in the intervening decades—the weather, vegetation, ice, and especially the movement of animals. I like to think I know this land like family, but each year it is harder to recognize.
In the afternoon, I make coffee and sit on my bearskin couch to mull over my progress. I need scrap angle iron and to peel more logs. Suddenly, I hear an animal sound, distinct and linked to a lifetime of meals and memories.
Geese are flying overhead. Calling! I lunge for my shotgun.
Outside, I peer into the snow-filled sky. From the north come their fading cries: Luck, luck. Luck-a-luck. The call of white-fronted geese electrifies my blood. It carries me back 50 years to childhood.
The air is foggy, but I think, or hope, the birds will land at a nearby beaver pond. It’s hard to be sure—lakes and swamps have altered as the climate has warmed. Everywhere, there are new trees, grasslands, and brush. Sloughs don’t drain the way they used to, the ice is unsafe in new places, and the tundra disappears beneath intimidating thickets of dwarf birch, willows, and alders.
Quickly, I check the stove and rummage for ammo. I pull on snowpants, boots, a white windbreaker, hat, and gloves and strap on a machete, binoculars, and two guns—my grandpa’s double-barrel and an old scoped .22. Out behind the woodpile, I encounter deep holes, where a moose attempted to use my trail. I grin down into the depths, listen, and lace on snowshoes.
Dropping off the hill, I pass my family’s first tiny sod igloo, where I was born. It’s falling in as the soil slumps. It was always part of the hill, built low in the ground for warmth, originally with only a tunnel entrance.
I move fast across the tundra, panting as I sink into drifts and weave around new masses of tall alders. I spot the fresh tracks of two wolves. Spruces tower over me. Not long ago this was windswept tundra, and my brother Kole and best friend Alvin would snowshoe straight north after geese. Now, I navigate through thickets, and I have to jog east to avoid a lake of slush held back by mud that was released when a ravine caved in—all effects of the permafrost melting.
As I top a birch knoll, I hear Canadas honking. Tense and excited, I stop to listen. Suddenly I realize my ears hear one thing, while my eyes are watching something else: A line of caribou is crossing the ice on the pond below me.
I turn toward the geese, smiling, and thinking of Alvin. As kids we loved nothing more than hunting together. I miss him. Three years ago in May he drowned in open current where the river used to freeze, and he was swept under the ice.
My binos are wet, but the snow and wind has lessened. I spot two white-fronts and five Canadas. I only have eyes for the white-fronts. They will be fatter, easier to pluck, with lighter meat and better flavor. I slide a stained game bag over my guns, hunch over, and become a caribou.
There are trust issues, of course. The geese are suspicious and holler and walk onto snow. I keep my gaze down. Behind a spruce tree, I slip off my snowshoes, shoulder out of my guns, and peer through a shockingly large clump of Labrador tea.
My shotgun safety jams and won’t slide forward to fire. This has happened before. But I can’t recall how I fixed it. I lower the gun, raise my .22. It’s actually fine, I prefer attempting a headshot over the risk of wounding birds, anyway.
The glass of the ancient little scope is foggy and gray. I smile, watching a Canada stumble as it sinks in the snow. I judge the distance at 60 yards. The geese honk louder and get ready to fly. I aim behind a white forehead and squeeze. The goose pitches forward, flops, and then lies still. The snow absorbs the crack of the little rifle, and the birds give me time to reload and drop its mate.
I can’t believe my luck, as I plunge through soft snow, racing across grass and pocked black ice. The birds lie a few yards apart, beautiful and familiar, yet so foreign after a long winter. A long year, actually—white-fronts no longer pass through in the fall. The freeze-up comes a month late now, rainy and messy, and the birds have changed flyways.
I pluck the female first. It’s heavy and fat. The male has a bent leg—obviously shot and re-healed—and along the outer wing, I spot a black pellet under the skin. In past years, I’ve noted geese are more wary, less likely to come to my old homemade plywood decoys, and one in five carry wounds, pellets, or both. It makes me wonder about the struggles these traveling birds experience.
For a moment, I imagine a dark future where there are no annual migrations of wild geese, songbirds, or caribou. I can’t help worrying about my food.
At home, I singe and gut the birds. I save everything except the shot heads: hearts, gizzards, necks, wings, and feet, and go put the perfect female in my cold storage in the ground, to give to an elder in the village. The male goes directly into the Dutch oven, where it sizzles on the stove as I wash up and turn back to propping up my shifting home.
The harvest method and spring hunting season described in this story are in accordance with the 2022 federal regulations for the subsistence harvest of migratory waterfowl in the Northwest Arctic Region of Alaska. Click here to learn more about subsistence hunting in rural Alaska and the unique federal law that ensures the continuation of this unique way of life.
Seth Kantner is a commercial fisherman, wildlife photographer, wilderness guide, and author of the bestselling novel, “Ordinary Wolves,” and other books. His writing and photographs have appeared in national newspapers, anthologies, and magazines, including Smithsonian, the New York Times, Alaska, and Outside. His most recent nonfiction book, “A Thousand Trails Home: Living With Caribou,” was released in October 2021. He lives in Northwest Alaska. Learn more at sethkantner.com or follow Seth on Facebook.
The House of Representatives has passed the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (H.R. 2773) in a 231-190 vote, bringing us one step closer to securing a solution that has been championed by the hunting and fishing community since 2016. The bill recently advanced out of committee in the Senate and awaits a floor vote in that chamber.
The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would amend the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act to provide an additional $1.4 billion in dedicated funding per year—$1.3 billion for state agencies and $97.5 million for Tribes—to improve habitat, recover wildlife populations, and restore the infrastructure for both our natural systems and outdoor recreation opportunities.
“House passage of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is a defining victory for wildlife, habitat, outdoor recreation, and our economy, because we know that heading off wildlife threats is more effective—and costs less—than taking emergency action,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We applaud members of the House for this step today and urge the Senate to take up and pass this bill without delay.”
State fish and wildlife agencies have identified more than 12,000 species in need of conservation action that would benefit from the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. Included on that list are some species of particular concern to hunters and anglers, including ruffed grouse, greater sage grouse, coho salmon, and sockeye salmon.
Final passage would be a landmark achievement for this Congress, as it has become increasingly important to invest conservation dollars in efforts that get the best return, with layered benefits for fish, wildlife, outdoor recreation, our economy, and the safety of our communities. With many lawmakers looking to secure conservation wins they can point to ahead of reelection, the timing may be right to send RAWA to the president’s desk.
Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A coalition of 11 national and 10 Virginia-based groups is urging Governor Glenn Youngkin to move menhaden reduction fishing out of the Chesapeake Bay. The recreational fishing community is concerned that years of localized depletion from the annual harvest of over 100 million pounds of menhaden in the Bay has deprived gamefish like striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish of a critical food source.
Menhaden—small baitfish that are essential in the marine food web—are commercially harvested by a single foreign-owned company, then ground up and “reduced” to make pet food, fish meal and other products.
Organizations including the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, American Sportfishing Association, Coastal Conservation Association, Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, and the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association are dedicated to maintaining the health of the Bay, the region’s economy, and the broader marine ecosystem in the Atlantic. The coalition, which represents thousands of anglers and conservationists from Virginia and beyond, sent a letter to Governor Youngkin today asking that reduction fishing for menhaden be moved out of the Bay until science shows that it isn’t having an impact on fish and habitat.
“Our members have witnessed years of decline in our striped bass, and we believe there is a causal relation to the menhaden reduction industry in the Bay,” says Steve Atkinson, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association. “Largescale reduction fishing is outlawed by every other state on the East Coast, so it’s high time that Virginia took action.”
The striped bass fishery is the largest marine recreational fishery in the U.S., driving $166 million in recreational fishing activity in Virginia alone. However, the economic value of striped bass fishing to Virginia has declined by over 50 percent in the past decade.
“Industrial menhaden fishing in the Bay has almost wiped out striped bass fishing charters in the fall and winter,” says Bill Pappas, owner of Playing Hookey Charters in Virginia Beach. “Nobody will book a trip when striped bass fishing is this bad.”
According to the latest science, menhaden reduction fishing contributes to a nearly 30-percent decline in striped bass numbers coastwide. Omega Protein, part of Cooke Inc., is responsible for this immense menhaden harvest, which is harming the most important striped bass nursery on the East Coast and undermining the sportfishing economy and small businesses throughout the Commonwealth. It is up to Governor Youngkin and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to implement commonsense regulations until science demonstrates that menhaden fishing can be allowed without negatively affecting the broader Bay ecosystem.
“Boating and fishing in the Chesapeake Bay are primary drivers of business for boat dealers across Virginia and largely depend on a robust menhaden population and strong striped bass fishery,” says Chad Tokowicz, government relations manager at the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. “For that reason, the MRAA and our Virginia members hope that Governor Youngkin will support small businesses and the state’s outdoor recreation economy by ending menhaden reduction fishing in the Chesapeake.”
Local and national groups are calling on their Virginia members and boaters and anglers across the East Coast to push for change.
“Virginia has an immense responsibility to the Bay ecosystem and anglers up and down the East Coast, where recreational fishing for striped bass is a way of life,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We’re making sure that there is national attention on this effort to move menhaden reduction fishing out of the Bay, an iconic fishing destination in its own right, and working closely with fisheries managers in the Atlantic and Gulf to account for the critical role of menhaden in the marine food chain.”
The Governor-appointed Virginia Marine Resources Commission has an opening to change menhaden regulations in October. Sign the petition to let these decision-makers know that you support moving menhaden reduction fishing out of the Chesapeake Bay.
Top photo by Chesapeake Bay Program
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