Catching Up to Change: A sportsman’s perspective on climate change

By Matthew Robbins

Several years ago, while conducting fisheries research in the backcountry lakes of northern Ontario, I struck up a conversation with a couple of local hunting guides. We had commissioned their lodge for flights to and from the research site, and I took advantage of my remaining minutes on land to ask about the upcoming fall season. Considering the previous year’s reduction in tags, it wasn’t a surprise when conversation turned from bear rugs and bookings to the prickly topic of moose management, and the guides were understandably concerned. Downward trends in North America’s moose population have had many of us worried and, for folks in the outfitting industry, these trends have implications not only for the state of the resource, but for business as well.

“Honestly,” one of the men told me, “If it’s as bad as they say it is, I’d even be willing to put an end to the season for a few years. Give them a break, you know?”

The rest of the group murmured in agreement and I remember being singularly impressed by their altruism. When talk got around to the underlying cause of the problem, I drew on a conversation I’d recently had with several biologists in my workplace.

“As far as I understand,” I said, “It varies somewhat from place to place, but one of the key issues right now for moose is our warming climate.”  

To this, my hosts only smirked, and the conversation died away.

I spent the bumpy plane ride that followed working over this interaction like a stale piece of meat. Here was a crew of people who had spent their entire lives outside, hunters who were so committed to the natural landscape that they would risk financial ruin for the sake of its preservation.

But the notion that our wildlife could be contending with the likes of climate change? Well, that was laughable.

Since that day, I’ve thought a great deal about the implications that a changing climate, and the accompanying controversy, might have for an outdoorsman like myself. I’ve also had my share of discussions with other sportsmen and women on the subject, some productive, some not so much.

What I can say for sure is that the moment terms like “climate change” or “global warming” enter a conversation, people get tense. Eyes roll, eyebrows raise, feet shuffle. In fact, it’s likely someone has already stopped reading this article. The rhetoric that surrounds this issue is so dense it leaves no one group unaffected, not even those of us who forge an identity in the outdoors.

But despite the subject's ability to clear a room, sportsmen and women are among those who can least afford to be skeptical. We are invested in the natural landscape in a way that few others can relate to, and what might only be a headline for some can be life altering for us.

Take, for instance, the lowly tick. Most turkey hunters can attest to how much more common these little blood suckers have become in the last decade, but not as many could say just why that is. Historically, climate has been a central control when it comes to tick reproduction and distribution but, with increasingly mild winters, many species of ticks are expanding their range across North America, while pre-existing populations are exploding. For ungulates like moose, this has meant a dangerous increase in parasite-induced death, with one study out of New Hampshire and Maine finding that blood loss from winter tick infestations was the primary cause of a whopping 70% mortality rate in calf moose.

And the list goes on.

Whitetail deer continue to spread the devastating effects of parasitic brain worm to moose  populations as milder winters prompt their expansion northward; snowshoe hares are experiencing diminished population peaks in some regions as fewer days of yearly snow cover produce unfavorable conditions for their white winter coat; the disappearance of more than one third of the bighorn sheep in the Southwestern United States over the last century has been linked to higher average temperatures and subsequent loss of precipitation and forage; sensitive cold-water species like bull trout and brook trout are losing grip of their current distributions, not only from sheer heat stress, but also because of climate induced extreme rain events, changing riparian habitat, drought, reduced yearly snowpack, and the expansion of more temperature resistant species like smallmouth bass and brown trout; and, as Paul Forward underlined so vividly in his recent story “A Slippery Slope," the Dall sheep of Alaska’s Chugache range are currently facing a slew of climate-related challenges.

Even the outdoor community itself may be vulnerable to the effects of climate change. A study out of York University recently confirmed that milder winter conditions are directly correlated with increased yearly drownings, and there is evidence to suggest that our global temperature rise thus far has caused a spike in search and rescue cases in some remote Indigenous  communities.

From north to south and coast to coast, the repercussions of climate change are no longer confined to predictive models and obscure datasets, they’re here in earnest. And while most warming events over the earth’s history have occurred slowly enough for species to adapt, our current rate of warming is simply too fast for many organisms to keep up.

The trouble, as there’s likely no need to point out, is that climate change has become an oddly partisan issue. Instead of debating possible solutions, many politicians spend their time arguing over the seriousness, or indeed the validity, of the crisis itself. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with the exchange of differing ideas, but the sheer volume of misinformed voices that have been given a platform in recent years has left much of the public with the false impression that skepticism exists within the expert community. At least concerning the fundamentals of climate change, it does not. For the scientists who do this work, day in and day out, man-made, global climatic change is old news, and they would no sooner entertain doubt in its existence than a biologist would question the legitimacy of CWD.

This should be particularly meaningful to hunters. Considering the public’s reaction to the management of species like wolves and grizzly bears, I need hardly remind our community that people have no trouble letting their emotions overshadow expert opinion. We should all be cognisant of the fact that the extraordinary legacy of conservation for which sportsmen and women are so proud is not ours alone, we share it in at least equal part with the scientific community. Ecologists and wildlife biologists, resource technicians, foresters, and social scientists, the list of professionals who have in some way contributed to our many conservation victories is a long one, filled with equally dedicated individuals.

I won’t go as far as to suggest that this requires blind faith in all things bearing the flag of science.  As with any field, scientists are not beyond making mistakes and it is certainly good practice to think critically no matter the source, but our past and present relationship with this community should at least instill an appreciation for the process, for the scientific method, and for the unique value of expert consensus.

All of this is to say, it is both puzzling and disheartening to see how little attention our community has given the topic of climate change. Despite what we owe to science, and in spite of the implications for our wild spaces, many of us still have a tendency to skirt around the issue, or perhaps to only mention it in passing, lest things become uncomfortable. Believe me, I more than understand the desire to avoid controversy, but acting on this desire seems an especially uncharacteristic behaviour for the outdoor community. What are we, after all, if not controversial?

Let’s face it, being unpopular is sort of our bread and butter. Hunters, trappers, and even anglers have encountered such a dizzying array of opposition in the last several decades that I dare say we’re used to it, and all the while we’ve maintained our place as North America’s most powerful advocates for conservation. We have certainly never let the comfort-level of others dictate our actions.

What’s the sense in starting now? If our community, so steeped in a history of boldness and action, continues to ignore this issue because of the social and political ramifications of speaking up, it may be at the expense of the very legacy that has kept our way of life alive through decades of changing public opinion.

I can’t help but think that sportsmen and women are in a unique position right now. Not only do we see and experience the consequences of climate change in a way that others can only talk about, but we are also politically diverse. Our members exist across the entire political spectrum, and with that diversity comes influence. In other words, we have the power to make climate change a priority across the board, a problem that transcends politics and is understood for what it is: an issue of conservation.

If we are indeed North America's truest conservationists, it may be our responsibility to do exactly that.

Below, read Matt's list of sources:

Ticks and moose:

https://cdnsciencepub.com/doi/10.1139/cjz-2018-0140

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304380011003826

https://www.d.umn.edu/biology/documents/TerryPaper1.pdf

http://blog.healthywildlife.ca/range-expansion-of-the-winter-tick-into-northwest-territories-canada/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6587693/

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10493-012-9615-0

Whitetail deer expansion and brainworm:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304380011003826

https://gov.mb.ca/fish-wildlife/pubs/fish_wildlife/hard-to-be-a-moose.pdf

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5058518/

https://extension.unh.edu/resources/files/Resource003858_Rep5484.pdf

Snowshoe Hare:

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ele.12568

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321012616_The_impact_of_rewilding_species_introductions_and_climate_change_on_the_structure_and_function_of_the_Yukon_boreal_forest_ecosystem

https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2015.3104

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.12321

https://www.pnas.org/content/110/18/7360

https://ohiostate.pressbooks.pub/sciencebitesvolume2/chapter/4-2-snowshoe-hare-stands-out-to-predators-as-a-result-of-climate-change/

Bighorn sheep:

https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/

https://www.nps.gov/articles/desertbighornsheepresearch.htmdoi/abs/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00023.x

https://www.nwf.org/~/media/PDFs/Global-Warming/Reports/NowheretoRun-BigGameWildlife-LowResFinal_110613.ashx

Trout:

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ryan_Kovach/publication/295832115_Are_brown_trout_replacing_or_displacing_bull_trout_populations_in_a_changing_climate/links/5b2bb559aca2720785d105fd/Are-brown-trout-replacing-or-displacing-bull-trout-populations-in-a-changing-climate.pdf\

https://www.fs.usda.gov/rmrs/documents-and-media/bull-trout-and-climate-change

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0098812
https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5ade84b245776e718e5f0ed4/t/5dd1cb836be9a958a6f4a624/1574030212232/Replacement+of+brook+trout.pdf

https://trca.ca/news/brook-trout-decline/

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/304598065_Climate_Change_Effects_on_North_American_Inland_Fish_Populations_and_Assemblages

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.13135

Winter drownings:

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0241222

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/08/160803111746.htm

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0033350616300981