A Sportsman’s Perspective on Climate Change
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. 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 the conversation turned from bear rugs and bookings to the prickly topic of moose management. The guides were understandably concerned. Downward trends in North America’s moose population have had many of us worried. For folks in the outfitting industry, these trends have implications not only for the state of the resource. They have implications for businesses, too.
The rest of the group murmured in agreement and I remember being singularly impressed by their altruism. Talk eventually got around to the underlying cause of the problem. I drew on a conversation I’d recently had with several biologists in my workplace.
“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?”
“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. The conversation died away.
Wildlife Contend with Climate Change
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. These hunters were so committed to the natural landscape, 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 of a changing climate. I’ve pondered the impacts of the accompanying controversy on an outdoorsman like myself as well. I’ve had my share of discussions with other sportsmen and women on the subject; some productive, some not so much.
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. Those of us who forge an identity in the outdoors are not excluded.
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. What might only be a headline for some can be life-altering for us.
Ticks Are an Example of Climate Change Impacts
Take, for instance, the lowly tick. Most turkey hunters can attest to how much more common these little bloodsuckers have become in the last decade. However, not as many could say just why that is. Historically, the climate has been a central control when it comes to tick reproduction and distribution. But, with increasingly mild winters, many tick species are expanding their range across North America. Pre-existing tick populations are exploding.
For ungulates like moose, this has meant a dangerous increase in parasite-induced death. One study out of New Hampshire and Maine finding that blood loss from winter tick infestations was the primary cause of a whopping 70 percent mortality rate in calf moose.
And the list goes on.
Other Species Are Impacted by Climate Change, Too
Whitetail deer continue to spread the devastating effects of parasitic brain worm to moose. The whitetail populations are expanding northward into moose habitats due to milder winters. Snowshoe hares are diminishing in some regions. Fewer days with snow cover produce unfavorable conditions for their white winter coats. More than one-third of the bighorn sheep in the southwestern U.S. has disappeared over the last century. This has been linked to higher average temperatures and subsequent loss of precipitation and forage.
Sensitive cold-water species like brook trout are losing grip on their current distributions. This is not only from sheer heat stress but also climate-induced extreme rain events, changing riparian habitat, drought, reduced yearly snowpack. The expansion of temperature-resistant species like smallmouth bass and brown trout doesn’t help, either.
As Paul Forward underlined so vividly in “Climate change has dire consequences for Chugach Dall Sheep,” the Dall sheep of Alaska’s Chugach range are facing a slew of climate-related challenges, too.
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. There is evidence to suggest that our global temperature rise has caused a spike in search and rescue cases in remote Indigenous communities.
The repercussions of climate change are no longer confined to predictive models and obscure datasets. They’re here in earnest. Most warming events over the earth’s history have occurred slowly enough for species to adapt. However, our current rate of warming is simply too fast for many organisms to keep up.
Climate Change Should Not Be a Partisan Issue
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. They would no sooner entertain doubt in its existence than a biologist would question the legitimacy of chronic wasting disease.
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 cognizant 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 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. And it’s filled with dedicated individuals.
I wouldn’t suggest that this requires blind faith in all things bearing the flag of science. As with any field, scientists are not beyond making mistakes. It is certainly good practice to think critically no matter the source. However, our past and present relationship with the scientific community should instill an appreciation for the process, for the scientific method, and for the unique value of expert consensus.
Hunter Should Pay Attention to Climate Change
It’s puzzling and disheartening to see how little attention our community has given to 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. Perhaps we 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 behavior 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 I dare say we’re used to it. 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? Our community is steeped in a history of boldness and action. If we continue 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, but we are also politically diverse. Our members exist across the entire political spectrum, and with that diversity comes influence. We have the power to make climate change a priority across the board. It’s 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.
Ticks and moose:
Whitetail deer expansion and brainworm: