The Simple AnswerNeil Thagard


At first glance, many of the issues facing hunters and anglers today appear overwhelmingly complex. On topics as diverse as ATV use to development on public lands, climate change to predator management, emotionally charged debates spring up at every sportsman's gathering. None of these seem to have a simple answer.

I am often confronted by individuals or organizations asking what my position is on the issue-of-the-day, and my answer is always the same. What does the best available science tell us? All Americans deserve quality places to hunt and fish. They deserve sustainable fish and wildlife populations, and quality habitats to support them. Our professional wildlife managers intimately understand this, and implement policies and procedures to ensure it.

Where this process falls off the rails is when we start trying to manage our wildlife through what is sometimes referred to as "ballot box biology" - a process by which wildlife and habitat management decisions are made not by professionals using sound, supportable, peer-reviewed and published science, but by public opinion. Unfortunately public opinion is often deeply divided, fueled not by the facts but by emotional rhetoric and snappy catchphrases that fit neatly onto bumper stickers.

A good example of this can be seen in the ongoing controversy surrounding the wolf reintroductions in several Northwestern states, an issue that has splintered the sportsman's community more than any other in recent history. Specifically, wolves have been singe-handedly blamed for dramatically reducing ungulate numbers, to the point where the absurd claim of "the wolves ate them all" is commonly heard when referring to elk, deer, moose, and even bighorn sheep. It's an easy bandwagon to jump on.

The image of a snarling, larger-than-life predator with blood-drenched fangs can haunt even the most reasonable hunter's dreams when he's on a long and unsuccessful quest, and not finding the animals he expects to see in his favorite hunting spots. But the scientific reality behind recent population declines is far more complex, and it's an unjust over-simplification to attribute it solely to any one factor, including predation. Predators such as wolves don't exist in a vacuum. Undeniably, they are having an impact; however there are a host of other, much less glamorous causes such as habitat degradation and fragmentation, fire suppression, irresponsible development, stock grazing and disease that have all played a role in predisposing large game to such factors as predation.

For example, a recent study out of Minnesota, where a nearly 70% decline in moose populations has put an end to moose hunting in that state, is pointing towards climate change as the pivotal factor. Milder winters are raising the survival rates of blood-sucking ticks that attack moose in the tens of thousands, when the animal is already stressed by a warmer than normal summer. Minnesota moose are being devastated by anemia and hypothermia, caused by the hair loss tick infestations produce. And unfortunately, despite sound scientific support, "the ticks ate them all" just doesn't have the same ring to it.

As difficult as it may be, it is every sportsman's responsibility - for the future of our own and our children's hunting and angling opportunities - to be factual and credible, ensuring we identify and address the actual challenges our natural resources are facing. We must make the effort to look for the facts of each situation and ask ourselves "what does the best available science and our professional wildlife managers tell us is best for fish, wildlife, and their habitats?"

Because The science behind sustainable fish and wildlife management is complex. But the decision to use it should be very simple.