A Short Introduction to Hunting and Outdoors Writers

I probably derive about as much inspiration for the outdoors from engaging with thought-provoking writers as I do from planning my next trip. I sometimes bring a book to the treestand or blind with me, and it is always in some way themed around the outdoors and conservation. These books are out there, but sometimes they’re harder to find.

There are many writers whose passion for hunting, fishing, and the outdoors finds its way into their texts. Some write more philosophically about conservation ethics, some interweave strong wilderness motifs throughout their stories, and others approach the subjects more directly. I thought I would share a few of my favourites and post Outdoor Life’s list of “The Top 20 Books for Hunters and Anglers“, a great list for anyone wanting to explore aspects of the outdoors through the words of some wonderful writers.

Ernest Hemingway wrote perhaps one of the most recognizable fishing stories, "The Old Man and the Sea".

Ernest Hemingway wrote perhaps one of the most recognizable fishing stories, “The Old Man and the Sea”.

In no particular order, here are probably my top three books about the outdoors.

1) The Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner, by Lily Raff McCaulou

Lily
In a thoughtful and honest account of her journey to becoming a hunter, Lily Raff McCaulou engages with a number of important reflections and emotions that arise for hunters. Her story is one many of us can relate to, growing up in a non-hunting household, and then coming to the hunting lifestyle on our own through a careful and honest examination of our own ethics. She manages to explain the sometimes paradoxical feelings around hunting that many of us experience, and puts into words why those feelings just make the lifestyle more meaningful. This is a great read for both hunters and non-hunters.

2) American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon, by Steven Rinella

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It’s not very original for me to post something of Steven Rinella’s anymore, but here it is. What I like about this book is Rinella’s ability to provide both a scientific and affectionate look at one particular species, perhaps as a sort of microcosm of the way we all ought to engage with conservation. He is simultaneously honest about the shameful history of buffalo mismanagement in North America and prideful about people’s efforts to bring back healthy populations of buffalo on this continent. He describes how he became fascinated by buffalo, and weaves a great account of a buffalo hunt he goes on in Alaska throughout the book. The story of the hunt makes this book worth reading on its own.

3) Walden; or, Life in the Woods, by Henry David Thoreau

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This is a classic that many are familiar with, and it was hard to choose between this one and A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold (see what I did there? Snuck in a fourth choice). Thoreau goes on a bit of a personal experiment in this story: he builds a cabin in the woods and spends a couple years living there, contemplating society, human nature and development, and observing the way of life. Written in 1854, Thoreau did this for the philosophical value in it, and he reflects on his experiences without the self-congratulations common in many of these types of stories.

So those are just three of my favourite hunting-related pieces of writing. Each of the examples I’ve given is different in tone and purpose, and they’re all valuable pieces of writing for anyone interested in the outdoors. I also need to give gratitude and pay homage to one of my favourite writers of all time, Farley Mowat, who wrote a great deal about the Canadian North. Farley Mowat died in 2014, and he wrote some of my favourite stories with a sensitivity and passion for the lands he visited, and with an unapologetic honesty about some of the political issues he encountered while there.

Enjoy the rest of the season!

Castor canadensis: Keystone Species, Canadian National Symbol, and Awesome

The beaver (Castor canadensis) is one of North America’s most fascinating, beautiful, and industrious species (and super tasty). Many of my posts relate directly to hunting, but the goal is to discuss a range of issues and topics relevant to conservation. This one is an endorsement for giving the beaver our full respect and appreciation as an integral component of the ecosystems we cherish and as an honourable national animal for Canada. Seriously, I think the beaver is one of the most incredible animals in North America.

The North American beaver

The North American beaver

Currently, there are only two species of beaver in the world, the North American beaver that most of us are familiar with, and the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber). However, during the Pleistocene, there was a genus of giant beavers (Castoroides) that lived in North America, from Florida to the Yukon. Giant beavers were not actually related to modern beavers, but shared a close physical resemblance, with larger, sharper front teeth. They were much larger than modern beavers, measuring upwards of six feet long and weighing over 200 pounds. The giant beaver went extinct sometime during the megafaunal collapse at the end of the Pleistocene, the period from roughly 2.5 million years ago to 12,000 years ago, which marked the end of the last ice age.

Skeleton of a giant beaver

Skeleton of a giant beaver

One thing I hear a lot from landowners and outdoors people is that beavers are nuisances, flooding or drying up land without regard for how inconvenient this may be for humans. My first, admittedly callous reaction, is that’s what beavers do, and they’ve been doing it for a lot longer than you’ve been feeling personally affronted by it. On a more engaging level, I also suggest to those people that it’s not exactly without regard for human needs. In fact, the resulting ecological changes from beaver activity provide important services that benefit humans.

Beavers are considered a keystone species for their roles in altering and creating habitat. What this means is that if we remove beavers from an ecosystem, it changes the entire structure and function of that ecosystem. Numerous other species lose habitat, food and water sources, and with those changes there is a reduction in local biodiversity. Beaver activity creates critical habitat for fish, birds, turtles, frogs, ducks, and some of these are in turn important food sources for many other species, including otters, foxes, and birds of prey. The ecological interactions that are created by beavers are literally too numerous to fully describe here.

Beaver lodge

Beaver lodge

In addition, the wetland habitats created from beaver flooding provide ecosystem services that are crucial to maintaining healthy environments and provide direct benefits to humans. Wetlands filter and purify water, refill aquifers, mitigate erosion, prevent droughts, and control floods (seems counterintuitive perhaps since beavers flood land, but this actually provides a form of flood control for other areas). Wetlands are one of the world’s most critical and productive habitats, and they are being destroyed at alarming rates.

But the beaver hasn’t always enjoyed the gratitude and platitudes it deserves. In 2011, Canadian Senator Nicole Eaton offered her opinion that Canada should trade in a “19th-century has-been for a 21st-century hero”, suggesting that the beaver is not worthy of being Canada’s national animal. Instead, Senator Eaton proposed the polar bear replace the beaver. It’s not that I don’t have tremendous respect for the polar bear (in fact, my graduate work is focused on Arctic marine species, including polar bears). What troubles me is Ms. Eaton’s clear lack of knowledge about beaver ecology and biology, yet her belief that she is suitably positioned to make such strong statements about the value of the beaver and whether it possesses the qualities with which Canadians should be proud to be associated (she literally reduced the animal to a “dentally defective rat”).

In addition to the deliberate work to create and continuously maintain critical habitat, scientists have discovered some unintended benefits of beaver activity. Beaver ponds (the area of land flooded by the creation of dams) may be the answer to our nitrogen problems.

The massive expansion of agriculture in North America over the last century created a demand for increased productivity and yields. Nitrogen is a key nutrient for plant growth and agricultural processes eventually lead to nitrogen depletion in soils. In 1888, two scientists discovered that leguminous plants remove nitrogen from the air and add it to soils, a process known as nitrogen fixation. In 1909, two German chemists created a process through which nitrogen could be artificially produced for addition to soils, eventually leading to the invention of soil fertilizers.

Although fertilizers lead to substantially increased crop yield, the addition of massive amounts of nitrogen to soils has created problems for marine ecosystems. Rain water washes fertilizers containing nitrogen from agricultural fields into nearby streams and rivers. When nitrogen eventually flows into estuaries it stimulates algal blooms. The decomposition that results from increased algal growth eventually de-oxygenates marine ecosystems (a state known as hypoxia) and creates massive dead zones. One of the more famous dead zones is in the Gulf of Mexico.

Don’t worry. Beavers are here to save the day. Researchers from the University of Rhode Island have discovered that the ecology of beaver ponds makes them quite effective at removing nitrogen. In a paper published this past September, Julia G. Lazar and co-authors explain that bacteria found in the organic material and soil of beaver ponds  transform nitrate into nitrogen gas which then bubbles to the surface and mixes with the air. In their experiments, the researchers found that beaver ponds were able to remove up to 45% of the nitrogen from the system.

I hope that discoveries like this encourage more appreciation for the important ecological functions of beavers. We already knew that the habitat created by beavers performs valuable ecosystem services benefitting humans, but now we can add a service that benefits environmental health many miles downstream of beaver habitat. Beavers are complex animals, quietly and diligently going about their work. People may not think they are the most charismatic species, but I think they possess all the qualities that we should value and measure ourselves against.

Science and Politics in Wildlife Management: Ontario Expands the Spring Bear Hunt

On October 30, the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) announced that the province of Ontario would be expanding the spring bear hunt pilot project for another 5 years.

Like most issues related to hunting, the factors and considerations involved in decisions about the Ontario spring bear hunt are numerous and complex. The history of debate over the spring bear hunt is in many ways the perfect example of the challenge in balancing science and politics. There are economic interests involved; scientific studies; landowners who have safety and livelihood considerations; anti-hunting voices who advance certain public perceptions of the hunt; and of course hunters who have a vested interest in both the hunt and the species. I won’t pretend to know the nuances of the opinions of every voice at the table, but I find the science-politics part of this discussion interesting, and one that will likely continue to define hunting and wildlife management in North America.

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It is estimated that there are somewhere in the neighbourhood of 105,000 black bears (Ursus americanus) in Ontario. The provincial population is healthy and is at no risk of being threatened. The Ontario spring bear hunt was originally cancelled in 1999, largely due to pressure from animal-rights organizations who claimed that the hunt left cubs orphaned when sows (female bears) were killed by hunters. Killing sows is illegal in the spring hunt, so this claim seems to rest on one of the following two assumptions: 1) hunters were accidentally killing large numbers of sows, or 2) hunters are willfully breaking the law and engaging in unethical hunting practices. I take great exception to the latter; convincing data has yet to be provided on the former. In fact, reports of an estimated 274 cubs orphaned in 1999 alone have been refuted by bear biologists. Many of the arguments by these organizations use emotionally-charged language, telling voters that bear hunting in the spring is done “when they are most vulnerable”, and that the hunt depends on baiting, a practice where hunters do little more than “sit behind blinds and shoot the bears“. These statements are a dramatic reduction of a much more complicated biology and hunting practice.

On the other end of the spectrum are groups like the OFAH who advocated for the return of the spring hunt. Representing hunters, these organizations worked to present evidence that supported the hunt as an effective management tool. Concerns over human-bear conflicts is one of the main issues presented by hunting organizations to advocate for a return of the hunt. These groups suggested that the former Bear Wise program, Ontario’s trap and relocation program intended to respond to human-bear conflicts, was largely ineffective at reducing conflict. They contend that harvest is a more effective management tool to control bear populations and reduce the incidence of conflict. The economic benefits of the hunt are also cited as an important vote in favour of its full return. Hunting contributes a great deal of money to local economies through the sale of licenses and income from tourism. A report published in August 2015, states that prior to its cancellation, the combined spring and fall bear hunts generated an estimated $30.3 million per year. Current estimates put the value of the spring hunt closer to $100 million.

Here’s where an interesting part of the science comes into the discussion. Were 274 cubs orphaned every year by spring bear hunters? No, according to Ontario’s leading bear biologist, Dr. Martyn Obbard. One needs to understand the reproductive cycle of black bears and appreciate the laws surrounding the spring hunt to realize that this claim is scientifically unsubstantiated. However, in a paper published in 2014, Dr. Obbard explains that human-bear conflict is not negatively correlated with harvest rates. This means that the data does not support the claim that increasing harvests will decrease conflict and problem bears. On the other hand, data from a study published in 2015 suggests that problem bear activity did increase significantly following the closure of the spring hunt, but says that food availability is a significant factor in human-bear conflicts. Dr. Obbard’s study also indicates that food availability is a major factor in human-bear conflict. So now what?

On the topic of dealing with “problem bears” (a term I dislike in itself), my opinion is somewhat self-contradictory. Our pattern of population expansion has in many ways been ecologically irresponsible, and if that has led to an increase in human-bear conflict, then that is the bed we’ve made. I’m not saying we should deliberately put people at risk simply because we may have brought the problem on ourselves; however, I don’t think it’s singular justification for a hunt. Having said that, the other side of that coin is that if we wish to continue to grow human settlements and expand industrial development, then like it or not, animal populations need to be controlled. In that regard, we’re all going to have to accept hunting as a management tool that is an important and successful component of our system of wildlife management in North America.

My own support for the bear hunt has generally little to do with the singular debate over its efficacy at reducing human-bear conflicts. We need to make informed decisions about hunts based on current and reliable data. But data is not enough; decisions need to be based on a critical, honest, and thorough consideration of all the factors involved. In the case of bears, both the studies I discussed above identify food availability as a main limiting factor for bears. This suggests that habitat needs to be protected. So if we want to make decisions about bear management, we should be honest about the realities of issues like climate change and the impacts of industrial activities, regardless of our political leanings. My main priority, always, is conservation – of habitat, of species. If the spring bear hunt is not putting the species at risk (and it is not, let’s be very clear about that), then I support the decision to extend it as part of a larger picture of supporting hunting. However, this does not absolve us of the responsibility to take strong action in other areas to ensure wildlife has healthy and abundant habitat.

As an aside, lest anyone think I’m just giving blind support for more hunting opportunities, I’ve used the same criteria for the opposite position with regard to the moose hunt in Ontario. It’s generally accepted at this point that moose are in some sort of decline throughout much of their North American range, and as a result, Ontario has seen a reduction in moose tags. In my opinion, some organizations have argued irresponsibly against this decision in order to protect hunting opportunities: a political move. My position is that the moose come first. Every time. I’ll gladly give up moose hunting for a time to ensure the stability and longevity of the population in the future. Again, we need to learn to accept the necessity of difficult decisions that we may not like in order to keep our most important priorities at the forefront.

So there it is, all that to say that I support the spring bear hunt for a range of more complex reasons than those to which the media on both sides have reduced this debate.

Well, as I’ve said many times in conversations with friends, one of the things I love so much about hunting is the way it challenges me both physically and intellectually. What all of this tells me is that this debate is reminiscent of so many others in our lives: we are pulled in many directions. We might have emotion pulling us one way, politics another, science another, and somewhere amidst all the confusion is the realization that we need to consider and embrace the complexity of the situation. It’s not a simple matter with a simple answer. We are dealing with a wild animal with its own biology and behaviours that don’t synchronize with human debate and political tides.

The full announcement can be watched here: