The Best 17 Dollars I Spend Every Year

In my opinion, one of the most important and commendable steps in North American wildlife conservation came in 1916, many years before Aldo Leopold wrote Game Management (1933) or A Sand County Almanac (1949). It came at a time when North Americans were really beginning to take notice of the disappearance of wildlife on this continent, signalled by dwindling buffalo, beaver, and wild turkey populations, and the complete disappearance of the passenger pigeon in 1914. August 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty, signed between Canada and the United States to protect North American migratory bird populations from overharvesting and market hunting.

Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)

Northern pintails (Anas acuta) are one of my favourite species of ducks. They’re elegant and sleek looking.

Verleius Geist, a Canadian biologist and strong proponent of what has come to be known as the North American Model of Wildlife Management, puts Canada’s entry into the Migratory Bird Treaty in the context of alternative approaches to wildlife management in other countries. As a British colony, says Geist (2001), Canada “could easily have adopted the mother country’s wildlife policies. Instead, Canada chose a path that paralleled that of the United States, allowing the best minds on both sides of the border to engage in constructive cooperative efforts”. I believe the Migratory Bird Treaty represents a great example of these efforts. At the root of Canada’s approach to cooperatively managing migratory birds is the notion that “Canadians are temporary custodians, not the owners, of their wildlife heritage”. This is a powerfully humble and thoughtful way to conceptualize our responsibility towards wildlife on this continent.

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Henry Henshaw, an American ornithologist who was involved in bringing attention to declining waterfowl populations in the early 1900s.

Typically, wildlife in North America is managed at the provincial (Canada) or state (U.S.) level, but migratory birds are managed federally. Once signed, each country was responsible for enacting legislation that would guide national efforts to implement the treaty. In Canada, we have the Migratory Birds Convention Act (MBCA), and south of the border the U.S. passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The MBCA in Canada includes the Migratory Birds Regulations, the Migratory Birds Sanctuary Regulations, and the Migratory Game Bird Hunting Regulations, which are each responsible for regulating a different aspect of migratory bird management.

Just to put the timeline in perspective here, the Migratory Bird Treaty was signed in the middle of World War I, at a time when political attention and federal revenue were certainly being pulled in other directions. Yet, conservationists and governments recognized the value in protecting wildlife populations and habitat and I think we need to applaud the governments of that time. Difficult decisions and worthwhile sacrifices have been made in the past to conserve wildlife and there really is no excuse for our generation to ignore our responsibilities on this front. Healthy wildlife and habitat in the future is worth the expense.

This year, both the American and Canadian departments responsible for implementing migratory bird management had good reason to celebrate the 100 years of conservation efforts. To fund conservation activities, the Canadian federal government relies on revenue from the sale of Canadian Wildlife Habitat Conservation stamps (the Federal Duck Stamp in the U.S.). Beginning in 1985, with a painting of a pair of mallards by famous Canadian painter Robert Bateman, the Duck Stamp is a postage stamp that is affixed to a Migratory Game Bird Hunting Permit. The stamp costs $17 annually and has generated over $50 million in funding for more than 1,500 conservation projects throughout the country. Although it is purchased primarily by waterfowl hunters, anyone can buy a Duck Stamp and contribute to migratory bird conservation.

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Ducks Unlimited Canada reports that from the first migratory bird sanctuary established in Quebec in 1919 to protect seabird colonies, we now have 92 sanctuaries across the country. Today, migratory bird legislation protects over 400 species of waterfowl. As a result, duck populations throughout North America are healthy and stable with an estimated 48.4 million breeding ducks (according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). In other words, the Migratory Bird Treaty worked. Representing the largest international wildlife agreement of the time, it brought waterfowl populations back from dangerously low numbers and made a powerful statement about North America’s commitment to wildlife.

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Estimated populations of duck species in North America (Link to original DU page).

Though we have reason to celebrate the millions of ducks, around 9,000 trumpeter swans, and plenty of Canada geese on this continent, the work is not over. As migratory species, a waterfowl species’ habitat is spread over the length of the continent. flywaymap Each year, waterfowl migrate between their summer breeding grounds and wintering grounds using four main migratory routes called flyways. Depending on its particular habitat and range, a species’ north-south migratory route may go anywhere from the Canadian High Arctic to the southern portion of Mexico and beyond. Along the way, waterfowl require healthy and productive wetland habitats for feeding, staging, breeding, and nesting. Unfortunately, we continue to lose wetland habitats every year on a continental scale due to expanding urban development, pollution, and agricultural expansion. We also continue to lose anywhere from 1.4 – 200 million ducks due to house cats, somewhere around half a billion as a result of collisions with buildings and vehicles, and thousands due to poisoning from pesticides and fertilizers, among other causes of waterfowl mortality.

Amidst contemporary conflicts over conservation status and endangered species listings, proposals to either liberalize or constrain hunting regulations, and widespread disagreement over climate policy, we have an example from 1916 that shows us how we can commit to wildlife conservation on a continental scale. I have a strong affection for waterfowl. I enjoy everything related to ducks and geese: I like watching them; hearing them; I find their biology and ecology fascinating; I enjoy the magic of sitting in a pre-dawn blind trying to call birds into a decoy spread; I have prepared many delicious meals of duck or goose meat; and there’s nothing quite like the honking of geese lighting up late afternoon autumn skies. I’m personally very thankful to the conservationists of the last century for laying the foundation that has ensured I am able to continue enjoying such an amazing group of species.

The way to people’s hearts is through their stomachs

I’ve had countless philosophical conversations with non-hunting family members about why I hunt. While they’ve always respected these reasons and tried to engage in the conversations, I always questioned just how much I was really getting through. Was I actually creating any deeper sense of understanding on a personal level? At some point, it occurred to me that the old saying may be true, that the way to a person’s heart might truly be through his/her stomach.

Many hunters can relate to the excitement in sharing meals of wild meat with friends and family, something that I think is partially rooted in an opportunity for us to relive the excitement of the hunt, and to feel like we are able to share a little bit of that with those people we care about who weren’t there with us. I think we’d be hard pressed to find a culture anywhere in the world that doesn’t gather around food in some way for meaningful occasions, and that doesn’t associate sharing food with happiness and celebration. At the most basic level, it’s simply fun and exciting to get together and share meals with people, and I think there’s a depth added to this experience when it’s food that we’ve collected ourselves – whether grown in a garden or hunted.

When I first started bringing wild meat home to my family to try, there was a reticence that many of us are probably familiar with and have heard expressed in various forms. It ranges from a somewhat unfamiliar emotional feeling when someone associates the food on their plate with iconic images of deer and the social representations we ascribe to them; to the somewhat dirty or unsanitary idea people hold about Canada geese; or ideas about black bears eating nothing but household garbage, and so on down the taxonomic chain. It has been my experience that in most of these cases, it is culturally-based associations that make people hesitant to try wild meat. Sometimes people are aware of health concerns like trichinosis with bear meat, or the uncertainty about chronic wasting disease (CWD) with deer, but usually it’s much less scientific than that.

One time while visiting my family, I brought a selection of wild meat for them to try, and knowing that the particular selection I chose would be somewhat different for them, I was determined to cook such a delicious meal that they would have no choice but to reconsider some of their preconceptions (a tall order, I know). Growing up, the rule in my house was always that I had to try everything once, and then if I didn’t like it, I didn’t have to eat it; I used the same argument on my family. On this occasion, I brought a Canada goose breast and leg and a deer heart, both having been killed only about a week or two prior. The idea of eating a deer heart was definitely a difficult one for some people to stomach, intellectually speaking. So the pressure was on to ensure they liked the taste of everything so much that they didn’t feel like monsters for eating heart and dirty for eating Canada goose. I’m certainly not an accomplished chef, so there weren’t going to be any award winning recipes here, it just had to taste good.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-9-52-07-pmFor the heart, I chose a simple recipe. I sliced it into thin discs and preheated a frying pan. I seasoned the heart with some garlic and seared the half inch discs in the pan. The key with heart is to not over cook it; rare or medium-rare is the ticket. So searing it just cooks the outsides an since the pieces were so thin, it left the insides perfectly rare. To make the meal a little more familiar to everyone, I made a quick mushroom gravy from a package (remember, the idea here was to ease people into the meal). I served it on fresh buns as open-faced sandwiches.

For the goose, it was also simple. I seasoned the breast with salt and pepper and cooked it in a fairly hot frying pan somewhere between medium-rare and medium. One of the complaints I often hear about waterfowl is that it’s too greasy, so I wanted to cook it in a way that I could burn off some of the grease and still keep it tender on the inside. I fried the leg and cooked it more fully through, figuring that since it was on a bone, it would have some great flavour from that. Again, the purpose of the meal was to add just enough of a new thing that people would let themselves enjoy it. In that sense, I thought that if people associated the goose leg with a chicken wing, they would find themselves slightly more at ease if it was more fully cooked.

In the end, I’m happy to report that although this small amount of meat was being served to five people and we were all on limited rations, everyone went back for seconds (and no, they didn’t all use the gravy on the heart). Everyone loved every piece they tried. Perhaps most importantly, I believe that there were some minds changed from the experience. People came to realize that at a purely biological level, heart meat is still meat, and in fact, it’s some of the best, richest meat from a deer. Although none of them saw the deer while it was alive and did not experience the hunt, we associate emotions with the heart organ, and I think this helped people feel like they had a sense of connection with the individual deer they were eating. In regards to the goose, although some of them may still view Canada geese as a nuisance, they also had a somewhat more full picture of geese as a species that eats, digests, and travels at such great distances that they have developed incredibly powerful muscles that create dark, rich, delicious meat. In this case, I think they now see geese with a more full idea of its ecology as a species, rather than simply a bunch of critters that fill lawns with pounds of grassy poop (literally, a single goose can produce a pound of poop per day).

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The point in all this, to me, is that I can talk to non-hunting friends and family until I’m blue in the face about the political, conservation, historical, and even personal reasons I hunt (and trust me, I can). They can even respect and try to understand all of these reasons; however, I think one of my biggest breakthroughs was sharing a meal of wild meat. I’ve cooked many meals of wild meat for friends, brought a number of different dishes to potlucks and dinner events, and this example here has generally been the rule for me: give someone an experience they truly enjoy and associate with good times amongst friends and family, and they will remember their encounter with wild meat fondly. This, in turn, has the potential to foster a sense of respect and even personal attachment to the whole idea of wild meat and hunting. As hunters, it’s hard to imagine a more important measure of success in our efforts to be ambassadors of the lifestyle.

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I’ll be trying this next time I get my hands on a deer heart:
http://themeateater.com/2014/recipe-wild-game-chili-tacos/

For some other deer heart recipes, this forum has a bunch of ideas:
http://forums.bowsite.com/TF/bgforums/thread.cfm?threadid=376828&forum=4