Science Update: Habitat Preferences of Desert Bighorn Sheep

I have no real personal connection with bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis). I’ve never seen one, eaten one, and know relatively little about them. Perhaps because of this lack of opportunity to interact with them on some personal level, I’m somewhat fascinated by them. At least a part of this fascination has to do with some pretty remarkable life history, physical characteristics, and habits of the species. I’ve also been reading some pieces by Canadian biologist Valerius Geist in the last little while. Geist spent a great deal of time studying bighorn sheep and I recently bought his book Mountain Sheep and Main in the Northern Wilds, so maybe this post is just the result of the convergence of a few individual interests and information trails. In any case, I came across a recent study on the habitat preferences of female desert bighorn sheep and found that it offered an interesting glimpse into the lives of these species.

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Desert bighorn sheep. Source: U.S. National Park Service

Wild sheep arrived in North America sometime around 750,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene (the ice age period that preceded our current epoch, the Holocene). There are currently two species of wild sheep in North America, Dall sheep (Ovis dalli) and bighorn sheep, with the latter also comprised of a number of subspecies. Historically, the range of bighorn sheep covered much of the western portion of North America from Canada to Mexico. As with many other large mammal species on this continent, wild sheep population abundance and range have fluctuated throughout their history, and much of this has to do with the availability of suitable habitat. Though wild sheep are listed as “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and remain unlisted in both Canada and the United States (two subspecies resident to California are listed as “endangered” under the U.S. EPA), the Wild Sheep Foundation continues to work on a variety of initiatives and programs to enhance sheep habitat and distribution throughout wild sheep range. Currently, bighorn sheep still exist across their historic range, but their numbers and the extent of continuous populations has been fairly dramatically reduced.

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Historic range of bighorn sheep from 1850-2012. Source: Wild Sheep Foundation

It’s perhaps not difficult to see why someone would be intrigued by this animal. I’ve never been a fan of the “man vs. wild” or “conquering nature” discourses, but there is something primally attractive about the prospect of being able to navigate and survive in the kind of perilous places wild sheep live that makes hunting them somewhat irresistible to me. Wild sheep live in some of the most precipitous habitat on this continent, generally avoiding predators by spending their time in terrain so steep, rocky, dangerous, and difficult to navigate that it is virtually inaccessible to other species, including many of their predators. As with many other ungulates, male sheep (rams) use their thick, curled, sometimes 30-pound horns to fight one another. I’ve heard that sheep can deliver blows with their horns with a force 40 times what it would take to fracture a human skull.

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Rams fighting. Source: Pinterest

It’s long been understood that the habitat selection preferences of wild sheep is an important factor in their ability to avoid predation, including protecting their young (lambs) from these risks. Predation is the leading cause of mortality in neonate (newborn) ungulates, so appropriate habitat selection by pregnant females is critical to neonate survival. For instance, the amount of visibility within a habitat is an important factor in a female’s ability to avoid predation, particularly during times when young are less mobile and therefore are highly susceptible to predation. Areas of low visibility (e.g. high shrub cover) reduce a predator’s ability to see young, whereas areas of high visibility, while allowing increased visibility for predators, also allow females to detect predators. A new paper published in The Journal of Wildlife Management, Desert bighorn sheep lambing habitat: Parturition, nursery, and predation sites, conducted by researchers in New Mexico has provided some new insight into the parturition and nursery habitats used by female sheep (ewes).

Existing knowledge of desert bighorn sheep parturition habitat had been largely based on observation of the presence of lambs – the belief was that the locations in which lambs were observed was likely reflective of the kind of habitat ewes use for lambing. However, through the use of radiocollars and implants that detect when ewes gave birth, the researchers able to identify more precisely the differences in parturition and nursery habitats used by ewes. It was previously thought that both parturition and nursery habitats were in areas of steep, rugged terrain, high elevation, and high visibility. In contrast, the current study found that parturition sites were more likely to occur in habitats at intermediate slopes and intermediate elevations, whereas nursery sites were more likely to be located in areas with steeper slopes. In terms of visibility, parturition sites were more likely to be located in areas of low visibility and nursery sites were associated with habitats at both ends of the visibility spectrum (but not intermediate visibility).

Bighorn lambs are only immobile for 2-3 days after birth, but are classified as a follower species. On a hider-follower classification, a “hider” species leave their young to hide from predators, whereas “follower” species are mobile earlier after birth and are able to escape from predation. Therefore, this study indicates that ewes and their lambs move from parturition sites to nursery sites at higher elevations and steeper slopes shortly after lambs are born to occupy habitat less accessible to predators. It’s pretty amazing that only days after birth, here is a species that is capable of moving deeper into habitat that predators such as mountain lions find difficult to navigate.

Again, while I don’t have any personal experience with bighorn sheep at this point in my life, I find them to be a fascinating and remarkable species and one I hope to connect with more directly at some point. As someone who is also interested in new knowledge on wildlife, I found this paper particularly interesting as it is the first study to definitively describe desert bighorn sheep parturition habitat characteristics. It’s sometimes easy to think that the answers to all of our questions are simply one Google search away, and it’s exciting to realize that just as we are still discovering entirely new species, we are also uncovering details of species that we have interacted with for thousands of years.

Making Space for Predators in the Cultural and Ecological Landscapes

We need wolves, bears, and large cats on the North American landscape. They belong here, and neither the landscapes we call home nor our own cultures would be the same without them. It’s not only proper management practice to protect the place and role of predators in North America, it’s both a patriotic act and a moral responsibility.

I began this post some time ago, but just didn’t quite have a clear direction for it, so I shelved it until I had a real impetus to put it together. I found that impetus somewhat serendipitously in a mixture of personal interest and the politics of managing large predators. First, I recently read environmental historian Dan Flores’s new book American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains. 9780700622276 Second, there have been a number of recent controversies about the conservation status of predators in various North American jurisdictions and the subsequent management actions proposed for those species. In Ontario in particular, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) recently implemented an immediate ban on hunting and trapping for a species of wolf in selected townships throughout the province. I’m interested in exploring the sociocultural perspectives around both the idea and physical existence of predator species, in particular between hunters and non-hunters – often the cultural line that seems to divide much of the binary thinking about predators.

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Eastern coyote, Canis latrans

Ecologically, it should be no surprise to anyone that predators play an important role in North American landscapes. Very little that exists in natural systems is ecologically inert, without any kind of evolutionary or relational role. Predator-prey interactions are both complex and necessary for species on both sides of that relationship. Remember that North American species evolved on this continent alongside one another and the interspecific (between species) interactions were critical in their evolutionary histories. Predator-prey dynamics played an important role in shaping species’ behaviours and maintaining balance at various scales within a habitat. For instance, the threat of predation can impact the behaviour of certain species in ways that can be important for maintaining vegetation health or composition. In other cases, predator and prey populations are connected so closely that they literally need one another to keep populations within the carrying capacity of their habitat.

Despite this longer-term understanding of the ecological role of predators, our social values still paint a particular portrait of predators. I’ve heard Cameron Hanes and Joe Rogan comment that bears need to be managed because they impact moose populations. While this is certainly true, the repeated use of value-laden language gives the – even subconscious – impression that bears are somehow purposefully intending to wipe out moose populations or that bears are inherently evil for the impacts of their predation. This is ridiculous, so let’s put this kind of loaded language to rest now. Bears and other predators do not “devastate” or “decimate” prey species populations. The role of predators is to seek, kill, and eat their prey, and that is what they do. Both predators and prey are active participants of their ecosystems and their evolutions. There is nothing somehow immoral about this and we need to avoid anthropomorphizing predator-prey interactions.

Now, this does not mean that predator populations shouldn’t be managed. On the contrary, I am a strong advocate of harvest-based predator management; however, I think there’s an important distinction between managing predators and the portrayal of this task as simply “predator control”, as though the greatest achievement of wildlife management is maintaining low levels of predator species – usually either in the interest of protecting livestock interests or to maintain higher levels of desired prey species like deer. Instead, we should apply the same management philosophy to predator species that we do with prey species, appreciating the biological and cultural role of hunting within human communities, and striving to maintain sustainable, healthy, and balanced populations and ecological communities. This might seem overly picky in terms of the language we use, but our choice of language reveals a great deal about our perspectives and impacts how we are perceived by others, so it’s worth some consideration.

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One of the most demonized and misunderstood large predators on the North American landscape, the mountain lion, Puma concolor. Despite urban myth, mountain lions do not eat hikers and children by the hundreds.

The question is, how do we shift our collective perceptions around predators?

There are certain camps who share cultural perspectives about predators. Sometimes these groups are divided along the hunter/non-hunter line, sometimes along an urban/rural line – and as humans, we seem incapable of resisting the finger-pointing that often comes with these cultural divides. But the reality is, we all have a responsibility in this issue, and the nature of that responsibility depends on how we come into contact with the issue of predators. To hunters, I would say that we need to put an end to the short-sighted and arrogant demonizing of predators. It’s unethical and unpatriotic. To non-hunters (and in particular, anti-hunters who seem determined to end predator hunting altogether) I would say to stop mobilizing emotion over the charismatic nature of predators and to understand that species need to be managed in integrated ways. Sometimes, this management includes sustainable hunting measures, and like it or not, this is sometimes the most effective way to manage predators well. In both cases, these species are far more than the characters of myths and fairy tales; they are important members of complex ecological communities, and the oversimplifications on both ends of the spectrum only serve to damage our own claims to righteousness and the health of ecosystems.

Let’s look at wolves (Canis spp.) as a way to contextualize this discussion a bit. By wolves, I mean the various species of canids throughout North America. To put it bluntly, our various sociocultural perceptions have shaped a shameful history with the various Canis species. North Americans have intermittently embarked on campaigns of extermination against wolves, designed variously to protect livestock development, market hunting economic opportunities, and as a result of misguided perceptions of the physical threat wolves present. We’re fooling ourselves if we think that our history of wolf management on this continent has been defined by wisdom and forethought. We have both moral and national duties on this continent to change the trajectory of this history.

There are some organizations working to encourage the valuation of ancient predator-prey relationships. Just this week, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) released information on a campaign to protect Wood Buffalo National Park, which spans the border of Alberta and the Northwest Territories, from the effects of industrial development. In their press release, CPAWS cites as one of the reasons to protect the Park that is it “the only place in the world where a natural predatory relationship between wolves and bison has continued unbroken over time”. As North Americans, we have come to recognize the power of bison in this continent’s ecological and cultural history, and it is equally important to acknowledge the other side of the bison’s history, which is its interactions with predators.

Wolves are truly a North American species. Wolves evolved exclusively on this continent before emigrating to the rest of the world. They are both a natural and historical part of the North American landscape, and as such, I would say that it’s actually unpatriotic to not give wolves the respect they deserve – it would be some kind of national ecological sin to deny wolves their rightful place here. In tracing the evolutionary history of canids, Dan Flores explains that all members of the family of animals that comprise wolves throughout the world originated from a common North American lineage that is 5 million years old. At some point in their history, ancestors of today’s gray wolf migrated to Asia and Europe, later returning to North America. Meanwhile, a separate wolf lineage remained in North America, later becoming the red wolf, Canis rufus, and the eastern wolf, Canis lycaon. Ancestors of today’s North American wolves have been part of this continent’s ecology for 20 000 years, hunting the giant animals of the ice age along with many other large predators that are now extinct.

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A size comparison between (from smallest to largest) a black bear, a grizzly bear, and a recreation of the short-faced bear, which went extinct about 11 000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age.

There are, however, important reasons to consider predator management for the purpose of mitigating their pressure on species such as white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). At the same time I posted this discussion, I also posted one that reviews recent research on coyote predation on deer; however, I found myself reluctant to post that one by itself because I was fearful it would contribute to the dichotomized nature of predator conversations, so I wanted this post to offer some more depth to the conversation. In part, this fearfulness is in the context of recent changes to wolf and coyote management in Ontario and some of the backlash I’ve seen to these decisions.

On June 15, 2016, the Ontario government reclassified Eastern wolves (Canis lycaon) as Threatened on the basis that “the estimated population of mature individuals is less than 1000”. Eastern wolves were also assessed as Threatened by COSEWIC, the national committee responsible for assessing the status of wildlife in Canada. Part of the reclassification process in Ontario included renaming the Eastern wolf the Algonquin wolf.

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The newly renamed Algonquin wolf, Canis lycaon

On September 15, 2016, the Ontario MNRF – the provincial department responsible for managing hunting based on the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act (FWCA) – announced a full hunting and trapping ban on wolves and coyotes in 40 townships throughout the province as a measure to protect Algonquin wolves.

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) issued a statement opposing the decision and in their official submission to the MNRF outlined a number of compelling reasons why a hunting/trapping ban is “scientifically indefensible”. In the wake of the MNRF’s announcement, hordes took to social media expressing their complete disdain for wolves and coyotes, voicing poorly informed opinions about the merits of even recognizing the species, and suggesting that people should just continue to kill wolves and hide the evidence. In a much more poignant response, the OFAH skillfully walked a fine line that recognized the importance of Algonquin wolf recovery and genetic protection while also explaining why a hunting/trapping ban amounts to a short-sighted and unwise management decision. The OFAH argues that the FWCA offers more effective options to achieve conservation objectives for Algonquin wolves than an all-out hunting/trapping ban.

For instance, the OFAH notes that for the last 14 years, there has been a wolf hunting ban in core areas of Algonquin wolf range surrounding Algonquin Provincial Park (APP). Speaking to the effects of this ban, the OFAH cites both the Ontario and Canadian species at risk assessment bodies (COSSARO and COSEWIC, respectively) in acknowledging that while “human-caused mortality is identified as a significant threat, a reduction in hunting and trapping mortality from 67% to 16% resulting from a ban in townships in and adjacent to Algonquin Park in 2001 was followed by a comparable increase in natural mortality rates”. This means that hunting amounted to what is known as “compensatory mortality”, or in other words, that the wolves killed by hunters each year would have died anyway and therefore that hunting was not having an additive effect on the population (incidentally, this is really the backbone of the concept of sustainable harvest). In addition, there is a concern with genetic introgression from coyotes (in other words, through interbreeding, coyotes are making Algonquin wolves more coyote), and the OFAH suggests that without managing the population of coyotes, there is concern that we will lose more Algonquin wolf genes over time.

Though it might seem counterintuitive, I tend to agree with the OFAH that changing the status of Algonquin wolves might actually do more harm than good because it restricts the available options for conservation measures. What troubles me most, however, is the nature of criticisms from the very community that should appreciate the need for ecosystems that contain healthy and balanced predator populations. As hunters, we pride ourselves on understanding ecology and being committed to conservation. This means promoting the maintenance of landscapes complete with the richness of species that have evolved here and that have been integral to the relationships within their habitats. I agree that hunters are the strongest voice for conservation, so we need to use that voice thoughtfully, intelligently, and then powerfully.

Lest I be dismissed as some predator bleeding heart, recall that our own evolution and adaptation on this continent would not be the same without the other species living here. Indeed, Dan Flores notes that, “with the exception of our primate cousins, wild canids have been intimately associated with us longer than any other large animals on the planet.” There’s a value to wild life that is measured by some metric far beyond our socially constructed desires for growth, productivity, or predictability. We need to remember that the interactions and relationships between multiple species within ecosystems is what shaped our landscapes and what has made them the places we admire and rely on for food, recreation, and an important part of our culture. As such, we owe it to ourselves and these landscapes to be thoughtful and comprehensive in our attitudes and decision-making with regards to predators. We need to give them the space they deserve in our cultural and ecological landscapes.

The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation

“The North American model of wildlife conservation has seven components that collectively form a foundation that yields its distinct structure:

1. Wildlife as public trust resources
2. Elimination of markets for wildlife
3. Allocation of wildlife by law
4. Wildlife can only be killed for a legitimate purpose
5. Wildlife are considered an international resource
6. Science is the proper tool for discharge of wildlife policy
7. Democracy of hunting

It is hunters, or, more accurately, hunting, that led to the development of the components listed above that form the foundation for North American wildlife conservation.”

Valerius Geist, Shane P. Mahoney, John F. Organ, 2001

Genetically Pure Bison in North America

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Most people have at least a passing familiarity with the history of bison (Bison bison) in North America. More specifically, people have probably heard about the almost complete eradication of the species from the continent due to a complete lack of management.

Perhaps fewer people are familiar with the bison as a success story, the one that is ongoing and will hopefully have a happier ending.

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Copyright: This image was released by the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, with the ID K5680-1 .

The bison is colloquially known in North America as buffalo. Many people will know them as the animal that was shot by the thousands for its hide by European settlers, and as an important part of Indigenous cultures in North America. There is no genetic difference between what people refer to as buffalo and the scientific classification of the species as bison.

To make a long story short, North America had an estimated historical bison population of perhaps more than 30 million, ranging across the continent, east to west, north to south. By the closing of the 19th century, the bison population had been reduced to about 1,000 individuals and its range had been greatly restricted due to human population and agricultural expansion.

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Current estimated range of the bison in North America. Source: http://www.defenders.org

Thanks to the dedication and efforts of hunting and conservation organizations to reintroduce the bison to parts of its historical range and ensure its continued protection, we now once again have a stable, though still greatly reduced, population of about 500,000 individuals in North America. In fact, I’m proud to know that Canada initiated regulated hunting for bison as early as 1894, and established Buffalo National Park in 1909 to protect a population of bison. While this is great, the bison’s current range is still historically restricted and they live in fairly isolated pockets, many of which are privately owned (only about 4% of bison are considered wild).

A large, symbolic, nostalgic, and fascinating animal, scientific studies and careful ongoing management of bison is important for the health and continued recovery of the species on a continental scale. Some interesting new research out of Utah State University, led by Dr. Dustin Ranglack, has identified a herd of bison that are “genetically pure”.

The grazing lands of free ranging bison often overlap those of domestic cattle. In addition to some deliberate attempts to cross breed wild bison and domestic cattle, these interactions have created a situation where most bison in North America have at least a degree of what is referred to as genetic introgression from domestic cattle. However, the Henry Mountains in Utah are apparently home to a herd that is genetically pure bison. The herd is also free from brucellosis, an infectious disease that is a concern in domestic livestock. This is an exciting discovery for the future of bison conservation, because according to Dr. Ranglack, this herd could represent “a really important source for potential reintroduction projects that are trying to restore bison to a large portion of their native range.”

Ongoing wildlife research is critical for informed and effective management. This is an exciting piece of research that is an integral part of the successful model of wildlife management we have in North America. It’s important not just for species like bison, but for all North American wildlife and habitat, that we continue to advocate for dedicated funding for wildlife research and conservation efforts. If we want to continue to enjoy truly wild life on this continent, whether for viewing or hunting purposes, we need to see the bigger picture.

Luckily, the Canadian and American governments caught a glimpse of that bigger picture just in time when it came to the bison…but it was almost too late. We need to ensure we look ahead, are open minded, thoughtful, and learn from our past – both the mistakes and the successes. I’m proud of the management model we have on this continent, and I support the individuals and organizations responsible for making the decisions that ensure I can continue interacting with wildlife.

 

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:

Cecil: Part 3: Making the case to understand and embrace complexity

When the whole story about Cecil the lion (Panthera leo) broke out in July, I didn’t expect it to continue “trending” for very long, and I’ll admit that I was surprised this post still had some relevance. In any case, I still planned to post it, because I think the conversations that have been generated by this story have ongoing relevance for hunters and the field of conservation. This particular story might have been the catalyst, and likely it will soon fade from the world of hashtags, but the broader social and political landscape of which this case is a part is important for hunters and conservationists to engage thoughtfully.

I’ve discussed my own personal hunting ethics in a previous post, so this one is concerned more with the technical aspects of this issue and focuses on some of the facts of wildlife conservation and how lion hunting fits in that narrative.

Let’s start with some ideas that I take as truisms for the purpose of this discussion:

  1. Wildlife management/conservation is a complicated task that varies by context. There isn’t a one size fits all approach.
  2. Wildlife management/conservation is more than a scientific matter: it involves interactive and complex social, ecological, and political considerations.
  3. Decisions about wildlife management/conservation cost a great deal of money.
  4. The overall goal of any management/conservation plan is the maintenance of healthy, sustainable wildlife populations.

As someone involved in the field of wildlife research for the purpose of contributing knowledge towards wildlife management, I can say with confidence that it is a very complicated field. At the end of the day, wildlife management is a political issue, and it changes depending on the particular political and economic system, and social opinions of the place. It relies on scientific information, yes, but it is politicians who make decisions about the policies that will be used to manage wildlife, and actions resulting from these decisions require substantial financial investment into ongoing research, enforcement, and administrative costs. In North America, money for wildlife management is generated primarily through hunting fees.

Lion hunting in Africa is not my area of expertise. I’ll put that out there now; but I can speak about it to a degree, because I think my experience with the North American context helps me know where to look for information and gives me a degree of insight into how to make sense of that information.

In order to appropriately assess the effects of the lion hunt on lions, and therefore its merits as a management tool, it is important to understand some basic principles of lion behavioural and population ecology. The status of lion populations is assessed at a subpopulation level. The entire population of lions in Africa can be divided into localized groups of individuals that are considered somewhat geographically distinct, in the sense that they do not move around throughout the entire range inhabited by lions. This means that what is happening with lions in one area of the world cannot be considered indicative of lions everywhere. For example, we can talk about the worldwide population of lions declining on the whole, but look at subpopulations and find that some are increasing.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the largest international wildlife conservation organization and the one that ascribes status to wildlife all over the world, even the effects of lion hunting can vary according to geographic context. In Zimbabwe, for example, the IUCN explains that hunting has a net positive impact on population in some areas, but may have contributed to declines in other areas. Globally, the IUCN classifies lions as “Vulnerable”, but at more local scales, certain subpopulations are classified as “Critically Endangered”, while it has been suggested that others be downgraded to “Least Concern”.  Therefore, once again, it’s complicated and it’s not necessarily productive to just talk about lions in a general sense, but rather we need to be precise about our assertions and discuss the matter in geographically specific ways.

Days after the incident exploded in the media, David Macdonald, one of the researchers who studied Cecil for over 20 years was interviewed by the journal Nature. He gives a straight-forward explanation of some of the considerations involved in lion ecology and hunting. One of these considerations is the need to understand the social organization and group dynamics of lions. For instance, Macdonald explained how the death of one male lion will affect the social organization of that lion’s group and in turn the local population. Male lions are part of coalitions of other males that defend a territory, and when a male lion dies (whether hunted or from any number of factors), a “larger, stronger coalition comes in and usurps them, often leading to the death of the surviving brothers. The incoming males will generally kill the cubs of the incumbents”. This means that the death of one male lion may lead to the death of others, and the protection of one male lion may impact the population more broadly. Macdonald also explained that the hunt can certainly be conducted sustainably.

To put this in perspective, this analysis is nothing new to wildlife managers; it’s the backbone of harvest management policies all over the world. This is why harvests of any species are monitored and controlled, because a study of ecology tells us how the rest of a population will be affected by the death of individuals of each sex. For example, in Ontario, the whitetail deer population in the province is managed by controlling the number of females (does) that are killed each fall in the hunt. Killing male deer (bucks) generally does not have long-term effects on the overall deer population. Therefore, like any harvest management system, the sustainability of lion hunting requires an understanding of the biology and ecology of lions and effective enforcement.

A number of media stories have used the kind of generalizing and value-laden language to tell this story that casts it in a particular ethical light right out of the gate. One of the things these stories have focused on is that the hunter, Walter Palmer, allegedly paid upwards of $50 000 for this hunt. This introduces the social and economic complexity of this issue, and illustrates that there’s so much going on here that it really is difficult to categorize it as simply right or wrong (and in fact, anyone who tries to make that simple categorization has clearly not done enough research). The high costs of wildlife conservation in Zimbabwe is paid for through managed hunting opportunities, including lion hunting.

I’ve mentioned the costs involved in wildlife management, including years of research to understand the necessary parameters needed to make informed decisions about the species in question, through to the administration of the policies that are eventually enacted. In the case of lion hunting in Zimbabwe (and other regions), the money generated from hunting is absolutely crucial for conservation policies. In fact, many wildlife and habitat conservation activities simply would not be possible without this money.

It’s important to remember that there are local human communities involved in this story, and they cannot be separated from a realistic discussion of options for effective wildlife management. Many of these local communities rely on livestock and other forms of agriculture, and lions present a very real threat to their livelihood through risks of predation (a concern for farmers all over the world). This means that local communities are going to need to kill lions to protect livestock and prevent loss of income, and these kills are not controlled by a harvest management program; in other words, communities can kill as many lions as they need for their safety.

Given the combination of these factors, one of the most effective, available, and economically feasible ways to protect wildlife in regions like Zimbabwe (like it or not) is to attribute value animals through hunting. If a single lion is given a specific monetary value, and local communities know they can count on benefitting from this money, it makes the risk of living with lions acceptable and financially viable. This is just the way our global economy works: if we want to protect something, it is assigned value. I won’t say I agree with it in all cases, but it’s what we’ve got to work with right now, and unfortunately it’s just the reality that arguing for the inherent value of the life of an animal doesn’t protect the income of local communities directly threatened by them.

With this in mind, does it really make it somehow worse that Walter Palmer paid over $50 000 to kill a lion? In this context, it really isn’t the amount of money that he paid that people have a problem with; it’s coming to terms with the fact that there is essentially a price tag on a lion. We just need to deal with that fact. I would personally rather see increased benefit to local communities and lion management programs through these kinds of high costs. It also limits the number of people who can afford go lion hunting, which effectively helps control the hunt. The price tag on lion hunting needs to make the protection of lions economically viable and socially acceptable. It is what it is.

The alternative to this method was played out in Botswana in 2000. In this TEDx talk, Mikkel Legarth explains how the implementation of a ban on lion hunting resulted in more lions being killed in defense of property and life, and led to a reduction in the lion subpopulation. These same population declines were also observed in Tanzania, Kenya, and Zambia following bans on lion hunting. Recently, researchers in Zambia suggested a continuation of the 2013 ban on lion hunting until 2016, which they believe will help in the recovery of lion populations. Again, wildlife management policies need to be designed based on the specific geographic context and informed by rigorous research.

So you see that this is an ecologically, socially, politically, and economically complex situation, and no amount of wishing it was a simple matter of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong will change that. I’ve only scratched the surface here of the full picture of the historical context that has contributed to the current circumstances around the lion hunt in Zimbabwe. There is a long history of global politics and economics relevant to this story that I didn’t get into here. I think the point is that we can all have our own opinions and feelings about hunting, lions, lion hunting, different methods or approaches to hunting, and all the other particular issues that arise through this story. At the end of the day, though, we work within the reality in which we live, and the tools available for wildlife management are constrained by that same reality.

So the real task before us is not to reach agreement on all of our personal opinions and ethics. Instead, we need to agree on an action that will allow us to move forward in making a decision to help us achieve our shared goals, hunters and non-hunters alike: the long-term sustainability of wildlife and the habitat on which they depend.

Hunting as land ethic; or, why hunting is one method of active conservation

As a hunter, I am simultaneously a conservationist. My understanding of this role includes everything one associates with the word: naturalist, animal lover, environmentalist, manager, activist.

There are many reasons that I hunt. Here, I want to articulate how I conceptualize the relationship between my bow and arrow and my role in conservation. In other words, how can hunting be enacted as land ethic? Before I get into it though, a point of order to set the tone of the conversation.

I hear many conversations around hunting begin and progress the same way, generally depending on whether the conversation involves hunters or some combination of hunters and non-hunters (I differentiate non-hunter from anti-hunter). Depending on the scenario and people involved, I have repeatedly seen one of two problems develop. When the conversation is between two hunters, it often involves both of them reinforcing why their motivations to hunt are ethically and ecologically sound, reasons they’ve both given and heard hundreds of times and that, while factually true and ethically defensible, are nothing new by this point and long ago ceased challenging them intellectually. Both people eventually leave the conversation with their preconceived beliefs reinforced and secured. The problem here is that we sometimes resist the opportunity to truly challenge ourselves and explore new ideas, simply because we don’t need to.

Conversations involving hunters and non-hunters too often take the following course: the hunter presents a series of reasons why hunting is ethically and ecologically superior to purchasing meat from the store and why he/she is doing more for conservation than the non-hunter. For their part, I often hear non-hunters rely on cultural or media stereotypes, such as claims around animal rights or welfare. I think reliance on preconceived stereotypes can sometimes be a strategy to mask their own uncertain feelings about hunting and avoidance in having to honestly engage with these feelings. The problem with this scenario is that one person is discussing apples while the other is discussing oranges, and neither is really looking for the opportunity to try a new fruit, but rather just to prove that their choice is better.

The issue that I see in these exchanges – and one that I think derails many conversations that involve issues as complex as hunting – is people talking at one another, rather than listening to one another. There’s a great conversation to be had about the merits and joys of hunting, if only we could discuss these on a personal level and cater the conversation to the person with whom we are speaking. Don’t confuse adjusting our approach with pandering; it’s not the same thing. In addition, as hunters, we have great insight to offer about the very legitimate unease people feel about killing animals. Throwing elaborate scientific facts at someone who has an ethical block to the idea of killing animals will not help them understand; conversely, trying to convince someone of our moral superiority in gathering our own food when they are concerned about the effect of hunting on wildlife populations won’t move our case forward.

I believe that hunting is an important tool in the conservation of nature and maintenance of healthy wildlife populations. In fact, perhaps few people realize that when modern wildlife management began in North American, hunting was the central focus of this work and the primary tool used by managers. This, at the same time, is the basis for my ethical position on hunting. I believe it is ethical because of the positive benefits it contributes to conservation. In my case, my ethics are developed based on the science of hunting. I understand that this isn’t the case for everyone, but if we can agree on some basic facts, I believe that we can at least respect the direction we each take in developing our own personal ethics. At the end of the day, conservation is about making decisions, and even if we feel uneasy about the particular methods, understanding the facts will help us determine an effective course of action to address shared priorities.

A point that often comes up is that hunters contribute piles of money each year to wildlife management and habitat conservation efforts. This is true. In fact, the majority of money that is used for wildlife management efforts is generated through the sale of hunting licenses and tags (the pieces of paper that allow a hunter to kill an individual animal, such as a deer or a bear). Many of the conservation organizations out there are funded by a membership composed largely of hunters and anglers, meaning that, for example, most of the wetland conservation activities in Canada are funded by hunters. Wetlands, for their part, are absolutely integral to water filtration and are critical habitat for an abundance of wildlife. So the financial contribution of hunters is true, and it’s a valid case. The problem is that this point can be extended beyond its reach, with some hunters then presuming to claim without exception that hunters do more than non-hunters for conservation and that the work hunters do is inherently more valuable. Period, end of discussion.

If someone tells me they don’t hunt, but that they are dedicated to conservation, I ask them what they do. When they tell me that they volunteer for a local organization in their community, or donate to an environmental NGO, or do everything they can to conserve water in their own home, or compost, or anything else, I say great. I love it. Good for you, and thank you. It does no good for me to value what I do more than what someone else does. When they ask what I do? I tell them I hunt. One of these activities isn’t more important than the other. Sure, we can put a monetary value on our contributions, but why? For most people who are acting because of a sense of moral or emotional motivation, that won’t convince them that what I do is more valuable. (Having said this, the economic argument is actually a legitimate and established strategy to convince people of the value of conservation. For example, ecologists have attempted to put a monetary value on certain ecosystem services, such as wetlands, to convince people of the importance in their protection, but I’m not talking about that.)

Here’s how I think about it. When I pick up my bow and step outside to go on a hunt, I’m simultaneously thinking about the entire species of the animal I’m hunting, the local population of that species, the family group on the property I’m hunting, and the individual animal that I hope to kill. I understand how the removal of one deer might affect population and reproductive dynamics, and the habitat and the other animals in the area. As a result, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that my actions are having positive benefits for the overall health of the species I’m hunting and the other species that interact with it.

As an example, let’s consider the most popular big game animal hunted in North America, the whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Whitetail deer populations exploded in North America as a result of the reorganization and modification of land for modern agriculture, which creates perfect habitat for deer. Many people would say this is great; it is great, but those deer also have to continue to eat and find suitable habitat.

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For the purposes of space, let’s focus on two points: every year, a certain number of deer are born, and given the finite space and food available in any area of habitat, a certain number of deer will die. They will die in great numbers from vehicle collisions, and they will die throughout the winter as a result of starvation and predation by other animals. Whenever a population of wildlife outgrows the ability of its habitat to support it (a term referred to by ecologists as “carrying capacity”), some individuals of that population will die, but not before many other members of the population suffer some form of malnutrition and stress due to competition for resources.

So the overall point here is that in order for all deer to be healthy, the population must remain at or below a certain number of individuals, a number that is determined by habitat characteristics. All things being equal, the rate at which the population reaches this upper limit is a function of the sex ratio (number of males and females) and age structure (the number of individuals at breeding age) of the population. That’s just how biology works. Each spring-summer, a doe (female deer) can give birth to 1-2 fawns, depending on her own health. If environmental or nutritional conditions are difficult (poor food sources or quality, a winter with heavy snowfall, etc.), reproductive capacity suffers. If there are too many females in the population, the population may increase too quickly.

So you can see that nothing happens in isolation: we need to maintain healthy deer to produce healthy deer. Hunting season for whitetail deer is in the fall during their annual breeding season, and the number of individuals of each sex that hunters are allowed to kill is strictly regulated to maintain healthy deer and healthy deer populations. The goal is to continue to ensure that the resources available in a given habitat can support the number of deer in that area throughout the winter, thus ensuring that does can give birth to healthy fawns in the spring, and so on and so forth.

Therefore, by removing 1-2 deer of a specific sex from an area of habitat through managed hunting, hunters are part of a larger effort and directly contributing to maintaining healthy deer populations and healthy habitats. I help to ensure that the remaining deer that are not killed by hunters can access enough food and habitat throughout the winter; I’m reducing the likelihood that either the deer I killed or others in the area will be hit by a car because they’re forced to search farther for resources; and I’m helping to ensure that individual deer will not be forced into such strong competition for resources with one another that they will die from malnutrition or exhaustion.

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So whatever our thoughts on the act of killing, I recognize that I need to accept that removing certain individual animals from a population is necessary. Our own feelings and ethics around this are certainly individual. For me, knowing that I am thoughtfully engaged in carefully planned and effective conservation activities gives me a strong belief that what I am doing is morally right (for me). I like the knowledge that I am contributing to maintaining healthy wildlife populations. Does this diminish the emotions that I face in killing animals? No. Those are real. Does it mean I haphazardly choose the equipment (gun or bow) that I use to hunt? No. I put a great deal of thought into how those decisions change the nature of the hunt. Is hunting easy? No. It takes a great deal of preparation, practice, and dedication to be successful, an outcome that is in great measure determined by the guarantee that the animal dies quickly and with as little stress as possible.

For now, I’m motivated by the knowledge that there are a diversity of ways to engage in conservation, that many people out there are doing their own thing, that the combination of all of our actions is what will make a difference, and that supporting everyone’s conservation choices and capitalizing on opportunities for agreement will make this important task successful.

For me, I’ll keep picking up my bow and hunting.

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