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Restoring Connecticut's Call of the Wild

Wildlife conservation involves managing people as well as animals.

 

Outside the bank of windows behind the desk at which I write, in the late-winter dusk, a dozen whitetail deer are browsing at the edge of the woods around my Killingworth home. Earlier in the day, I watched a dozen bluebirds thronging to hulled sunflower seeds in my bird feeders. My yard and its woody margins abound with watchable wildlife.

Through those same windows I have seen a bobcat, otters, fishers, red foxes, wild turkeys, miscellaneous hawks and a parade of other creatures. When I was a boy in Connecticut in the 1950s, the sight of a wild animal other than ubiquitous gray squirrels, starlings and house sparrows, or maybe a robin, was for me a signal event. Perhaps I exaggerate, but spring then was silent indeed compared to today. I remember reading a nature writer, whose name I have forgotten, lamenting about how silent and sterile were the New England woods and thinking as I read how sadly true it was.

In the intervening years, I have observed and written about wildlife around the globe, only to find that, in the early 21st century, Connecticut has become a virtual Serengeti. I see wildlife here that 50 years ago I observed only in books. Partly, as in the case of raptors no longer threatened by DDT, it is because of enlightened environmental policies from the international level on down. Here in Connecticut, it is also because the state agency now called the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) has managed wildlife — read that as including fish — with remarkable effectiveness.

Proposed Cut Threatens Wildlife Programs           

That effectiveness is now threatened by an adjustment to Gov. Malloy’s proposed mid-term state budget. It eliminates the pheasant-stocking program, even though the $160,000 it costs is paid for not by taxpayers but by sportsmen via fees and licenses, says Robert Crook, head of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, who calls the money grab a “rip-off.”  Money paid by hunters one year for items such as pheasant tags goes toward buying birds and maintaining the stocking program for the next year.

If there is a surplus at year’s end, it is siphoned to the state’s General Fund, according to the DEEP. Thus, the unspent $160,000 originally allotted to 2012 stocking would go to the General Fund.

Pheasants are stocked not so much to improve wildlife diversity — they are not native — but because hunting them is what wildlife managers call a “gateway activity” that recruits newbies into the ranks of hunters. Monies generated by hunting and fishing fees ultimately fund conservation of creatures as varied as songbirds and turtles, not to mention land and water that support them, say DEEP wildlife officials. Like it or not, without funds from hunters, kiss wildlife diversity in Connecticut goodbye, they add. Ironically, perhaps, the program of “put-and-take,” which releases pheasants purely so hunters can shoot them, is a wellspring of funds that support conservation of all the state’s wildlife.

The Connecticut Connection                       

Debate over the pheasant program promises to focus attention on how the state manages its wildlife and the habitat that supports it. Wildlife management is the task of three divisions of (DEEP): wildlife, inland fisheries and marine fisheries. Their job involves application of scientific principles — and sometimes gut instinct — to harmonizing the needs of wildlife, people and the overall environment. Wildlife management amounts to a balancing act that takes the needs of human and animal life into account so that both benefit.

The science itself has Connecticut roots because the Iowan recognized as its pioneer, Aldo Leopold, was a 1908 Yale forestry graduate. The writings of Leopold, who was a director of the National Audubon Society, presaged the modern environmental movement and outlined the principles of wildlife ecology that are the foundation for wildlife management science.

As Leopold’s career began to peak, in 1937 Congress passed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, better known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, which kick-started wildlife management by the states. Funds from taxes on sales of firearms and ammunition mandated under the act have provided more than $5 billion to states for wildlife conservation, including habitat preservation. Originally, the act and wildlife-management science focused on game species. The wildlife agencies of many states are still known as fish and game departments, nomenclature Connecticut changed decades ago as the focus here shifted to promoting biological diversity rather than a few select game species.

The state’s most glamorous game species, the whitetail deer, is a poster child for the many facets and complexities of the ways wildlife is managed,  says Rick Jacobson, director of the DEEP’s wildlife division. Deer management has more than one objective. They are managed as a renewable natural resource, owned by the public and harvested by hunters who consume their venison. Deer are managed as watchable wildlife, for enjoyment of the public. Economic factors figure in to management as well. Biologists must maintain a balance between people and deer; they manage deer as a public benefit yet reduce property losses, accidents and health threats that the animals may cause.

Wildlife managers must sometimes manipulate nature to the extent of culling individual animals to ensure populations stay balanced, provoking the ire of animal-rights groups, which detest tinkering with nature.

“Nature balances animal populations,” said Nancy Rice, spokesperson of the Darien-based Friends of Animals, while opposing last year’s DEEP-sanctioned hunt to thin deer starving on Charles Island, their stomachs sometimes crammed with vegetation that provided bulk but minimal nutritional value. “Nature takes care of its own,” says People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which demands hands off wildlife. Animal rightists presuppose a lost Eden, long gone from the wild.

Pristine nature is tough to find nowadays, as witnessed by the beer cans I have seen in the short grass of the Serengeti, the fast food wrappers on peat islets floating in the Okefenokee and soda bottles on the floor of the Red Sea. The only wild tiger I have ever seen stalked through a forest in Thailand, wild enough but only a nine-iron shot from a public golf course. So much for nature in the raw. Humans impact nature, for better as well as worse.

“Each time you use electricity, you cause a turbine in a power plant to turn, which causes water to be drawn from a river, lake or Long Island Sound, which causes a fish to be drawn into the turbine to die. In effect, you kill a fish every time you turn on a light,” says Jacobson. Wildlife managers intervene to ease the conflict between the needs of humans and wild animals.

Attitudes Matter

The activities and attitudes of humans are part of the management equation, as when parts of the Connecticut shoreline are placed off-limits to beachcombers during the imperiled piping plover’s nesting season. Some people complain but the ban is necessary if plovers are to reproduce.

Human attitudes toward wildlife vary widely. The naked nymphs of PETA who parade around in the altogether protesting fur fashions have a vastly different view of wildlife conservation than the crusty codgers at National Rifle Association headquarters in Virginia. Ironically, the two groups are bedfellows on one issue, as both have opposed the reintroduction by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of wolves in the West. The NRA panders to ranchers who view wolves as stock killers, hunters who fear four-footed competition for elk and states-righters who object to what they see as conservation force-fed by big government. PETA, for its part, opposes predator introduction as “unnatural.”

Human attitudes therefore must be taken into account when it comes to managing wildlife, says DEEP’s Jacobson. “We use science-based wildlife management always in the context of the social sciences,” he adds.

Urban residents and those of the countryside often have disparate attitudes toward wildlife. Some sportsmen attribute the governor’s stance on pheasant hunting to a perspective shaped by his tenure as an urban mayor from Fairfield County’s New York-oriented Gold Coast who does not understand that recreating afield with dog and shotgun is a yearly ritual for many of his constituents in the boonies.

“I hunted pheasants on state land for 15 years before joining a club,” says David LaRocca of Madison, a member of a Killingworth rod and gun club.

Says David Stahelski of Madison, another member of the Killingworth club, “Whenever the budget is tight, the political powers hide from difficult management decisions to pare down their bureaucracy. In this particular decision they eliminate a program that, while paying for itself, only presents the appearance of belt-tightening. I once thought the governor and Democratic majority were better than this performance. Shame on them.”

An example of the dichotomy is the way people in differing cultures and geographies view deer. Many citizens of towns like mine, where enough space exists that deer hunting is prevalent and welcomed, relish the presence of substantial deer herds. Towns like Greenwich, with its manicured estates, hire sharpshooters to thin them. The number of whitetails an area can support biologically may not be the same as (the number) tolerated by people whose shrubs are deer dinner, Jacobson explains. “We have to account for cultural as well as biological carrying capacity,” he says.

According to a DEEP handout on the subject, “Connecticut’s wildlife resources are managed to maintain stable, healthy populations of wildlife, including both endangered and threatened species, in numbers compatible with both habitat carrying capacity and existing land use practices.”

Connecticut’s Conservation Strategy           

At the core of DEEP programs is Connecticut’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy initiated in 2006. It enabled the state to receive federal grants for conservation of imperiled species, focusing on identifying and conserving habitats essential to their survival. Not surprisingly, the strategy notes that the overriding threats to habitats arise from human population growth and resultant changes to land and water. Changes in habitat are the most important influence on wildlife in the state, according to the DEEP’s Jacobson. Habitat alteration can be created by people, such as buildings with lots of glass, a major cause of bird mortality.

Even without humans, nature itself continually changes. Natural transformation of habitats can help some species, but negatively impact others, sometimes in tandem with human disruption, notes Jacobson. Deer again provide an example, almost disappearing from the state as farms replaced almost all forests by the 1800s. Especially since the 1950s, they have returned in spades, as forests covered abandoned farms. Bears returned and moose have invaded from the north. But, for birds such as ruffed grouse and woodcock, notes Jacobson, mature forest can be too much of a good thing. Happiest in immature forest, they have dwindled.

So has, for the same reason, the New England cottontail rabbit, a look-alike but genetically distinct cousin of the introduced eastern cottontail, which has largely replaced it. The New England cottontail is one of the species pinpointed by the state’s conservation strategy as particularly in need of help. The wildlife division has applied federal funds from the State Wildlife Grants Program (SWG), approved by Congress in 2001, to assessing populations and needs of the imperiled rabbit. Forest openings, between 50 and 100 acres, have been cut in Pachaug State Forest in the state’s east, and areas in the west as well, benefitting other species, such as ruffed grouse and cottontails. The cottontail program testifies that wildlife managers have used available funds wisely.

Part II of this column will appear next Wednesday.

Peter Stanford March 30, 2012 at 02:04 PM
Please remind EVERYONE that we (Farmington Valley residents) should, without exception keep our housecats(read that domesticated cats) indoors! We are a safe haven for hundreds of Coyote and the little cat you love so much when they are laying in your lap is one of the favorite meals for a Coyote. A cat can simply not outrun a Coyote.
Lars Arden April 01, 2012 at 02:04 AM
Governor Malloy could achieve the same $160,000 savings if he cut 30 cars from the state motor pool and more if he required the drivers of personally assigned state cars to pay for their personal mileage use. That begs the question: why should so many state cars be designated for a single driver's use? He could save a lot more if he dropped the idea of a special bus route from Hartford to New Britain.....but then again...you get what you vote for!

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