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Archive for the ‘wildlife’ Category

red fox new jersey

New Jersey is a place I think of when I think of a place where animal rights ideology has become quite pernicious.  It is a densely-populated state that still has a lot of wild areas still left within its borders, but wildlife management decisions that include lethal control are quite controversial in that state.

For example, in my state of West Virginia, we have plenty of black bears. Black bears are state symbol, and if you go to any gift shop in the state, there will be black bears featured on so many different object. We love our bears, but we also manage them with hunting season.

New Jersey has the same species of bear, and this bear species is one of the few large carnivorans that is experiencing a population increase. Biologists know that hunting a few black bears every year doesn’t harm their populations at all, and in my state, bear tags go to promote bear conservation and to mitigate any issues between people and bears. Hunting these bears also gives the bears a healthy fear of humans, and it is virtually unknown for a bear to attack someone here. New Jersey has had a bear hunt for the past few years, but it has been met with far more controversy there than it ever would be here. Checking stations get protesters, as do wildlife management areas that are open to bear hunting.

Since the bear hunt began, human and bear conflicts have gone down dramatically. The population is thinned out a bit, and the bears learn that people aren’t to be approached.  But those potential conservation gains are likely to be erased sooner rather than later.

The animal rights people have become powerful enough in that state that no Democrat can make it through the primaries without pledging to end the bear hunt. The new Democratic governor wants to do away with the bear hunt.

But the bear hunt isn’t the only place where the animal rights people are forcing misguided policy.

A few days ago, I posted a piece about the inherent conflict between animal rights ideology and conservation, and it didn’t take me long to find an article about red foxes in Brigantine, New Jersey. Brigantine is an island off the New Jersey coast.

Like most places in the Mid-Atlantic, it has a healthy population of red foxes, but it also has a nesting shorebird population, which the foxes do endanger. One of the shorebirds that nests on the island is the piping plover, a species that is listed as “near threatened” by the IUCN.  Red knot also use the island on their migrations between South America and their Canadian arctic nesting ground. This species is also listed as near threatened, and both New Jersey and Delaware have enacted regulations and programs to protect them.

At Brigantine, people began to discover dead red foxes in the sand dunes, and because red foxes are canids and canids are charismatic. It was speculated that the foxes were poisoned, and the state DEP was asked if the agency had been poisoning foxes there.

The state apparently answered that it had no been poisoning foxes on Brigantine’s beaches. It has been trapping and shooting red foxes.

To me, the state’s management policy makes perfect sense. North American red foxes are in no way endangered or threatened. Their numbers and range have only increased since European settlement, and they are classic mesopredators.  Mesopredators are those species of predator whose numbers would normally be checked by larger ones, but when those larger ones are removed, the smaller predators have population increases. These increased numbers of smaller predators wind up harming their own prey populations.

This phenomenon is called “mesopredator release.” It is an important hypothesis that is only now starting to gain traction in wildlife management science. What it essentially means is that without larger predators to check the population of the smaller ones, it is important to have some level of controls on these mesopredators to protect biodiversity.

Animal rights ideology refuses to consider these issues. In fact, the article I found about these Brigantine foxes is entitled “These adorable foxes are being shot to death by the state.”   The article title is clickbaitish, because the journalist interviewed a spokesperson at the DEP, who clearly explained why the fox controls were implemented.

The trappers who took the foxes probably should have come up with a better way of disposing of the bodies. One should also keep in mind that New Jersey is one of the few states that has totally banned foot-hold traps for private use, so any kind of trapping is going to be controversial in that state. So the state trappers should have been much more careful.

But I doubt that this will be the end of the story. The foxes have been named “unofficial mascots” of Brigantine, and it won’t be long before politicians hear about the complaints. The fox trapping program will probably be be pared back or abandoned altogether.

And the piping plover and red knot will not find Brigantine such a nice place to be.

And so the fox lovers force their ideology onto wildlife managers, and the protection of these near threatened species becomes so much harder.

This sign was posted in 2016 after the first dead foxes were found:

save our foxes

But I don’t think many people will be posting “Save Our Piping Plovers.” Most people don’t know what a piping plover is, but red foxes are well-known.

They get their special status because they are closely related to dogs, and people find it easy to transfer feelings about their own dogs onto these animals.

This makes sense from a human perspective, but it makes very little sense in terms of ecological understanding.

And it makes little sense for the foxes, which often die by car strikes and sarcoptic mange, especially when their population densities become too high.

Death by a trapper’s gun is far more humane than mange. The traps used are mostly off-set jawed ones, ones that cannot cut the fox as it is held. The trap is little more than a handcuff that grabs it by the foot and holds it. The traps are checked at least once a day, and the fox dies with a simple shot to the head, which kills it instantly.

And the fox numbers are reduced, and the island can hold rare shorebirds better than it could before.

In trying to make a better world for wildlife, we sometimes have to kill. This is an unpleasant truth.

And this truth becomes more unpleasant when we start conflating animal rights issues with conservation issues. Yes, we should make sure that animals are treated humanely, but we cannot make the world safe for wildlife without controlling mesopredators and invasive species.

I think that most of the fox lovers do care about wildlife, but they are so removed from wildlife issues on a grand scale that it becomes harder to understand why lethal methods sometimes must be used.

My guess is these people like seeing foxes when they are at the beach and don’t really think about these issues any more than that.

It is not just the wildlife exploiters and polluters that conservationists have to worry about. The animal lovers who extend too much animal rights ideology into conservation issues are a major problem as well.

And sadly, they are often the people that are the hardest to convince that something must be changed.

I don’t have a good answer for this problem, but it is one that conservationists must consider carefully as the future turns more and more in the favor of animal rights ideology.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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red wolf female

Longtime readers of this blog know that I am a bit of skeptic on the validity of the red wolf as a species.

In the early days of this blog, I thought it was probably a primitive form of Canis lupus that interbred coyotes, which is why it has such coyote-like mitochondrial DNA.  I thought its similarities with the Indian wolf were awfully compelling, but I was always leery of suggestions that it represented a full species called Canis rufus.

But then we started getting full genome analysis on red wolves, starting in 2011, when the first comparative assay of red wolf, gray wolf, and coyote genomes was published.

This study showed that red wolves were hybrids between gray wolves and coyotes.  This creates an enormous problem for the red wolf’s protections under the ESA, for the language of the statute doesn’t allow for the protection of hybrids. 2011 was first year of Republican majorities in the House of Representatives since Obama’s election, and I noted at the time that it would not be long before conservative forces began to push the red wolf out.

Since that study came out, a group of landowners in Eastern North Carolina have come out with complaints about red wolves. At the time of that study, there were very few documented complaints about them, but now there is an organized movement. Sometimes there videos are a bit in poor taste, but they have recently figured out some pretty savvy tactics, such as playing up the carnage against coyotes, including nursing pups that are hybrids between coyotes and putative red wolves.

The biggest complaint these landowners have is that red wolves were released upon private property, which generally would bother most people.  These landowners worked hard on getting their issues before the North Carolina Wildlife Services Commission, which in 2015, voted on a resolution requesting the US Fish and Wildlife Service to end the program.

Then, two things happened in 2016, one of these was new full-genome comparison study, which I have written about quite extensively. It revealed that gray wolves and coyotes have exchanged genes across the continent, and yes, red wolves are mostly coyote and only partially gray wolf in ancestry.  A full genome comparison is a much better analysis than an assay of a genome, because the researchers were looking at a much fuller picture.

This makes the red wolf even harder to defend as a distinct species.

That same year, the  US Fish and Wildlife Service began rolling back its red wolf recovery program.

In 2017, the program’s standing was then on quite unstable ground. The election of a Republican president with a very pro-sportsman secretary of the interior pretty much meant that the red wolf would be on shaky ground.

In November of 2017, a Senate panel voted in a directive for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the red wolf as part of a spending package that funds the Department of the Interior.

I’ve been following this story since that vote. I’ve been expecting this directive to appear in the various last minute spending bills that have gone through over the last few months.

It hasn’t, but there is still a lot of political pressure on the US Fish and Wildlife Service to drop the red wolf in the updated Red Wolf Recovery Plan, which will be out some time this year.

This animal the biggest clusterf*ck in the history of wildlife conservation on this continent, and its problems are even more hampered by sort of unwillingness to accept that this not a surviving lineage of an ancient North American wolf.

Most people who love red wolves love to attack the full-genome study from 2016, but in that study, there might yet be a way to save them.

The legal definition of a species in the ESA is as follows: ”any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.”

In that study that gets lambasted by red wolf advocates, there is section of note, which reveals a recent split between the gray wolf and the coyote. Most of the literature on gray wolf and coyote genetics suggested a million-year split from a common ancestor. That particular study found only about 50,000-year split, which is roughly equivalent to when extant forms of Canis lupus radiated across Eurasia and North America.

Therefore, one could make the argument that coyotes are a subspecies of Canis lupus, and the red wolf is a hybrid between two subspecies and not an interspecific hybrid.

Under that definition, the red wolf would meet the species requirement under the ESA.

Of course, this strategy will never happen. Coyotes are not regulated as proper game animals in most states. In mine, you can kill one at any time. There are no bag limits, and you can hunt them with lights from January 1 to July 31.

Wolves are not managed the same way. Indeed, in most of the US gray wolves are a listed species, and you cannot kill them. In the states that do have a wolf season, there are strict bag limits and tagging requirements.

The politicians will probably cut the red wolf off.  It is very unlikely that this animal will be able to survive as a pure species, even if it were shown to be a genetically distinct species, because it readily breeds with coyotes. And once coyotes show up anywhere, it is virtually impossible to reduce their numbers.

Further, the coyotes that are coming into North Carolina are also hybridized a bit. They do have some wolf ancestry, though not as much as the putative red wolves do.

So to keep the red wolf going, we have to kill off another canid that genetically quite similar to the one we’re trying to save.

It is rather perverse in a way.

I say this as someone who really does support the Endangered Species Act and the Fish and Wildlife Service, but the red wolf issues ultimately harm the credibility of the act.

And that’s why I am such a negative nabob about them.

 

 

 

 

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I love Kentucky Afield, but I have some problems with the terminology in this clip.

The hunter in this video calls the coyote an invasive species in part because it killed some cats.

Now, cats clearly are an actual invasive species. They exist at much higher densities than any native mesopredators, and the truth is that anything that keeps cats numbers down or keeps them scared out of their minds to leave the house is a good thing for many small birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

The genus Felis is not native to any place in the Americas. Had Europeans never come over here, we would have our native cat species, which would exist at numbers that were controlled through competition with other native predators and the fluctuating numbers of prey species.

If any animal that has been introduced since the time of colonization has caused ecological chaos, it is the domestic cat.

This is what ecologists say, but cats have good publicity.  They have a fan club. I can’t say that I’m in it, but I can see why some people like them. They are like a mentally deficient dog that doesn’t require walks or much training, but they are far more intelligent than guinea pigs and better company than Syrian hamsters.

The same cannot be said for the coyote. Those of us who live outside the proposed original range for coyotes tend to think of them as a Western species that came into the East, but the truth is we have fossil evidence of  Pleistocene coyotes in the East, including in West Virginia.

We also have accounts of anomalous wolves. For example, John Smith described the “wolues” around Jamestown as not being much larger than English foxes. It is usually suggested that these Jamestown wolves were red wolves. Ignoring the real problems about what red wolves actually are, coyotes fit the description far better than anything we’ve ever called a red wolf.

Henry Wharton Shoemaker also wrote of a small brown wolf that was common in the Susquehanna Valley, which he contended was exactly the same thing as the coyote.

It is very possible that coyotes existed in the East but in far smaller numbers than they do now. The wolf hunters and fur trappers who came into the continent took as many wolves as they could, and they didn’t take great lengths to catalog what they were killing. They just killed them, and they either got their bounty or sold the hides.  And many Native American dogs went with them.

So I think it is possible that there were some coyotes in East, but their big range expansion didn’t happen until the extirpation of larger wolves.

Further, the entire genus Canis has its origins in this continent.  The earliest forms of the genus was Canis evolved in North America 6 million years ago, though they were restricted to the Southwest and Northern Mexico, but coyotes and coyote-like canids were found throughout what became the United States during the Pleistocene.

The genus Felis didn’t appear here until permanent European colonization and settlement.

So this idea that you’re killing the coyote as the “invasive species” to protect the cat is a total perversion of the ecological concept.

It is also interesting that no one ever calls a red fox an invasive species in the United States– with the except of Eastern red foxes that have been introduced to California. The red fox was not found south of the Northern Great Lakes, Northern New York, and Northern New England, but it is now found over most of the Eastern states.

It was originally claimed that it derived from English imports, but recent genetic analysis and historical research have found that red foxes in the East and South descend from those foxes that wandered south from Canada and the northern tier of states.

The red fox took advantage of the clearing of forests, which disadvantaged the gray fox, its main competitor, and came south in large numbers. They introduced themselves to the new territory in the same way that coyotes would later do as the wolves were killed off.

No one seriously considers the red fox to be an invasive species. It also has a record of being in parts of Virginia and Tennessee during the Pleistocene, but it did not exist when Europeans came.

Most states treat it as a proper game animal. Mine has a proscribed hunting and trapping season for them, but coyotes can be killed all year round.

But the “native” status of the two animals is fairly similar, and if these older accounts of anomalous small wolves in Pennsylvania and Virginia describe coyotes, then the coyote has a much stronger native status than the red fox.

“Invasive species” is a term that really does have a meaning to it, but it cannot be allowed to be used in such a way that it means any animal that inconveniences us.

We should use that term to mean animals that were introduced either by accident or intention and that have caused real ecological damage. I am thinking feral hogs here. And cane toads. And marmorated stink bug.

And yes, feral cats.

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dead white oak

Dead white oak.

They stand as edifices on the ridge-lines.  They seem as permanent as the stony ground on which they grow, but they are not eternal. Sooner or later, boring of insects and the general rot of wood bring them into death. Then, the winds of summer storms and winter gales bring them to the ground, and their matter returns to the soil from whence they came.

The oak tree played a major role in the identity of two of my ancestral people. The German people see the oak as a national symbol, and the English had a similar position for them. It was from the oak trees that the Royal Navy’s ships were made.

The forests I know best in West Virginia are called “Appalachian Mesophytic Forests.”

“Mesophytic” means not particularly wet or dry.  The oak and the hickory are the dominant trees, which has led to their other name, “oak-hickory forest.”

But the oak predominates.  In a typical West Virginia forest, around 60 percent of the trees will be oak, and unlike Western Europe, where just a few species of oak exist, our forests will be filled a great diversity of the trees. The most common species are divided into “red oak species” and “white oak” species. but there are many other types of oak that fall under neither distinction.

One of the weird delusions one must fight against in these forests is assuming they are old, that they are the same forest primeval that existed when Europeans first arrive. However, most of these forests are regenerated from old farm pastures that were left fallow after the agrarian economy fell apart in the latter decades of the twentieth century.

Those old forests certainly had many oaks, but they also shared their growing space with massive American chestnut trees.  The deer supposedly preferred the chestnuts to acorns, and even now, one can buy chestnut feeds to bait deer.

But those deer munching prepackaged chestnuts will never have the privilege of foraging beneath those old chestnut trees. In the early 1900s, a chestnut blight came sweeping through the Northeast and the Appalachians. The indigenous American chestnuts died off. And now only the deer’s ancestral proclivity manifests itself when the bait is put out.

I knew people who were alive when the last of the chestnuts died. I knew a few old farmers who missed the trees so much that they planted the Chinese chestnut as a replacement tree.  My grandpa Westfall had a massive Chinese chestnut as the “shade tree” for his deck, and I can still see him sitting on his the deck, peeling away chestnuts with his knife that he had just collected from his favorite tree.

A big storm came one summer, and the howling winds twisted that tree down to the ground. I thought it would be there forever, but the wind had other ideas.

It was a lesson in the simple reality that trees are not permanent. They are living, and they die.

This year, a firestorm went off in West Virginia.  The governor wanted to open up some of the state parks to logging. The reason for this move was never fully mentioned, but the truth is the Chinese market wants good quality oak lumber, especially from red oaks. The Chinese are buying the logs straight out and processing them over there, and the state wanted to make a few dollars selling big oak logs.

The plan has since been abandoned.

Now, it is certainly true that oak trees do grow back, but what is not mentioned much of the discussion about oak forests in West Virginia is that oaks are also under threat.

Just as the chestnut blight brought down our native chestnut tree, the oaks are under pressure now and have been for decades. Yes, the forests are still dominated by oak trees, and acorn mast still drives the ecosystem.

But now, it is quite difficult for oaks to reproduce. Squirrels still take acorns and bury them away from their parent tree, which makes for better growing conditions for the seedlings.

But when the seedlings arise from the leaf litter, the chomping maws of white-tails rip them from their shallow little roots.

Deer have always eaten little oak seedlings. The two species have evolved together, and during the autumn, the deer rely heavily upon acorns to build up their fat reserves.

However, we now live in a time in which deer densities are high. Sportsmen expect deer to be a high densities, and during the 80s and 90s, the numbers were even higher than they are now.

The state DNR, realizing that high deer numbers were ultimately bad for forests, for agricultural interests, and for auto insurers, decided to allow hunters to take more does from the population.  The deer numbers went down a bit.

This deer number reduction coincided with a coyote population increase, and it was assumed that the coyotes were the reason why the deer numbers dropped.  Some conspiracy theorists believed that the DNR or the insurance companies turned out coyotes to reduce the deer population. The story goes that some trapper bagged a coyote in his fox trap, and on its ear was a tattoo that said “Property of State Farm.”

Of course, the coyotes do take fawns, and some coyotes do pack up and hunt them. But there is very little evidence that coyotes have an effect on deer populations, at least in this part of the country.

Coyotes aren’t like wolves in that they don’t need to kill lots of deer to survive. They can live very nicely on rabbits and mice. Those smaller species have the added advantage that they don’t fight back with sharp hooves when the predator must make a kill.

So we have sportsmen demanding higher deer numbers and lower coyote numbers, and we have oak trees that are having harder and harder time regenerating, simply because there are too many deer eating their seedlings.

And now, fewer and fewer hunters are taking to the woods to hunt deer. State parks, of course, are off-limits to deer hunters.

So if these big oaks are taken for the Chinese market, it really could mean the end of oak trees in the state parks.

And statewide, they could become a rarity entirely.

Of course, the deer themselves will starve without acorns feeding them every September, October, and November, and maybe that crash will allow some regeneration to occur.

But it might be too late.

The truth of the matter is deer hunting is about forestry, and if more and more people see deer hunting as a cruel “sport,” then we’re going to see drastic changes to our forest ecosystem.

Our only hope is that black bears become more carnivorous and eat as many fawns as they can find, and the coyotes learn to swarm the hills like Kipling’s red dogs.

Or maybe more human hunters will take to the forests and fields in search of high quality meat.

But none of these events is likely to happen.

And in a few decades, we may very well see the end of the oak-hickory forest as we know it.

I guess it is time we thought long and hard again about selling out our natural resources to out of state concerns.  The curse of West Virginia is that we never really have, and those who dared raise the issue were either driven from office or kept as far from centers of power as possible.

Maybe times are changing.

Let’s hope they change fast enough for our forests and wildlife.

 

 

 

 

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This is something that hasn’t been mentioned anywhere, but gray foxes (Urocyon) can have blue eyes:

And another (perhaps the Western version, which might be a distinct species):

Most of them have very dark brown eyes, and you really can’t see that they don’t have the exact same cat-like pupils of the red fox. However, the blue-eyed ones really do show off their oval-shaped pupils quite well.

Gray foxes are the most basal species of canid and are not closely related to any other canids, except of the island fox of California, which is just an insular dwarf of the mainland species.

The exact systematics of gray foxes are still being worked out, but I do expect surprises in the future.  These animals have an extensive range in the Americas, and their lineage is really quite divergent from anything else we think of as being in the dog family.

Blue-eyes, well, they certainly make them more stunninglybl attractive.

 

 

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bison and calf

The name of the killer has been lost to the annals of history.  All we know is that he killed, and then there were none.

The whole story has been nothing more than a footnote in one forgotten chapter of wildlife in America. What follows is my conjecture about what happened:

The year was 1825. The bison cow and calf wandered down along wide valley.  They were wary beasts, for their kind had been slaughtered relentlessly in these mountains for 50 years.  For the past two decades, the only ones that remained were those that lived in these high mountains and knew how to hide their massive forms in steep hollows when the scent of man crossed their noses.

The pair had been the last survivors of herd that was massacred two weeks before. Buffle hides were demand, and there were mountain men who would oblige the market.

It is easy to blame the hunters for their rapacity, but the resource seemed inexhaustible. In the early days, every one that was shot was soon replaced by another three that came filtering in from west.

And it was that way until these early decades of the republic, when all that remained were these cagey mountain bison that watched every step they took and hid themselves in the deepest redoubts of the Alleghenies.

Two weeks before, a trio of hide hunters stumbled onto the herd in the deep mountains south of where Elkins, West Virginia, now stands.

They wandered the rugged valley that is carved by the Tygart Valley River during the gentle months of spring, when the green grass grew beautiful and sweet.

But that day, the hide hunters came up from the Shenandoah Valley. The older two had trapped beaver the great land of Kentucky before running back to the settled country in the east. They traded in fur and hides, but upon hearing rumors of the last herds of bison in these mountains, they packed up and headed into the Alleghenies, bringing along one of their sons who had been yearning for a bit of adventure.

The hunters spent ten days tracking the herd, and one morning, the son just happened to bump a bull and two cows off a mineral lick. The bison ran deep into a mountain hollow, and when the son tried followed them, he could hear the hoofbeats of many bison deep down in the hollow.

He raced back to tell his father and his father’s partner about the find, and the men loaded up with balls and gun powder and began their approach into the back side of the hollow, where the hillside was steep and the bison would be helpless down below.

There were seven bison down in the hollow. Three cows, two young calves, a subadult bull, and mature bull were nibbling on some forest browse.

The partner was a better shot than the others, so he positioned himself where his shots would fire across the mouth of the hollow. That way, he could shoot sling lead at any bison that tried to leave. The father and son positioned themselves where they could open fire on the whole herd below.

The balls sailed through the air, and in those days before breech-loading rifles, it took many shots to drop five bison.

They fell bloody and dead. The men set to work cutting the hides and then loading their mules for the long trudge back to Staunton and the Great Valley.

A cow and calf ran long out of the hollow and ran and ran until they could no longer hear the gun shots and shouts of men.

For two weeks they roamed is renegades in the mountains, but hunger and the sweet scent of spring grass brought the pair down into the little head of the Tygart’s Valley.

And it was there that an unnamed hunter, perhaps in need of a little meat or yearning for a bit of brass from the buffle hide, slipped down along the laurel that grew thick along the headwaters.  It took six shots to drop the cow, and the cow was down in two.

This hunter had no idea what he had just done. He’d killed a bison or two before in his life, and he knew their numbers were getting scarcer and scarcer in the mountains. But he knew if he waited a few years, another herd or two would mosey back in, and the hide hunting could continue.

But he was wrong.

What no one knew at the time was that this hunter had killed the last two bison in the Original 13 Colonies. And when those two fell, no more herds filtered in from the west. No more hidden bison herds were revealed in some remote hollow or valley.

This animal had carved much of the early infrastructure of what became West Virginia. The bison originally grazed the High Alleghenies in summer then marched west out of the high country when the snows came.  They would travel so far west as to hit the Ohio River, where the winters were milder. They would mosey east every spring to eat the good mountain grasses, and over the years, bovine inertia would carve vast trails coming out of the mountains towards the Ohio.

The indigenous people of these mountains would use these trails as their roads, and European settlers used them too. They would later use big gangs of slaves to clear the trails and turn them into roads that could take a horse or oxcart, and thus, the land was opened for settlement.

Fur trappers took the bison hides and ate the meat.  The homesteaders shot them because they gored horses and torn down split-rail fences.

And soon the bison numbers began to dwindle.

It was the bison the licked the salt from licks in the Kanawha Valley. Hide and market hunters followed them to these big licks, and soon discovered massive deposits of brine. In the years before the Civil War, large numbers of slaves worked the salt works, and these salt works became the basis for the massive chemical industry.

Near the confluence of the Kanawha River and Campbell’s Creek was a massive mineral lick, called the Great Buffalo Lick. It was there that hunters knew to wait for the great beasts and blast them away, and others knew that they could come down collect some salt for the homesteads.

The death of these two bison meant the end for a beast that helped forge so much of what became West Virginia.

No one really talks of bringing back bison, though there are few people who keep them for the novelty meat market.  Large bovines are hard to live with. They are aggressive and dangerous. They spread diseases to cattle, and they gore horses, tear down fences, and run off with brood cows.

They will never roam as wild animals here, and even if they were returned, they would be put on some state management land and then be micromanaged as if they were nothing more than free range cattle.

The bison will never roam this land as wild animals again. They are gone.  And we killed them.

It was a sin made in ignorance, but it was a sin nonetheless.

I sometimes stand in the secondary growth forests that have taken over much of West Virginia when the scores of farm families gave up the land for life in the industrial cities of the Midwest. The forests are thick and thorny. The trails that cut through the hills are carved by white-tailed deer moving through the countryside.  They are narrow trails, where even a short person like myself gets caught on the overhanging limbs and branches.

But I know when the bison were here, the forests were more open. They browsed up high. Their trails were like roads going through the woodland. They also kept big swaths of the land open through their constant grazing.

Land now is kept open only by the mowing machine and the odd stockman who keeps a few head of cows or sheep on some played out pasture.

The forest has all gone to thicket and thorn. It is not the same as it was those centuries before.

It is a land without its big beast, and if you listen carefully, you can hear it mourning.

Yes, it is mourning the passage of the great buffle and the inertia of its hoofbeats and browsing maw.

And so goes the story of the last wild bovine in the Alleghenies, barely a footnote in the annals of history.

But it was so much more.

 

 

 

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black bear hunting

“There is no room for a bear and me in these woods,” my Grandpa Westfall always said. He always said that he’d shoot the first bear he came across, and he said that he would defend himself if he got caught with a little quip.

“If that judge asks if I shot that bear in self-defense, I will just say, ‘No, I shot him in the ass and he jumped de fence!'”

He once scoped out an errant emu in his pasture, dead certain that a black bear had foolishly popped its head out of the woods. He was just getting ready to commit a big game law violation, when the shaggy form raised its head and revealed itself as dinosaur and not the great fell beast of the mountains.

My grandpa was not an ignorant man. He was curious about nature and loved almost every animal. He was a hunter, a self-styled conservationist, who kept pet groundhogs and squirrels as a boy.

But he had a blind spot about bears.  He would always point out that some place called Bear Hollow was the place where the last bear in the county was killed. It probably wasn’t true, because there were always a few bears holding out as renegades in the deep woods. Occasionally, they would wander into more civilized areas, and all the papers would make hay about these wanderers.

Today, the bear population is growing steadily. They don’t make so much news now. The bear season is pretty liberal, and I’ve purchased the bear tag on my hunting license. For a West Virginia resident, it’s only $10, but I’ve never been in a good place to hunt bears.  Some day, I hope to be in the right place, and I’ll take a bear.

But I won’t be taking a bear with the same mens rea as my grandpa might have had if the emu had turned out to be truly ursine on that summer day. I would be taking a bear, but not because I think bears don’t belong in the forests. Bears belong in the forest. Absolutely.

But in taking a bear, I’m getting meat. It is the same meat that sustained my ancestor, Jehu Summers, who became a regionally famous frontier bear hunter in central West Virginia.

To them bears were simple things:  Bear hides for coats. Bear meat for sustenance. Bear grease for ersatz butter and cooking oil.

Both native and white used the bears in this way, and the natives likely did so for 13,000 years.before the Europeans arrived.  Hunting was the relationship between our species and theirs, and it made the bear what it is today:  a shy and retiring beast of the thick woods.

If I take a bear, I will be connecting back to my ancestor, communing with him as the flesh crosses my palate and down the maw.

The bears belong here because they sustained us long ago, and we owe to them to find a place where they can roam.

We hunt the bears to re-enact that ancient bond between bruin and hunter, adversaries in the war of existence who grapple across the same mortal plain.

The Alleghenies need their bears, just as they need people to hunt them. Without either, the landscape rings hollow and bland.

And to live next to large predators, it is of utmost importance that these animals know that nothing good can ever come from the hand of man. The black bear bolts for the brush when you wander into him in the forest, but would he think twice if some fool had been letting him eat garbage out of the backyard? If the bullets and arrows didn’t fly at the black hides, would the bears be bolder and more willing to test the gormless bipeds?

I think answer is yes, so in order to have black bears, there must be hunting. Their fear of man makes them manageable.

***

As a result of recent elections, New Jersey has slipped away from that Beachmaster Governor to one a little more rational. At least that’s how this Democrat sees it.

But about one thing this new governor seems to have been lost. I doubt he could have made it through the Democratic Primary had he possessed different views, but the new man in charge in the Garden State has promised to put an end to the bear hunt.

Bears in New Jersey have it pretty easy compared to those in West Virginia. The hunt is much more strictly regulated. An established quota is set. Once that many bears are killed, the hunt is called off that year.

In West Virginia, that $10 tag is sold to anyone who has the main hunting and fishing license.  If it gets filled or not, it is immaterial. That license can be bought next year, and if you’re really bear hungry, the state will even put you in a drawing to get a special tag to hunt your quarry in higher bear density areas that get special seasons.

But in New Jersey, bear hunting is controversial. Every year, protesters show up at hunting areas, cut some monkey shine, and get hauled off to the pokey.

New Jersey’s bear hunt has had some positive results.  Nuisance bear calls are down.  The bear population has been stablized.

With the bear hunt axed, though, it’s likely that the bears are going once again start hanging out near people. Wildlife managers with the state of New Jersey estimate that the bear population could double in four years if the bear hunt is abolished.

In the world of suburbs, the bears will do fine, but they will destroy property.  Some might decide that people are good food, and for those who might be confused, it is not entirely out of the question for a black bear to learn to hunt people. It is not species-typical behavior, but it does happen.

Bears that have learned humans hunt them, though, are going to relate to humanity with utter fear.

It is fear that keeps the peace.

And it is that peace that makes room for bears in the world of man.

It is a lesson that New Jersey is going to have to learn again. Ideology says that bears are like dogs, just bigger and tailless. Ideology ignores their cannibalism, their savagery, and the simple fact that they aren’t dogs at all but wild creatures. Yes, they eat mostly vegetable matter, but they won’t pass up a fawn lying the brush.  They won’t think twice about eating alive a deer mortally wounded by a car.  They don’t think as we do about being humane and kind and sportsmanlike.

They think about living as omnivores. Our world provides them many opportunities, and without the fear of man, they will get in trouble.

The government agencies will try to transplant the problem bears, but they often don’t learn anything. They know we’re overloaded with goodies, and they can’t resist.

And for some bears, the only solution is to die at the hands of a government employee, one whose salary and insurance are paid for by the taxpayer.

Wouldn’t a better solution be to have a regulated hunt and use hunting as way to teach the bears about our own essential savagery?  Then, the bears would know not to come into subdivisions and schoolyards and eat garbage and birdseed. And you wouldn’t have to hire a someone to shoot the incorrigibles.  The hunters would pay license fees, and the state conservation agency could pay more biologists to study bears and protect habitat for other species.

That is how West Virginia has dealt with bears. We now have more 10,000 of them wandering our hills and mountains.

Hunting is part of our management strategy for them. It works well, and it seems that having a hunt worked well for New Jersey.

But we will see what the future holds.

***

Yesterday, I went out with ICOtech predator call.  I go out on the woods with this device in hopes that I might call in a coyote or gray fox and capture it with a camera.

Yes, I am out with a hunting device, but I am hunting only with my camera.

But I have nothing against people who hunt coyotes. I just am not among their number.

Hunting doesn’t really reduce coyote numbers significantly. We’ve been hunting them with the hope of causing extinction for 150 years or so, and all we’ve done is make them increase their range to almost all of North America.

I have a certain amount of admiration of the species. They are survivors, and they are closest thing to wolves we have in this part of the country.

I don’t see them as domestic dogs, but I don’t see them as demons either. I see them as phantoms that lurk in the gray woods and let loose cackling yips and mournful howls in the deadness of night.

They don’t reveal themselves easily. They appear only when they damned well want to.

It’s this challenge that drives me to go into the woods with the call.

I started out with gray squirrel distress for 5 minutes. Nothing responded, so I went to my two gray fox distress calls for 10 minutes. No little gray dog appeared for my camera, which isn’t that much of a surprise. They are much harder to call than coyotes, at least around here.

So I switched to my coyote howls. I have several different iterations that sound like a single one howling, a pair howling, a single one howling with a different pitch, a group cacophony of howling yips, and one that sounds like three coyotes howling a beautiful opera chorus in a language that isn’t Italian or even remotely human.

I switched among these different howl types, and then I would wait five minutes to see if I got a response. I faintly heard what I think may have been a female coyote’s estrus chirp in the woods, but it was a distant chirp nontheless.  This single note of what I thought was an estrus chirp made me stick to my spot, and run through the howls again.

I had gone through five or six different howl sequences, when I heard a gravelly human voice shout from the distant ridge.  This ridge was so thickly forested that I couldn’t see a person there, and what’s more, it was perhaps a quarter mile from where I was sitting.

“You’re gonna get shot!” was what the voice shouted.

I ignored it at first, but then the stupid bastard began mocking my howls.

The land where I was sitting wasn’t his anyway, and I’ve long been allowed to hunt there. The real owners don’t care.

I shouted back at the voice “Shut the fuck up!”

“I’m on my property. I’ll do as I please.”

I shouted several expletives at the voice, which you don’t need to hear, but I flipped the hillside the bird while playing a jay in distress sound at him.

I was so incensed at this man that I went to a different location where the hollow would carry the howls right to his position. I turned it on full blast.

When I told my dad what had happened, he told me to go back out there that you cannot be bullied from doing what you have a right to do.

I didn’t quite feel like going back out there, but my dad took my call and went to woods where I had been calling. He cranked it up full blast for a half hour. No one shouted back at him.

I was so livid at this man for harassing me and ruining my coyote calling session.

But this morning it finally dawned on me why this man had been such an ass:

I scared him.

Rural people in West Virginia are told all sorts of stories about coyotes:

They kill all the deer, even though the deer are still very plentiful, and the poor hunting season in this set of ridges had more to do with a good mast year. Good mast years mean that the does stay up in the most isolated groves oak and beech, and the bucks stay with those does and never once come out into pastures or to big corn piles or feeders.  The only way to get a deer is to use your feet and figure out where they going and where they go when the guns start to crack.

But it’s easy to blame coyotes for the lack of deer at the corn piles. It’s much harder to learn the ways of the deer and get some exercise doing so.

People are also told that coyotes are a mortal threat to humanity– and that they howl just before they attack. I suppose the loudmouth on the hill had heard that story. And that’s why he acted such a fool.

I don’t know who shouted at me, and I honestly don’t care. But as angry at him as I was, I suddenly am returned to my grandpa and his hatred of bears. My grandpa never really knew the full story of black bears, and he didn’t really want to know it.

But he was still the curious naturalist of a hillside turkey hunter that I knew and loved. It’s just he had a black bear-sized blind spot that he didn’t want to fix.

Maybe that loudmouth is the same way, just his is a coyote-sized hole, and one that will cause even more aggravation. Coyotes howl. They announce their presence. Black bears don’t make themselves known at all until you lay eyes upon one.

They are much more mysterious and harder to scapegoat and revile.

But I will not accept his prejudices or let him bully me. I will call coyotes and take photos and you will see them here.

That’s my duty.

***

My views on wildlife put me in an odd position. I am a progressive Democrat, but I think animal rights ideology is woefully misguided.  I am a hunter, but I am more of an Aldo Leopold sort of hunter than a Ted Nugent.

I see coyotes in the way Leopold came to see wolves in his famous essay “Thinking Like a Mountain.” Leopold describes his sudden sorrow at killing a female Mexican wolf, which he watches die before his very eyes. Years later, he came to realize that wolves truly had a place in nature:

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

We’ve gone over a century without true wolves in West Virginia. The only wolves we have are coyotes, and their smaller size makes them almost a poor facsimile. True, they lift fawns and sometimes pack up and run down adult deer, but they are just as at home hunting mice and rabbits as they are grappling with larger prey with flailing hard hooves and strong legs.

But they do take a few deer, and those removed from the population don’t browse the forests down. Human hunters, though, think those deer belong solely for their crosshairs, and don’t want to share.

The “peace” that Leopold derided in that essay is the false peace that sets humanity at the top of all things and demands that all things bow to his whims and petty desires.  If a twelve-point buck doesn’t walk to the corn pile every deer season then it must surely be that coyotes are eating all the deer.

This is the peace I’m sure that the hilltop shouter wants every year. I bet he spent a lot of time hunting deer in the 90s, when the herds festooned every hillside and a hunter might see dozens of whitetails in a single day’s hunt. State wildlife managers tried to fix that problem by liberalizing doe harvest limits, and after a few decades of sound wildlife management, the deer numbers are somewhat lower than they were in those days of deer plagues.

The 90s deer hunter had it easy, and now the numbers are lower. He must put more effort into the hunt.

And this has come at roughly the same time that coyotes have become fully established and quite numerous as well.

These variables are probably stochastic, but to the hunter who goes home without filled tags, they must be linked. In some places, he would be right, but in the deer’s paradise that is West Virginia, he is most likely wrong.

The culprit isn’t coyotes. It’s the state realizing how bad it is to have a deer overpopulation problem.

My view is controversial among the hunting fraternity, but it really isn’t with most  professional wildlife managers.

But as controversial as that idea is, it is nothing compared to how animal rights people view all hunters as scumbags.

The fact that I hunt animals surely must mean that I am a Trump-loving redneck who hates Mexicans, carries and thumps a Bible, and drives a pickup truck with Confederate flag emblem on my vanity plate.

None of those things fit me. I just find myself– at least in this section of much-debated ideas–in an odd little crevice of nuance.

I see a place in this world for predators, both human and four-legged, and this contention is out of place.  You either want to see all non-human predators killed off, or you want to see all humans stop hunting.

Neither of these really fits an ecological view of the world. Humans are a hunting species. We have been hunting since we evolved in Africa. Following herds brought us into Eurasia and then North America.

But now we live in a world in which ideology is driving real wedges between us. In my country, people are at each other’s throats over a whole host of issues. We’ve become warring tribes

To have a more ecological view as it relates to animal issues is to court controversy, because you ultimately be both a bunny-hugger or an NRA-nutjob.

And it’s not fun to debate both sides.

In the end, I want something like the peace that is made between humans and black bears when they are hunted.  It is a peace that recognizes the importance of human hunters in maintaining wildlife on the land that exists now. It is a peace that doesn’t shun hunting because of ideology. Instead, it sees hunting as part of the puzzle that allows us to have human civilization and large numbers of black living in relative proximity to each other.

It is this kind of peace that acknowledges that humans are the peak of creation but also recognizes that human issues matter.

To stand for both human and animal predators in this era is a risky move, but after looking at all the evidence and spending so much time in woods on my own, I have come to believe that it is the correct position.

But I know I’m not alone.

 

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