State fish and wildlife agencies across the country have each recently completed a comprehensive Wildlife Action Plan. These plans are required by Congress in order for states to have access to a new source of federal funds dedicated to keeping common species common and rare species off of the Endangered Species List. In their plans, each state identified species of greatest conservation need, threats to those species or their habitats, and remedial conservation actions. Because they are uniformly constructed, plans allow for a “state of the region” assessment.
The picture isn’t good. States in the Northeast identified over 300 vertebrate species of greatest conservation need, and the habitats required by those species include almost every habitat type found in the region. Most states in the region identified large, unfragmented blocks of mature forest as important but also highlighted the need for young forest and shrubland habitats: 58 of the species require young forest or shrubland habitats.
There are a wide range of threats to species viability: pollution, climate change, intensive forestry or agricultural practices, invasive animals and plants that outcompete natives, and transportation networks that impede or kill animals. The primary threat identified by all states was the impact of development, which translates to habitat degradation, loss, and conversion.
This scorecard suggests the viability of wildlife in the region depends upon coordinated, cooperative heavy lifting by everyone with an interest in the natural world. Logic suggests that an alliance between environmentalists and sportsmen (hunters, anglers, and trappers) would have the passion, political influence, and funding to do that heavy lifting. But if history repeats itself, both camps will focus narrowly and will spend more energy fighting each other than fighting the real problems at hand. Meanwhile, the large segment of society that has no connection to the land remains uninfluenced by those that do.
It doesn’t have to be that way, and it shouldn’t be that way. A concern for the future ecological health of the Northeast is no different than a concern over whether future generations will have a reason and a place to hunt, fish, and trap.
The threats identified in state Wildlife Action Plans should be a wake-up call to all. The problems are too big, too close, and too real to ignore, and no single interest has the luxury of going it alone because of the sheer magnitude of the threat. Only through a partnership, with the common bond of appreciation for all things wild, will solutions be found.
A partnership is defined as “you fight for my goals, and I fight for your goals.” My vision of a true partnership would have environmentalists fighting for working forests and grouse hunters advocating for ecological reserves of representative natural communities. Trappers would protect rare wildflowers while botanists would worry about the future of trapping. Birdwatchers would thrill to the sound of bear hounds while houndsmen would keep a sharp eye out for eagle nests.
My vision has the partnership taking two actions. First, both camps scramble to protect every acre possible from development. Those lands that are protected might be forever wild, or they might include hunting camps, snowmobile trails, and log landings. At the end of the day, all involved would rejoice in the simple reality of saving someone’s special place from development. The payback in fighting for my goals is that someday I will fight for yours, and together, success will be assured.
Compromise would be necessary and commonplace. Nature enthusiasts would protect deer yards, create early successional habitat, or control water levels specifically for ducks. Sportsmen would support wilderness areas on national forests, walk-in hunting opportunities over drive-in, and wild fisheries over tame. The trivial disputes would be jettisoned quickly.
Just imagine the synergy. Sportsmen, collectively, have conserved a land mass in North America equal in size to the combined areas of Oregon and Washington. Environmentalists, collectively, have equaled that feat. In those instances where both sides came together (for example, the Woodie Wheaton Land Trust in Down East Maine), payback was huge.
Even working together, there isn’t enough money to conserve all of the important land. So the partnership would throw all their collective energy into supporting those programs that inform the public of the value of conserved land: lower taxes from fewer services, improved water and air quality, reduced congestion on town roads. There are already programs on the ground working towards this goal. Maine’s “Beginning with Habitat” program is a thoughtful, non-regulatory approach to securing habitat viability that must be applied region-wide.
Wildlife Action Plans document declines in wildlife from our 300-year history of increasing human population growth, land use pressure, and development. The future is scarier: projections of the Northeast at build-out cover some of the region’s most productive wildlife habitats with roads and people. Only with concerted effort can this slide from paradise to parking lot be slowed. It is time to move beyond the divisions of the past and forge the partnerships needed to save the region’s wildlife heritage for future generations. This, truly, will be the most important legacy that we leave our children.
Scot Williamson is vice president of the Wildlife Management Institute and lives in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.