A Change in the Weather
Sportsmen from deer hunters to trout fishermen have faced unusually warm seasons in recent years. Is it man-made global warming, a natural climate cycle, or something else? We talked to scientists, wildlife managers, guides, and everyday outdoorsmen to find out what’s going on and what it means for the future.
I surrendered all doubt in Kansas on the sixth day of December 2007. I’d been sitting in a tree stand since the first of the month, waiting for one of the state’s brute whitetails to show up. But it was so warm that deer were hardly moving.
Something’s happening, I thought. This climate-change stuff is for real and it’s loused up my season.
Of course, I’d been through warm spells during past hunts and in different locales, but 2007 was the worst I’d seen in 40 years as a sportsman. As I sat there in my tree stand, the facts as I knew them began to spin in my brain: The preponderance of scientists now agreed that climate change was real and accelerating at an alarming rate. Ice-core samples had proved that carbon dioxide levels on Earth were the highest they’d been in 650,000 years. With three weeks to go, 2007 was on course to be the second hottest year since 1880.
At 6,000 feet in southwest Montana, where I live, the summer had been blistering. Six days were hotter than 103 degrees, 13 were above 100, and more than 30 held in the 90s. July was the hottest month on record. The state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks department reacted quickly, putting restrictions on many of Montana’s well-known trout streams.
Two weeks later there was a big trout die-off on the Firehole River in Yellowstone Park. The forests of the northern Rockies soon dried to tinder and dry lightning exploded them. Millions of acres of habitat burned. The air was filled with smoke and soot from Oregon to South Dakota.
My hunting season began the third week of September under smoky skies in the Missouri Breaks. It can be hot in the Breaks early in the month, but by the third week it’s usually crisp in the morning and mild at midday. I faced six straight days where the temperatures peaked in the 90s. Elk were holed up in the deepest cover they could find. Bulls, which should have been bugling past 10 a.m., quit singing right after dawn.
Montana’s rifle season opened on the third Sunday in October. It was cold the night before the opener, with snow flurries in the air. After a cool morning, the temperatures climbed into the 60s by midafternoon. By midweek they were in the 70s. I never saw a legal elk.
Those abnormally warm temperatures held far into November, with the elk kill way down. In an effort to increase the harvest totals, Montana made the unprecedented move of extending the season by two weeks.
Snow finally started to fall just before I left for Kansas. But sitting there in a T-shirt in my tree stand, I realized that I couldn’t possibly be the only sportsman going through this. I could talk to other sportsmen; find out what they’d experienced. And there had to be game biologists and other scientists who could explain to me what was happening, and what might happen to wildlife, fields, and streams as the Earth’s thermostat rises.
“Climate change is real, and it’s influencing hunting and fishing,” Eric Orff tells me a few months later. Orff, a retired New Hampshire state wildlife biologist, is a dedicated hunter and angler.
The Suncook River outside his house, says Orff, has suffered three 100-year floods in the past three years. Duck nesting grounds, in particular, have been decimated.
In 2006, woodcock did not migrate into New Hampshire until early November, a full week after the season closed. Granite State hunters are lobbying to have the migratory upland bird season pushed back.
Waterfowl are migrating later on the Atlantic Flyway, according to Orff. As a result, hunters in New Hampshire were able to convince the state to push those seasons back.
Orff enjoys coastal striper fishing but says it’s getting poorer. He attributes the drop in quality to the significant decline in the number of river herring, important food for stripers, in the past five years. In his eyes, the herring decline is due to summertime heat spikes in the rivers, which deplete oxygen and kill the herring eggs.
“No herring, no stripers,” he says.
He cites a 2007 National Wildlife Federation study that found that 71 percent of hunters and fishermen believe climate change is real and a threat to their outdoor pastimes. Some 66 percent say they’ve seen global warming adversely affect their time afield.
“We are the canaries in the cage in the mine,” Orff says. “We’re seeing the effects of climate change firsthand.”
Maine hunting guide Hal Blood isn’t sure how to name what has been happening over the past nine or 10 years.
“Thirty years ago, we had some brutal winters and scientists were predicting an ice age,” Blood tells me. “But I do believe we’re now in some kind of warmer cycle.”
The deer density is low in northern Maine, and snow is crucial for hunting success. Twenty years ago, Blood could count on snow to arrive the second or third week of the season. Now he’s lucky if there’s snow for Thanksgiving week.
“We haven’t had a good run of tracking snow in at least four or five years,” he says. “I know guides in the northeastern part of the state who haven’t had snow to hunt in 10 years.”
Blood has also noticed that the bucks don’t seem to be as big anymore. And the number of bucks weighing in at more than 200 pounds at Maine check stations has fallen significantly in the past several years. Still, he’s not quick to blame it all on climate change.
“I’m not jumping on this man-made global-warming bandwagon because I still think that whole thing’s political,” Blood says. He pauses, then adds, “But I do agree that there is something going on.”
Mike Beagle, a former football coach from Oregon and a lover of backcountry hunting and fishing, shakes his head when I tell him how many sportsmen I meet who still don’t believe that climate change is real, nor that it is man-made.
“I’m an ex-Marine and a lifelong Republican, and this isn’t about politics,” says Beagle, who’s been hunting for 39 years. “You can’t ignore the science or the changes I’ve seen. I hunt high country and love the experience of seeing deer and elk tracks in snow. But the past few years that hasn’t happened. I went to Idaho last fall with a buddy. It was late October and we were high up. It should have been cold and snowing, but it was ungodly hot. I don’t like hunting when it’s hot. Nothing moves.”
When Beagle takes his annual September fishing trip in Oregon’s Sky Lakes Wilderness, there is now no frost at 6,000 feet. He’s seen a drop, too, in the population of pikas, rodents that live in high alpine terrain.
“There were so many pikas in the rockslides 30 years ago that you had to be careful not to step on them,” he says. “But five to 10 years ago, their numbers began to crash. Pikas aren’t something you hunt, but when you see them disappearing you know that something’s wrong. I think they’re dying because it’s gotten too warm for them.”
Moose Numbers Plummet**
Mark Lenarz, a Minnesota wildlife biologist, thinks that rising temperatures are behind the widespread die-off of moose in that state’s northwest Boundary Waters region.
“We’ve gone from a healthy population to almost no population up there,” Lenarz tells me. “We had 4,000 moose in that herd in the mid 1980s. This year there are about 100.”
The Boundary Waters moose started dying in the mid 1990s, in conjunction with the start of 11 of the 13 warmest years on record. “We did necropsies on them and found that they were dying from diseases that ordinarily don’t kill moose, and from parasites,” Lenarz says. A follow-up study of the state’s northeastern herd uncovered a similar pattern, with moose there dropping in alarming numbers as well. (At last report, the state was considering closing down the 2009 moose hunting season.)
Why the die-offs? Heat. Warm winters and warmer springs put enormous stress on moose, Lenarz believes. Like cattle in feedlots, moose can suffer heat stress, which weakens their immune system and makes them susceptible to diseases and pests they’d ordinarily shake off. “Cattle suffering from heat stress are given antibiotics to fight off disease. You can’t do that with moose.”
Moose, Lenarz says, are like the pikas. They are sentinel creatures. Because they are so well adapted to cold weather, they are the first to be threatened as the earth warms.
“A canoe and fishing trip to the Boundary Waters used to be capped by a moose sighting,” Lenarz tells me. “Now it’s unusual to see a moose. I think 50 to 100 moose will hang on up there, and the herd may even last 25 to 30 years until the first really, really hot summer. Then some disease will hit them and we’ll lose them all.”
Deer Die Off
Greg Wathen, chief of wildlife in Tennessee’s Wildlife Resources Agency, has also witnessed the effects of heat and disease on fish and game. In 2007, severe drought and heat hit the Southeast. Cities such as Atlanta were parched, while lakes like Georgia’s Lake Lanier were drawn down, leaving boats high and dry.
“I’m not qualified to say that any of it was evidence of climate change,” Wathen says. “But I had never seen anything like it.”
Nor had he seen anything like the disease that hit his state’s deer herd. That hot, dry summer, whitetails congregated in riverbottoms. Then midge flies carrying epizootic hemorrhagic fever infected the deer. Thousands died.
“We’ve had hemorrhagic fevers in our herd, but not like this,” Wathen says. “It was the worst, most widespread outbreak we’d ever seen.”
The fever also hit Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Ordinarily the disease dies out with the onset of cooler temperatures in fall, but because winter was so long in coming, the fever took a terrible toll, in areas farther north than ever.
“This was kind of a perfect storm of events, with the drought and several years since an outbreak,” Wathen explains. “The immune resistance was low from the heat. Stagnant, warm water created the right conditions for insects to hatch. That fall we saw deer harvests down 30 percent. Depending on what temperatures do, we may have to change our seasons.”
Salmon Runs Dwindle
John Beuttler, conservation director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, listens to my story about the pikas, moose, and deer, then tells me, “In 2007, for the first time in my life, the salmon runs collapsed in California. It was the largest crash of a freshwater fishery in the history of the nation and was due in part, I believe, to ocean conditions tied to climate change.”
The Central Valley salmon have been under stress from habitat damage, water exportation, and pollution, according to Beuttler. But this crash seems tied as much to a change in the Japan currents that bring frigid water from Alaska down to northern and central California.
“They’re called upwellings, and they usually come in March on the backs of strong northwest winds that affect the currents,” Beuttler says. “The cold water creates a plankton bloom that’s followed by huge volumes of krill entering the area. The krill are crucial food for young salmon going to the ocean at that time of year.”
Starting in 2003, the upwellings came later and later. Beuttler thinks that disrupted the delicate timing of migrating salmon and krill. He saw this pattern in 2004, 2005, and 2006, when some 800,000 mature salmon still left the Pacific Ocean and returned to spawn in the Central Valley freshwater complex. The bottom fell out in 2007, when only 90,000 salmon showed up. “Salmon season was closed in California in 2008,” Beuttler says. “I suspect it will be closed in 2009 and for a long time to come.” (As this issue went to press, a limited late-fall season was open, due to a slight rise in salmon numbers. It was being closely monitored and subject to closure at any time.)
Virginia Burkett fishes and hunts ducks in Louisiana, a state she likes to boast about.
“We have one of the highest waterfowl hunting success rates in the United States,” she tells me. “And fishing in our offshore areas and estuaries is the country’s best.”
Burkett is the chief scientist of climate change research at the U.S. Geological Survey, which makes her the government’s top scientist on the subject.
“The science is absolutely solid, it is unequivocal,” Burkett says. “We know our climate, our habitat, our wildlife and our fish are in for dramatic change in the coming years.
“If we were to stop burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the sea would still rise in an accelerated fashion for centuries. It’s been rising for the past 20,000 years, since the end of the last ice age, but it has been mostly stable for the past 7,000 years. That’s changing. You aren’t seeing it yet because there’s a latent effect at play: It takes the ocean a long time to absorb heat energy, which will eventually cause thermal expansion and rising ocean levels.”
Why should hunters and anglers care about rising seas? Because Burkett’s computer models indicate that sea levels along the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf coast will rise between 1 and 4 feet in the coming decades.
“The marshes and coastal wetlands that we duck hunters treasure will be inundated,” she says. “In southeast Texas and southern Louisiana, we expect to see 1 million acres lost to the sea. Florida will lose land on both coasts.”
As wetlands are consumed, Burkett predicts, fishing and duck hunting will get better for a time as the marsh decays and its nutrients provide a “pulse of productivity” in the sort of aquatic life that sustains fish and waterfowl. “But eventually there will be a crash,” she says.
The Big Picture
In spring 2008, the Wildlife Management Institute published a report on climate change researched and drafted by scientists associated with a host of leading conservation organizations. They were joined in releasing it by members of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The report, Seasons’ End: Global Warming’s Threat to Hunting and Fishing, is daunting. Here’s what we might expect in the long term if we don’t act to reduce greenhouse gases and adapt to a changing climate:
• The landscape will be different. As with their animal counterparts, the sentinel forests–the northern fir expanses from Oregon to Montana to Minnesota and Maine–will likely come under increasing attack by pests and fire.
• The Pacific Northwest’s cold, boreal rain forests could see a rise in precipitation. This region could initially surge with plant growth, benefiting game. Similar growth in elk and mule deer winter range in the Rockies could lead to improved survival rates. Short term, the hunting could be fantastic. But eventually, warmer weather may lead to greater pest survival, which in turn could decimate herds.
• Warmer rivers and streams may cause trout to begin to retreat to higher elevations in the West. In the southern Rockies, scientists believe that more than 40 percent of the trout could soon be threatened by rising heat.
• Some oceangoing fish may benefit from changing water temperatures. Others could become extinct as estuaries, the nurseries of many aquatic species, are altered.
• The Southwest and mountain states could see the highest overall temperature increases. Elk and deer that live in “sky islands” at higher altitudes could be threatened. Some northward migration could begin.
• Weather extremes could hit the South and Southeast, with more floods, droughts, fires, and storms. Streams in southern Appalachia could warm, and some studies say 90 percent of the brook trout could be threatened there soon. Migratory bird patterns could change.
• The Northeast will likely see hard weather, too. Hurricanes may batter and flood barrier islands and the coast more frequently. As much as 45 percent of habitat that supports canvasback, pintail, and redhead ducks could be lost.
• Winters in the Northeast may have more snow and rain but not as much bitter cold. Oak trees could start to replace fir forests. Moose, which need the conifer canopy to survive summers, might die off or retreat northward.
• The whitetail deer will likely thrive. Although diseases may hit deer more harshly throughout the South, some scientists believe their territory may expand to the Yukon.
• The same sort of shifting will take place across the upper Midwest and northern prairie states and provinces. Hardest hit will likely be moose and waterfowl. Water in the upper Great Lakes could drop as much as 8 feet and result in a 39 percent drop in the duck population. Farther west, the prairie pothole region could lose 90 percent of its wetlands.
• Upland bird hunters face uncertainties, too. With average temperature increases of 10 degrees expected by 2099, scientists believe some bird population crashes may be inevitable. Quail are among those most threatened.
“The simple truth is that we don’t know as much as we should, and I think that’s true across the board with people looking at this issue,” says Dave Nomsen of Pheasants Forever and one of the authors of Seasons’ End. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do, so we can understand what we can do to help the situation.”
Many states have already held summits bringing together hunters, anglers, scientists, environmentalists, and politicians in an effort to rethink fish, game, and habitat management in light of a changing climate.
“We’re just getting out of the gate on this,” says Nick Wiley of Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “It’s hard to get people thinking 30, 40, and 50 years ahead, but that’s what we have to do to be effective.”
Sam Hamilton of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that the federal government and its various agencies face the same fight.
“We’ve been thinking about climate change a lot,” Hamilton tells me. “For example, we’ve had to rethink National Wildlife Refuge land acquisitions. Many of our refuges and potential refuges are on the coasts, where we’re already seeing evidence of sea-level rise. We’ve been forced to seriously factor in how this will affect our decisions in the future.”
The organizations that participated in the Seasons’ End project are calling for an immediate cap on greenhouse gas emissions, money for research into the changing climate, and a commitment by sportsmen to act. If 12.8 million hunters and 29 million fishermen understand the threat of climate change and become vocal in support of the cause, Congress and the president cannot fail to act.
To learn more about what you can do as a sportsman to fight global warming, click here.