I mentioned in last week’s Naturalist’s Corner that I found the decision by U.S. Fish & Wildlife to kill barred owls in an effort to save spotted owls intriguing on many levels. I will use this week’s and next week’s columns to outline a couple of those intrigues.
It’s no secret that the Endangered Species Act has become the lynchpin of conservation. Critical habitat designation has been used to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres and sometimes, as in the case of the ivory-billed woodpecker, just the perceived presence of some iconic creature can prove pivotal in raising money and/or support for land acquisition.
I don’t fault environmentalists and/or environmental organizations for using whatever means they have to protect sensitive environmental areas. And I realize that preserving habitat has become a high-stakes legal enterprise requiring legal underpinnings like critical habitat designation that comes with the Endangered Species Act.
But I often think that we, as environmentalists, have the cart before the horse. To paraphrase James Carville’s succinct advice to then presidential candidate Bill Clinton – when it comes to protecting species – it’s the habitat, stupid. Protect the habitat and you’ve de facto protected all the organisms that call said habitat home. Perhaps habitat is too ambiguous or too amorphous for people to connect with, while a spotted owl or an ivory-billed woodpecker is more tangible.
Or perhaps it’s just so intuitive that we don’t consciously focus on it. I mean, if you’re a photographer and you want to get some good butterfly shots, where do you go? You go where there are lots of blooms – why – because it’s the right habitat. If you’re a hunter or a fisherman or a birder or a biologist you can simply look around you and you can list a suite of species that you would expect to encounter at that location.
If you take a spotted owl out of old growth forest, or take an ivory-billed woodpecker out of bottomland hardwoods they won’t survive. Now, I’m not saying you couldn’t raise them in captivity. I’m saying they are part of a larger whole. They are part of an ecosystem – a habitat and they have evolved with that habitat and they depend on it for their existence. And there are any number of other organisms that depend on that habitat, some we’ve probably never even heard of.
The All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory has turned up more than 900 species new to science in a habitat that is largely second growth and sees millions of visitors a year. What might be discovered if thousands of acres of old growth and/or bottomland hardwoods were afforded the same kind of scrutiny?
At this late date of plunder of natural ecosystems in this country and around the world, we can’t afford to take our eye off any tool that gives us leverage to halt it. But we need to redouble our efforts to focus on a larger, more holistic, more sustainable picture.
Aldo Leopold, often called the father of conservation, once stated, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering. ...” Yet here we are, destroying entire ecosystems and we don’t even have a parts list. We have no idea of what we are destroying. We need to put the horse back in front of the cart.
There must be a way. I mean if the Supreme Court can give corporations individual rights, why can’t we list endangered habitats?
“Elk don’t know how many feet a horse has.”
That’s the advice Bear Claw Chris Lapp gave Jeremiah Johnson as the pair hid behind their horses while stalking elk in the eponymous Robert Redford film. Well, according to Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie, elk don’t know the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park either.
“I truly believe we need an elk management plan because the population will continue to grow and the elk don’t recognize the boundaries of Smoky Mountain National Park,” said Massie, representing the North Carolina Wildlife Federation.
While elk are protected inside the park’s boundary, they could lose their status as a species of special concern when wandering onto private property under a proposed change by the N.C. Wildlife Commission.
Hunting elk would still be illegal but private landowners could shoot elk causing property damage. Under the current rules, landowners are supposed to get a permit before shooting problem elk.
Massie was one of a host of people who turned out at a public hearing in Sylva last week on the rule change. With a herd population of only 110, the loss of even a few elk at the hands of careless private landowners could jeopardize their long-term viability, according to opponents of the rule change.
Bob Miller, a spokesperson for the Smokies, said that over a third of the herd now lives outside the park’s boundaries in Haywood County and the Cherokee Reservation.
David Cobb, chief of the wildlife management division for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said he had no way of knowing what the death of even a few elk would have on the herd.
“I can’t say what the death of one elk would do because I haven’t done the population study,” Cobb said.
Massie called on the N.C. Wildlife Commission to establish a management plan for the elk, something the state currently lacks.
Brad Howard, a wildlife biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, said elk will essentially still be protected even though they won’t have special concern status.
“People seem to be concerned that people will start shooting elk at leisure,” Howard said. “That is not the case. Our enforcement guys are going to want to know why you shot this elk and show us the property damage that warrants why you shot this elk. There are very specific parameters and you have to justify the animal was in fact doing damage.”
Dan McCoy, former tribal chairperson of the ECBI, traveled to the meeting with his son Connor to speak up for the elk. McCoy told commissioners he’d purchased the boy a lifetime membership to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in the hopes that one day he would be able to hunt the animals.
“Our people are proud of these elk. They’re proud they’re there, but they still need our protection,” he said.
People who have put their time and money into establishing a healthy elk herd in Western North Carolina are demanding that the animals retain their status as a species of special concern.
“Listen to the hearts and minds of the people on this because that’s really what this is all about,” Ramona Bryson said.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Friends of the Smokies led a massive fundraising effort that garnered over $1.2 million to support the reintroduction project. A satellite herd has taken up residence on land owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, contributing to the sentiment that the N.C. Wildlife Commission is not the only stakeholder in the debate over the animals’ future.
Ray Bryson, another member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, was one of the volunteers who drove 59 hours round trip to Alberta, Canada, to deliver the elk to the park when the herd was first established. Bryson urged the Wildlife Commission to work with the national park and the tribe to establish a management plan that would expand the elks’ range into the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests.
Cobb said his staff met with members of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in person before the hearing and the discussion concerning their protected status is ongoing.
“This is nowhere close to a done deal,” said Cobb.
Elk could lose their status as a species of special concern under a new rule change proposed by the N.C. Wildlife Commission.
A public hearing on proposed changes to state hunting and fishing rules will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 13, at Southwestern Community College in Sylva. Organizations that provided financial support for the reintroduction of the elk are prepared to speak out against the proposed rule change.
It is illegal to shoot an elk — both inside the national park boundaries and outside the park. Despite a delisting as a species of special concern, elk would retain their status as a “non-game” animal, making hunting them illegal even if they wander outside protected national park lands.
Tom Massie of Jackson County said the proposal is causing a great deal of confusion, however, and questioned the rationale behind it.
“There have been a lot of people who have spent a lot of time and effort and money to get the elk herd reestablished,” Massie said. “It is a huge economic draw for this region of the state. Why even do it right now?”
Massie said he would like to see the state do a management plan for the species to compliment the national park’s management plan. Elk are frequently wandering out of the park and are beginning to establish satellite herds.
The Wildlife Commission cites the success of the elk restoration project and growth of the herd, which makes the listing no longer necessary.
“This is primarily an administrative change,” said Brad Howard, private lands program coordinator for the Wildlife Commission. “There is no documented evidence we need to have a special concern status on the elk species right now.”
Howard said the move will mirror the national park’s change in status expected later this year, which will shift from “experimental release” to an official “reintroduction.”
“The park has said ‘OK it worked. Let’s see if this population will sustain itself in Western North Carolina,’” Howard said.
Every year, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission suggests adjustments to their regulations to accommodate hunters and fishermen while protecting natural resources.
Public input can be made at one of nine hearings held statewide, including one at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 13, at Southwestern Community College in Sylva, or in writing.
Go to www.ncwildlife.org and click on submit comments online. Scroll down to see the list of proposed changes and click to comment. The deadline to comment is Jan. 22.
After collecting and considering all public comments, the Wildlife Commission will meet in March to decide whether or not to adopt the proposals.
• Elk — Proposal would remove elk from the list of species of Special Concern. The only elk in the state are found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park after being reintroduced to the park. Hunting elk would still be illegal within the park.
• Bobcat and otter — Trappers would no longer have to get tags for bobcat and otters they intend to sell. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is no longer requiring tags for bobcats and otter being sold for commercial purposes, so the state wildlife commission aims to follow suit.
• Armadillo — While armadillo aren’t native to North Carolina, they are beginning to crop up and are being considered a nuisance by the wildlife commission. There is no game law that applies to armadillos, and this proposal aims to set up a year-round open season on armadillos with no bag limits.
• Franks Creek in Graham County — Proposal would end stocking and ban use of live bait under a new designation as Wild Trout/Natural Bait waters.
• Tellico River in Cherokee County — Proposal would ban use of natural bait and allow artificial lures only under new designation of Wild Trout waters.
• Nantahala River and tributaries in Macon and Clay counties upstream of Nantahala Lake — Proposal would end the exemption that allows fishing during closed season on hatchery supported waters.
• West Fork Pigeon River in Haywood County — Proposal would end stocking on the upper 3.7 miles of currently Hatchery-Supported waters and re-designate as Wild Trout Waters, which would ban live or natural bait, lower the daily limit from 7 to 4, and impose a minimum catch size of 7 inches. The change will better protect the wild brown trout population. The lower 1.7 miles will remain Hatchery-Supported Trout Waters.
• French Broad River — Proposal would decrease the size limit on muskies from 46 inches to 42 inches. Regulation dovetails with statewide rule change to set minimum size limit on muskies at 42 inches and one fish daily catch limit.
The move will conserve spawning stock by protecting 4- to 5-year-old sexually mature fish.
If you’re not careful, you could miss it.
Green Salamander — Although listed by the state as endangered and recognized as a species of concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the green salamander appears to be stabilizing its populations though the geographic range of its habitats is still quite small.
A move to rewrite the Endangered Species Act has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is expected to come before the U.S. Senate in February.
The cornerstone of the Endangered Species Act is protecting places where endangered species live. The proposal repeals protection of critical habitats, a change that could have numerous implications in Western North Carolina.