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Conservation

Elk Death Mystery Solved

by Dr. Dave Samuel   |  November 4th, 2010 0

In February, 295 elk were found dead or dying in a 50-square-mile area of high desert in south-central Wyoming. At first the elk appeared normal, except that they could not walk. Later they were found weakened and lying on the ground, dying from thirst and starvation. A few were brought into captivity to study, but they couldn’t be saved.


Photo by Nathan Hardbeck

Fortunately, Wyoming has some of the best wildlife veterinarians in the country, and they quickly ruled out viruses, chronic wasting disease, arsenic, brucellosis, heavy metals, and many other possibilities. Early conclusions were that the elk were eating a toxic plant, and after much study this proved to be true. In late March, research-ers found the high levels of usnic acid found in tumbleweed shield lichen (lichens are part fungus, part algae) was the cause of the deaths. This lichen is found in dry soils, and when captive elk were fed this plant, they soon developed the symptoms. Re-searchers are now attempting to find out more about the lichen: why it caused a problem this spring, and what role the lichen plays in the diet of elk.

Radio-Collar Study Supports PA Deer Plan
With a statewide antler restriction in place, Pennsylvania deer harvests are under a microscope from critics. Dr. Gary Alt, deer management supervisor, was concerned about the poor condition of overbrowsed forests in the state. To help solve that problem, he proposed various increases in the doe harvest and antler restrictions on bucks. Many people agreed with this approach, but critics predicted that this strategy would end in failure. The results of the second year of antler restrictions show reason for optimism. The 2003 doe harvest was the second highest on record with 322,620 does taken. This creates more room for bucks, and there are good signs on that front as well. Since 2001, research-ers have been using traps and nets to capture and radio-collar deer. In the first year, 95 percent of the bucks caught were button bucks because most antlered deer had been harvested by hunters. In the spring of 2003 button buck captures were down to 61 percent, indicating more adult bucks in the population. Hunters took 66 percent of the 21?2-year-old radio-collared bucks, which illustrates that the buck harvest is no longer 80-90 percent yearlings as it was prior to antler restrictions. It is believed that antler restriction programs need five years to fully assess their success or failure. Hopefully Pennsylvania hunters will continue to support this innovative approach to deer management for the years necessary to judge its validity.

West Virginia University Offers Hunting Course
Recently it was announced that West Virginia University will offer a course entitled “The Tradition of Hunting.” No doubt some will question the idea of teaching a course on hunting, since it isn’t the politically correct thing to do. That’s an interesting analysis, since Ivy League Universities already teach law courses on animal rights. So why shouldn’t West Vir-ginia University teach a course on the traditions of hunting? If the legal issues of animal rights are something students should know, then the development of the best system of wildlife management in the world, which directly involves hunting, is also something they should study.

Drs. John Edwards and James Ander-son will teach this course. The text will be my Know Hunting book, and I find that exciting. It should be noted that this is not a course to teach someone to hunt. Instead, this course will cover the following: the cultural and spiritual role of hunting in society, both today and in the past; who hunters are and their role in managing wildlife and in creating funds for our system of wildlife management; why more women are hunting today; the consequences of overabundant wildlife; hunter ethics and animal rights issues with respect to the antihunting movement; the equipment used to hunt; issues relating to gun control; subsistence and recreational hunting in modern society; the nutritional value of wildlife; and aspects of firearm use and safety.
Hunters and hunter organizations today are major contributors toward programs that enhance, protect, and purchase wildlife habitat. Thus, a course that covers these subjects is extremely important for society and for the University. My guess is that other universities will see the value of this course and develop similar ones. Hunting played a major role in our culture, and it is a heritage worth saving. The value of hunting to modern society is something that many of us want to see perpetuated. Hats off to West Virginia University for recognizing the importance of this course.

Hunters Share Opinions on High Fences
In recent years we’ve heard more and more about hunts behind high fences. Does the average hunter agree with high fence hunts? Craig Miller and Christopher Colligan, with the Illinois Natural History Survey, recently polled Illinois hunters on this subject. Seventy-eight percent of deer hunters felt that shooting deer or elk inside a fence was unacceptable. Fifty-four percent thought it should be made illegal, while 21 percent agreed that high-fence enclosures would help preserve the legacy of hunting. Seventy-seven percent felt that hunting behind high fences gives hunting a bad name.

Mountain Lions are Predators
Cougar numbers in the West continue to make news. Apparently lions are hammering bighorn sheep in the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in San Diego County, California. It was reported that one female cat with two cubs killed 10 radio-collared bighorns, and another 17 uncollared sheep. The high predation on bighorn sheep has prompted some biologists to call for lion hunting to create a fear of man in areas such as the state park. However, research in the park showed that, in general, cougars do stay away from humans. But negative interactions occur. Eleven of 20 radio-collared cats died during the study. Four were shot while attacking or killing domestic animals. There were four deaths that probably stemmed from diseases. One cat was killed by another lion, one was hit by a car, and one died from wounds received in a fire that swept through the area.

Statewide data show that from 2000-2003, 379 problem cats were killed in California, but half came from six rural counties in northern California. Even though there haven’t been many human deaths from lions, encounters between hikers, bikers, and cougars do occur. One official from the California Department of Fish and Game recently testified that lion populations should be reduced by 25-50 percent to lessen the chance of further attacks on people.
In Washington, it has been illegal to use hounds to hunt lions since 1996. Even so, the lion harvest has increased, probably because lion numbers are up and hunting seasons are longer. Human/lion interactions are also up, causing lawmakers to write a pending state bill that would bring back hound hunting for cats in parts of Washington.

Lions have also caused recent problems in Arizona, and a cat also killed a rare woodland caribou in Idaho. All of these activities tell us that the lion-as-a-predator situation in the West is complicated and not easily resolved. Be assu
red that as hunting for lions decreases, lion numbers will exceed the social carrying capacity, more problem cats will be killed by government officials (sometimes ex-ceeding the former legal lion hunting harvest), more negative encounters in-volving humans will occur, and more problems with bighorn sheep and other species of wildlife will occur. The reinstatement of hunting would not resolve all these issues, but it definitely would be a mitigating factor in some situations.

For further information on the issues discussed, go to www.knowhunting.com.

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