Wednesday, January 6, 2010

If only they'd called first...

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Last week, my good cousin Kevin shot me an email from the NRA-ILA on yet another attempt by those anti-hunting, lawyering, pinko enviros to take away my right to bear arms...
or, to put it another way-

Last week, my good cousin Kevin sent me an email from the whack nut-job NRA about something or other that they hoped would rile their base enough to help them keep their vice-like neocon death-grip power-hold on Washington, D.C....

or, (and this is the reason, I swear, I'm not a popular site on the internet)-

Last week, my good cousin Kevin sent me an email alert from the NRA (no need to explain who they are) about a request by the Center for Biological Diversity and a few other environmental and conservation groups. This "Request for Rule Change", sent to the California Fish & Game Commission, concerns management within the Mojave National Preserve, specifically to limit hunting.

Reading the original NRA-ILA bulletin, one is forced to pick a side, which always bothers me about email alerts of any kind. I understand that, in advocacy, the job is to rile folks, but it also has the effect of creating too polarized a conversation.

So I looked up the CBD request. Sadly, neither the NRA nor the CBD thought the public intelligent enough to understand the issue without their interpretation, and it took some digging before I could find it. Some folks think we should read the primary source material for ourselves, and a hearty thanks goes out to the folks at for the copy you can read here.

Second, after some conversations, I also read the Mojave National Preserve's General Management Plan, which is the guiding document for managing the Preserve. Last, I perused the Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan, searching for references to hunting.

Here's the issue: The Center for Biological Diversity is requesting that the California Fish & Game Commission change the rules for hunting within the Preserve. They want to: restrict hunting to Sept. 1st-Jan. 31st (except for bighorn); end rabbit, hare, and nongame animal hunting; and disallow the use of dogs and spotlights. The reason they are asking for these rule changes on these 1.5 million acres of wildlands is to protect the desert tortoise, a species listed under the Endangered Species Act.

As I read the CBD's request, I grew more and more frustrated. If ever there were a document that could be used to split the hunting community from the environmental community, exploiting an already frustrating and unnatural rift for political purposes, this would be the one. Yet, when I read it, I knew that it didn't come from a group of anti-hunting, New World Order totalitarians. It comes from a group of people who want to protect the desert tortoise, and who do not hunt, nor understand the traditions that arise from hunting, nor the regulatory manners involved in California hunting.

So, if the folks at CBD had called or emailed me (please do!) to ask my honest opinion about their request, here is what I would have said:
Ideally, you should have local hunters among your ranks, and you need to talk to them to understand what they hunt, when, where, and why. Obviously, looking at the request, you do not have this, nor have you solicited input from independent, local hunters about their habits, places, and the like. Okay then, next step.

The next step would be starting from California hunting regulations. It is common practice for the state to manage its preserves by season, opening up hunting for multiple species on a particular refuge, but only during the season for one type. It is also common for the State to restrict access to certain parts of a refuge to protect particular species, while allowing hunting in other parts of the refuge.

Looking at the identified critical habitat for desert tortoises, I see that about 800,000 acres has been identified within the Preserve. That should be your start, because if you just take the Preserve's border, without connecting it in some way to tortoise habitat or hunting habits, then you alienate people due to this arbitrary boundary. Hunters are land-oriented; they think spatially, geographically. They also think in terms of habitat. So, telling them that a particular habitat and spot is off-limits may be unpopular, but it is understood, especially when it comes with real reasons. In fact, if you knew the hunting hot-spots for rabbits, hares, and nongame animals, then you could possibly have avoided this fight to begin with, or at least shown hunters that you really are trying to consider their activities and the real impacts on desert tortoises.

One thing you should avoid like the plague is allowing wealthier hunting opportunities, and even making exceptions for them, while banning hunting for poorer folks. Bighorn sheep is a very limited hunt, and the people who hunt them often spend many thousands of dollars to bag a trophy. Rabbit hunters, on the other hand, are typically poorer, and often times rabbit can provide a valuable, nutritious supplement. You definitely should not ask for an exception.

I understand that there is a problem with carcasses left from people shooting ground squirrels, coyotes, and hares, and those carcasses unnaturally feeding tortoise predators. Again, though, this problem is more easily solved by restricting hunting within tortoise habitat during the time of year they need. I don't hunt nongame animals, but I'm fairly certain that removing predation from a mid-level predator, making it the apex predator in a region, can have dramatic and unintended consequences. Now, if coyote hunting isn't so intensive as to impact them in this dramatic a manner, then is it really impacting tortoises?

I would definitely reconsider disallowing the use of dogs. Instead, I would have an educational campaign about the proper use of hunting dogs, and their environmental benefits. Dogs find downed game, and have a tremendous impact on decreasing the number of carcasses in a field. Unruly dogs in tortoise habitat can wreak havoc, so restrict hunting within tortoise habitat, not within the entire Preserve.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the largest threats to desert tortoises are climate change and development (including development that is an attempt to help cure climate change, ironically). I don't seriously believe that the impact from hunting is so large as to severely inhibit tortoise recovery, especially in the 700,000 acres not designated as tortoise habitat within the Preserve.

Ultimately, you have two good documents concerning both the management of tortoises and the management of the Preserve, (the Recovery Plan and General Management Plan, respectively) - use those! The first suggests restricting hunting that leaves carcasses, and restricting hunting to a season. The second suggests restricting hunting to a season, but not by type. CBD can do two great things with this: Talk to local hunters, to minimize the impact to hunting while maximizing long-term desert and tortoise protections when determining which locales and times to restrict; and encourage folks to eat jackrabbits (which are hares and very popular in Europe), to cut down on carcasses left in the field.

As for the rule change request, CBD should request that hunting within designated critical tortoise habitat be restricted by season, that season being the quail season (usually the end of January). This is both scientifically sound, and within the scope of everybody's capabilities. However, since I am not a local hunter, I am painting a broad picture that could be further refined by local experience, which would have the added bonus of local support (or at least understanding).
Those would have been my points. Instead, CBD has taken the recommendation by the Fish & Wildlife Service in its Recovery Plan and tried to apply it to a set of boundaries with no bearing on tortoise habitat, while exempting wealthy desert bighorn hunters from the restrictions. In doing so, CBD has ignored the purpose of recommendations from the Recovery Plan, the Preserve's own General Management Plan, and California hunting tradition and hunters.

I'll admit that I am a fan of the Center for Biological Diversity, and for the Endangered Species Act and the National Park Service. The spirit that drives the folks at CBD emerged from hunters' hearts generations ago, as did parks and a desire to protect those species we see in the wild. As a hunter, I cannot deny my own impacts, or worse yet, only pretend to see my positive impacts while denying I also have negative ones. And, just as I try to walk more and more quietly and lightly upon the land when I hunt if I am to be successful, I must maturely understand my place and responsibility to wild things, too.

Hunting is different from all other outdoors activities in that it is an inclusive experience, it lets me be a part of the wild, to participate in the wild, rather than merely observe it or ride it like a roller-coaster. Hunters will do well to remember that this wild we seek and experience and love includes so much more than our prey and the burger joint on the way home. It includes and requires desert tortoises, and bighorns, all of it, and where we see that our impacts have a negative effect, where we see our impacts are wrong, we must responsibly change.

So one more time, please CBD, reconsider this rule change in light of the Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan, the Mojave General Management Plan, the history and traditions of California hunting and hunting laws, and for hunters like me, who see that our communities should not be split at all, but who are split over politics, so that we may both be used as pawns in others' games.


The Public Land Hunter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
native said...

I second that motion Josh!
We as a community (hunter's) must start behaving more responsibly and understanding the long term impacts of our outdoor activities.

This is why I am not so opposed to the Lead Ban, less lead in the environment is better as far as I am concerned.

I was driving up to our Priest Valley Ranch just yesterday and surprise of all surprises, a juvenile Desert Tortoise was warming himself in the middle of the highway.

Stopped and picked him up and moved him to a large and sun warmed rock nearby.
Poor guy would have gotten himself squashed if left there any longer ;-)

But, moving on here I have to also point out that the non-hunters must educate themselves as well, instead of arbitrarily creating laws which will only serve to disenfranchise, and thus widening the rift between us even more.

Josh said...

Public Land Hunter, I did not remove your comment! I'll try to get it back up. Thank you for it, by the way.

Native, thanks for this, and for giving a fine example of why I know that the hunting community should not be split from the rest of the environmental/conservation community. There are very few of us who get real encounters with real wildlife - hunters, fishers, hikers, campers (sometimes), boaters (sometimes), climbers (sometimes) - and we are all needed to make sure we still have wild places.

And you are right on that non-hunting environmentalists need to educate themselves about hunting, its laws and traditions, because it differs from any other activity out there. I'll do my part.

Bob J said...

Hey Josh,

I tend to agree with your well-reasoned (and well-written) post. As you know, I am not a hunter myself, but I think hunting should still be considered in the mix when formulating management plans.

Unfortunately, hunting always seems to suffer from bad PR in a way that birdwatching never will. Which is why hunters will always have to be more proactive than other groups.

Happy new year to you and your family.

Josh said...

Thanks, Bob! The irony of birdwatching is that, whereas hunters have to pay license fees, tag fees, and entrance fees for many refuges, birdwatchers don't have to pay a dime. Also, binoculars taxes have been floated from time to time, and they never make it.

Happy new year to you, too!