Report: Warming climate threatens deer camp tradition

This is a favorite time of year for many Michiganders: Deer season is in full swing. One MEC staffer has a freezer newly full of nutritious, local venison, while another keeps shaking his head and muttering about a big buck that trotted close but didn't offer a clean shot.

Deer camp is a deep tradition here in Michigan, a time for new generations to learn about the outdoors and hear old stories that get better with each retelling.

It's big business, too, particularly for rural areas Up North. Deer season draws in some 20,000 out-of-state hunters, directly supports 5,300 jobs and contributes more than $500 million to Michigan's annual economy, according to the DNR.

That's why a report released last week by the National Wildlife Federation ought to turn some stomachs. It lays out the risks that a changing climate poses to big game animals such as pronghorn, caribou and bighorn sheep as well as Michigan species like white-tailed deer, elk, moose and black bear.

For example, the report highlights the growing threat from epizootic hemorrhagic disease, a viral disease whose impact on Michigan's deer herd has become more severe. A 1974 outbreak killed about 100 deer. In 2009, 300-450 whitetails died from EHD. In 2012, it killed nearly 15,000 deer across 30 counties in the Lower Peninsula.

Deer dead from EHD

The virus is transmitted by the biting midges often called no-see-ums. During droughts, deer congregate near watering holes where the insects reproduce, which likely leads to increased infections, the report says. Longer summers mean more exposure to the midges and the virus.

Also facing multiple climate-related threats are moose, which have evolved to survive bitter cold and aren't built for the warmer temperatures coming their way. Heat stress makes moose lose weight and raises their vulnerability to disease and predators. Milder winters also mean more ticks survive the season and weaken moose by feasting on their blood. There are reports of up to 70,000 ticks on a single moose.

As Jim Lynch reports in the Detroit News, the growth of Michigan's moose herd has nearly stalled, which has biologists worried that the disturbing loss of moose in Minnesota and other states may soon hit the Upper Peninsula.

Michigan's moose population is estimated at a modest 451-too few for a hunting season (though the idea of a limited hunt on Isle Royale was floated recently)-but their fate is still a matter of concern for hunters. Losing them would soften the wild character that makes Michigan such a great place to explore. And the plight facing our moose shows how climate change can throw whole ecosystems out of whack, with implications for all kinds of game.

Of course, the outlook for non-game species is equally dire. That makes the DNR's new wildlife vulnerability index another important addition to the conversation about wildlife and climate change in our state.

According to the DNR's analysis, "one-fifth of terrestrial game species and three-fifths of terrestrial and aquatic Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) are vulnerable" to climate change impacts.

"Other conservation threats or programs aside, these species will likely experience range or population reductions due to climate change," the DNR report concludes. The species at risk include some of Michigan's conservation icons, such as the Karner blue butterfly and the common loon, as well as the lynx, eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, eastern box turtle, boreal chorus frog, and Hine's emerald dragonfly.

We're all going to feel the heat as the effects of global warming become harder to ignore. But more than most, sportsmen and women-whose dollars help form the backbone of conservation funding in Michigan and elsewhere-have a great deal at stake.

Hunters and outdoor lovers of all types ought to be among our most vocal advocates for addressing climate change so they can give new generations a living heritage, not just stories of the past.


Photos: Michigan DNR.

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