Hunters: Giving Back the Harvest

Instead of focusing on some environmental issue, I figured I would try to post something concerning Christmas and the holiday season.  Hunters across Pennsylvania are scouring the countryside, hoping for the chance to shoot a deer.  Whether the goal is to put a trophy on the wall or fill the freezer with meat, everyone has different motives for hunting.  However, many state game agencies are encouraging hunters to get in the Christmas spirit and donate leftover or unwanted meat to food banks across the country.  Not only would this feed hungry families, but it would also perform a valuable ecological service.  Deer densities across much of the northeastern U.S. are at an all time high, and biologists fear that their ridiculously high populations are eliminating vegetation growth across the region, hindering the regeneration of new forests.  The harvesting of deer to keep numbers down benefits other species and future populations of deer.  For people who criticize hunting as cruel and barbaric, hunting simulates predation, a natural process that has impacted due to removal of predators from the northeast.  It is a good and natural thing to take away individuals from the population.  Even for those who still hate hunting, look at the humanitarian benefits of meat donation and feeding the hungry.  Merry Christmas!!

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What the frack?

This wouldn’t be an environmental blog if I didn’t say something about hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking.  In this process, a combination of sand and chemicals are shot down underground to create cracks in shale formations, which hold the goods, natural gas and oil.  The natural gas is brought back up to the service where it can be collected.  The chemicals used for extraction are also returned to the surface; this wastewater will eventually be treated or buried in isolated wells deep underground.

This whole process can be very lucrative, and provides lots of jobs and business for residents of the Keystone State.  Pennsylvania is home to one of the largest shale regions on the East Coast (look at map below for fracking sites in PA ~ 7000 active wells).  Landowners who allow these companies to harness natural gas through fracking often receive large sums of money for their cooperation.  So what could possibly be wrong, right?

shale map

One of the major points of contention is what happens to the chemicals injected into the ground.  Companies claim they are returned, yet many folks believe these still remain underground, possibly contaminating groundwater and potentially causing illness to humans.  The process of fracking uses up millions of gallons of water as well, and it is thought that it could potentially caused earthquakes if it happens along fault lines.  There is also some fear that the operations have brought property values down for local homeowners who don’t want drilling to take place.  Studies have been conducted for both sides, and data has been generated for both sides.  While I do like the fact that fracking is stimulating the economy and providing jobs for thousands of Pennsylvanians, it does make me wonder how environmentally sound this procedure is.  No matter what though, I think the economics in this issue are going to trump environmental impacts.

To hear the first-hand accounts of residents who have seen the effects of fracking, check out this critically-acclaimed documentary, Gasland (to figure out how fracking works, go to 5:00 into the film:

For more information, visit http://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/tag/fracking/

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Who’s really the bad guy here?

The week after Thanksgiving.  It’s that time of the year where sportsmen garbed in camo and bright orange take to the woods and fields of the Keystone State in an attempt to sang a trophy buck for the wall, or to stock the freezer with venison.  An estimated 1.2 million hunters will head out to try to harvest one of the most frequently seen animals of Pennsylvania, the white-tail deer.

As you can see, people care a lot about their deer.  Notice the use of the word ‘their’.  Because deer hunting is such an important tradition for many PA residents, some folks begin to almost see these wild animals as their own.  Every little spotted fawn is precious, but however, nature takes care of its own.  Predators of these young deer include black bears, bobcats, and coyotes.  While this may appear gruesome to some, it is necessary that the deer population is controlled by these meat-eaters.  A deer population that grows unchecked will have devastating impacts on forest structure, and may eventually result in deer starvation if numbers get too high.  However, some hunters feel that these predators need to be eliminated because they think they’re killing all the deer; even some of my own family members feel this way.  Could this sentiment be fueled by a bad day in the woods with no harvested deer perhaps?

Recently, biologists with the PA Game Commission proposed a study to look at the impacts of predation on fawn survival.  Three 150 sq. mile plots would be established in northern PA, and the plots would be eliminated of all black bears and coyotes.  Bears and coyotes would be exterminated by hunters.  In these plots devoid of predators, how many fawns survive?  How does the deer herd respond to no predators?  Not only would this scheme take a lot of time, but it would also cost a whopping $3.9 million!  According to Chief Deer Biologist with PGC, Chris Rosenberry, deer populations are in no way decreasing across the state.  In my opinion, there is no need to spend millions of dollars for a study that will demonstrate absolutely nothing.

Again however, economics may play a role in this scenario.  Deer management is one of the primary goals of the Game Commission.  The selling of hunting licenses is the big moneymaker for funds; if the population of hunters in PA supports this study being conducted, might it be in the best interest of the PGC to appease their constituents and perform the study?  Who knows; my guess is the study will not be performed.

This link should shed some light on the delicate situation; from PA Outdoor News:

http://www.outdoornews.com/June-2014/Board-critical-of-plan-to-study-predators/

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Polluting Pennsylvania’s Waterways

Since my last blog featured terrestrial issues such as State Game Lands management and Chronic Wasting Disease, I figured I’d concentrate this post on the aquatic opportunities in the Keystone State, and the dangers threatening our streams.  As far as stream mileage, Pennsylvania is right up there in the lead, and it’s quite remarkable.  It’s hard to believe we have 85,000 miles of streams and rivers crisscrossing the state.  The real danger is the illegal dumping that is occurring.  It’s estimated that in 2012, industrial facilities dumped over ten million pounds of toxic chemicals into PA waterways.  Ten million!!  (source: http://www.pennenvironment.org/news/pae/10-million-pounds-toxic-chemicals-dumped-pennsylvania%E2%80%99s-waterways-0).

Hear me out though.  I’m not the stereotypical environmental, green freak, hippie supporting the slightest little environmental policy.  I try to be reasonable about things; if some policy is going take away jobs from millions of people in favor of some localized population of rare insect, I would be hard pressed to save that little bug.  This topic of water pollution affects our well-being and doesn’t fall into that category.  Contaminated water isn’t exactly controversial, we need to clean up and reduce pollution, and that’s pretty much all that needs to be said.  We need to find ways to eliminate this dumping, which is ruining the waterways for drinking, recreation, wildlife, and fish.  The Upper Susquehanna River ranked 29th in total toxic releases; it should come to no surprise that the bass fishery there is tanking there as a result.  Should we really be surprised that the Chesapeake Bay is in critical condition?; after all, the Susquehanna feeds right into the bay.  This is just one issue of many that needs to be dealt with accordingly to restore health to this ecosystem.

This link sums up the environmental dilemma involving the Chesapeake: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yIxEOW1yn8U

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Chronic Wasting Disease: An Ecological and Economic Nightmare

I don’t know how many folks have heard of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), but if you haven’t, read further.  Although I’ve heard about it, it was recently brought to my attention after reading an article in Pennsylvania Outdoor News (http://www.outdoornews.com/April-2013/Wondering-about-the-long-term-effect-of-CWD-on-deer-population/).   While those who aren’t up date with environmental issues may not be familiar with it, it sure has caught the attention of wildlife officials across the State, particularly the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC).  Wildlife managers and hunters may sometimes clash over management strategies, yet they are all worried about the potential impacts of CWD on Pennsylvania’s deer and elk herds.

Chronic Wasting Disease occurs when an infectious protein, also known as a prion, is located in the brain of individual animals.  These prions tend to become concentrated in the nervous systems and lymph nodes of infected animals.  Similar in structure to Mad Cow disease in cows and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans, CWD affects cervids, which includes deer, elk, and moose.  First discovered in the 1960’s in Colorado, only recently has it been found in Pennsylvania.  The first cases of CWD were reported in captive deer farms in Adams County in 2012.  Since then, two more cases have been found, with captive deer in Jefferson County and wild deer in Blair and Bedford Counties.

PA Elk (Photo: Elk Country Visitor Center)

Don’t panic though!  CWD can’t spread from deer to humans; however, it is still probably wise to avoid consuming animals that are known to be CWD-positive.  However, there are severe environmental and economic implications.  CWD is known to always be fatal to deer, and is transmitted through physical contact by touch, feces, urine, and saliva. If the deer population were to die out in Pennsylvania, not only would that affect the structure of our forests, but it would also negatively impact the economy.  Deer hunting in Pennsylvania has a rather large following; if we were to take away the costs of licenses, firearms, equipment, gas, and other costs associated with hunting, it would prove financially devastating to hunters and non-hunters alike.

Aside from the potential decimation of Pennsylvania’s deer herd, biologists are also worried the disease could spread to the state’s thriving elk herd.  Elk bring in lots of revenue to the state; not only do hunters pay to hunt them, but they also serve as a major tourism attraction (http://elkcountryvisitorcenter.com/drupal/) for millions of visitors.  As you can see, this whole CWD-thing is kind of a big deal from an environmental and business standpoint.

Because this is such a nightmare, the PA Game Commission is asking residents to report any suspected cases of CWD.  Symptoms of animals that have CWD include trouble walking, drooling, loss of fear of humans, and severe weight loss.  Any animals believed to be sick should be reported to the Game Commission (http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt?open=514&objID=1253813&mode=2#WhatIsCWD).

Deer with CWD; Note how sickly and skinny it looks (Colorado Divison of Wildlife)

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The State of State Game Lands

Early 20th Century Hunting (northamericanwhitetail.com)

I’ve covered a variety of sites across the gorgeous ridge-and-valley region of central PA.  Most of the sites I’ve listed are in the PA State Park System managed by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).  While some regions of these parks are open to hunting and fishing, these sports are prohibited in most regions of the parks.  However, there have been tracts of land set aside in Pennsylvania specifically for sportsmen, known as State Game Lands.  These areas are the responsibility of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.  On these areas, hunters who legally able to hunt (have a license) can hunt on the entire property, provided they abide by other laws regarding hunting (proximity to roads, tag limit, etc).  Historically, the maintenance and management of these properties has been funded by hunters through hunting licenses.  Throw in the fact that there are 1.5 million acres of state game lands across Pennsylvania, and one can quickly see how the costs can add up.

However, hunters aren’t the only ones able to use these game lands.  Hikers, wildlife photographers, cyclists, and horseback riders are all allowed to recreate on these areas as well.  Often times, these non-hunters have not purchased a hunting license, and consequently are not contributing to the financial upkeep of the game lands.  Aside from wearing fluorescent orange during hunting seasons (personal safety reasons; who wants to get riddled with bullet holes by someone who’s too trigger happy?), these non-hunters really don’t have to follow any special rules or pay anything.  One can clearly see the dilemma this presents: there are two constituents who use the park, but only one pays for upkeep and usage.

With hunter numbers declining over the last decade, hunters are feeling the financial burden more than ever before.  This brings up a very valid question:  Shouldn’t non-hunters who are going to use the game lands have to pay a usage fee for using the same space the hunters pay for?

On the flip side, hunters who want non-hunters to pay usage fees may also have to deal with them wanting a larger voice in the management of State Game Lands.  Currently, most lands are managed primarily for the benefit of sportsmen and wildlife.  Horseback riders and cyclists may want more maintained trails to ride on, feeling they have more of an opinion now that they are financially supporting it.  Some hunters feel that this increased influence from non-hunters may be counter-productive and negatively impact wildlife.

The question is, how does the Game Commission compromise over this issue.  Do you issue usage fees to non-hunters and risk angering them or hunters.  You want money from both parties, but who gets a bigger say in the management of these properties.  They have a sticky situation ahead of them indeed.

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Juniata River

Due to the fact that I’m running out of state parks in central PA, I figured I’d have a go at an outdoor feature located right in our backyard, the Juniata River.  Sure, it’s not a park or a trail to hike, but rather a trail to paddle.  I’m gone down it by canoe and kayak several times and it was a blast each time.  Fishing it is also fun, whether from watercraft, or simply from the bank.  Due to the nature of the river, there’s lots of variety.  In the smaller rivers that feed the main Juniata, trout fishing is said to be highly productive.  Once the river reaches Huntingdon, it turns into a hotbed for smallmouth bass fishing.  There’s also the occasional fallfish, rock bass, or walleye that will take your lure.  Aside from fishing, the Juniata also provides a great opportunity for recreational paddling.  With many branches to choose from (Frankstown, Raystown, Little Juniata), there’s lots of convenient places to enter the water.  For those not looking to go too far, the Raystown Branch offers the most convenient trip.

Juniata River Map

Map of Main Branch and Raystown Branch of Juniata River (PA Fish & Boat Commission)

Every year, the Raystown Field Station typically takes a group on a float trip on the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River.  They provide canoes and kayaks, and I would encourage anyone who wants to try it.  It’s definitely not whitewater rafting, but makes for a nice, pleasant afternoon.  With mountains rising up on either side, it’s a unique feeling, almost humbling.  For those interested in birding, many waterfowl call this place home.  Some species I’ve seen include bald eagles, ospreys, blue herons, kingfishers, and several species of ducks and mergansers.

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Floatin’ the Raystown Branch

P.S.  Keep your eyes peeled for turtles in the river too.  You might just spot a map turtle, or better yet (depending on how you look at it), a snapping turtle!

Also included below is a video of some folks paddling the Juniata River from Petersburg (30 min. north of Huntingdon) downstream to Huntingdon.

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Angry lil’ fella (snapping turtle)

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