Wildlife comebacks

Most people possess affections for wildlife, for a wide variety of reasons. There are many cases of successful species population recovery. However, not all of them have been equally welcomed by everyone.

August 10, 2018 - Author: ,

Bald eagles, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, black bears, and many other popular species have made dramatic comebacks over the past several decades. Not all recoveries have been entirely welcomed by all people. Much of the reason for successful comebacks is related to habitat recovery and forest management. National and state wildlife policies and programs have worked well, in many cases.

In the 1930s, well-known forester and wildlife biologist Aldo Leopold foretold the demise of the sandhill crane in his essay “Marshland Elegy”, which is included in his 1949 famed Sand County Almanac. Leopold feared that the sandhill crane would go the way of the extinct passenger pigeon, which once numbered in the billions, where flocks would darken the sky. Now common, the recovery of the magnificent sandhill crane is not merely an act of nature, but closely linked to environmental laws and habitat protection.

Our national bird, the bald eagle, was one of many raptors threatened by DDT exposure in the 1960s. At that time, seeing a bald eagle was a notable event. Today, it’s possible to hit an eagle while driving a car. A windshield filled with the wingspread of an eagle is a different kind of notable event! Bald eagles, ospreys, and other raptors have recovered, in part, due to the banning of DDT. They have also benefited from special habitat management protocols, such as setbacks from eagle nests and the construction of osprey platforms.

As an aside, did you know that the “scream” of an eagle in movies is usually the scream of a red-tailed hawk? Eagles don’t possess such a “noble” scream! Those old enough to remember might recall when white-tailed deer were uncommon, especially in the agricultural areas of southern Michigan and southern Wisconsin. Now, both states sport more deer than the entire North American population from a hundred years ago. In many regions, the deer are now causing significant environmental and economic damage. Overabundant populations also contribute to the spread of diseases, such as chronic wasting disease.

Again, deer rebounds have been all about management and habitat recovery. However, maybe some of these tenets should be adapted to reflect current population conditions. No small set of controversies there! Considering controversial topics, gray wolf recovery has reached a population of about 650 to 700 in the Upper Peninsula. Few wildlife species have more myths and misinformation (from all sides) associated with them than wolves. It may be important to note that wolves migrated back to Michigan on their own. No agency introduced them.

Another somewhat unpopular recovery, for some people, is the double-crested cormorant. Again, rarely seen in the 1970s, current populations now have conflicts with human uses. The USDA Wildlife Services have run programs to reduce the size of some local cormorant populations.

In northern Michigan, elk have been re-established with animals from the western USA, after being extirpated from Michigan by about 1875. Elk recovery has had ups and downs over the last century. However, a relatively stable population has supported a hunting season since 1984. The poster child of recovery, perhaps, is the endangered Kirtland’s warbler, which (until recently) bred only on the jack pine plains of the northern Lower Peninsula. They have expanded their range to both the U.P. and northern Wisconsin. Due to intense forest management, the warbler is scheduled to be removed from the list this year.

While natural resource managers have many wildlife success stories to tell, other species have become (or remain) the focus of recovery programs. Sometimes, it’s a matter of three steps forward and two steps backward.

Tags: ddt, msu extension


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