In today’s blog post we are privileged to receive an expert perspective of hunting/wildlife management in the United States by Dr. Paul Curtis, Department Extension Leader and Associate Professor in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University based in Ithaca, NY. For the past 23 years he has been organizing the Wildlife Damage Management Program to reduce human-wildlife conflicts in agricultural and suburban landscapes. Dr. Curtis works both on a local level, national, and even international level to integrate community-based wildlife management issues and public policy education. His past research has included studies of urban coyote ecology, black bear behavior, nesting and foraging behavior of colonial waterbirds, and new methods for reducing tick abundance and associate Lyme disease.  He has written numerous journal articles and extension publications concerning wildlife ecology, behavior, and methods to reduce human-wildlife conflicts.  Dr. Curtis is a Certified Wildlife Biologist with The Wildlife Society.

I hope you all enjoy this exclusive interview opportunity to hear about wildlife management and hunting right from the horse’s mouth.

WILD: What are the greatest flaws in conservation in the United States? Internationally?

CURTIS: Under Endangered Species Act regulations, allowable “take” or the killing of threatened and endangered species is supposed to be determined based on the best available science.  However, with competing interests and pressures, this “take” sometimes exceeds what would be prudent based on science and population surveys.  For example, sea turtle populations are declining because of the by catch allowed for commercial fishing vessels.  For many wildlife species, we still lack quality data on behavior and population ecology on which to make management decisions.

WILD: How is game management directly related to wildlife conservation in the United States? Internationally?

CURTIS: The roots of wildlife conservation in the US were developed by avid hunters and anglers.  They recognized the need for habitat conservation and effective laws in the late 1800s and early 1900s as wildlife abundance declined due to habitat changes and market hunting.  Laws like the Pittman Robertson Act were established to provide federal funding for wildlife conservation, and these funds come directly from an excise tax on firearms and ammunition used by sportsmen and women.

WILD: Which species in North America have been lost due to hunting since the 1850’s?

CURTIS: I’m not aware of a North American wildlife species that was lost solely based on hunting pressure.  The two extinct species where shooting pressure was a contributing factor were the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet.  However, the large-scale elimination of eastern forests for agriculture and timber production was at least equally important to the shooting, and the eventual demise of these two bird species.

WILD: Are there any species that have been bottlenecked to such a degree as to generate a population with any deleterious alleles?

CURTIS: The Florida panther comes to mind.  There are so few individuals remaining in the population that there is concern about inbreeding depression.

WILD: Many individuals hear of wolves and coyotes as being either extremely harmful or agricultural pests. What have benefits to keeping these top predators have studies shown?

CURTIS: Top predators can help maintain ecosystem function by keeping populations of key herbivores in check.  This has been shown with wolves and elk in Yellowstone National Park and stream-bank habitat restoration.  However, it is not a good idea to have large carnivores in suburban areas given potential conflicts with people and pets.  In Colorado, mountain lions were attracted to growing deer herds in suburban areas.  There have been documented cases of human attacks when big cats start foraging in the suburbs.  Fortunately, these attacks are still relatively rare.  However, there have been more human attacks by mountain lions in the past 10 years in this country, than for the 100 previous years.

WILD: Internationally, one of the emerging conflicts between humans and wildlife is the spread of disease. Have you noticed any increased infections from animals to humans and vice versa here in North America? What are your predictions for the future?

CURTIS: As climates warm in the US, I predict we will have more issues with insect-borne diseases (e.g., ticks, mosquitos) such as Lyme disease, erlichiosis, or encephalitis.  Shorter, milder winters allow insect numbers to increase more during the growing season.  Also, without hard winter freezes, overwintering insects may have greater survival.

WILD: As our population booms, more individuals will be populating the suburbs and countryside, in addition to an increased demand for more agriculture. How do you see this affecting wildlife and thus in turn affecting humans? What do you suggest as viable solutions to this problem?

CURTIS: As urban sprawl continues, this will bring more people and wildlife species into close proximity.  It seems inevitable that human-wildlife conflicts will increase.  For many species, it will be primarily a nuisance issue.  However, when large carnivores or deer are in suburbia, there are definitely human health and safety consequences.  People will need to learn how to manage their homes and properties to reduce wildlife attractants (e.g., birdfeeders and bird seed, compost), and wildlife-proof their structures (fencing, chimney caps, etc,).

WILD: As you’ve expressed to me before, “the animal that causes the greatest number of deaths is the deer”. Deer are also large agricultural pests. What damage do they cause yearly in agricultural damage? Motor vehicle damage?

CURTIS: It’s difficult to obtain accurate figures associated with negative economic impacts for deer.  It’s estimated that there may be more than 1.5 million deer-vehicle collisions in the US annually, costing more than $1.5 billion for vehicle repairs alone.  In NYS alone, we probably hit more than 70,000 deer on our highways each year.  Crop losses have been estimated at approx. $50 million annually in NYS, and nationwide farmers lose hundreds of millions of dollars to deer damage each year.

WILD: What are some organizations in the United States that aim to manage some or all native wildlife species?

CURTIS: Many game species have conservation organizations that support habitat management and research.  Some examples include the Wild Turkey Federation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Ruffed Grouse Society, and Pheasants Forever, to name a few.

WILD: Although it may seem paradoxical to have hunting and firearms be used as a means for wildlife conservation, could you please explain how this is done through the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, including its more recent amendment?

CURTIS: Under the Pittman-Robertson Act, the federal government collects an excise tax on all firearms and ammunition sold.  These dollars are returned to state wildlife agencies based on a formula to support wildlife research and habitat conservation.  The federal government will pay up to 75% of the cost for approved projects.  Under more recent amendments, a portion of the taxes collected can be used for hunter education and safety programs.

WILD: One of the largest conservation issues in the United States revolves around the hunting practices of White Tailed Deer. The biological carrying capacity is the maximum population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely. Could you please describe the cultural and biodiversity carrying capacities that deer affect?

CURTIS: Cultural carrying capacity is the population level of deer (or other wildlife species) that people are willing to tolerate, given the negative impacts caused by some species.  For deer, carrying capacity for biodiversity is the density of deer that will allow the full complement of other animals and plants that you would typically expect in a forested ecosystem.  This level is typically the lowest of the 3 types of carrying capacity, and may range between 6 and 20 deer per square mile depending on location, habitat type, soil conditions, and winter severity.

WILD: Why do people believe that hunting is necessary? What are the main arguments against hunting? What are some of the different state and county regulations for deer hunting?

CURTIS: Whether or not people support hunting is a value judgment.  It is often based on the individual’s past experiences with wildlife, shooting sports, and their cultural background.  It could be argued whether or not hunting is actually “necessary.”  However, hunting can contribute to reductions in some populations of overabundant wildlife (for example deer and Canada geese in some areas), and reduce the negative impacts associated with these species.  Hunting regulations for species like deer vary widely within and between states.  Where deer populations need reduced, state wildlife agencies will usually issue more tags for taking female deer.

WILD: What are some of the political and financial issues that you are facing in your attempts to control deer population through hunting and contraception?

CURTIS: Most of the issues facing suburban deer management are political and regulatory.  In suburban areas, there is a wide diversity of stakeholders, and all want a say in how deer populations are managed.  This leads to conflicting interests, and it is often difficult to reach consensus on management objectives, and the means used to obtain those objectives.  Any form of deer management other than recreational hunting can be very expensive.  For example, sharp-shooting programs might cost $600-800 per deer removed, and sterilization programs may cost more than $1,000 per deer treated.  Access to deer on private lands is the key to management success for both lethal and non-lethal deer management approaches.

WILD: Thank you very much for this insightful interview, Dr. Curtis, and for providing a new ethical perspective to this controversial issue.

Stay Wild,

Gabby Wild