Conservation: Say What You Mean

There is something quite startling when we compare the American and Canadian models of hunting organisations to our own. Although some of ours may have started with a focus on wildlife and the conservation of species, I can’t think of one today apart from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and they sit firmly on their own in terms of their operation.

That it not so over the pond, and it is an aspect we need to take a good, long hard look at. We are very happy as individuals and organisations to band around the notion that we as hunters are conservationists, but how much time and effort is truly focused on this. Yes we all know the many spin off benefits to driven grouse moor management, but simply partaking in the harvesting of grouse is not enough. The same is true with stalking. Just because you have ethically killed a deer and put it in your freezer doesn’t make it conservation. Wild meat has indeed been harvested, but unless you are monitoring population dynamics, you have no idea what a harvestable surplus should be or indeed what class of animals need to be focused on for the good of the population. It is disingenuous to suggest that the act of harvesting wild game alone is conservation.

Pheasants Forever have done tremendous work in improving pollinator habitats to coincide with cover for pheasants. Ducks unlimited have raised and spent millions of dollars restoring wetland habitat and grasslands amongst their many other projects. Look up any of these organisations websites, locate their conservation tab and you will find an impressive list of on-going projects making a difference, not just to game but to many other species as well. Do the same for our UK based organisations, and many will not even have a conservation space, and those which do, offer little more than advice. Action and projects are no more to be seen.

Let us look at the Wild Sheep Foundation as a case in point. For a century leading up to the 1960’s big horn sheep populations and their range had declined markedly. By 1974, and group of wild sheep enthusiast founded the Foundation of North American Wild Sheep, with the sole focus to restore wild sheep populations across the continent. In 2008 the name of their organisation was changed to the Wild Sheep Foundation.

Since its formation, the Wild Sheep Foundation has raised and implemented more than $115million for conservation initiatives. The result? A staggering success story for conservation where hunters have been at the core of making it possible.

The decline of wild sheep and goats across North America started in the 1800’s during the rapid period of increased human settlement. It has been suggested that there were in excess of two million Big Horn sheep prior to the 1800’s. By the mid 1950’s less than 25,000 remained. Unregulated trade hunting, disease and grazing competition from domestic livestock, as well as the encroachment of human populations, perpetuated what was a naturally fragmented population. This facilitated a rapid decline of Big Horn and many other species.

Through a combination of population transplants, research, water development, predator management, and educational outreach to name just a few initiatives from the WSF, the numbers of Rocky Mountain Big Horn sheep increased from just 25,000 in the 1950’s to more than 85,000 today. The population recovery in some states has been in excess of 200%. The state of Oregon has seen a rise of 2000% in its wild sheep population.

In the last 90 years more than 20,000 Big Horn sheep in 1400 separate projects have been translocated. Much of this has been supported by the Wild Sheep Foundation and its network of chapters. Providing not only funding, but labour and political support to aid in the restoration efforts for wild sheep.

Importantly they have focused much time, efforts and funding on habitat enhancement. As is true of all species, without suitable habitat there is little chance of a recovery or long term survival. From prescribed burning and water development, to noxious weed control and fence modification, their work is focused on action and wildlife.

Although well-known knowledge amongst North American hunters and those with a particular fondness for the pursuit of sheep, one of the most important aspects of the Wild Sheep Foundation’s initiatives has been in the effective separation of domestic and wild sheep.

Just as the Native Americans were impacted with the arrival of European settlers with a lack of immunity to certain diseases, so too were the wild sheep of North American when domestic sheep and goats were introduced. The predominant problem lay with respiratory diseases caused by bacteria, and today still remains the single biggest barrier to wild sheep population restoration.

In Big Horn sheep this bacteria can cause substantial mortality, with anything from 75-100% of a herd dying in a short period after being in contact with domestic sheep and goats. Examples have occured as recently as 2009-2010, where nine separate Big Horn sheep die offs, over five separate States resulted from a pneumonia outbreak. An estimated 1600-1700 animals died. That represents more than 1% of the population in a single year. With this knowledge, the importance placed on spatial and temporal separation with domestic livestock becomes clear. This too is the reason so much weight is put on disease research and the science behind it. Look up the employees at the Wild Sheep Foundation and you will be a very different CV spectrum when compared to their equivalent counterparts in the UK. They predominantly are people of science, research and conservation with a hunting interest.

I could write long about the various initiatives driven by hunting organisations in the U.S and Canada. For now we are at an end for this month. So I ask you as a hunter, and reader of this blog to ask the question. What are we truly doing for conservation in the U.K. and see how far down the rabbit hole you go.