Seeing Fewer Mule Deer, Turkeys, and Ducks? Thank America's Habitat Crisis.

Seeing Fewer Mule Deer, Turkeys, and Ducks? Thank America's Habitat Crisis.

It sounds like hyperbole. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since a lot of conversations about loss in the conservation sphere sound hyperbolic these days. Loss of access, population, participation, and time all tend to get measured in vague, scary figures. But the claims the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) makes in their recent report on habitat loss sound too dire to be true:

“Game species lost, on average, 6.5 million acres of vital habitat over the last two decades.”

When you first read that statement, the optimist in your mind might hope the NWF means all game species have lost a collective 6.5 million acres in that span of time. Perhaps all the Prairie Pothole wetlands and high plains and old-growth forests and coastal marsh we’ve lost since the early 2000s sums up to a tidy 6.5 million. But then you do some quick math and realize 6.5 million acres in total can’t be right. That’s when you realize that estimate is per species. Then you read on to learn mule deer actually lost 7.4 million acres and turkeys lost 18.8 million acres. And now you’re really in a bad mood.

So how did we get to this point? And what are the solutions? These are the two questions that came to mind for NWF’s sporting advocacy director Aaron Kindle when he looked at the final tallies presented in the report. Thankfully, he’s pretty sure he knows the answers to both.

Pointing Fingers If you’ve been paying any attention to conservation in North America over the last two decades, the list of things going wrong for game species habitat probably looks familiar.

Different types of land use have taken metaphorical samurai swords to habitat in most rural parts of the United States. What used to be small towns and mid-sized cities are seeing rapid population growth and the infrastructure buildup that comes with it. In the background, a perpetually shifting climate is changing every ecosystem, exposing some to increased wildfire, others to more extreme storm events, and others still to dusty-throated drought littered with dead fish.

That all sounds quite dramatic, but so does the idea that America’s wild turkey habitat is one West Virginia-sized piece of land smaller than it was in the year 2000.

“We've seen a huge influx of population to the West. We've seen some new technologies in energy development that have opened new fields that were previously not developable,” Kindle told MeatEater. “We’ve got urban sprawl, conversion to agriculture…climate issues, drought, huge wildfires, and all those things together just seem like death by a thousand cuts.”

We Use It, They Lose It In the early 1980s, northwestern Colorado’s White River mule deer herd was estimated to be one of the biggest in the country, hovering above 100,000 individuals. But in the last four decades, the population has declined steadily: a 2019 estimate, published by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, put the count at 36,000. While this extreme drop is the result of myriad factors, one of the most impactful is natural resource extraction.

“Between 2005 and 2012, oil and gas development in the region skyrocketed with almost 10,000 new wells drilled across mule deer habitat,” the NWF report said. “The resulting fragmentation contributed to a population collapse that significantly limited hunter opportunity. By 2012, the state was issuing 83% fewer licenses for the White River herd than in 2005.”

The White River herd is migratory, and some deer travel up to 70 miles between summer and winter ranges. But those migratory corridors—strips of habitat that sustain mule deer during their journey—have been increasingly cut up by various types of infrastructure associated with energy extraction. Northwestern Colorado is one of many parts of the West that have seen this type of fragmentation.

“The biggest town around was 2,200 people in Meeker, Colorado, so there was really nobody out there. And then we had this huge energy development boom out there,” Kindle said. “About 10 years ago, we had some hunters from those areas driving us down the roads and pointing us to places where now there's huge infrastructure for energy development, pipelines, transmission centers, pumping stations, and wells and all these things. They were saying at the time, five, 10 years ago, none of this existed, not a single bit of it.”

Part of the NWF report looked at how proximal game species are to development. Today, mule deer are never more than 2.34 miles away on average from a manmade structure. That makes the migration from summer to winter range more like a maze than the ancient, well-trodden path it’s supposed to be.

“Mule deer in many places have evolved to have daily or seasonal movements, and if you block their pathway, they may not want to go where they're used to going,” Mule Deer Foundation Conservation Director Steve Belinda told MeatEater. “Can these animals go where they want to go when they need to go there, in a fashion that doesn't put them at risk? The answer is no in some places, and in other places, yeah, they could still do what they want. But ultimately, they have evolved on a large landscape, and we've affected it.”

But the land use conflict isn’t limited to mule deer. It certainly isn’t limited to the oil and gas industry, either. It also takes the form of waterfowl versus wetland conversion for agriculture or migratory birds versus wind energy infrastructure. It looks like native fish populations versus hydroelectric dams. The United States is increasingly struggling to feed itself, gas up its vehicles, and keep its lights on without somehow impacting its game species habitat—and habitat for all the other species, too.

This leads us to the next problem. Us humans aren’t just using habitat indirectly to supply our energy, food, and water anymore. By increasingly building our homes and communities on top of it, we’re quite literally turning wildlife habitat into human habitat.

New Neighbors, New Weather It’s no coincidence that in the same amount of time that each game species lost an average of 6.5 million acres of habitat, America’s building landscape has grown by 8.9 million acres, according to the Washington Post and USGS. That’s 8.9 million more acres of roads, housing developments, mixed-use buildings, parking lots, and everything else that comes with urban sprawl.

In the Post’s map of new land development, the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, and Southern regions are the biggest areas of new growth. Phoenix, Denver, Boise, Salt Lake City, and the Bakken Oil Formation of western North Dakota also stand out. But that heavy concentration of growth on the eastern side of the Mississippi gives some answers to the struggles of a different species: the wild turkey.

Wild turkeys have lost 18.8 million acres of habitat. Arkansas turkey populations have shrunk by 65% since 2003. Mississippi estimates a loss of 45%. South Carolina’s turkey harvest has plummeted by more than 40% since 2002. The National Wild Turkey Federation cites urban sprawl as one of the primary threats to hunting.

“This area that we live in was perfect turkey habitat until we built our house here, until we paved the driveway and put our pavilion in. We have a dog that runs around. It’s absolutely our impact on the habitat here in the Southeast,” turkey expert Robert Abernethy told MeatEater. “Building the houses, the shopping malls, schools, roads, clearing the fields for agriculture, horse pastures, none of that is turkey habitat.”

But the struggles of population growth in the Southeast are compounded by the small amount of protected habitat wild turkeys can rely on in the region.

“The Southeast is a huge, fast-growing place,” Kindle said. “It's got a lot of development. It doesn't have these big public land refuges for habitat. In Colorado or Montana, you can count on some protected areas, some big areas where there is going to be habitat. And that's just not necessarily true everywhere in the country. When you’re seeing 18 million acres of range loss, that’s going to have a huge impact.”

Kindle also cited climate change as a primary driver of the habitat issues wild turkeys face.

“I think climate is another one we have to talk about here because it makes habitat less viable,” Kindle said. “You're seeing heat waves and drought and flooding. We were talking to a fellow the other day who said seemingly every year now in the Southeast, they get these really late, cold rains, right when the chicks would be hatching. And that's unique and new, it's not something that used to happen here. So, it's an issue with volatility of climate, it's loss of habitat, it's a lot of different things. Ecology is complicated.”

The climate issue might be the most common denominator across all game species habitat loss. This type of volatility doesn’t discriminate—it finds a way to impact anything with hooves, gills, wings, scales, or fur. It also further complicates losses caused by other sources.

“The fact is, we've seen a significant amount of energy development. We've seen a significant amount of subdivisions. We've seen a significant amount of roads, rights-of-way and pipelines built into a lot of mule deer habitat. And we have not seen as much restoration or rehabilitation,” Belinda said. “So, then you add wildfire, drought, and successional habitat change, and you get quite a few acres that have been what some folks will determine to be lost.”

Where to Begin Big issues like climate change can seem like an irreversible, unmovable mountain, other factors like natural resource extraction and urban sprawl feel a bit more manageable on a national level. But no matter how daunting, if we want to conserve our game species for generations to come, we need solutions, and we need them soon.

One such solution is further protection. President Biden’s pending “America the Beautiful” initiative outlines how the United States will try to implement the United Nations’ “30x30” goal to conserve 30% of the planet’s lands and waters by 2030. This route would take what pristine habitat the United States already possesses and enter it into long-term protection. The administration is still deciding what would count as conservable land, since lots of America’s pristine habitat is already protected at a federal, state, or local level. But it’s widely touted as a sound decision for conservation.

“Any logical person can think, if you take a certain percentage of the land and you put that into conservation, there's some number you have to achieve or else it's not enough to take care of the fish and wildlife,” Kindle said. “I wouldn't sit here and tell you 30% is the exact number. I don't know. But what I would to tell you is that's the latest opportunity for the sporting community to get engaged, to advocate for their version of conservation.”

Belinda already mentioned another more hands-on solution that Kindle also emphasized: restoration and rehabilitation.

“Protection's cool. It's great. But protection is for habitat that's already in good shape,” Kindle pointed out. “If you take a 10-million-acre cornfield and you turn that into even 2 million acres of legitimate habitat, that's zero to 2 million. If you take a pristine forest and you say, ‘OK, now that's wilderness,’ it's still the same habitat. It didn't gain anything, you just kept it that way, which is good and worth it. But that's one of the reasons we've been really pushing natural infrastructure, restoration of rivers, lakes, wetlands, forests. Every time you do that, you’re gaining from zero to whatever you bring back.”

It might not be enough to just stop further habitat loss for mule deer, turkeys, and all the other game species who’ve kissed their respective 6.5 million acres goodbye. If we want to see populations return to historic highs—and get license sales and excise tax revenue back to what they used to be for these species—we might need to put some parts of those 6.5-million-acre chunks back to the way we found them. Projects that restore wetlands, grasslands, riparian corridors, and forest health are a fantastic start.

As daunting as all this sounds, and as miserable as it can be to face the realities of what the past 20 years have been like for game species, data in reports like this one are necessary to sound the alarm for habitat conservation efforts nationwide.

“Reports like this are great and they wake us up that we need to do more on the habitat side,” Belinda said. “They need to be part of the body of evidence that allows professional managers that can interpret science to make better management decisions, habitat decisions, so that we can stem the decline and start to restore these habitats, which ultimately should help restore some of the populations.”

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