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Time to turn on the spotlight

5/31/2006

Driving east on Interstate 80 approaching the Golden State's capital, Sacramento, motorists see a large sign announcing the Yolo By-Pass Wildlife Area.

Right now the fields are still in agricultural crops, except for a pond about the size of two football fields that holds some ducks and maybe 100 swans. But when the rains come next month, those fields will flood and clouds of waterfowl will descend into the area.

The Yolo By-Pass Wildlife area exists because of the collective cooperative efforts of state and federal agencies, as well as conservation organizations supported by hunters, especially California Waterfowl Association and Ducks Unlimited.

CWA, DU, Delta Waterfowl, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Safari Club International, National Wild Turkey Federation, Conservation Force and other hunter's organizations have helped conserve million acres of wild land across North America.

In Africa, hunter-supported programs like Campfire and the Cullman and Hurt Community Wildlife Project not only conserve wildlife, they conserve human communities as well by vitalizing the local economies.

Yolo By-Pass gets recognition because of its location next to a freeway and major city. The signs at most of the other millions of acres that have been preserved by hunters are in remote places.

As a result, the habitat conservation work of hunters is largely unknown to the general public. That invisibility must stop.

This column is addressed to the people who determine programming at PBS, the major cable stations and the big networks.

You guys always seem to seek quotes from the anti-hunters who spend nothing on conserving wildlife habitat, devote most of their money trying to get people's attention, and often break laws doing so. Isn't it about time for some equal time to inform the 80 percent of the public who do not belong to animal rights groups and don't know what the hunters are quietly up to?

One especially good story for "60 Minutes" would the return of wild sheep to Hells Canyon. Bighorns were once common in Hells Canyon and its 5.5 million acres of the Snake River drainage in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. But over-hunting and diseases of domestic sheep drove them to extinction.

With major support from the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, state and federal agencies have teamed to create the Hells Canyon Initiative. Since 1971, 329 bighorn sheep from nine different sources have been relocated to Hells Canyon. Today 700 sheep in 14 herds live in the canyon, and the herds are growing.

Another great opportunity for mainstream news media to acknowledge hunters is coming up on Thanksgiving Day in Plymouth, Mass., when the National Wild Turkey Federation will release wild turkeys in that area. President Bush is invited.

Mr. President, wouldn't it be far more appropriate to honor wild turkeys on Thanksgiving than those fat, flightless, overweight birds that your predecessors have pardoned every year in a ridiculous White House ceremony that Harry Truman began? Hunters vote, Mr. President; sportsmen helped elect Arnold.

The general public needs to know about hunters, and hunters also need to keep up to date. For both, I'd like to turn the spotlight on a new organization that shows great promise — the Alaska Moose Federation.

The Alaskan moose population today is about 150,000. Moose occur throughout Alaska, except for the Aleutian Islands. They are most common in the south-central and inland areas. Density varies considerably, from one animal for 30 square miles to five or more per square mile.

Moose are found all across northern North America. They are in all Canadian provinces, except the plains of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The Canadian moose herd is estimated at anywhere between 500,000 to 1 million and their range and numbers are increasing.

The Alaska moose population, in contrast, has declined in recent years. The decline in Alaska moose is not due to hunting or predators, although each takes their share, which is about equal. Instead, the cause of the declining moose population is largely loss of habitat, and increased modern predation by trains and cars.

An adult moose must eat about 40 pounds of browse a day — twigs and shrubs in winter, and just about anything green in summer. When feed is scarce, moose prune out the forest understory up to eight feet high. Since the adults have the greatest reach advantage to browse, the younger, shorter moose get short-changed and starve first in bad winters.

Food scarcity also impacts reproduction. A healthy, well-fed cow moose will have twins as frequently as 75 percent of the time. Triplets are not uncommon. A cow with little to eat will have one, or maybe no calves at all.

Wildfires normally preserve the shrubby habitat moose need to survive. Increased efficiency in controlling fires means more adult trees and less moose browse. Hungry moose in turn move into areas that can sustain them, which today means right-of-ways along railroad tracks highways, and urban areas, that are without predators except for SUVs.

Long associated with wilderness, moose recently have moved right into the Anchorage city limits and set up camp, feasting on shrubs, lawns, and flowers.

It may be exciting to have a moose in your yard, but a cow with calves, is not an animal you want to mess with. A cow moose with calves is more dangerous and aggressive than a sow bear with cubs.

Cars kill some 600 moose every year in Alaska. A car never wins in a collision with a moose. The cost to repair cars struck by moose in Alaska is about $9 million a year, and such collisions are on the rise.

Archery hunting is an effective and common practice to control deer in many urban areas across North America. Urban moose hunting is pushing the envelope.

"We got a better idea," says Gary Olson, Chairman of the Alaska Moose Federation. "Let's grow more moose, and send them back to the wilds."

The Alaska Moose Federation's plan is threefold: Create more suitable moose habitat in wild areas through controlled burns, establish fences and other protections for moose along roads and railroads, and relocate urban moose.

Unlike deer, which have a high mortality and low survival rate when tranquilized and relocated, moose are pretty durable. When you shoot a moose with a tranquilizer dart, it is so large that it may not even fall down.

The sedated moose may just stand there and allow you to herd it into a cattle trailer and transport it someplace away from town. The relocation survival rate is fairly high.

On Oct. 9, the 56 members of the Alaskan Village Council Presidents, a statewide native organization, met in Bethel and voted unanimously to support the Alaskan Moose Federation.

Any group that can bring together sport hunters, environmentalists, nature-lovers and subsistence native hunters in support of a huntable species deserves some time in the spotlight.

On Oct. 25, the Alaskan Moose Federation will be holding it's first fund-raising dinner. Check out their website for details. Pass the word, too.

The media seem to like big stars. Maybe turning the spotlight on the biggest deer in the world will get some primetime attention.

In many places, like New England, moose are increasing in numbers, resulting in auto accidents and damage to farms and urban gardens and shrubs. If the Alaskan strategy works, look for more groups modeled after the Alaskan Moose Federation to develop programs to return the biggest deer of all back to where it belongs — the wilderness.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy.

To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.

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