Column | Help safeguard our outdoor heritage

Hunting and observing wildlife have long been important parts of our country’s rich natural heritage.

The success we’ve had in restoring big-game populations has been largely due to the millions of dollars generated from the sale of sporting licenses and a self-imposed excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition.

Our state fish and wildlife agencies have wisely used this vital conservation-funding source to protect, restore and create fish and wildlife habitats throughout America.

Here in Pennsylvania, those excise taxes have helped the Game Commission purchase and manage more than 1.4 million acres of game lands that are open to the public — at no charge — for hunting and passive, nature-oriented recreation.

But a new report from the National Wildlife Federation, “Nowhere to Run: Big Game Wildlife in a Warming World,” documents how climate change is altering the landscape for wildlife, jeopardizing that success.

For example, although warmer winters may reduce deer mortality, disease and insect predators are taking an increased toll.

During the dry season of late summer and early fall, deer begin congregating near scarce water sources. At the same time, a small midge that lives mostly in the south is blown north by dry summer winds, where it encounters deer at the watering hole.

The muddy banks provide egg-laying habitat and deer provide a blood meal for the midges.

Because northern deer have not evolved with this insect, the bite of the virus-bearing midge is almost always fatal.

The good news is that the attacks end by the first killing frost. The bad news is that climate change is pushing back the date of the first killing frost and the disease is now found in states where it had never been recorded.

In 2011, epizootic hemorrhagic disease killed more than 90 percent of the herd along a five-mile stretch of river in Montana.

Although EHD now has mostly localized impacts on the deer herd, climate change appears to be making outbreaks more common and widespread.

Climate change is also affecting moose populations all across the southern portion of their range, from Wyoming to New Hampshire. Warmer winters have facilitated the explosion of tick populations, and biologists are finding moose in New Hampshire and Maine covered with more than 150,000 ticks.

In a desperate attempt to dislodge them, moose begin rubbing themselves on trees. In some instances, they’ve removed 90 percent of their hair, making them susceptible to hypothermia and disease.

Ticks and other pathogens have decimated the moose population in Minnesota, causing the state to close the moose-hunting season. All across the country, biologists are scratching their heads, trying to determine why this most iconic of species is declining.

Is it a coincidence this cold-weather animal is struggling in the hottest decade on record?

Not just wildlife is suffering, of course. Unlike 20 years ago, almost all of us now know someone who has Lyme disease.

With warmer temperatures and fewer hard freezes, hunters are being exposed to more Lyme disease as deer ticks expand their range. Recent testing by the West Nile virus program in Pennsylvania found more than half of the deer ticks tested carried the bacteria for Lyme disease.

Until a few years ago, it was unheard of to find ticks in New Hampshire and Canada, but now, thanks to warmer winters, ticks are a major concern, not only for moose, but for hunters.

To safeguard our outdoor heritage for future generations, we must cut carbon pollution and speed our transition to clean energy.

It’s time for sportsmen and women to speak up, here in our community and to our elected officials in Washington.

We can help save America’s wildlife by supporting the Environmental Protection Agency’s limits on carbon pollution and by encouraging state fish and wildlife agencies to implement climate-smart conservation strategies to better manage big-game populations as the temperature continues to climb.

The time to act is now.