Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Be thankful for Ohio’s wildlife
Michelle Wood is the program administrator for the Holmes Soil and Water Conservation District. She is a graduate of Mount Union College with a degree in communications, and has been involved in natural resources and agriculture throughout her career
Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks of course, but many hunters are especially thankful that it signals the start of deer gun season the following Monday.
I think I see more pickup trucks parked along the road the first day of gun season than are on the road. And while hunting is now for sport more so than necessity, many of us do not fully appreciate that the wildlife we see in abundance today, and maybe even complain about, could easily not exist at all or in small numbers. Let me digress a bit to explain some history.
Wildlife and land use
The Ohio Division of Wildlife has a set of great maps developed in 2003 to celebrate the bicentennial that illustrate what Ohio looked like every 100 years in terms of wildlife and land use. Educators use these maps to show students how Ohio has changed since its settlement.
The map of 1803 shows forest cover over all of Ohio, with the exception of the Great Black Swamp in the northwest and prairies in the southwest. Ohio was a dark, deep forest teeming with wildlife. It was said that a squirrel could cross Ohio without ever touching the ground. Surprisingly, also present were elk, black bears, wolves, mountain lions beaver, otters, bison and passenger pigeons. Written accounts cite flocks of passenger pigeons that were so large that they blocked the sun.
Beaver and other furbearers were trapped for their valuable pelts, a lucrative business that brought more and more people to Ohio. Beaver hats were the big thing in Europe at the time so beaver were trapped until they were extirpated, which means they could be found in other areas but not Ohio. There were no limits or laws regarding wildlife.
Cleared the land
As settlers arrived, they cleared the forest for farmland and towns. Rivers were straightened and canals built for transportation. From 1803 until 1883 the amount of forest in Ohio went from 24 million acres to four million acres. When the land use changed, so did wildlife populations.
The map illustration of 1903 looks much different than 100 years prior. Much of Ohio is now agricultural land, with a small section of forests in the unglaciated southern part. Wildlife represented includes coyotes, cottontail rabbits, raccoons, muskrats, foxes and some otters in the northeast. Notice I did not mention whitetail deer or wild turkeys—they were extirpated. Only animals could adapt to the more open land habitat existed in decent numbers.
Not that these species are less important than the others, but there certainly wasn’t much wildlife diversity.
Conservation becomes popular
Conservation started to catch on when it became evident that wildlife regulations and conservation practices were needed for sustainability. The Dust Bowls of the 1930s led to the creation of soil and water conservation districts, and prior to that, wildlife regulations were implemented. Conservation leaders, both nationally and locally, got the message across that our natural resources could not be depleted without dire consequences. Conservation practices like contour strips, no-till, manure management, crop rotations and forest management are now the norm on farms, but at one time these were innovative practices. The results are less erosion, cleaner water, and wildlife increased wildlife habitat.
Back to those wildlife maps—in 2003, the map illustration of Ohio looks a lot more like it did in 1803 than 1903, with bald eagles, river otters, beaver, Trumpeter swans, wild turkeys, and whitetail deer depicted. Wildlife management, conservation practices, and wildlife species reintroduction has led to healthy populations of wildlife that can be watched, trapped or hunted again. I’m thankful for that abundance.