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Environment & Energy

How Pennsylvania hunters and anglers could help shift climate policy

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Emma Lee
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WHYY

World leaders are meeting in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference to hash out how to keep emissions from rising, even as the latest UN climate report warns of record global temperatures and an increase in climate-fueled natural disasters.

The National Wildlife Federation, one of the oldest and largest environmental nonprofits in the U.S., is hoping to engage a group of people who are seeing these climate impacts firsthand and get them to take some action: hunters and anglers.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke to NWF’s Director of Sporting Advocacy, Aaron Kindle, about a report they’ve recently released, and how climate change is impacting our region.

Kara Hoslopple: What are some of the climate impacts that are affecting game species in Pennsylvania? 

Aaron Kindle: The two that are probably most synonymous with Pennsylvania are brook trout and ruffed grouse. Brook trout are the only native trout to Pennsylvania, and they require cold, clean water to persist and survive. As we’re seeing warmer temperatures, often what that means for trout species is they have to go higher and higher up in the watersheds to find appropriate habitat. As the climate warms, that gets harder and harder to do.

It’s the same for ruffed grouse. We’re seeing reports that ruffed grouse, the state bird there, has an opportunity to not even be in Pennsylvania if we continue to see the warming that we’re looking at right now.

Holsopple: They’ll sort of remain up north?

Kindle: Yes, particularly in the summer and during hunting season, in the fall, and then perhaps come back down in the winter.

Holsopple: There was also something in the report about disease and climate change?

Kindle: One of the things we know about climate change is that it doesn’t always mean just hotter or warmer. It means more extreme events. In Pennsylvania, that means more extreme rainfall events. What we’ve seen in the literature is that it means more standing water. That means more mosquitoes, and West Nile virus is one of the things that’s really plaguing ruffed grouse. If you’ve got both warmer temperatures, which are pushing ruffed grouse more north, and then you’ve got disease and things like that that are impacting ruffed grouse, you can see that spells kind of a rough future.

Holsopple: What have you heard anecdotally about climate impacts from hunters and anglers? 

Kindle: There’s a lot across the country. If you’re in the west, it has a lot to do with fishing closures, it’s too warm trout. You’re seeing fire closures. I’m in Colorado, and in 2002, we saw our first 100,000-acre wildfire. In 2020, we saw our first 200,000-acre wildfire. If you look back, pre-1980, 10,000 acres was the largest wildfire that was reported, so you’re seeing a huge increase in wildfires.

What that means, for instance, is this last year, a bunch of elk hunting units was closed because that fire was actually happening in October, much later in the season for the fire season and much larger wildfires across the country.

In places like West Virginia, Pennsylvania, you’re seeing flooding, which is making it hard to fish. It’s changing habitat. In northern states, the snow is melting off earlier. The ice doesn’t come along or is too thin to fish on for ice fishing in the winter.

In the south, the ducks aren’t coming down as far south into Louisiana and Florida. Some of the ducks just don’t show up anymore because it’s warm enough for them to stay in the north. There’s an impact pretty much everywhere you are, and it’s coming for everybody.

Holsopple: What are some of the solutions that the National Wildlife Federation is proposing when it comes to climate change that impacts hunting and fishing?

Kindle: We recently put out this report. It’s called “The Hunters and Anglers Guide to Climate Change Challenges, Opportunities and Solutions.” What we’re doing there is basically talking with the sporting community and saying, “Look, you’ve been on the landscape, you’ve seen the changes. Here’s what that means for fish, wildlife, and hunting, and here’s how you can work towards a future that’s better for those things.”

Really, that starts with restoring and investing in natural infrastructure. We’re taking this moment in time, with Congress considering the bipartisan infrastructure deal and the budget and reconciliation. There’s a lot of things in there that we could invest in that would help the sporting community and our wildlife and the habitat that it relies on.

When I say natural infrastructure, I mean things like wetlands and grasslands and forests. There’s money in these packages for mitigating the impacts of forest fires, like restoring and replanting forests or doing some hazardous fuel reduction, working around campgrounds and communities to reduce the vectors for wildfire into the larger forest.

There’s things like wildlife corridor investment, which means maybe you put a natural bridge over a highway so that the wildlife can access different habitat, so that if there’s a problem in one piece of habitat, they can get safely across highways and access other habitat.

There are a lot of different ways you can invest in these things and they really are investments. They end up paying for themselves and they save built infrastructure.

For instance, if you do stream restoration, and you revegetate the stream banks and add back in the wetlands, and the meanders on that stream, well that slows and holds floodwater. If you think about a bridge downstream, and you’ve slowed the water and reduced the amount of it that’s coming down, then you reduce the opportunity for that bridge to be taken out and of the roads to be taken out. At the same time that you do that, you create good wildlife habitat.

We feel like that’s a win-win, definitely worth the investment, and something that the sporting community should be pushing for right now.

Holsopple: In the introduction of the report, you write, “The time to sit on our hands has passed.” What are you asking hunters and anglers to do? 

Kindle:  Broadly, we’re saying, use your voice. I think one of the interesting things about the hunting and angling community is there are not that many folks who have those similar experiences.

You learn a lot and you see a lot and you understand a lot about the landscape when you’re up at 4 o’clock in the morning, trying to walk through the forest as quietly as possible, trying not to be detected. You see things out there that most people don’t see. Often these same folks go back year after year to these places, and so they see change over time.

What we’re trying to do with this report is to get those folks who are seeing these things happen to be the ones who are talking about what solutions make the most sense. There are not that many folks who are going to our decision-makers that have that kind of experience. So use your voice, tell those folks what you’re seeing, tell them what you want, get engaged.

Right now, we’re looking at huge investments in infrastructure and things like natural infrastructure. You know, go in there and talk about the places that you know, that are degraded, that need help. If we can get these habitats restored and better able to handle these impacts, then that’s climate resilience. That makes it more likely that brook trout can persist if we keep those forests healthy, and we restore those streams and keep that water cooler. The brook trout have a better chance of staying on the landscape.

Holsopple: Has there been any resistance to the idea of climate change and naming it as a threat in sporting communities? 

Kindle: Yeah, I mean, I think there has in the past, and there still is to some degree. It’s just the nature of the beast. For me, I don’t focus too much on it. I focus on solutions.

Whether you agree with climate change or believe climate change is real or not, these things that we’re espousing and advocating for will help hunting and fishing, will help people, will help wildlife habitat. They are something we believe everybody can get behind.

We’re really asking people to start telling their stories, and tell those stories to decision-makers and tell them to friends.

There has been resistance, but I think it’s a little besides the point in that what we’re talking about can improve things regardless.

Holsopple: How are you getting the word out about this? 

Kindle: We’re doing a lot. We have a podcast, and so we’re talking about that. We have a series called “Vanishing Seasons,” and that’s just really taking regular Joe and Jane Hunter and Angler and getting their stories out there in the world, trying to help get people feeling better about talking about it, both because they know they have other people in their community that are experiencing it and that it’s something that’s real that people are experiencing and they need to talk about.

We’re really asking people to start telling their stories, and tell those stories to decision-makers and tell them to friends and ask friends, “Hey, what are you finding out about?”

I think what it’s doing is helping people understand that it’s not just them, and it’s OK to talk about it. And while we’re talking about it, let’s figure out what the heck we want to do about it.

Read more from our partners, The Allegheny Front.