Bees buzzing in the backyard, huge Atlantic sturgeon plowing through Long Island Sound and myriad other species benefit from the way state wildlife and fisheries biologists spread around the funds available to them. In a day of tight budgets, the management biologists who are stewards of Connecticut’s wildlife keep a surprising number of balls in the air to keep woods and waters alight with life. Part of the reason for their success is the judicious acumen with which they allocate funds available to them.
The agencies responsible for managing the state’s fauna are divisions of wildlife, inland fisheries and marine fisheries of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). The divisions employ about 200 people, including clerical help and maintenance workers as well as managers. Taxes and fees paid by sportsmen constitute the financial engine that drives their efforts, according to Rick Jacobson, director of the wildlife division. Taxes on sales of firearms and ammunition mandated by the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, better known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, and a similar act covering sport fishing, provide much of the money. Most of the rest comes from licenses and fees for hunting and fishing paid by sportsmen to the state.
Sportsmen are not the only outdoor recreationists who benefit from such fees. So do non-consumptive users of nature such as birders and hikers, whose activities are freebies. You need not pay for a license to go birding. Over the long haul, says Jacobson, hunting and fishing have been the only stable source of funding for wildlife management. Grants, donations and similar sources of funding can be finite. Hunters and fishers also benefit the economy because they dig deep into their pockets to pay for their avocations, according to a study of the economic impact of resources managed by the DEEP by the Connecticut Center for Economic Management at the University of Connecticut. Visitors to state parks and forests spent $264 million on fishing and $100 million for hunting in 2010, far more, by way of comparison, than for skiing and swimming.
Compared to the overall state budget of $20 billion, the amount given to the divisions of wildlife, fisheries and forestry, which make up the Bureau of Natural Resources, is tiny, slightly less that $17 million, 0.05 percentage of the state total. It amounts as well to 12.5 percent of the DEEP’s total budget. Approximately $13.2 million of the natural resources budget comes from the levies on sportsmen. About $2.5 million flows from federal grants and similar sources, with the rest from taxpayers. To remain eligible for federal wildlife money, Connecticut must guarantee that, while dollars from sportsmen are collected into the state’s General Fund, they must go to the natural resources bureau for fish and wildlife conservation.
State wildlife biologists seem to wring as many programs as they can out of the funds available.
“They [state wildlife managers] get an amazing amount done by leveraging funds,” says veteran environmentalist Milan G. Bull, director of science and conservation of the Connecticut Audubon Society. Besides partnering with federal agencies such as the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the DEEP works with so-called “NGOs,” non-governmental organizations, such as Connecticut Audubon, Ducks Unlimited, the Ruffed Grouse Society, the Nature Conservancy and local land trusts.
Connecticut has been highly successful in garnering funds from a federal grant program designed to keep species off the endangered species list. Authorized by Congress in 2001 and paid for by a levy on oil drilling and other mineral exploitation offshore, the States Wildlife Grants Program (SWG), channels federal funds to states that, like Connecticut, have established a Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy, a long-term action plan for maintaining biological diversity. The funds go towards what biologists call species in “greatest conservation need” and are slanted toward protecting habitat as well as wildlife itself.
From Bees to Birds
SWG-funded projects alone span virtually the gamut of the animal kingdom. They include improving habitat for grassland birds, researching the decline in native bee pollinators, determining habitat needs for woodcock, mapping distribution of rare spadefoot toads, assessing impact of striped bass predation on river herring and researching the potential impact of climate change on native brook trout. Many projects are academically as well as fiscally leveraged. The University of Connecticut joined with DEEP in a massive study of declining bee pollinators that, in 2010, made Connecticut the first eastern state to legally protect bumblebees.
Grasslands are one of the high-priority declining habitats addressed by the state’s conservation strategy. These open landscapes support about 80 species of Connecticut birds, 13 of which are on the state list of endangered and threatened species. A typical grasslands bird is the grasshopper sparrow, still abundant on the western prairies but endangered in Connecticut due to habitat loss as well as predation by feral cats. Known for bright yellow feathers on its wings, the grasslands sparrow survives in only a few spots in the state. Another, named for its melodious call, is the bobolink, considered a species of “special concern” in the state.
With the help of conservation groups and agricultural interests, DEEP has identified 800 sites with existing grasslands or potential for grasslands development. New breeding and nesting areas were discovered for some of Connecticut’s most imperiled birds, including the horned lark, eastern meadowlark and American kestrel, also known as the “sparrow hawk.” The state’s “grasslands initiative” reached a major milestone in 2008 with the acquisition of 450 acres of prime grasslands on the Massachusetts border, which is now managed by both states.
Since wildlife knows no political borders, state biologists regularly deal with their counterparts from other states and the federal government. Biologists up and down the East Coast are concerned with the decline of the primitive Atlantic sturgeon, which can reach 12 feet long and live 60-plus years. Spending most of its life in coastal waters, it reproduces in streams such as the Connecticut River. Like other fish of similar habit, it has been deprived of spawning grounds by dams, dredging and pollution. Overfishing for caviar has also taken its toll. More than a century ago, a sturgeon fishery existed in the Connecticut River but, although a few of the fish turn up the stream’s lower reaches, the species no longer spawns there.
The Atlantic sturgeon is something of a mystery fish because information about its habitat and prey preferences is sparse. With SWG funds, DEEP fisheries biologists have identified prey species and locations favored by the sturgeon in Long Island Sound. Tagging and recapture of sturgeon have documented their movements as far from Connecticut as Georgia. This sort of information will help fisheries biologists develop future management plans for the fish.
Restoring Traditional Biodiversity
Efforts to bring back the Atlantic sturgeon typify the goal of the state’s wildlife management programs. The goal is, says Jacobson, director of the wildlife division, “to restore the biodiversity that was here historically and balance it with human interests.”
The approach that biologists use with a species depends on its present context and its past history. One technique is to reintroduce native species that once were abundant but no longer extant. Wild turkeys vanished from Connecticut by the early 1800s. The turkeys that thrive here today are descendants of transplants from other states. Fishers, large cousins of weasels, disappeared with the state’s forests. Regrowth of forests opened the door to reintroduction by DEEP of fishers in the northwestern part of the state. They spread, reinforced by fishers that, meanwhile, had naturally re-entered northeastern Connecticut from a population that had burgeoned in Massachusetts.
Not all segments of the public welcome reintroductions. Some residents have questioned the wisdom of bringing back fishers, claiming they kill turkeys and gray squirrels. They contend biologists are working at cross-purposes. Not so, say state wildlife managers. Biologists closely monitor reintroduced species to gauge their impact. Paul Rego, biologist in charge of furbearers, says science does not document detrimental fisher predation upon either turkeys or squirrels. Numbers of squirrels, says Rego, rise and fall with supply of food, such as acorns, whether or not fishers are present. “We’ve seen squirrels increase and decrease in [Hartford’s] Bushnell Park and no fishers live there,” he adds. Turkeys are also dependent on fluctuating food sources such as acorns.
Rego and his fellow biologists spend considerable time fielding questions from the public. In fact, says wildlife director Jacobson, the division has two biologists assigned to handle queries from citizens, which can range from complaints about coyotes to help with identifying birds.
Reintroduction aside, nature is helping restore Connecticut’s diversity on its own. As most residents know, black bears returned to the state as forests recovered and are reproducing here. So are — incredibly — moose, although some biologists question whether more than just a fringe population ever existed here. While welcomed by nature-lovers, bears and moose create issues of compatibility with dense populations of our own species. Big, even huge, and potentially dangerous, bear and moose need to be monitored and kept from hazardous interactions with people. Thus far, relocation back to the wild is the preferred method of dealing with problems. However, the possibility that a bear hunt may be considered in the future has already drawn howls from animal rights proponents.
Too Many Deer?
Deer began their recovery in-state on their own. The tiny population of deer that remained in Connecticut began to increase naturally in the mid-1900s as trees replaced farm fields. An opportunity arose for managers to build upon what nature had started. They were so successful that today, about 100,000 deer roam the state, although the numbers thin in winter. If anything, the deer program has been almost too successful, if you would hear some citizens whose crops and shrubs have been devoured by deer. Indeed, deer are so abundant that about 18,000 of them are killed on the state’s highways annually, according to the DEEP. Some biologists also believe that the increase in deer has helped spread Lyme disease and associated aliments, which are caused by ticks that deer harbor.
On the top end of the herbivorous food chain, deer heavily affect the very environment in which they live. “They feed on plant communities that impact all other wildlife,” says Howard Kilpatrick, biologist in charge of the deer program. Deer are chowhounds. A single whitetail can consume between five and 10pounds of vegetation daily. An overabundant concentration of deer can strip and destroy the forest understory, eliminating cover and nesting areas for many birds. One reason for a recent deer hunt on Charles Island off Milford was that starving deer were consuming vegetation in which egrets and herons nest.
Animal rights groups opposed the hunt despite the threat to birds. Such groups have a history of opposing culling animal numbers, even if their abundance threatens the existence of other species, even if on extinction’s brink. Nevertheless, says Jacobson, animal rights groups “do serve a purpose. They force us to be sure we are true to our responsibilities and that our actions are reasonable.”
Pittman-Robertson funds footed most of the bill for a massive study on managing urban deer in Connecticut, published in 2007. The study examined several options for deer control. Birth control, promoted by animal rights groups, is expensive, impractical and just plain does not work. Sharpshooting is expensive but can be used to reduce small populations in a given area. Deer, however, have a way of filling a vacuum and soon occupy vacant space. “Regulated hunting has proven to be an effective deer population management tool,” says the study. “It has been shown to be the most efficient and least expensive technique for removing deer and maintaining deer at desired levels.”
It is an irony to me that I have lived long enough that deer are numerous to the point they must be controlled. When I was an adolescent in the 1950s, few Connecticut residents had ever seen one except in photographs. I am reminded of the extent to which wildlife in our state has recovered by a remark made to my wife by a newcomer to my town not long ago. The lady apparently had just moved to Killingworth from New York City. She had seen a furry critter, probably an opossum or a raccoon, scurry across the highway, or so she told my wife.
Astonished and even alarmed, she asked, “Do you know there are wild animals around here?”
Happily, she was correct. There are wild animals around here, indeed. And they make our state a richer, more enjoyable place in which to live.