Changing animal populations cause concern

This is the week that environmental awareness takes center stage for many people.

Saturday (April 22) is Earth Day – a date that is an annual reminder to people to give extra thought to the environment and ecosystems around them.

For some, it means planting a tree. For others, it means planting native wildflowers, picking up trash along a stream or doing something else to enhance the habitats in our area.

You may think that one day of raised consciousness about the environment wouldn’t make any difference in the grand scheme of things, but they help. Events like Earth Day and the upcoming National Arbor Day (April 28) help keep things like environmental stewardship and habitat management in the stream of things we think about.

And yes, we humans can make positive differences. To see that, one needs look no further than the current populations of Missouri’s two most popular game animals – deer and turkey.

Eighty years ago, unregulated hunting and unwise habitat management had put both these animals on a course of almost certain elimination from Missouri. However, thanks to landowner cooperation and better habitat management on public and private land across the state, Missouri’s present deer numbers are around one million and turkey numbers in excess of 300,000.

One of the most noticeable results of this abundance is that Missouri has deer and turkey hunting opportunities that are renowned across the nation.

If you want further evidence of what people can do for the natural world around them, look at the state bird – the eastern bluebird. By the mid-1900s, bird experts were noting reductions in the number of bluebird sightings in Missouri and elsewhere around the country.

Two primary culprits were starlings and house sparrows – two non-native birds purposely introduced to North America by humans in the 19th century. These two exotic species were out-competing the less-aggressive bluebirds for cavity nesting spaces.

To make up for the shortage of nesting space, many people in Missouri and elsewhere put up bluebird houses. Today, bluebird numbers are on the rebound and bird experts agree one of the primary reasons for this comeback is the increased amount of nesting habitat provided by man-made bluebird houses.

Of course, there are plenty of examples of what humans can do by not caring for the habitats around us. One such example is the greater prairie chicken. This large bird was hunted in Missouri for much of the 19th century and was a familiar sight on some prairie areas up until the 1950s and 1960s.

Eastern bluebird on natural perch
July, 1997

However, today, biologists estimate there are fewer than 500 prairie chickens in Missouri and it is currently classified as endangered in Missouri. This population downturn is due to human-induced changes of the landscape.

One of the ultimate stories of wildlife mismanagement is the tale of the passenger pigeon. This bird, largely forgotten now, once existed in Missouri and elsewhere in the central and eastern U.S., in numbers that still drop the jaws of bird experts.

Based on journals and early counts, it’s estimated North America had a population of around five billion passenger pigeons and that this was probably one of the most numerous bird species on the planet.

Some biologists have gone as far as to estimate that one of every three birds in North America was a passenger pigeon. Because of their immense number, hundreds of thousands of passenger pigeons were killed by commercial hunters and shipped east where they provided culinary diversity to many dinner tables.

This unregulated hunting, coupled with the ongoing destruction of the bird’s forest habitat, steadily shrunk the bird’s population. The last passenger pigeons to be seen in the wild were shot in Ohio in 1900.

On Sept. 1, 1914, the world’s last passenger pigeon died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo. The bird that had once been so abundant had disappeared forever.

The reason we should care about changing animal populations is not solely because of sad wildlife tales such this one. There are much more current reasons to be concerned. Changes in wildlife populations are often indications of changes taking place on the land and in the water around us.

Since this is soil and water we use, changes that negatively impact animal populations can’t be good for people populations either.

While planting one pale purple coneflower plant in your front yard flowerbed will not bring back Missouri’s prairie chicken population, it will get you thinking more about how you can take care of the environment around you.

The more you think about it, the more you’ll talk about it.

The more we think and talk about caring for the land around us, chances are the more things we’ll start actually doing to become better stewards of that land.

By Francis Skalicky

(Francis works for the Missouri Department of Conservation in southwest Missouri. He can be reached at 417-895-6880.)

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