The first time Jason Batchelder, the chief game warden for the state of Vermont, heard the proclamation that we are living in a “new golden age of wildlife in New England,” he admits he did a double-take.
The region is certainly experiencing a boom in point-and-shout animals — Deer! Turkey! Coyote! Fox! Eagle! Bear! — but the declaration of a golden age is another thing entirely, and he might have dismissed the bold claim had it not come out of the mouth of Louis Porter, at the time the commissioner of the Vermont Fish & Game Department.
“It stuck with me,” Batchelder said. “And it’s tricky to speak in absolutes, but if you start looking into it, you’ll see that for the most part, it’s true.”
So let’s look into it, into the long story of how science-based wildlife management, based on a set of principles developed in the 19th century, brought New England wildlife from its darkest days into an era in which state agencies are pleading for hunters to eat more animals.
In the broadest sense, what we see in our backwoods and backyards today is a result of something called the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, which eliminated commercial hunting and put states in charge of implementing policies to restore populations to optimum levels, and then keep them there.
For so-called game animals, this success has been remarkable. In 1900, when commercial hunting was essentially outlawed nationally, there were only 500,000 white-tailed deer left in the United States. Today there are 30 million. Massachusetts has an estimated 93,000, despite its small size and the country’s third-highest population density. That’s far more than we’ve ever had, specialists say, even before European colonization.
Turkeys, which disappeared from the state sometime around the Civil War thanks to a loss of habitat and overhunting, were re-introduced to Massachusetts in the 1970s, beginning with 37 birds released in the Berkshires. Today, there are 35,000 of them, so ubiquitous, even in urban areas, that they dropped off many people’s point-and-shout list, something that has already happened with hawks and rabbits.
Back when those turkeys were released in the 70s, they didn’t have to worry too much about black bears. There were only 100 of them in the state. Fast-forward to today and MassWildlife, the state’s conservation agency that has overseen the science-based rebound, estimates there are 4,500 in Massachusetts. And with increased sightings in the suburbs, they are definitely moving east.
And while it was hunters who got us into a lot of problems, it was their dollars that got us out, funding the recovery of the game species through the sale of licenses, tags, and stamps, as well as a 1937 federal law that placed an 11 percent excise tax on hunting weapons, including guns, ammunition, and archery equipment. In 1950, Congress placed a similar tax on fishing and boating equipment to fund the recovery of sport fish.
That money has allowed states to conserve huge swaths of land as “wildlife management areas,” which also allow non-game animals to thrive, said Eve Schlüter, assistant director of the state’s Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program, a subdivision of MassWildlife that focuses on conserving native plants and animals, with an emphasis on 432 species that are listed as endangered.
Of course, it’s not all good news. Not all animals are thriving, and the problems facing wildlife are too numerous to list, with climate change and habitat loss at the top of the list, which is why Schlüter, like everyone interviewed for this story, was cautious about declaring any golden age. But that very morning she had been walking her dog along the Assabet River in Maynard when an eagle flew overhead, and she’d allowed herself a moment to appreciate how remarkable it was that such things were borderline unremarkable.
“There’s always work to be done, but anytime I’m out in one of our wildlife management areas and I catch a glimpse of an endangered moth or butterfly, or a rare plant coming back, I get a joy in seeing what conservation and habitat management have accomplished,” she said.
Bryn Evans is a post-doctoral student at the University of Maine, who as part of her Ph.D research placed 600 motion-activated cameras all over the state and monitored them for four years, ultimately taking more than a million photos of wildlife. Did she see evidence of a golden age?
“Every time I pulled out a memory card and looked at it, it was like Christmas morning,” she said. “I was expecting to find dead zones, but there were animals everywhere — martens, fishers, red fox, bobcats, bears, lynx, weasels, you name it. I had 16 different terrestrial animals walk by a single camera in a two-week period. They were here before we built our lawns, and now they’re coming back.”
Will Staats, a prominent wildlife biologist who spent decades working for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, said that wildlife ebbs and flows over the decades, but there was no question that many species — especially those humans hunt and trap — have never been healthier. And wildlife management is getting better each year, he said, with advances in science and technology allowing for a more holistic view of the ecosystem.
“But there’s a reason I never refer to myself as a wildlife expert, and that’s because it’s an art as well as a science,” he said. “Wildlife will teach you something new every day, but we get better tools each day.”
Ron Amidon, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, which oversees MassWildlife and the Division of Marine Fisheries, said he took some time to think about it when contacted by the Globe, asking about the idea of a golden age. But the more he thought about it, the more he felt comfortable with the declaration.
Then we did what people do when talking about this wildlife renaissance — he talked about all the things he never saw when he was a kid, in his case Central Massachusetts in the 1960s. “I spent a ton of my childhood in the woods, and you couldn’t find any sign of deer, let alone see one.” For those who grew up in more urban parts of the state, it’s easy to remember a time when the only point-and-shout animals were the rats.
Of course, this entire topic could be presented another way. There are many bad news stories in wildlife. There are animals that are gone and never coming back. There will always be new threats. And there is nothing particularly special about this moment, this golden age, except for its call to stay the course.
And when children ask again why we insist on yelling “deer!” every time we see a deer, the answer is quite simple: Because it didn’t used to be this way.