Big Game Threatened by Climate Change

  • A new report from the National Wildlife Federation details how deer and other large game are affected by climate change across the country. Photo: David Baron

November 15, 2013

Big game is a big deal in Pennsylvania, with more than three quarters of a million hunters of the state’s white tailed deer and bear populations.  That’s why a new report from the National Wildlife Federation, which details climate change threats to big game herds across the country is recommending that hunters and others take steps to help sustain wildlife as temperatures rise.

Taxes from hunting equipment and supplies have brought $300 million to Pennsylvania since the Pittman-Robertson Act earmarked those funds for wildlife conservation  in 1937.  The money’s helped restore and manage deer and wildlife populations which were decimated in the early 20th century.  Scientists and conservationists worry that climate change will undo all of that work.

The National Wildlife Federation report says species across the country, from moose to bighorn sheep are affected by climate change.  In Pennsylvania, warming temperatures mean bears might sleep less.  As a result, they’ll be hungrier and more likely to interact with humans, and be killed in accidents, leaving orphaned cubs.  While white-tailed deer may thrive in warmer temperatures, pathogens which infect deer are on the rise as a result of climate change. 

An increasing number of deer have been suffering from what’s known as Hemorrhagic Disease.  It’s more common in the southeastern U.S., and has been tracked in deer populations over the last 33 years. John Fischer, adjunct professor of pathology and director of the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study at the University of Georgia, says there’s been a change in its range.

"What we believe we are seeing is a spread to the north, an increasing severity of this disease to the north over time.  And this has been especially apparent over the last 10 to 15 years," Fischer says.

The disease, which can be fatal, is transmitted by insects which deer are exposed to in unseasonably warm weather.

The report offers some solutions, like reducing fossil fuel use and creating game conservation plans that account for climate change. Reaching out to hunters about climate change is another suggestion, asking them to lobby for fewer hunting licenses or even track weather-related patterns in wildlife. The report’s author, Doug Inkley, says regardless of the conservative reputation of hunters, when it comes to climate change, their politics don’t override their experience. 

"Especially it’s the hunters that are getting a little gray in the beard that say, 'My gosh, I used to have to go out in my winter clothing and freeze to death hunting deer, and now I’m swatting mosquitoes.'  When they think about it from their own perspective, they get it," Inkley says.