Dogs and cows belong to their owners the animals are private property. Wild animals, on the other hand, from cardinals to bears, are publicly owned. They belong to all of us and, as such, all residents have a stake in their conservation.
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has two divisions assigned to conserving the citizens wildlife: the Wildlife Resources Commission and the N.C. Natural Heritage Program. Both have headquarters in Raleigh but in separate locations.
The Wildlife Resources Commission is responsible for setting hunting seasons and enforcing wildlife laws, among other duties. The Natural Heritage Program is responsible for protecting rare species, both animal and plant.
Normally, if a species is rare enough for the attention of the Natural Heritage Program and deemed worthy of extra protection, it is not hunted for sport. However, there are two exceptions, both involving species that have traditionally been considered game animals but that may be heading toward extinction in N.C.
One is the Appalachian cottontail, a little known species of rabbit that inhabits the N.C. mountains and differs from the more common and abundant Eastern cottontail that ranges statewide by being smaller and having darker pelage. The Heritage Program believes the Appalachian cottontail is rare enough to warrant classification as a threatened species, meaning that the rabbit may face extinction unless actions are taken.
This is not the position taken by Wildlife Resources, which considers the rabbit abundant enough to justify the traditional three-month hunting season.
The second species on which the two organizations disagree is the Eastern fox squirrel.
This species occurs mostly in mature pine timber in the coastal plain. Eastern fox squirrels are twice the size of the common gray squirrel, and 10 times better looking.
Fox squirrels come in different colors, from solid black to sandy blonde, most with white ears and muzzles, and with flowing, bushy tails. The hunting season for Eastern fox squirrels is 2½ months long. Wildlife Resources thinks the current season is appropriate, whereas the Natural Heritage considers the Eastern fox squirrel rare enough to warrant classification as a threatened species, a designation which would end the season because threatened species cannot legally be taken for sport.
Which organization is correct? Both pride themselves on using a scientific approach to wildlife management, but neither can produce the pertinent facts for either species for an informed decision.
For example, they dont know how many individuals there are of either species, and they dont know how many are killed by hunters. They cannot even offer an educated guess. Its like trying to balance a bank account without knowing how much money you have and how much youve withdrawn. Without facts, each side can say anything it wants, and whos to say it is wrong?
If you lean toward conservation, you might think it wise to err on the side of the animal and close or restrict the season, just to be on the safe side. If you lean toward recreational hunting, you might think it appropriate to err on the side of the hunter, and restrict the season only when its clear that doing so will save the species and not unduly restrict the hunting tradition or the sale of hunting licenses.
So far, Wildlife Resources has prevailed, and both species remain legal game.
This may seem trivial after all, were only talking about squirrels and rabbits. But to those of us who believe humans have a special responsibility in protecting and stewarding the creation, this is a big deal.
The cynic in me thinks its naïve to expect government officials to work together in a rational manner, but the idealist in me expects the officials to do the job we pay them for and to allow hunting only when it wont endanger the species future.
The first step is for officials from the two organizations to figure out what they need to know about the animals and then gather facts. Only then can they make a rational decision regarding hunting and the conservation of the Appalachian cottontail and the Eastern fox squirrel.
For now, the state, through the power vested in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources Department, allows hunters to kill the animals without knowing the effect. This is the wrong approach for conserving our wildlife the publics wildlife.
John Wooding of Winston-Salem is a certified wildlife biologist, formerly with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.