A question of predator management

By DAN GEDDINGS
Posted 1/28/18

He killed hundreds of hawks and owls. Not just locally, but all over the Lowcountry. This prominent attorney shot most of the avian predators with a rifle, from a car window, on public roads. Yet, he was hailed as a renowned sportsman and …

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A question of predator management

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He killed hundreds of hawks and owls. Not just locally, but all over the Lowcountry. This prominent attorney shot most of the avian predators with a rifle, from a car window, on public roads. Yet, he was hailed as a renowned sportsman and conservationist.

No, I'm not referring to a recent case regarding Attorney Charlie Williams of Orangeburg but instead to Henry Edward Davis of Florence. Davis recorded his exploits in a collection of memoirs that were edited by retired game warden Ben McC. Moise and published by The University of South Carolina Press in "A Southern Sportsman."

Davis noted that he had "killed hundreds of hawks of many species." One year he "killed with a rifle exactly 100 hawks, and the next year 87 hawks. These were probably my two best years during a 25-year period."

His memoirs included a chapter on owl shooting, and he considered the great-horned owl to be "the tiger of the air." Davis regarded owls as "fair game."

Davis suffered no public scorn, prosecution or outrageous fines, as his hawk and owl shooting was done before these birds were given federal protection.

Quail and rabbit populations started on a downward trend around the same time that the raptors were given protection, and hunters and land managers have seen hawk and owl populations explode on the landscape since then.

Biologists point to predators as important in the balance of nature and suggest that "loss of habitat" is the greatest threat to game animals. Of course habitat is important, but we make great efforts to manage game animals and almost no efforts to manage the main predators of these species. There is no balance. We shouldn't decide to manage a few game species, then let nature take its course with the rest. I will offer a few examples to make my point.

The Savannah River Site conducted hunts for many years in an effort to control the deer herd. Then suddenly, in a very short period of time, the deer population plummeted. An ongoing study revealed that 70 percent of the fawns were being lost to predators yearly and that coyotes accounted for 80 percent of those losses. The "bomb plant" is nothing but habitat. It is 198,344 acres of forest and excellent deer habitat, covering parts of Aiken, Allendale and Barnwell counties. All that good habitat didn't help the deer herd any, with an exploding and unmanaged coyote population.

Delta Waterfowl is the world's leader in waterfowl research. Scientific studies overseen by staff biologists and conducted by graduate students over many years have shown that unchecked predation has lowered nesting success of ground-nesting ducks in the prairie pothole region to levels that cannot sustain populations. Farming has brought woodlots, barns and shelter belts to the region that provide a home for an explosion of predators, primarily raccoons and skunks. Further studies have shown that some form of predator control during the nesting season provides a huge increase in nest success. Again, the prairie pothole region provides millions of acres of critical waterfowl habitat.

Recently, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources applied for and was granted a depredation permit by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take federally protected cormorants on the Santee Cooper System. Their numbers had grown to unacceptable levels, and they were causing great harm to the fishery. The lakes have provided 177,000 acres of excellent aquatic habitat to a host of game fish.

My point is that habitat alone cannot sustain managed game species in an environment favorable to unmanaged predators. Some form of predator management is needed for a more balanced approach.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will not issue a depredation permit for hawks and owls to land managers focused on bobwhite quail. I called the Region 4 office in Atlanta recently and spoke with a staff biologist who confirmed that the USFWS does not issue said permits. They point instead to habitat enhancement as a solution to local problems. Good science and common sense simply don't support that position.

We already know that habitat alone is not enough. Wildlife professionals will not admit that avian predators need to be controlled. They fear the scorn that would flow from all directions, primarily misguided animal lovers, if they were to break ranks and speak sensibly. Land managers and sportsmen know that some type of control is needed but feel powerless to speak out. A few good people will take matters into their own hands when all common sense and reason have failed them. I suspect that that is what happened to Charlie Williams. Taken in a historical context, and comparing his actions to the late Henry Edward Davis, his initial punishment seemed very heavy-handed and excessive.

A few years back U.S. Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi brought pressure and caused the USFWS to extend the waterfowl hunting season into late January, at the wishes of his constituents. Other states followed his example. The USFWS had warned that extending the season would disrupt pair bonding and breeding efforts of waterfowl and decimate the population. They were wrong. After several decades, waterfowl numbers are still above the long-term average.

My point again is that even the wildlife agencies can be wrong sometimes.

Reach Dan Geddings at cdgeddings@theitem.com.