The non-profit grassroots conservation organization WildSouth sponsored a meeting last week to discuss complaints and questions from the public regarding poaching, trespassing and other wildlife-related issues.
The meeting, held in the Harrell Center at Lake Junaluska on Jan. 7, attracted about 30 people including private citizens, members of the North Carolina General Assembly, representatives of the Western North Carolina Sportsman’s Club, representatives from the Southern Appalachian Multiple Use Council, law enforcement personnel, members of North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Division of Enforcement and NCWRC biologists.
According to Ben Prater, associate executive director of Wild South — which has offices in Asheville and Moulton, Ala. — the meeting was organized with the aid of John Edwards of Cashiers, organizer of the annual Mountain Wildlife Days and Wild South’s wildlife outreach coordinator.
Prater said the Wild South had been in contact with enforcement agencies and members of the General Assembly with regards to meeting needs in view of significant budget shortfalls.
Captain Greg Daniels of the NCWRC Division of Enforcement spoke to the group about some of the issues as they related to his department. Daniels said that poaching incidents appeared to be down this fall. “Mother nature did us a big favor,” he said.
Daniels said that the abundant mast crop this year “kept the deer in the woods.” Daniels also said there was a decline in big game hunting this year and felt like that could possibly be attributed to the poor economy.
But Daniels said the big news in the enforcement division was the budget and new leadership in Raleigh.
“The budget is definitely a pressing issue and will require us to take a fresh look at the way we do business,” Daniels said.
He said there would be some streamlining in the hierarchy, cutting some of the administrative positions and putting more officers in the field. Another new move by the division is marking some of their vehicles.
“We’ve spent most of our career hidden. Now we are marking some of our vehicles. We think people want to see their wildlife officers,” Daniels said.
But, he said, it was going to be a tough balancing act with only a couple of agents per county and the need for covert operations in dealing with large-scale poaching.
When one of the attends said he felt it was unacceptable to have three biologists positions unfilled, Rep. Ray Rapp (D-Mars Hill) said there was little chance of resolving that problem right now.
“That $3.7 billion (budget) shortfall is real. There are going to be painful cuts, filling positions is not likely,” Rep. Rapp said.
A strong contingent of hunters present felt that management or, in their minds, mismanagement of North Carolina’s national forest lands — particularly the absence of logging — was perhaps the largest bane to North Carolina’s wildlife.
In a short interview, Steve Henson, executive director of the Southern Appalachian Multiple Use Council, said it was impossible to talk about wildlife issues in the state without talking about the management of North Carolina’s national forests. He said that the dramatic decline of timber harvesting in the national forests, brought about by litigation from environmental organizations, was a major problem.
“It’s a big issue,” he said, “it’s been scientifically documented that the lack of early successional habitat is responsible for a decline in wildlife populations.”
Henson said Wild South had ulterior motives for calling the meeting. He said that with the Forest Service plan revision coming up in a year or so that Wild South was trying to position itself to be in a place to say they speak for the sportsmen of North Carolina.
“They don’t speak for me,” Henson said.
In an interview after the meeting, Prater flatly denied the allegations. “I can assure you and, hopefully, assure the public that Wild South is not looking to lead the Forest Service in any direction. We have worked with the Forest Service and the public for 20 years to help see that the national forests are managed in the best interest of everyone.
“We’re all about empowering people to make wise decisions. If I had my druthers, I would rather have not seen the discussion go in that direction. National Forest Service issues are so complicated. There’s not much we can do but try and work with the Forest Service in a collaborative way.”
Prater said he had hoped to stay focused on enforcement, education and human/wildlife conflict issues, but noted that because the meeting was public and habitat is a legitimate concern that he felt obligated “to provide people the opportunity to be heard.”
John Edwards said that the majority of Americans are non-hunters and that he believes there needs to be a forum where hunters and other wildlife advocates can have meaningful discussions about wildlife issues from different perspectives and all sides can be heard.
How do you feel?
Snow and icy conditions last kept a lot of people away from the meeting sponsored by Wild South, and that to try and include input from those people and other interested parties Wild South has created a survey and will use the information gleaned from the survey to plan its next meeting. To find out more about Wild South and/or WNC Wildlife Advocates, or to fill out the survey, visit www.wildsouth.org.