Each wing told a story. By reading the feathers for a few seconds, a veteran like Saake could distinguish a mallard drake from a hen, a juvenile from an adult, a purebred mallard from a hybrid. After a week of sorting wings in Laurel, scientists could gauge if there were enough juveniles surviving in each species to replace adults in the population. Such surveys, combined with wing bee data and research from other regions, help resource managers determine how much hunting pressure each species can sustain from year to year. This is a prime consideration when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sets its bag limits for the next hunting season—not only for waterfowl but also for woodcock, snipe, doves, and other federally protected migratory bird species.
“The age ratios really help show how a species is holding up,” said Paul Padding, the Atlantic flyway representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The great irony is that many species might not survive at all were it not for hunters trying to kill them. All the wings provided to Norman Saake and his colleagues throughout the country come from hunters, who fold them into prepaid envelopes, record the date and place of harvest, and mail them in. It is but one example of how the nation’s 12.5 million hunters have become essential partners in wildlife management. They have paid more than 700 million dollars for duck stamps, which have added 5.2 million acres to the National Wildlife Refuge System since 1934, when the first stamps were issued. They pay millions of dollars for licenses, tags, and permits each year, which helps finance state game agencies. They contribute more than 250 million dollars annually in excise taxes on guns, ammunition, and other equipment, which largely pays for new public game lands. Hunters in the private sector also play a growing role in conserving wildlife.
Ted Turner, who is a hunter as well as a media pioneer, is also the country’s largest private landowner. He has worked tirelessly to restore the American bison through much of its range. Now he manages some two million acres (800,000 hectares) in the U.S. for biodiversity and for sustainable ranching, timbering, fishing—and hunting.
“It starts with managing the land properly,” said Turner, who allows paying visitors to hunt for quail, bison, elk, antelope, wild turkey, and other species on his properties. “You need good healthy land for good healthy animals. They need good water, good cover, and good food. If you’re missing any one of those three things, you won’t have animals. I maintain my ranches with wildlife being the top priority. I am trying to do the smart thing for the environment instead of the dumb thing. I want others to see what can be done with the land—even if they’re not billionaires.”