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‘Nature in Balance’ : States Act to Re-establish Lost Wildlife

Times Staff Writer

Wisconsin recently made a trade with Colorado: river otters for weasellike pine martens. To get 29 moose from Canada this year, Michigan bartered 145 wild turkeys. Pound for pound, Michigan came out ahead. And Montana has a few extra grizzly bears it is willing to exchange, but nobody wants them.

A little-known but lively trade in wild animals and birds has sprung up in recent years as states have accelerated programs to re-establish wildlife species to habitats they were forced to leave by man, development or pollution.

That means putting the prairie chicken back on the prairie, wild turkeys back in the wild and finding otter space in Iowa.

As a result of this effort, bighorn sheep are back in Oregon’s mountains, beavers in Ohio’s rivers and peregrine falcons in California’s skies.

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Non-Hunted Species

“There’s a new surge of interest in reintroducing non-hunted species,” said Carrol L. Henderson, president of the Nongame Wildlife Assn. of North America.

In the last eight years the number of states with taxpayer-supported programs devoted to restoring non-game species has gone from none to 33. Together they are spending millions of dollars, most of it raised from state residents who agree to divert part of their state income tax refunds to repopulation programs.

“We’re putting critters back that evolved here,” said Donald J. Dick of the Kansas state game division. “We’re trying to get everything back that was once here--except for the grizzly bear and the red wolf. There would probably be some objections to bringing back those species.”

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Aesthetic, environmental and ecological reasons are generally given for returning species to areas where they were once native.

‘A Biological Reason’

“Critters kept the pests down and nature in balance so there is a biological reason for restoring them, " Dick said. “But there is also an aesthetic one. Some of us think whatever evolved in a certain area should live in that area. Man has destroyed them so man should be the one to bring them back.”

As the number of states involved in this effort has grown, so has the trade in creatures ranging from snowshoe rabbits and elk to ruffed grouse and trumpeter swans.

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“It’s kind of like baseball cards,” said Steven A. Gray, an Ohio wildlife official. “I’ve got a Pete Rose, you got a Mickey Mantle. We had ruffed grouse and wanted wild turkeys. Arkansas had wild turkeys.”

“We have a policy,” said Tom Isley, a Minnesota wildlife management official. “If we give a state anything we expect something in return.” Minnesota has traded black bears and ruffed grouse for wild turkeys and fishers for a species to be named later.

“If you have a stable population of wild turkeys in your state they are a great bartering item for the animals you need,” said Terry W. Little, an Iowa wildlife research supervisor.

When they cannot trade, state biologists obtain eggs or young animals and birds from special breeding programs designed to save specific species from extinction and from zoos.

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“Most conservation efforts in the past were for hunted species,” said Henderson, who is also Minnesota’s non-game wildlife supervisor. “But if you save a habitat for one you save a habitat for both.”

Falcons Among Skyscrapers

One of the most popular species being repopulated in “urban wilds,” among skyscrapers with clifflike ledges, are peregrine falcons. Their eggs sell for up to $2,000 each and they are in demand by states from New Jersey to California. The peregrine falcons were nearly wiped out during the 1950s by widespread use of the now banned pesticide DDT.

“This is a species that man inadvertently almost eliminated. They are the fastest bird in the world, the ultimate in avian design,” Henderson said. And their favorite food is squab, which may be one reason why pigeon-infested big cities have supported programs to repopulate them.

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They are being reintroduced in places like downtown areas of St. Louis, Boston and Baltimore and rural Minnesota.

River otters are another particularly popular species among wildlife biologists involved in repopulation efforts. Once indigenous to most central United States rivers, they were eliminated early in the century by overtrapping and water pollution.

Turkeys for Otters

Iowa has just announced that it is trading 240 wild turkeys for 120 river otters after an experiment this summer showed that the otters could survive in the Des Moines River, where they were last seen in 1913.

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“Otters are an extremely appealing species,” Henderson said. “They are doglike in personality, they are relatively visible, people enjoy watching them, and when they survive it is a sign of good water quality.”

Trumpeter swans, the largest water fowl native to North America, are also being re-established throughout the Midwest. They virtually disappeared in the late 1800s during the rapid settlement of the central states when they were hunted for food and plumage.

They are being restored both because they were native and because they will eventually drive out the more familiar, more aggressive, more destructive mute swans, which are not native to the region.

‘Pugnacious and Ornery’

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“Mute swans drive out other species including muskrat and uproot vegetation,” Henderson said.

“They’re just pugnacious and ornery,” said Robert Hess, a nongame and endangered species specialist for Michigan. “They chase people and dump canoes,” he said, adding that last year a boater drowned after being attacked by a mute swan.

Reintroduction does not always sit well with local residents. Ranchers in Wyoming forced a delay in plans to re-establish gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park and when Michigan turned eight timber wolves lose a few years ago they were quickly killed by local residents who were not fond of sharing their habitat with the animals.

Michigan has one of the most aggressive programs of restoring non-game species in the Midwest. It released 50 pine martens this month for aesthetic reasons and 10 fishers (also weasellike, but larger animals than pine martens) to help control a rapidly expanding porcupine population. The first trumpeter swan release is scheduled for next spring and Michigan is studying releasing peregrine falcons, not seen in the state since 1957.

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Known as the Wolverine State for reasons apparently lost in history, Michigan is also studying the possibility of releasing some wolverines in remote areas of the upper peninsula. That could add a new dimension to wildlife population programs.

“There’s some question if there were ever any in the state,” Hess said.

Intern Keith Wesol also contributed to this article.


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