Inside the outdoors: Of fawns, and chicks, and offspring nearer to home
When the deer season that has just begun concludes, it is widely expected to signal a return to better times and greater hunter success. Perhaps as high as 40 percent of the state's 500,000 deer hunters could be stocking their freezers with venison steaks, chops and sausage this year. One of the causes for high expectations is the several consecutive mild winters we've had. One of the effects of those mild winters is strong, healthy does, which — in a domino effect — has led to a crop of strong, vigorous fawns. Reports of does with twin fawns — rather than just one — were common this year. All of which was seen by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as justifying more liberal deer hunting regulations. It's believed that only seriously bad weather during the deer season could up-end these positive expectations. When the late muzzleloader deer hunt is over and harvest data has been finalized, we'll know.
One of the semi-disappointments of the 2017 hunting season, at least based on reports and data so far, has been grouse hunter success. I use the term "semi" disappointing because I've participated in many hunts over the years — for deer, ducks, grouse and pheasants — that I enjoyed even though it didn't end with me tagging a deer, or plucking many feathers. It shouldn't only be about the weight of grouse in the back of your hunting vest.
Nevertheless, expectations were high, since the DNR spring survey of breeding grouse had recorded some of the highest numbers in recent years, and a year-to-year increase not seen in 40 or 50 years. Optimism reigned. If weather during the critical post-hatching period was not damp and cold, which can lead to grouse chick mortality, it was thought that a bumper crop would await hunters when the season began in mid-September.
In general, that has not been borne out. One of the barometers of grouse abundance is a fund-raising hunt event held each October by the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS), near Grand Rapids. The entry fees paid by hunters go toward the RGS's habitat management programs. Participants are generally knowledgeable, serious hunters and good dogs are the norm. This year the grouse harvest at the event was 30 percent below 2016, and 50 percent below the long-term average. The ratio of young-to-adult birds was almost even. In years of good chick survival, young birds harvested by grouse hunters substantially outnumber adults; not just at this fund-raising event, but in general throughout the primary grouse range. The more or less inescapable conclusion for 2017 is that fewer young grouse hatched and survived than had been hoped.
Coinciding with this fall's hunting seasons, and diverting my attention from those pursuits, was the birth of the first grandchild for my wife and me. Our granddaughter came into the world on a day when the first serious weather front was making its way southward out of Canada. By all accounts it moved substantial numbers of ducks into Minnesota, destined for those favored places where instinct and migratory experience told them they'd find rest, and food to replenish their metabolic fuel supply.
Ordinarily, missing out on such a seasonal climatic event and ducking opportunity would have left me stricken with hunter's remorse. Most years duck hunters suffer through a major lull period between the early season — when many locally-raised ducks are at hand — and the influx of migrants pushed southward by temperatures cold enough to freeze the small or shallow wetlands where they have been staging. Pushed by cold, and of course their inclination to take advantage of strong tailwinds that help waterfowl maximize effort and conserve stored energy reserves. Serious duck hunters will let few things come between them and such an event; especially these days, when Minnesota duck hunter fortunes are mixed, to say the least.
But there are some things bigger than harvested ducks that you arrange neatly on a boat seat, and at hunt's end prepare for their date with your oven or freezer. A member of a new generation is one such bigger thing. A joyful thing; but an uncertain one, too.
I've learned that you never stop being concerned about the welfare and happiness of your offspring, no matter their age. All that changes is the kind and magnitude of events in their lives, and therefore the kind and magnitude of your concerns. As parents we like to think we can help our children weather a storm, or see them through a tight spot, even when they're adults and have left the nest. We find it hard to imagine not being there to aid the ones we fed, clothed, counseled — and, yes — financed.
Beyond the helping and sheltering instincts, we worry about the kind of world our children and grandchildren will inherit. Without getting into issue politics, it's hard to argue that as a species humans adequately respect the planet we live on, or do enough to protect the purity of its air and water, and the diversity of life it nourishes. Will they have meaningful opportunities to fish and hunt, to enjoy the grace and beauty of wildlife and the rejuvenation found in wild and unspoiled places?
The brilliant, world-famous astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has predicted that unless humans change our exploiting and polluting ways, by the end of the century we'll pass a point-of-no-return and our planet will become uninhabitable for most of the human population. I take a little bit of comfort in knowing that even a genius like Stephen Hawking can be wrong. I hope he is; for the sake of my children, my new granddaughter and generations beyond hers.
I'm an optimist, more by choice than by some of the things I see happening around me. I'm reminded of the well-known quote: "In the long run the pessimist may be proved right, but the optimist has a better time along the way." I'd like to think that, as the most successful species on our planet, humans are capable of doing the right thing and learning from our mistakes. Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren's future depends on it.
As for "being there for them," that time is not in the future, but now.