Want better antlers, more meat and higher quality populations?
Hunting has been carried out for centuries and continues to play a vital part in the management of wildlife. Passed on through generations upon generations of families, it is still an important tradition.
However, if we want to continue, we need to proactively participate in responsible and accountable management based on numbers and facts. Because whether we like it or not, game management is about the numbers, year-by-year, season-by-season.
So, what numbers should we be collecting?
And what can we do with them?
In this article here at HAMS we are going to take a look at what monitoring and data collection means for wildlife management and what we can do with these numbers.
And lastly, why it’s so darn important.
Where do we stand now?
Currently, we have a total of 8.7 million different (animal and plant) species on Earth (the most recent estimate) and only 12% of the animal species have been described and registered. This clearly shows that there’s a lot we still don’t know about our natural world.
Taking a closer look to home, sometimes, we would go so far as to say that we don’t even know how much wildlife we have on our own land. And in order to better understand what is happening on our land and to our game, we need to dive a lot deeper, look at why collecting information is so important and how we can effectively use that data. We need to start managing our game populations and the habitats that the animals live in.
What do we do when we manage wildlife?
Wildlife management consists of manipulations reflecting the wildlife manager’s decision in response to external influences; there is no final goal, but it is rather a cycle that consists of repetitive and occasionally different steps both related to habitat management and game management.
A conscientious manager, be it a game manager, landowner or professional hunter, will plan these steps carefully and properly carry them out, and then according to the results, will modify or re-plan the process as needed.
But to have a plan we have to have a foundation and this foundation is based on counting and measuring, and continuous monitoring.
The importance of monitoring
…The goal is to have accurate and reliable numbers and making the changes in the population size visible and measurable…
Monitoring is not simply a collection of numbers, it is a continuous effort, but it will allow us to see and evaluate our management efforts we induced. This is a very essential part in wildlife management because this way we can see if our management plan is working and if we are heading into the right direction. Or we may need to re-evaluate the situation and modify the plan. The key in wildlife management is to estimate the population size before and after the manipulation to the population. Therefore, the more simplified the method, the more we can repeat it and the more reliable it gets. Manipulations are changes that can be made, for example, in the habitat, or removing animals from the population (culling).
The goal is to have accurate and reliable numbers and making the changes in the population size visible and measurable.
OK, but what to measure?
The answer is short and simple:
- Know what you have and
- Know how much you have
Because if you have these numbers, based on them you can start to set up a plan. What to assess first:
- The game species you see on your land
- And the “size” of their populations
Additionally, to evaluate our plans and strategies we also have to accurately record our harvest information, as these show how much we take from a population, which in return, gives us a clear picture of what changes we have made to the population size that we have assessed before.
Let’s take a closer look at how to assess the size of a population first, because this will be the most challenging part.
...measuring something is always better than nothing...
In order to assess the status of a population, we first need to estimate the population size; otherwise, we will not know what the current situation is, in which direction we want to go and which goals to set up.
Estimating a population can be done in two ways:
- we either determine absolute numbers by headcount or density (absolute number per unit area) or
- we use indexes that give information about the direction of the changes of the numbers or density (trend).
Either way we choose, or even using both, estimating a population is not as easy as it sounds. Unlike plants for example, animals do not stand still but move around. We think you all have experiences with this issue already. Animals leave an area and enter another, animals die and new offspring is born. Taking into account population dynamics, it is very problematic or even impossible to know how many animals are exactly on a piece of land. We know this sounds controversial, but this is why scientists developed different methods for estimating the population size of a species. There are methods that ensure that the bias during population estimation is as small as possible. And although each method has its pros and cons, measuring something is always better than nothing.
Where do we start? Let’s start with the methods
We can divide population estimation into roughly two major groups:
- Direct methods: these are based on animal observations, counts or classifications and give the population size as a result.
- Indirect methods: these are when signs of animals (faeces, nesting places, number of tracks, number of alarm giving deer) are connected to the population size or density.
Overall, there are 10+ methods for population estimation, but let’s focus on the most common ones:
- Animal counting: The population assessment methods can be systematized based on the presumptions of the visibility of the animal. When we use absolute numbers, we can either count animals while the whole population is visible, or count only small portions of the population and project a population size in the end. For the latter, we use samples. Samples have to be representative in space (the proportion of the different habitats in the area is equal to the proportion of these habitats in the sample) and time (repetitions are needed).
- Indices: Using indices as an assessment are much easier and more reliable. This includes, for example, the kilometer-index or using the average size of the herds. The easiest collectable data are based on observations (of signs or animals) and the received numbers are projected along the length of the given unit area or used track. With the kilometer-index you can, for example, count the deer tracks per given track/road. We have to bear in mind that with these methods we only determine the trend of change and not the population size itself.
Most countries in Europe use methods where absolute numbers are measured, despite the reliability being questionable and not providing the expected accuracy. No matter how well a game manager, landowner or professional hunter knows his stock; there are always animals that are hiding in the covers and remain invisible which will lead to underestimation of the population.
However, even though the stock estimation will never be precise, this is not a problem as the key is to make the changes in the population visible. Taking this into consideration, we should always strive to be as accurate as possible, especially when it comes to reporting the harvest or measuring the bioindicators.
So, how do we proceed?
…When we know what we have, we know with what we can work...
The most important thing we have to keep in mind is to use one method that is accessible for us in time, energy and cost and stick to it. This way we will have similar numbers year in, year out instead of using different methods each year, as this will give different (and therefore biased) results. Because when we know what we have, we know with what we can work.
After we selected a method and stick to it, the next most important step would be to repeat the data collection each season, so we start to monitor what is happening on our land and with our game populations. This way we will be able to see the impact of our management efforts according to our plan in population size, age distribution and sex ratio.
How does this look like in real life?
In practice, monitoring and quality wildlife management will look something like this: (And as mentioned earlier, wildlife management is rather a cycle than a one-way street with a beginning and an end.)
- Estimate the population in the beginning of spring and based on this, assess the goal you want to achieve with the given species
- Know your habitat and where you can improve or make changes to benefit the given species (habitat management)
- Set up a harvest plan for the year
- Start to record harvest data during the hunting season
- Estimate the (spring) population again after the harvest
- Evaluate your plan – make changes where needed
The above-mentioned steps are the main parts of adaptive wildlife management, which is based on the changes of the population (you can read more about this in another article here LINK #5). This way we know what happens on our land; we can follow the changes and then we won’t make big mistakes like threatening the quantity and quality of the population by over- or under harvesting or removing important species.
When we start to collect data, after a few years, we will see the results of the efforts we have put into our work and nothing is more rewarding than that.
What else can we measure? Bio-indicators!
If we want to take wildlife management to the next level, then we can start measuring bio-indicators. Besides monitoring population size, it is also important to examine the quality of a population through bio-indicators. Bio-indicators are features that can be measured on the animal or the vegetation and describe the elements and conditions of the individual, population and environment. By continuously collecting and controlling bio-indicators, we can assess the processes and the intensity of the processes in a population without knowing the precise population size.
Bio-indicators is a too big and widespread topic for this article and will be discussed in more detail in another article.
Don’t just talk… Take action!
…If we don’t start somewhere, the future of wildlife management and hunting might be in danger…
Apart from effectively managing our wildlife population, we can use the data to archive the information and consciously use it to our own benefit and the benefit of the natural world; be it using it for research and publishing and therefore improving our current management actions, or reporting different situations or more importantly, using it for communicating to policymakers.
We as humans have the responsibility of what happens to our land, and just going out into the field and hunting without any knowledge of the current situation is an irresponsible and dangerous way to manage our land.
If we want to have larger and higher quality populations, meaning more meat, bigger antlers and more hunting opportunities, then we need to start collecting numbers. Besides, we all want to see future generations enjoying nature as much as we do. And if we don’t start somewhere, the future of wildlife management and hunting might be in danger.
Therefore, when we focus on wildlife, we need to know as much as possible about the current species, in order to effectively manage them, or to save them, and we do this by collecting information, or how Galileo Galilei said: “Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.”
- Gibbs, J., Snell, H. & Causton, C. (1999). Effective Monitoring for Adaptive Wildlife Management: Lessons from the Galapagos Islands. Journal of Wildlife Management.
- Csányi, S. & Majzinger, I. (2018). Az őz: ökológia és alkalmazkadó gazdálkodás. Szent István Egyetem Kiadó, Gödöllő, 84 oldal
Cover photo by Alexander Dodd from Pexels