Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Panel: Climate change threatens Michigan’s big-game species

Ann Arbor, Mich. — As carbon emissions continue to boost temperatures, Michigan’s big-game animal community can be expected to suffer for it.

So said a four-scientist panel gathered by the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center for a conference call last week accompanying the release of a new report from NWF’s national office.

From hotter summers in southern Michigan to shorter ice seasons on Lake Superior, challenges face deer, moose, and elk, said Frank Szollosi, of NWF, Christopher Hoving, of the Michigan DNR, Rolf Peterson, of Michigan Technological University, and Henry Campa III, of Michigan State University.

Szollosi, NWF regional outreach coordinator, called it appropriate that the report was being issued two days before Michigan’s firearms deer season. Sportsmen and conservationists, he noted, launched efforts that, fueled by federal money, restored wildlife, “and that investment is at risk from the impacts of climate change.”

Szollosi said warmer environments are likely increasing numbers of midges, carriers of the epizootic hemorrhagic disease that ravaged some southern Lower Peninsula deer herds last year, as well as helping Lyme disease-carrying deer ticks expand their range. “It really is something of a perfect storm,” Szollosi said of the changes.

Hoving, DNR wildlife adaptation specialist, said his agency this year issued a report on likely effects of climate change on birds and fish. He said the phenomenon could impair one-fifth of wildlife species, but, “We do not expect climate change to have a wide effect on deer.”

Locally, though, it might be a different matter.

Take EHD, for example, blamed for the loss of 15,000 deer across 30 southern Michigan counties in 2012. “Instead of one small outbreak every couple of decades, we now have outbreaks every year.

And in those (2012 outbreak) localities, deer hunters noticed severe impacts.”

Hoving noted that Lake Superior’s ice cover has decreased by 79 percent in recent decades, resulting in deeper snow accumulations. That usually pushes deer out of moose range, but as warming continues, heavier snow will become heavier rain.

Deer will flourish, moose expert Rolf Peterson said, bringing more car crashes, garden damage, and disease transmission to moose.

“The local and regional effects will be significant,” he said. “It’s critical for moose to keep a space separation from deer in deep winter.”

Re-established wolf numbers have helped enforce that, he said.

“The wolf is the best friend the moose has in Michigan.”

Campa said Rocky Mountain elk imported to northern Lower Michigan in the early 1900s to replace native elk lost to overharvest and habitat loss recovered to where annual hunts began in 1984. But warmer and drier weather, he said, will likely hinder the aspen stands in which they seek food and shelter.

“In the last 10 years, elk range has increased 50 percent,” Campa said. It’s a trend he expects to continue if climate change reduces food and winter cover plants.

There’s also the danger of the spread of disease, he said, “as elk move into areas with higher concentration of deer.”

The deer ticks that carry Lyme disease, Szollosi said, can be expected to continue expanding their range. “The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has indicated that warmer winters in the Upper Midwest could expand the distribution of deer ticks by nearly 70 percent,” he said.

Hoving, who said he has particular interest in the matter after contracting Lyme disease in the eastern United States 20 years ago, said, “Here in Michigan, deer ticks seem to be spreading north, especially along the Lake Michigan shoreline, and more slowly east.”

The disease-carrying ticks, he said, are themselves carried by birds and small animals “that can now survive a changing environment.”

Campa said he expects elk, so far unaffected, to carry ticks in time.

The experts were asked what we do next.

“We need to get at the root of the problem – get at the drivers of the carbon pollution that’s contributing to this warming trend,” Szollosi said. If we don’t change the path, it’s only going to get warmer in Michigan.”

Campa said continued monitoring of the big-game species is important, as new environmental conditions and habitat changes resulting from them affect wildlife.

The NWF report, “Nowhere to Run – Big Game Wildlife in a Warming World,” is available at

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