Changes to farmland and forests can dictate supply of food and shelter for wildlife in our area, which then has an impact on population

Autumn is almost upon us, and a lot of hunters are beginning to get the itch to once again pursue their favorite game species. While the squirrel and early goose seasons opened Sept. 1, the rest of the small game seasons open on or after Oct. 1. 

And while pheasant hunting remains an effort for a few stocked birds, wildlife biologists this year are mildly optimistic about the populations of other small game species.

Grouse, according to several local grouse hunters, are on the upswing portion of their roughly 10-year cycle. Their population should continue to increase for the next one or two years before the crash once again makes this grand game bird species only a fond memory for most of us.  

Rabbits, on the other hand, are spotty all over and abundant only in some locations. They, too, are still recovering from a severe population decline. That population downturn has been blamed on increased numbers of predators, especially coyotes. For the past decade it has been difficult for a pack of beagles to locate and run two rabbits in a single day in many areas. But now they seem to be popping out of brush piles and hedgerows in more places that still contains good habitat.

Deer are in good supply almost everywhere. Anyone driving the roads early or late on any given day will no doubt see numerous deer in hay and corn fields or crossing the roads on their way to feed or to bedding cover. Most fawns still have their spots, and that makes seeing family groups especially delightful as the youngsters often frolic around the mature does.

Habitat is the key for every wildlife species, regardless of whether or not they happen to be a game species. Survival in nature is always dependent on the species having suitable cover and food throughout all of the four seasons. And while there are certain overlapping habitat conditions that many different species can successfully utilize, each species often has one or a few very specific conditions that must be present before it can thrive and multiply.

New York’s general overall wildlife habitat is constantly changing, which is to be expected. Nothing ever remains the same for very long in nature. It may be difficult to believe but, around 1900, New York was mostly open farmland. It is estimated that around 90 percent of the land was open and being farmed or grazed.

The main problem back then was that farmers did not have the knowledge or understanding for proper crop rotation. They farmed the land until it was simply worn out. Then many of them simply pulled up stakes and moved to other areas. The land they left behind was slow to recover, but recover it finally did. 

Today, those once abandoned farmlands have often become young to mature forests. They went through all the stages from weeds and grasses to hardwood and softwood saplings and finally to mature timber. Some of that timber is being harvested, most often through approved thinning practices that leaves younger trees to grow while removing the more mature trees.

Our entire ecosystem is still in a slow but steady process of change. And yes, those types of changes still spell trouble for some wildlife species, and new, prime habitat for others. 

Wild turkeys, deer and some small game like squirrels need mature forest areas to supply them with shelter and mast during the late fall, winter and early spring. Mast such as acorns, beechnuts and hickory nuts will only grow on mature trees. Since most of New York’s woodlands are becoming more mature, the turkey and squirrel populations are increasing virtually everywhere. But rabbits, which require weed and grasslands as well as brush lots, are often showing a general overall decline in many areas as their prime habitat also slowly matures.

This past spring was, by most reports, a bumper year for wild turkey nesting and survival.

That means fall turkey hunting should be a bigger draw for hunters as more and more turkeys find suitable habitat in the Finger Lakes forest areas. I only hope that hunters go after toms and leave the hens to survive this coming winter and then face the trials that nature will toss their way during the next breeding and nesting season.

One proven method for hunting fall turkeys is from a deer (tree) stand. Flocks are always on the move during the fall season, and if the tree stand is located within a stand of mature mast producing trees, it is entirely likely a flock will work its way through on any given day during the season. Patience, remaining motionless, and good camouflage are the keys to success here. 

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Here is a short quiz. What do Monroe, Onondaga, Niagara, Erie and Tompkins counties have in common? The answer is that these five counties are the only upstate holdouts concerning when and where deer hunting with rifles is authorized. 

The big news from the governor’s office during the past two weeks is that he signed permanent laws enabling the lawful use of rifles for deer hunting in Genesee, Orleans and Seneca counties. They were the last counties in upstate New York, along with the five already mentioned, to restrict deer hunting to shotguns, archery and crossbows.

All sportsmen who support rifle hunting for deer owe Assembly Minority Leader Brian M. Kolb (R,C,I,Ref-Canandaigua) and Assemblyman Phil Palmesano (R,C,I-Corning) a great big Thank You. These two worked long and hard to get numerous other Republicans and a fewDemocrats to support this important legislation.

With respect to Seneca County, Leader Kolb said “Hunting is among the most popular forms of outdoor recreation in New York State, and Seneca County is no exception. Over the last few years, we have witnessed a surge in popularity and success in rifle hunting with outdoor enthusiasts in the area,” he said. “With this new law in place, there are so many more reasons for hunters to make Seneca County their premier destination for hunting during big-game season this fall.”

“Rifles have been successfully used for the past two big-game hunting seasons in Seneca County,” Assemblyman Palmesano said. “I am hopeful that permanently permitting the use of rifles for big-game hunting will attract even more enthusiasts to the area, providing sportsmen and women in Seneca County with the kind of hunting opportunities that used to be accessible only in other regions in the state.”

Earlier this year, the Seneca County Board of Supervisors passed a Resolution formally requesting the New York State Legislature to enact legislation that would allow the permanent use of rifles for big-game hunting in all of Seneca County. Having passed the Assembly on June 7 and the Senate on June 19, the bill was sent to the governor’s desk for his signature. The bill was signed into law on August 21.

Len Lisenbee is the Daily Messenger’s Outdoor Columnist. Contact him at lisenbee@frontiernet. net.