SCIF Research Spotlight – Jake DeBow

A question and answer session with Jake DeBow, Region 1 Wildlife Biologist for New Hampshire Fish and Game discussing his thesis project at the University of Vermont which was funded in part by Safari Club International Foundation and focused on moose mortality and recruitment in the state and more.

Q: Jake, we really appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to share your story with us. I know your work with the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department keeps you busy.  Just to get started, can you tell us about yourself and your current position with the agency?

A: Brett and Chris, thanks so much for inviting me to participate in this. I’ve been fortunate to see the management implications that derive from SCIF funded research firsthand and have personally benefited from the education that funding provides to students so I’m excited to be having this conversation.

            A very brief backstory about myself: I grew up in central New Hampshire at the base of the White Mountains in a family that was very outdoor oriented. I spent many days as a kid hiking, fishing, and hunting in the White’s which fostered my interest in wildlife and the outdoors. My education in wildlife is comprised by a 4-year stint at the University of New Hampshire which awarded me a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Conservation followed by a 3 year stint at the University of Vermont where I finished with my Master’s in Wildlife Management.

            I was very fortunate to land not only a job, but my dream job right out of grad school and that is where I currently reside. This position has split duties and responsibilities that vary greatly. In short, I work for New Hampshire Fish and Game as the Regional Wildlife Biologist in the Northern region of New Hampshire. Beyond the duties of a wildlife biologist I also head up our technical assistance program which works with landowners to practice forestry with wildlife in mind. The land base of Northern New Hampshire is comprised largely by timber resource companies, so I find myself working along foresters and loggers on large-scale operations. In particular I work to assist in sustainable forestry within high-elevation and winter deer habitats.

Q:  In addition to the issues related to moose (which we will cover in a minute) what are some important wildlife management issues that you are dealing with at the agency?  What should our members in the Northeast be thinking and reading about?

A: Moose is a big one for sure but it really represents many of the wildlife management related issues we face across New England. It’s the age old story but human development and a changing climate are continuing to compress our unique habitats what we consider our wild spaces. Development may be the largest threat to my region in particular as many of the State’s high elevation and boreal forest communities exist in this region. My predecessor used to call it death by 1000 cuts. Farms going out of business and growing over, wind turbines on high elevation mountain tops, second home development on lakes and ponds, and threats of power lines running through large tracks of undeveloped lands are just a few examples of how our wildlife are being squeezed into smaller and smaller habitats.

            On the back of that I believe it is as important as ever to educate the public on how to live amongst wildlife. As we continue to expand our society we see more and more human-animal conflicts arise, many of which stem from preventable circumstances. In particular human-bear conflict is higher than ever. These issues often begin with bird-feeders or improperly stored garbage. Small steps like taking in birdfeeders each April, containing trash, and fencing off backyard chickens can stop many of these conflicts before they start. Black bear populations are very healthy in New Hampshire right now as a product of sound management over the last 25 years and our job now is to educate the public on how to share our landscape with them.

Q: In my experience, most of the folks who pursue careers related to wildlife management and conservation are generally driven by outdoor experiences during their childhood. Can you talk a little bit about how growing up in a state like New Hampshire with ample hunting and fishing opportunities helped shape who you are today from a personal and professional perspective?

A: Absolutely. There is no doubt that my career path was started very early on in my youth through hunting, fishing, and I would add trapping here in New Hampshire. Mentors and family members that participated in those activities were instrumental in fostering my love for the outdoors and these pursuits but youth hunting programs, state sponsored hunting education courses, and access to public lands gave my mentors the tools to introduce me to this passion.

            Land access in the US varies greatly by region and here in New Hampshire we have laws that lend themselves to increased access. In the State of New Hampshire all land that is not otherwise posted is open to hunting and fishing. Growing up in an area that had ample opportunity on private lands as well as access to the White Mountain National Forest and other state owned lands allowed me to room to grow and learn as I moved from a youth hunter to a first time solo hunter in my teen years and eventually into an experienced hunter.

            Those opportunities and experiences pursuing deer, turkey, trout, beaver, etc. in the woods of New Hampshire lead me directly to my professional career path and created a foundation of knowledge that allowed me to succeed in the wildlife field. 

PSA: While legal to access unposted private lands, it is important to note we still encourage everyone to get to know landowners and ask for verbal or written permission before accessing their property.

Q: Well it sounds like those experiences helped steer your path from an educational standpoint as well. Can you describe your educational experiences at the University of New Hampshire in undergrad and University of Vermont in grad school? I personally didn’t transition into a wildlife program until I had already been in college for two years. Was pursuing a career in conservation something you always knew you were going to do?

A: You hit the nail on the head. As I said before that foundation of knowledge derived from observations and experiences while pursuing game gave me a jump start with my education in the wildlife field. In undergrad I got off to a quick start as I could visualize the ecological processes we were learning about. I had a lot of ah-ha moments in college as I began to pull together the science, we were learning with the experiences I had from hunting and trapping. That combination of classroom and personal field time made me competitive as I finished my undergraduate degree and began applying for graduate programs.

            Once in grad school those field skills paid off again as my research consisted of intensive monitoring of a large ungulate (moose). In short we had to stalk and monitor these animals in the woods without them knowing we were present. Again, in grad school field skills transitioned into the class room and further into the analysis of my data as we began to create model sets that had to be ecologically accurate. By that point in my graduate career the line of work and play had been seriously blurred as my graduate program became my life and skills from both work and recreation began to benefit each other.

Q: The research you helped conduct in for your graduate thesis work is extremely interesting, and that project was funded in part by the Safari Club International Foundation. Could you provide a brief description of the project and explain how your involvement in that project has guided your career path so far?

A: I will try my best to keep this brief! Moose populations across New England have been declining over the past decade. Particularly in western Maine, Norther New Hampshire, and North Eastern Vermont. While separated by political boundaries these moose populations are fairly fluid and have experienced this decline in tandem. All three of these states initiated moose research projects in order to monitor this decline and attempt to quantify changing vital rates (death rates and birth rates). In Vermont in particular the state agency wanted to better understand how these vital rates were changing so they could better inform their population models and propose moose management actions with the best and most current science.

            Upon completion of our research and research in neighboring states we now understand that moose decline in New England is largely driven through reduced health of adult cows and direct mortality of 9-12 month old calves through parasitism associated with the Winter Tick. Winter ticks are a single host species that go through several life-stage changes on a single individual. In their final life-stage the female winter ticks take a large blood meal and detach to fall into the leaf litter and lay their eggs. The problem moose face is a combination of timing of that blood meal and the sheer number of ticks. Tick loads of 30,000 to 90,000 ticks have been measured on calf moose during the spring months. All of the females take their blood meal at a synchronized time, meaning they are literally sucking these animals dry.

            Calves experience direct mortality as they physically do not have enough blood to feed both the ticks and themselves. It is estimated that an average load of winter ticks can remove 1.5X the blood volume of a calf moose during the peak feeding weeks which occur in late march. Adults have the blood volume and body mass to sustain this level of energy loss but they pay the price in other ways. For adult females that cost is paid through decreased fecundity rates. While they have enough energy to survive the spring, they do not have enough energy to survive the spring AND raise a calf (both in fetus production and milk production).

            Can you believe that’s the short version… Involvement in this project has led my down a career path largely associated with ungulate research and management. While I fill my regional biologist role here at NHFG I also work closely with the game team, in particular the moose biologist. My field work experience during my graduate program may have had the most impact on making me marketable as a field biologist. Long field seasons year-round that varied from 95 degrees and humid in July to -25 with wind chill in February prepared me for most any circumstance the New England woodlands can throw at you.

Q: One of the cool parts about the project is its direct application towards moose management strategies and hunting regulations in Vermont.  Could you describe how that worked and talk a little but about the important nexus between scientific research, wildlife conservation, and sustainable use through hunting?

A: As I finish up my graduate program and move into a new career it is unbelievably satisfying to see our research be used to directly inform managers on season setting rules associated with moose management. While the story of moose and ticks is complex I’m going to try and simplify it through a series of steps:

            The moose tick cycle is density dependent. In other words the more moose available on the landscape the more ticks will be present. Presumably if you lower moose densities to a certain threshold there will not be enough hosts (moose) for the tick populations to sustain themselves. Research in other parts of the country have identified that threshold. Following the research in Vermont the wildlife agency used our measured vital rates (birth rates, neonate survival rates, winter survival rates) which were specific to the Vermont moose heard, and a population model we worked in tandem to create to inform their management decisions. They were able to model population projections under a variety of circumstances to predict final outcomes as it relates to those desired population thresholds.

            The decision was made by the state agency to issue a certain number of moose hunting permits in order to slightly reduce, and then later maintain, the moose population at these desired levels. Using hunting as a management tool is a win-win for everyone, and in this circumstance specifically the future moose populations. Moose hunters get to continue their tradition and participate in the hunt of a lifetime, moose will get to exist on a landscape where parasites are reduced, and the state will bring in funds through this process that will be invested back into wildlife research and management. Lastly, the biological data that biologists will be able to collect from harvested animals is priceless and will lead to more sound management in the future. This is a perfect example of how science can inform management and managers can use hunting as a sustainable tool to achieve management goals. Not to mention, when part of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation funds generated through hunting are further invested in wildlife management.

Q: Are there any other peripheral projects you were involved in during your time in school that are particularly interesting?

A: During my time as an undergraduate I worked on a few research projects that I found pretty interesting. One of which being a deer yard study where we were measuring use of historical deer yards. Here in New England our winters can be severe, often with snow accumulations of multiple feet that stay or several months. Deer can survive in snow but once resting snow gets above their brisket, they use more energy moving around than they can consume from available winter forage. Deer yards are areas of heavy softwood cover that afford deer protection from deep snow and harsh winter conditions. The snow inside these softwood compounds can be as much as half that in open hardwoods. These areas are imperative to deer herd health in Northern New Hampshire and this particular project was assessing the availability of that habitat type.

            While in undergrad I also worked on a similar project to my master’s work, except in the capacity of a field technician. For two summers and one winter I worked tracking moose using VHF radio-collars and equipment. We were doing similar work to what I described above accept my sole job was field work with all administrative work being assigned to the graduate student associated with the research. Those were the days! That project was the steppingstone that lead to my graduate research and eventually my full time positon. This was another research project that was funded through SCIF!

Q: When you’re not at work, what are you doing? Tell us a little bit about the hunting and fishing opportunities up there in the Northwoods. I know in previous conversations we’ve had you mentioned that you spent a lot of time trapping beavers so can you talk about that? There aren’t a lot of trappers out there anymore, particularly ones as young as you. So how did you first get involved with trapping? A lot of people don’t realize the ecological and sociological benefits of trapping, so maybe you could discuss that a bit.

A: When I’m not working in the woods I’m recreating in the woods. By this point I’ve found something to keep me busy in the woods just about year round. My natural progression through the year usually starts with turkey hunting and moose shed hunting in the spring, followed by scouting for deer all summer which leads me to archery hunting in early fall and then rifle hunting in late fall. Finally, as you mentioned I spend my winter months trapping beaver, otter and muskrat through the ice. While I have a special spot in my heart for all of these activities tracking deer on snow during rifle season and beaver trapping through the ice is where my true love falls. Tracking deer on snow is a form of hunting that seems to be a unique tradition to areas that get snow during deer season and in particular northern New England. It’s a form of hunting that’s very intimate as you play a game of chess with one of the weariest animals in the woods, on their playing field. A quick google of the Benoit’s of Vermont or the Blood’s of Maine will give someone a plethora of information about this if they are interested in learning more.

            As you alluded, there seems to be less and less trappers every year with my age class in particular lacking a presence in the trapping community. I was introduced to trapping early as my father is both a fur trapper and a wildlife control operator. So while he traps in the winter for fur he also traps nuisance wildlife year round. He was a first generation trapper and took on the activity with little guidance, building his knowledge base largely from personal experience. After trapping for over 30 years he has been a great mentor for me and made my introduction simple.

            Beaver trapping in particular has been my bread and butter. It’s entirely possible this is because canines are so darn hard to trap but I like to think it’s because of my love for the animal and habitat they live in. Beaver ecology is fascinating to me and winter wetlands are some of the most enchanting habitats you can spend time in. Targeting this animal under the ice takes a deep knowledge of their environment, their ecology, and their behavior. Pulling all that together to harvest an animal that contains so many natural resources is a large attraction. From a beaver I harvest their fur, castor glands, meat, and skull. I then give the carcass to a friend who baits bobcats (which of course feeds all sorts of winter critters) so there is not an ounce of that animal that goes to waste.

            Many people don’t realize or don’t view trapping as a public resource, but it very much is. As I mentioned before humans are constantly encroaching on the places that wildlife call home. Left unchecked many of these species end up inhabiting our road culverts, attics, and under our porches. For worse or for better these animals that find themselves in our human dominated landscape are often labeled nuisance and killed throughout the year. More often than not because of furbearer ecology these animals’ surface in spring and summer months and thus get thrown away because their hide is not prime (usable in the clothing or product market). One of the many benefits of regulated trapping is that these animals get targeted in the fall or winter, before they become a ‘nuisance’ and when they can be utilized as a renewable resource. All furbearers in New Hampshire that we currently trap have healthy populations and are just that – a renewable resource. They will continue to populate and continue to be present on our landscape. Trappers help maintain furbearer populations at levels acceptable to the general public while utilizing the animal. I could go on and on about this subject and would be happy to elaborate more if anyone would like to chat about it!

Q: You’re obviously quite familiar with Safari Club International and the Safari Club International Foundation, so can you share with us your impression of SCI/SCIF and talk a little bit about the importance of organizations like ours when it comes to protecting the freedom to hunt and promoting wildlife conservation? Are there any other similar organizations that you’re a member of or involved with?

A: While I support all aspects, the majority of my interaction with SCI and SCIF is based around SCIF and so if you don’t mind I’ll speak more to the foundation in this response. It’s obvious at this point myself and my research has benefited directly through SCIF and so it should be surprise that I support the work that they do. With that being said though I am very much excited about the other work and research that is being done through the foundation. The mission statement says it all: “Ensure the future of wildlife through conservation, education, and hunting”. This is what I have been and continue to work for in my profession and thus this mission resonates deeply with me.

            There is no hiding my love for hunting and trapping and everything I do, both in my personal and professional life is aimed at making sure those activities are continued into the future. In my mind we achieve that through direct research and educating the public. Conservation and hunting go hand in hand and I am a strong proponent of educating everyone we can about how that relationship flourishes. I feel strongly that SCI and SCIF are doing this. To me, organizations like SCI is where the rubber meets the road. The world runs on money and the wildlife field is no different. Good quality research costs money and organizations such as this one make those projects possible.

As far as other organizations go, I have been a member of NWTF for 3 or 4 years now because I believe in the work they do both at the habitat level and the hunter recruitment level. In order to ensure hunting is available as a conservation tool and a conservation funding agent we must recruit the next age class into the hunting, fishing, and trapping community.

Q: Thanks again for taking the time to speak with us Jake, are there any topics we haven’t covered yet that you’d like to discuss? Or any interesting things on the horizon in terms of your career and research?

A: Thanks so much for having me! I hope I didn’t put anyone to sleep with my long winded responses. Many of these topics I could talk for hours about but I tried my best to truncate the responses. As far as things on the horizon I would say starting a career is the big one! I’ve been in this current position for ~ 4 months now and have been loving every day of it. Each day and every week has been a new adventure and I’m excited to see where that leads in the future.