Todd Tanner is the driver behind Conservation Hawks, a nonprofit group of hunters and anglers that are working to protect the environment. They're taking it upon themselves to identify and address the single biggest threat to our hunting & fishing activities: climate change. Read the episode transcript to learn about the waves that Todd Tanner and Conservation Hawks are making in the world of environmental protection!
Chance: Alrighty guys, we've got another great conversation coming out of EarthX 2019 here in Dallas. Today we are talking with Todd Tanner, he's from Montana, and he is the founder of Conservation Hawks.
SK: Welcome to the show!
Todd: Well thank you very much for having me.
SK: Absolutely! We are so happy for you to be here today, especially considering they took you off of your flight last night due to the storm. Um, so you got in pretty late, but we're happy to have you here.
Todd: Yeah. I'm stoked to be in Dallas. First time. First time in Texas.
Chance: Welcome to Texas. Let me give you a big howdy and yeehaw! Glad you're here.
Todd: Well, thank you very much.
Chance: So from Montana, that's a long ways away.
Todd: It is! We're, we're well North. I heard something the other day, I don't know if it's true, but it was sort of interesting. Somebody told me that the South Eastern corner of Montana was actually closer to Texas than it was to the Northeastern corner of Montana, which I had no idea.
SK: Fascinating! Yeah. I'll have to look at a map. So with conservation Hawks, how long have you been running this nonprofit?
Todd: I started conservation Hawks in 2011 and we went public in, I think it was February of 2012.
SK: Okay, awesome. And can you give us kind of a background of Conservation Hawk's mission and what you hope to achieve with this nonprofit?
Todd: Sure. So essentially what we do: our job is to look at all the different issues that could potentially impact hunters and anglers, because that's our constituency, that's who we focus on. And then we focus our time and our effort, 100% of it on what we consider to be the biggest issue. So we've looked at any number of possible things, and it's really, really clear to us at this point that climate change is the single biggest threat to hunters and anglers.
So. We spend all our time, all our effort, all our energy, talking to sportsman about climate, trying to educate them and engage them.
Chance: I know that kind of classic thinking when it comes to environmental-ism and, and. Hug a tree, loved the planet kind of thing, is protecting the lives of all animals.
And I think a lot of times when people think environmental activists, they're not thinking hunters and anglers. And I, that's something that I really want to disspell here. I would argue, and I, I'm certain that you would agree that hunters and fishermen are some of the most important people we have in conservation today.
Todd: I would say that that's true. It's not uniform obviously people fall all over the spectrum. Uh, some sportsmen and women will be really, really concerned about the environment, about landscapes, about waters, and others less so. But we do have sportsmen have this really strong personal connection to the outdoors because we spend so much time there.
Quite honestly, we derive so much enjoyment from it. We really, really have fun out there. And when you care about something, you do want to protect it. So that's sort of how we feel.
Chance: 100% I mean, it's, it's like if you, you know, if you owned a really nice sports car and you really enjoyed driving it out on the highways, you work hard to make sure that that car is in really good shape, that it's running well, that it's clean, that it looks good.
It's the same sort of thing. If you enjoy spending time in the outdoors, why wouldn't you want to do everything that you could to protect outdoors and make sure that they're clean and pristine? And so the people that are taking the time to be out there, they're the ones who are going to care the most, that it stays healthy and stays in good shape.
Todd: Absolutely. And to your analogy, um, you actually want the roads in really good shape too, right? Because if you love to drive you don't want to be driving on a bumpy, nasty old road.
Todd: So as, as conservationists, you know, we want our landscapes and our waters to be in as good a shape as they can possibly be in.
SK: Yeah, I definitely agree. And I will say, when I was a kid, I think like a lot of kids, I was kinda like, Oh, Bambi, you know, you love deer. And it's kinda like, well, if there's people killing the deer, and I was never against hunting, but I was like, Oh, I don't know how to feel about it. And I think definitely as I've grown up, you kind of come to realize that it really is important. It kind of serves a greater purpose.
Todd: Well for a lot of us, hunting and fishing are an excuse to spend time in the outdoors. Uh, not that we don't take it really seriously. Uh, and in hunting in particular can be a little tough for some people because you are killing. It's killing. And there's an emotional attachment, believe it or not, between folks who hunt and the animals that they're after.
And so there's this sort of internal conflict there and that we all deal with in our own way. Some people think about it a lot. Others. Less so, but I think it's there for, for the vast majority of us. And you know, there's always a, when we're successful in the field, you'll hear a lot of euphemisms like "harvest".
And I'm not crazy about those. Basically we're killing something. Let's say that we killed something and then let's respect the fact that we've done that. Let's honor the animal, thank it for its sacrifice and eat it. Because then it's part of who we are and it's, you know, it's the way humans have lived for probably a hundred thousand years at this point.
Chance: Absolutely. We like to pretend that we're not part of the food chain. You know that our meat comes from a grocery store and that grocery store just magically manifests this meat that's nice and packaged as a steak for you. But I think having a really good, clear understanding of where your food comes from from start to finish is really important in hunters who are out killing and eating what they hunt.
Who else has a better sense of where they are in the food chain?
Todd: You're absolutely right about that. And one of the big issues that, that I see and that a lot of conservation to see is that there's this illusion that people are separate from the world around them that we're up on this pedestal and we're above everything else who were not connected to it.
And from my perspective, that's just not true. We are part of nature. We're part of the natural world. And if we forget that, if we forget where the steak comes from or the chicken comes from that we might grab in the grocery store, that does a disservice to us. It does a disservice to the world around us and leaves us in a situation where bad things can happen.
SK: Yeah, I absolutely agree. And I think, in our conversations earlier with you talking about how you got into this field, it seems like you just naturally fell into creating conservation Hawks. Could you give us a background of how you got there?
Todd: I'm really fortunate. I was a fly fishing guide and a big game guide for awhile and then started writing about the outdoors and was very, very fortunate and had a bunch of stuff published all over the place and then started writing about conservation because it just seemed so important to me, and I started conservation Hawks when it became apparent that the work I was doing as a writer just wasn't effective enough just by me, by myself. So it struck me that we needed a group to sort of focus energy and, and attention on conservation issues.
SK: And as a kid, did you know that this is something you wanted to do? Were you always wanting to be a writer or were you always hoping like, Oh, I'll just, you know, I'll be a hunter or a fishermen for my whole life?
Todd: I guess I probably didn't really think about it, but I was one of those kids back in the 60s who would like read outdoor magazines after I was supposed to be asleep, my mom would come in and check on me and the, the light would be off, but as soon as she was gone, I'd turn the flashlight on and read, you know, "Field and Stream" or "Outdoor Life" or "Sports and Field" underneath the covers.
And honestly, uh. I never ever thought that I had the ability to do any of the things I'm doing now. That just sort of, it just sort of happened. Uh, but I will say that everything I've done up to this point seems to be really good training for the work that we're doing right now with trying to reach, uh, uh, hunters and anglers on climate change.
SK: That's awesome. So you grew up in New York, right?
Todd: Yeah. I grew up in Southern New York about no 60 or 70 miles North of New York city, although it was relatively rural back then. We had dairy farms and vegetable farms and horse farms, and now it's sort of one of the furthest North bedroom communities for New York, but it's a, back in the day it was uh, it was much more rural than it is now.
And New York, New York's a pretty good state, but once I started visiting, uh, the West and spending time out West, it was really hard to want to live back East just because it's, it's so beautiful and comparatively so pristine. And the opportunities for folks who love to do what I do, whether that's hunt or fish or hike or camp or whatever, they're just, you know, they're exponentially larger out West.
Chance: So I want to get back a little bit more to some of the work that Conservation Hawks does. Some of the, the actual stuff that it does. One of the things that we watched in preparation for this episode, is we watched excerpts from, uh, the most recent film that you've put out. What was the name of the film?
Todd: Uh, In the Heart of the Rockies
Chance: In the Heart of the Rockies. And that was just very recently published, right?
Todd: Yeah, so in the heart of the Rockies actually ran on the Sportsman's Channel, which is uh cable TV for hunters and anglers, back at the end of February and the beginning of March, and our exclusivity arrangement with them just ended. So we now have the option of getting In the Heart of the Rockies out on the web. So we're doing that, and hopefully with The Sportsman's Channel, they've shown it three times so far, I hope they continue to show it, which would be wonderful. Uh, but, uh, yeah, we're, we're just trying to get it out. So it's been, it's been out since the very end of February.
Chance: Awesome. If somebody who is listening to this right now wanted to go find it and watch it, where would they go?
Todd: They would go to www.ConservationHawks.org which is our website because it's right on the front page, and it's up on our Vimeo page as well. But the easiest place to find it is ConservationHawks.org
Chance: Okay. We'll put a link to that in the show notes so that anybody who's listening just go into the show notes and click on that link and you guys will be able to, to go watch some of this, uh, really awesome videography that you guys were able to pull off. I mean, it's just absolutely gorgeous shots of pristine nature and and sportsman spending time out in it.
Todd: Well, thank you. It's, uh, we have a real passion for the outdoors and the folks that we work with uh, specifically Jeremy Roberts of conservation media, who is our, sort of our filmmaker and our technical guru on this stuff. He's just incredibly talented and he shows things that make me smile and hopefully they make other people smile too.
SK: Yeah, absolutely. And I notice in reading the description of that film, it kind of focuses really on your core mission of Conservation Hawks, which is looking at climate change, right? And how it's affecting hunting and fishing and all of that.
Todd: That's absolutely true.
Chance: To address the elephant in the room, what are the ways that you have seen climate change affect sportsmen?
Todd: Okay, so I don't know that I could list all the different ways, but I'll give you an example from some other people, then I'll talk a little bit about my own personal stuff.
SK: That's great.
Todd: I did a story on a fellow by the name of Bill Geer, who's on, now on our Conservation Hawks board of directors, and Bill at the time was the Climate Change Initiative Manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. That's a long one haha.
SK: It is!
Todd: But basically what bill did is he put together climate presentations and took them around to all these little sporting groups in Montana. And I found out about it and I was like, "Oh wow, I've got to check that out, can I come and sit in on one?" And he said, sure. So I drove about an hour and a half and met up with a group of maybe 30 folks and they tended to be older folks, and they sat through Bill's 25 minute presentation and then he asked if they had any questions.
And they didn't. They wanted to talk about wolves, which in Montana is a pretty common subject. And so I said, well, I've got a question for you folks. What have you seen here, most of you aren't young what have you seen in this particular landscape?
And they went on for 20 minutes, "Well the snows used to be three feet or four feet deep down here in the valley floor, and now we're lucky if we get six inches in the wintertime. And the snows came early and they pushed the elk down and the, and the mule deer down from the mountains. And that doesn't happen now until the hunting season's over. And now our snows go earlier and our runoff is earlier so our creeks dry up in the summertime and the trout fishing isn't nearly as good. And the little pothole lakes where the waterfowl come in the fall in winter have dried up in a lot of cases. And so the, the geese and the ducks aren't stopping as frequently as they used to."
And they went on and on and on, but they didn't understand that those things were related to climate change. And so I guess that was sort of the, you know, "connect the dots moment" for us. That was when I started thinking, if we had an organization that worked on this, we can actually make a real difference.
And so where I am in Northwestern Montana, our snow's come later. Our winters are warmer. Our snows leave earlier. Uh, spring starts earlier. Because spring starts earlier and our snow goes earlier, our summers tend to be drier. Now when you add in excess heat, that means that it gets really hot and really dry, which leads to forest mortality. It also creates these situations with catastrophic wildfires. So whether we're burning up locally or whether somebody's burning up. 100 or 200 or 500 miles away, that's sort of irrelevant because the smoke gets so bad nobody wants to go outside.
I've got a 14 year old boy and there are weeks in the summertime now when we don't let him outside because the air isn't fit to breathe, it's, it's literally hazardous to his health. So he's trying to play soccer, he's trying to go fish, and he's trying to do all these things that any kid would love to do, but he can't do that because it's so damn smokey.
And that's relatively new. 20 years ago we didn't worry about that. So there's all these different things going on. Um, as an angler, you know, our streams in the summertime are lower, they're warmer, and because of that combination of things, the uh, dissolved oxygen in the water goes way down, which makes it really tough on the fish.
And so we find that in Montana, Fish Wildlife and Parks is closing down rivers and streams and saying, you can't fish here because the water's too warm. And that's crazy when that happens up near the Canadian border. But it does happen.
So yeah, I see all sorts of things. Our forests are literally taking it on the chin. I look out the window from where I work and I see dying trees, and you know, trees have died forever. Right? But we're seeing more and more and more trees dying. Some of that's because of the stress from excess heat. Some of that's from droughts that we're seeing more frequently. Some of it's from a beetle kill, an insect kill, because as trees are weakened by, by drought and high temperatures, it makes them more susceptible to insects.
So there's all this stuff going on and essentially, you know, nature's all interconnected. Everything touches everything else. And when you screw one thing up. That reverberates throughout the entire system.
Chance: That's exactly what I was going to say. I mean, fundamentally the definition of an ecosystem is the biotic and the abiotic factors, the things that are alive: the, the plants, the animals, the fungi; and the things that are not alive: the rivers, the rocks, the soil, the air. And by definition, if you change the abiotic factors, if the climate shifts, if it's warmer, if there's less water available, you're going to be changing the ecosystem as a whole. Because those living things rely on a stable set of environmental factors.
And if you change those environmental factors, the living things are going to have to change to match one way or another. And whether that's through moving where they are located, whether it's, you know, the elk population, the wolf population shifts southward because you know, you're, you're getting a change in the migratory prey items, or whatever that is, when you change that climate, because it's part of the ecosystem, you're changing the ecosystem itself.
Todd: No, you're, you're absolutely right. And we are seeing big game migration patterns change. One of the things that's a little bit different about the West than it would be here in Texas or in the East for the most part, is that stuff is seasonal where we are. And so you'll see elk migrate up into the high country, as spring moves into summer where all the, the grass and the forbes are getting, uh, green and lush and they'll sort of follow that greening of the mountains.
And then as winter comes though, it'll, they'll get pushed back down, and, and the migrations aren't long, but 30, 50, maybe up to a hundred miles sometimes. And so when we change the overriding conditions, that affects the migration patterns. And so climate change is having an impact on things like aridity and snowfall and stuff like that. So it really does, it shifts everything.
Chance: I think one of the other things that, thinking back to high school, environmental science, stuff like snowfall and the amount of snowfall and the amount of time that snowfall stays on the ground. Not only affects stuff like aridity or how dry it is and how much moisture there is available, but also the way that sunlight reflects or absorbs into the environment.
And so when you've got snow on the ground, there's a lot of reflectivity. Sunlight comes down and bounces back up and back out into the atmosphere. And it can really affect the way in which the climate is warming or cooling, or that that wind flow is changing. So it's not just the changes that you would think of, but there's also tons of unexpected consequences that come along with it as well.
Todd: No, you're, you're absolutely right about that. And you know, that's probably more prevalent in the Arctic than any place else, but we, you know, we are far enough North in Montana that we certainly see some of that as well.
SK: And I think you made some really good points about the beginning of this part of the conversation, talking about how you got into Conservation Hawks and the people you were talking to who were older than yourself and saying, well, this is what we used to see.
And I think that's a really big and important part of, not only the field of conservation, but really any field or industry. To not have such a zoomed in focus, but to go back to people who are older than you, who are born at a different time than you and say, you know, how has it changed since then?
And then kind of extending that 50 more years out and say, what can we expect with that?
Chance: This whole idea of "shifting baselines" is kind of a term where the environment is changing, but it's not necessarily changing within a human lifetime timescale. You know, 70 years is not very long in terms of the environment.
And so the current generation, their grandparents would go out fishing off of Florida and they were catching 150 pound groupers. And if you go out fishing there today, you're lucky to catch a 30 pound grouper. But because the people that are fishing today have only ever seen 30 pound groupers, that's their "big fish".
Whereas if you were to show that to your great, great grandfather who was fishing the same spot, he'd be like, why'd you catch such a small fish? But because that's all you've ever known, you don't realize that there's been this dramatic shift. So while there, there is changes that are happening on a one year, five year, 10 year timescale there's also bigger trends that are changing on a hundred, a hundred and fifty, a two hundred year time scale. And it's really important to remember that the shifts happen both small and large.
Todd: And we should also focus on the fact that they're accelerating. The changes are getting closer and closer and closer together. Those, those things are happening faster.
I'd also, I'll extrapolate a little bit on the generational thing because I do think that's important. Most of the anglers and hunters I know really enjoy, uh, take pride in sharing the outdoors with their kids or their grandkids. It's a huge part of what they do.
And you know, I think in the past we've always had this idea that nature's a constant and we're going to be able to share the things that we love so much that we care so passionately about with our kids. And share them with future generations, and this is the first time that I'm aware of where on a human scale, not just locally or situationally, but on a human scale that's in doubt.
You know, we don't know if we're going to be able to pass along the things that we enjoy now or that we've enjoyed in the past with our kids and our grandkids. And to me, that's an incredible tragedy. It's also though, conversely, sort of a prod for what I do. I mean, it keeps me working on this.
There are days when you know, like anybody, you just say, okay, I just need a break. But climate change isn't taking a break. And I think about my son who's 14. I think about his generation. I think about the generations that will come in after him and, you know, they deserve the same kind of opportunities that we've all had and they deserve to be able to go outside and if they so choose, interact with nature and in a way that's, you know, very personal and very viable.
And if we don't get our act together, and if we don't really start to focus quickly on what we're doing to the world around us, that's, that's no longer going to be possible for them.
SK: I absolutely agree. And I think, you know, while it can sound like just a bunch of doom and gloom and climate change, you know, it is a very important thing to focus on, of course. But like you said, there is still is time for us to get our act together. We have to act quickly. And I think that's a really important thing to know.
With that being said, I would love to kind of end on maybe one of your favorite memories since you've been working in this field of conservation?
Todd: So I get to do some pretty cool things. I get to write about climate change from an outdoor perspective, which allows me to go to neat places and I get to make short films about it.
And I've had a couple of opportunities to get my son involved. And so it was sort of neat uh, the first short climate film we shot was called Cold Waters, and we had a bunch of great folks working with that. Yvonne Chouinard of Patagonia, uh, actually came out for the shoot. And so I got to watch Yvonne who's sort of like this iconic figure in our industry who's sort of leading the charge on the environmental side for sportsman, and my son, who was nine at the time, I got to watch them fish together for a day, which was really, really cool.
And that's the kind of thing, I mean, I'm just blessed. I'm lucky to get to work in a way that hopefully makes a little bit of a difference. And I'm incredibly fortunate to work with the talented people who get up every day and care. They just, they care about making the world a better place if they can, so.
Chance: Well, we're really fortunate that we get to talk to people like you. That also care and that are also working that same field. Thank you so much for sitting down with us. We've had a great time chatting with you today. I think you're doing some incredible work out in Montana and we're going to keep our eyes peeled to see what films you're putting out next.
Todd: Alright, well, thank you very much.
SK: Thank you. Have a good one.