Why Hunting Is Bad For the Environment
As a girl growing up in rural Nebraska, practically everyone I knew was a hunter. The vast majority of hunters I've ever known have been responsible people with a genuine love for nature and respect for hunting ethics and the honor of the chase. Hunters such as Teddy Roosevelt were the world's first conservationists, and the conservation work of hunters continues to this day with great success in many regions.
However, people in groups are greater than the sum of their parts, and no matter how ethical and responsible most individual hunters are, in this article I'm going to argue that hunters as a group generally do more harm than good to the very ecosystems they claim to love and protect.
What I'm Not Going To Talk About
I'm not going to make the claim that hunting is cruel or morally wrong. Though there certainly are hunters who use cruel hunting methods and laugh or even boast about the suffering of their prey, these are recognized within the hunting community as bad apples and often dealt with by hunters themselves when they are caught.
Responsible hunting is, in my opinion, far less cruel than the atrocities committed against livestock in factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses.
I'm also not going to talk about environmental damage caused by irresponsible hunters tearing around pristine landscapes in ATVs and snowmobiles, leaving empty beer bottles scattered in the woods, or similar offenses. Again, these are considered bad apples within the hunting community itself, and generally dealt with within that community if caught.
What I Am Going To Talk About
Instead, I'm going to discuss a far more pervasive problem, one that is encouraged by the hunting community as a whole, not denigrated by it.
That problem is game management policies that encourage the overpopulation of game species, especially deer and elk.
Of Deer and Hunters
Deer are kind of like large, hoofed rodents. After being nearly eradicated across large swaths of the United States by hunters in the 19th century, they have rebounded spectacularly. They are remarkably fecund - a young doe can breed the same year she is born, and may produce as many as four fawns per pregnancy in her prime - and on good range they can double their population in two years.
Their rise has been aided by human activity. Deer are natural edge dwellers that prefer to live in fragmented habitats mixing forest and field. As the wilderness of the United States has been carved into ever smaller pieces by roads, houses, and development, deer populations have exploded.
Though hunters often claim that hunting is necessary to keep deer populations in check, the truth is that hunters are just as likely to be responsible for deer overpopulation as they are for controlling it.
Game management plans for deer often specifically encourage the fragmentation of habitat by clearcutting, favoring deer while pushing out animals that require large areas of intact habitat, and by planting artificial food plots of corn or other crops even in supposedly "natural" wildlife preserves.
State agencies that manage deer populations have a financial incentive to keep deer populations artificially high. They are typically funded primarily by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, and in some cases by taxes on gun and ammunition sales.
Hunters have sometimes reacted violently to calls for substantial culling of deer herds. Gary Alt, a Pennsylvania wildlife biologist who recommended culling deer populations by two thirds to protect the health of the forests, received so many death threats from hunters that he started going to work in a bulletproof vest.
As a consequence of the misguided game management policies supported by hunters, deer have unleashed havoc upon native ecosystems and nearby humans alike.
- Deer damage forest ecosystems by eating and trampling seedlings and saplings, preventing forest regeneration. During periods of extreme overpopulation, they may even kill larger trees by stripping their bark, effectively girdling them.
- Deer encourage the spread of invasive species
by eating more palatable native plants, giving invasive species an
opening to establish themselves. Because many invasive species are
fellow edge dwellers, deer management policies that encourage the
creation of edge habitats, often by clearcutting, also encourage the spread of invasive species.
Intact landscapes are much more resistant to invasion than fragmented
- Deer are one of the favorite foods of deer ticks, the primary vector for lyme disease, the fastest growing infectious disease in the United States. The relationship between deer and lyme disease is complicated - eradicating deer simply encourages the ticks to feed more frequently on rodents, the other main vector for the disease - but the explosion of the deer population encouraged a corresponding explosion in the deer tick population.
- In the United States, there are an estimated 1.5 million auto collisions with deer every year, causing 150 motorist deaths and $1.1 billion in vehicle damage.
- Property owners report billions of dollars of property damage, mainly from deer eating or trampling landscaping, every year.
Policies encouraging overpopulation of deer also hurt the deer themselves and, ultimately, the same hunters calling for larger deer populations. In bad winters, deer starve en masse, and in areas with really severe overpopulation, deer grow weak and stunted, with spindly racks, even in years with plenty of food.
Of Elk and Wolves
But the clearest evidence that hunters do not control overpopulation of deer and other ungulates but actually exacerbate it comes from the bitter fight being waged over the reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park.
The gray wolf, once the dominant predator across most of the North American continent, was virtually eradicated from its previous range by the early decades of the 20th century, thanks mainly to pressure from farmers, ranchers, and hunters. The last two wolves in Yellowstone were killed in 1926.
Populations of elk exploded in the aftermath, and by 1933, the effects were already showing on the park's rangeland. That year, a team of biologists noted that soils were eroding, unpalatable grasses were spreading, and high quality browse plants were vanishing under the onslaught. They described the condition of range within the park as "deplorable." Rangers started a program of shooting and trapping elk to reduce overpopulation, but no noticeable improvement was achieved for more than 60 years, until January 12, 1995, when eight Canadian wolves were released back into the park.
- The Ecology Of Fear: Wolves Gone, Western Ecosystems Suffer
- Yellowstone National Park Wolf Reintroduction is changing the face of the greater Yellowstone ecosys
- Presence Of Wolves Allows Aspen Recovery In Yellowstone
- Wolves Are Rebalancing Yellowstone Ecosystem
- Building with wolves
- Scavengers benefit by dining with the wolves
Almost immediately, biologists noticed a cascade of effects that affected every level of the park's ecosystem.
- At the time of the wolves' reintroduction, the youngest aspen tree in the park was more than 50 years old. In the absence of wolves, the voracious elk had eaten every new shoot or sapling. The localized extinction of aspen in Yellowstone was echoed across the Western United States, where more than 90% of aspen groves have disappeared in the last century. Scientists had theorized that aspen regeneration may have been affected by climate change or fire frequency levels, but within a few years of the return of the wolf to Yellowstone, whole groves were sprouting in the park.
- Like aspens, cottonwoods were also headed for localized extinction within the park prior to the reintroduction of wolves, and like aspen, cottonwood numbers have rebounded dramatically since.
- In the absence of wolves, elk trampled streambanks and browsed willows to the ground. With no shrubs to shade their banks, the quality of the park's aquatic habitat declined. Now elk avoid streams as much as possible because they are good ambush sites (the oft-mentioned "ecology of fear"), and the willows have rebounded. Along with them, populations of fish, amphibians, and other aquatic animals have increased.
- The lack of willows also hurt beaver populations in the park, which are dependent on willows for winter food. In 1995, there was just one beaver colony in the park. By 2006, there were nine. Like wolves, beavers are a "keystone species," a species whose presence in the landscape increases biodiversity by benefiting a large number of other plant and animal species. The wetlands created by beavers provide habitat for dozens of species of fish, amphibians, birds, mammals, insects, and other wildlife. They also slow the flow of water down, allowing it to spread more widely and evenly across the landscape - an important side benefit in the arid West.
- Even a fairly large wolf pack is not usually able to finish off a whole adult carcass of an elk or bison by themselves, and dozens of scavengers have benefited from the onslaught of food. A record-breaking 135 ravens was sighted on one wolf kill, and bears and foxes are among the other beneficiaries. Even coyotes, whose numbers declined 50-80% in the aftermath of wolf reintroduction, have been spotted on every single known wolf kill.
Despite the obvious ecological benefits of wolf reintroduction, many hunters remain up in arms over the decline of the elk herds. Anti-wolf organizations such as the Abundant Wildlife Society lobby for the elimination of wolves without regard for the environmental consequences of their actions, or the obvious inadequacy of human hunters to maintain sustainable populations of elk, deer, and other ungulates. A prolonged legal battle has resulted.
In Sarah Palin's Alaska, the demands of hunters for large game populations sparked a war on predators. Palin expanded the powers of the Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife and Board of Game to allow state-operated helicopters to pursue and kill wolves, at a cost to taxpayers of approximately $1000 an hour. The Board of Game also approved a plan to allow sow bears with cubs to be killed, as part of an effort to reduce the black bear population by 60%.
Sarah Palin claimed that her predator control policies were implemented to help Alaska's subsistence hunters and were based on strong science, but in 2007, 172 scientists signed a letter to Palin stating that the state's predator control policies were "inadequately designed" and threatened the long-term health of populations of both the predators and the ungulates the plan was intended to protect. The letter claimed that state officials had set population objectives for moose and caribou that were based on "unattainable, unsustainable historically high populations."
By demanding large populations of deer, elk, and other game and by supporting the eradication of large predators viewed as competitors, hunters contribute to the very overpopulation of game animals that they frequently claim to prevent.
Even if hunters could be persuaded to accept lower populations of game, human hunters simply cannot duplicate the effects of the "ecology of fear" on natural ecosystems due to their different hunting methods and the concentration of human hunting activity during certain times of year.
Humans also do not offer the same evolutionary benefits to game animals. Predators such as wolves focus their hunts on the very young, the very old, and the weak or sick, strengthening the herd. Human hunters, on the other hand, often focus their hunts on the big and strong, removing the best genes from the pool. Additionally, human hunting causes more disruption to natural herd structure and breeding practices. For example, in some regions of the country, thanks to restrictions on doe hunting, the pressure on whitetail bucks is so great that only 1 in 100 bucks reaches the age of four.
Hunters would be better served by supporting the conservation and reintroduction of large predators in areas where it is feasible, and by supporting substantial culls in areas where it is not. By doing so, they would be choosing quality over quantity, and returning to the true tradition of hunting conservation.
In the words of big game hunter and conservationist Teddy Roosevelt:
"In utilizing and conserving the natural resources of the Nation, the one characteristic more essential than any other is foresight.... The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life."
"Defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things sometimes seek to champion them by saying the 'the game belongs to the people.' So it does; and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people. The 'greatest good for the greatest number' applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations."
What We Can Do
Whether you are a hunter or not, you can support science-based, ecologically sustainable wildlife management by:
- Educating others about the effects of deer and elk overpopulation on the environment, people, and the quality of hunting opportunities.
- Educating others about the important role predators play in maintaining healthy ecosystems.
- Supporting fair chase hunting methods and encouraging realistic expectations about how much time and effort should go into finding, stalking, and making a kill in a region with sustainable game populations.
- Fighting habitat fragmentation and overdevelopment.
- Creating natural food plots with native trees, shrubs, grasses, and forbs that benefit other wildlife in addition to deer, elk, and other game animals.
- Supporting the conservation and reintroduction of large predators in appropriate areas, and supporting large-scale culls of deer, elk, and other game animals in regions where reintroduction of predators is not a viable option.
- Encouraging predator friendly farming and ranching techniques and supporting organizations such as the Get Bear Smart Society working to educate the public about safe methods of cohabiting with large predators.
Agree or Disagree?
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