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HUNTING BY HUMANS PERVERSE, TOO EFFICIENT -
NATURE HAS SOLUTIONS

By Peter Muller, Chair, C.A.S.H.
Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting
Board Member Wildlife Watch, Inc.

Is hunting part of nature? Don't animals living in a natural environment hunt? If we lead lives consistent with our own nature and in harmony with our environment, isn't it natural to hunt to obtain food? So what's wrong with hunting?

In nature, predation is a healthy and normal relationship that some species of living organisms have with others. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. In fact, it would be a very aberrant ecosystem that didn't provide for some sort of predatory-prey relationship among some of its species. It is as essential part of nature.

Species that are in a predator-prey relationship have adapted by evolving together in the same ecosystem so that both species benefit from that relationship. The ecosystem, as well as the predator species and the prey species would be adversely affected if predation were to cease. Nobody would benefit from an artificially limited or disrupted predation in a healthy ecosystem.

Over time, evolving in the same ecosystem, predator and prey species have developed structural and behavioral adaptations that allow them to be healthy predators or prey animals. Just a few examples: Prey species usually are very fecund, they tend to have large litter and short gestation periods. Rodents, rats, mice, guinea pigs are typical prey species and are, as is well known, among the most rapidly reproducing species among mammals. For example, lemmings can have litters of about six offspring every three weeks. This is nature's way of assuring that the species will survive even though many succumb to predation. Mammals that have no natural predators reproduce much slower by having small litter (often one birth per pregnancy) and long gestation periods. Elephants, who have no natural predators, typically give birth to one calf after a 22-month gestation period.

The structure of the eye among prey species tend to be well-suited for peripheral vision; their eyes are on the side of the head and can be rotated to be alert to a predator approaching from any direction. Among predators the eyes are in the front of the head; the eyes can focus stereoscopically to allow the predator to assess the right distance to overtake its prey. If we look at birds for example, we see these different eye structures between the raptors such as owls, hawks, and eagles as contrasted with the passerines, examples of which are sparrows, starlings, and orioles.

The ability to move and survive on their own shortly after birth (precocial) is again markedly more developed among the prey species than among species that have no predators. The various species have evolved these adaptations so they can all live and thrive in their ecosystem.

A natural predator will take some of the prey species but not get close to totally eradicating its prey base. Among species that have co-evolved. It is estimated that no predator species ever takes more than about 10 percent of its prey base. The kill rate for a predator attempting to take a prey animal is also low: Sometimes it is less than 10 percent, typically it is around 20 percent.

Predation, in nature, benefits both the predator and the prey species. The predator species, and incidentally scavenging species, benefit by having their food needs met by predation. The prey species, however, also benefits. Predation will 1) remove infected and diseased individuals, and so reduce risk of further contagion and spread of parasites and 2) remove congenitally weak animals, preventing them from breeding, and thereby improving the gene pools of the prey species.

The prey species is healthier and genetically improved by having predators. The entire ecosystem benefits from this kind of continuing interspecies interaction. This is natural predation and it promotes biodiversity it encourages the evolution of variations of species and subspecies through adaptations of both the predator and the prey species.

Hunting by humans operates perversely. The kill ratio at a couple hundred feet with a semi-automatic weapon and scope is virtually 100 percent. The animal, no matter how well-adapted to escape natural predation (healthy, alert, smart, quick, etc.) has virtually no way to escape death once it is in the cross hairs of a scope mounted on a rifle. Nature's adaptive structures and behaviors that have evolved during millions of years simply count for naught when man is the hunter.

Most deer, for example, would not perceive anything that is within the effective range of a big game rifle (up to 400 yards) as a predator or a source of danger. A wolf at that distance, even though detected, would be totally ignored. Even the much smaller range of bow-hunter (about 50-75 feet) is barely of concern to deer. Deer may start to keep an eye on a hunter at that distance, but the evasion instinct doesn't kick in until it's too late.

Hunters go after healthy big animals for meat and trophies. This leaves the diseased and congenitally weak animals to breed - thereby degrading the gene pool and spreading disease. The hunted species becomes a degenerate and runty imitation of the real species that evolved in the habitat before human hunting. Hunting by humans has never under any circumstances been akin to natural predation. Using modern technology makes matters worse, but even hunting by indigenous people, before the blessings of Western civilization were bestowed on them, was just as destructive only at a slower rate. The North American mammoth and the Patagonian giant sloth are just two examples of animals that were hunted into extinction by indigenous hunters.

To see exactly how hunting is destructive to an ecosystem, let's look at a specific game animal. Probably the most widely hunted animal in North America is one of the common species of deer (white-tailed, mule deer, or black-tailed with an aggregate of about 50 subspecies).

A territory has a carrying capacity for each species that has naturally evolved in that habitat. Nature has mechanisms in place to ensure that the carrying capacity that is appropriate for that species is not exceeded.

Let's assume a naturally segmented area has sufficient browse to feed a deer population of 400 animals. What would happen if one year the herd had many more births than losses due to the winter die-off and the herd's population was brought to 500?

At the start of the next rut, several mechanisms would kick in to ensure a smaller amount of fawns the following year. If deer are hungry (not starving, but not well fed either), the sexual drive of the male deer declines and the female deer stops ovulating. Since the browse is now insufficient to feed all 500 animals, a portion of the deer population would not reproduce during that season. With the normal die-off during the winter and the smaller than normal birth during the spring, the total population would be reduced to less that 500.

Within a few seasons the populations would again stabilize around the capacity of the territory. If the population dropped substantially below the carrying capacity (say to 300), similar natural mechanisms would kick in to bring the population back up to the normal carrying capacity of 400. Other mechanisms (such as immigration and emigration) are used by nature to maintain the population at the carrying capacity.

These mechanisms with which the species have evolved have, intrinsic within them, assumptions that have been true for millions of years. Human hunting totally destroys some of these mechanisms. Normally, left to their own devices, the sex ratio of male to female animals is about 50-50. Deer are born about evenly male and female. Most "sport" or "trophy" hunters prefer to take bucks rather than does. This distorts the gender ratio of the population. Let's say it changes from 50-50 ratio to 80-20 leaving four times as many does as bucks.

Nature's mechanisms that adjust the population to the browse will now miscalculate and cause an overpopulation. Based on 50-50 ratio, a herd of 400 will produce a maximum 50-animal net gain assuming a 100 animal winter die-off and 150-fawn increase from the remaining 150 does.

Based on an 80-20 ratio, a 400 animal herd will produce a 140 animal increase, assuming again a 100 animal winter die-off, but this time 240 does will give birth to 240 fawns instead of 150 does giving birth to 150 fawns. With the ratio distorted at 80-20, the population will increase to 540 instead of 450.

Nature now miscalculates in assuming the increase based on a 50-50 sex ratio. Now indeed catastrophic starvation and die-offs can occur.

Hunting is not the cure but the cause of overpopulation and starvation. Luke Dommer, the founder of the Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting, has proposed to several state wildlife agencies that if they are serious about using hunting as a population control tool in areas where the sex ratio is already badly distorted, they should institute a doe season. (Taking no bucks but only does until the ratio is again stabilized at 50:50). All agencies have rejected that proposal thereby giving up any pretense of ecologically motivated sound wildlife management. They quite consciously and openly state that they are in business to provide the maximum number of live targets to hunters each year.

The state agencies encourage the destruction of the naturally evolved ecosystem by encouraging human hunting that balloons the population of the game species at the expense of the other species. Their management techniques, in addition to sex-ratio distortion, include removal of natural predators (e.g. wolves, coyotes, panthers, bears) altering the natural habitat to provide additional browse for game species and destroying the habitat of non-game species . (E.g. clear-cutting and/or burning areas and sowing them with oats for deer at the expense of rabbits, voles, various reptiles and amphibians and many other non-games species).

Things sometimes go totally haywire if a species is introduced into an ecosystem where it didn't evolve. Biologists call such an organism an "exotic" animal or plant. If the exotic animal is a prey species, it may have no defenses against a local predator and be totally wiped out in the first few weeks. On the other hand, it may not have any local predators and consequently proliferate beyond the carrying capacity of the territory, causing catastrophic die-off through starvation.

If an exotic predator is introduced, the predator species itself may die out if there is no suitable local prey. Or, it may cause the extinction of local prey species who have no defenses against the exotic predator. Or, it may cause the extinction of local predators if it is more successful and out-competes the local predator species in taking the prey.

Numerous examples of the consequence of introduction of exotic organisms within environments where they have not evolved can be cited: The introduction of snakes into Guam during World War II to control the rat population nearly wiped out several indigenous bird species; introducing trout for sport fishing into Lake Titicaca in Peru in the 1930s wiped out about 25 species of local fish. Those fish species were not found anywhere else in the world. There are hundreds of examples where the introduction of an exotic species had a deleterious effect on an ecosystem.

The wildlife management agencies defy sound procedure by such practices as introducing exotic game species into areas and then distorting the habitat to favor their survival at the expense of native species that have evolved in the area. e.g. stocking an area with pheasants, an Asian bird, and cutting tall timber trees needed by native raptors for perches.

The activity of human hunting is not and never has been a sustainable, mutually beneficial, predator, prey relationship. Human hunting techniques, even the most primitive ones, are far too efficient to meet the conditions required of a natural predator-prey relationship. In modern times, with new technology, the efficiency becomes totally lopsided so as to cause instant habitat degeneration. Add to this the conscious mismanagement of habitat to further degrade and obviate all natural corrective measures.

Using techniques such as sex-ratio distortion, habitat manipulation, the removal of natural predators and the introduction of exotic game species destroy Biodiversity. The goal is to maximize the number of targets for human hunting, thereby destroying the naturally evolved ecosystems and putting them at the brink of total collapse.

The number of animals of game species (native and exotic) is maximized at the expense of all others. The naturally evolved mechanisms that insure biodiversity are short-circuited.

The only way that these ecosystems will survive is to prohibit human hunting and other forms of nonsustainable consumptive uses of these animals. Permit the unfettered reintroduction and re-immigration of predators (which is occurring naturally). Stop "managing" the environment of those areas. When it comes to managing the environment, our knowledge is inadequate to do an even passable job. Even given an ethically sound motivation, which the state agencies now lack, we simply don't know enough to do a better job than nature.

Rather than playing god, we are acting more like stooges, when it comes to managing ecosystems. For the sake of life on Earth, we must not allow the hunting and gun-manufacturing lobbies to continue to dictate wildlife management policies.

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