Can Human Hunters become a Natural Part of the Ecosystem?

Who doesn’t love nature?  The fresh air blowing through the trees, the sweet songs of birds and frogs, and the absolute feeling of being free.  The chance to see a female deer and its fawn excite even the most urbanized kid and seeing a real life equivalents of Chip and Dale chasing each other would make anyone laugh.  Those who have worked with or have been in nature know that when nature is in balance, things work out beautifully for both man and nature.

But nature is not entirely balanced these days.

Despite the pristine appearance of our natural areas, there is a problem happening within.  Deer and elk have been visiting the riparian areas (where land and water meet) of streams, rivers, and lakes more often than they had before and have been consuming more than their fair share of sapling trees.  Why is this all bad?  Well, with the deer and elk visiting the riparian areas more often, they are consuming the sodium-rich plants that are essential to control soil erosion.  Studies have shown that with this combination of less plant life and more soil erosion, the deer’s and elk’s actions are destroying habitats for fish and amphibians by making the waters murky with sediment.  These sediments negatively affect farms as well [3].  This also has negative effects on local bird populations by modifying their breeding patterns [6].  And what about the lack of sapling trees?  With the lack of sapling trees, there are less and less trees to replace the older trees when they die of age, disease, parasites, or wildfires.

Why has this happened?  Three words: Lack of predators.

While it no secret that predators are important in controlling the population size of prey species, they are also important for other components of the ecosystem as well.  Along with eating their prey, they also influence their prey’s behavior.  Studies in Yellowstone have shown that following the reintroduction of the wolves, local elk population’s modified their behavior whereby they visit the riparian areas less often [1, 10] and browse less on sapling trees [9].  This is likely because sources of water are a popular place for predators to hunt and their presence has kept the prey moving often, not staying in one location for an extended period of time.

So it seems that predators are a sort of silver bullet to this issue.  But there is a problem with using predators to control prey.

A good number of places that suffer these sorts of habitat disturbances as in areas where there is not enough room to support large predators or they are too close to urbanized areas.  There is no doubt that no one would want large predators reintroduced right in their back yards, especially if their children might become targets for the would-be predators.

So if not large predators, what is the alternative?

Human hunters.

I would propose incorporating human hunters into areas that are close to urban areas or are too small to support large predators but suffering with riparian area destruction due to browsing by local wildlife.  Human hunters not only control prey populations, but also manipulate their behavior in a similar way as larger predators.  There have been studies that have shown that human hunting can be an alternative to a predator stimuli [5].  Human hunting has influenced deer behavior enough to give deer appropriate flight responses [12], influenced their browsing behavior to allow tree regeneration [8], and even made them roam at greater distances [11].  I would propose that we shall allow hunters to hunt at specific locations (e.g. heavily-used riparian areas and areas where tree saplings are being over-browsed) to stimulate these sorts of fear responses and allow the ecosystem to recover while also allowing them to be safe in other areas that are in need of more deer activity.

This is a solution that I believe would help the environment and it would definitely get some support from the hunting community.  But I fear that it won’t get a great deal of support.

Why?

Public opinion.

We’ve all grown up with Disney’s Bambi and with the negative public perception and opinion of hunting [4].  With this and animal rights groups like PETA obviously against it, it would be either really hard or near impossible to have this plan gain traction.  How could we get over this obstacle?  How would you get people to properly understand that this is a conservation movement?  Through proper education.  Hopefully, through proper education, we can teach people that this sort of hunting movement is vitally important for the wildlife, their habitats, and their ecosystem.  Also, we may need to emphasize that human hunting of wildlife is safer in those areas than reintroducing large predators.  For this is safer for the people and the animals.

Some would say that hunting is not good for nature, but I say to that as Aldo Leopold once said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”[7]

-Austin Major

Works References

  1. Beschta, Robert L., and William J. Ripple. “The role of large predators in maintaining riparian plant communities and river morphology.” Geomorphology 157 (2012): 88-98.
  2. Côté, Steeve D., et al. “Ecological impacts of deer overabundance.” Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics (2004): 113-147.
  3. Cooper, J. R., et al. “Riparian areas as filters for agricultural sediment.” Soil Science Society of America Journal 51.2 (1987): 416-420.
  4. Decker, Daniel J., and Tommy L. Brown. “How Animal Rightists View the” Wildlife Management: Hunting System”.” Wildlife Society Bulletin (1987): 599-602.
  5. Frid, Alejandro, and Lawrence M. Dill. “Human-caused disturbance stimuli as a form of predation risk.” Conservation Ecology 6.1 (2002): 11.
  6. Kauffman, J. Boone, and William C. Krueger. “Livestock impacts on riparian ecosystems and streamside management implications… a review.” Journal of range management (1984): 430-438.
  7. Leopold, Aldo. 1966. A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays On Conservation from Round River. Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 269 p
  8. Martin, Jean-Louis, and Christophe Baltzinger. “Interaction among deer browsing, hunting, and tree regeneration.” Canadian Journal of Forest Research 32.7 (2002): 1254-1264.
  9. Ripple, William J., and Robert L. Beschta. “Restoring Yellowstone’s aspen with wolves.” Biological Conservation 138.3 (2007): 514-519.
  10. Ripple, William J., and Robert L. Beschta. “Wolves and the ecology of fear: can predation risk structure ecosystems?.” BioScience 54.8 (2004): 755-766.
  11. Root, Brian G., Erik K. Fritzell, and Norbert F. Giessman. “Effects of intensive hunting on white-tailed deer movement.” Wildlife Society Bulletin (1988): 145-151.
  12. Stankowich, Theodore. “Ungulate flight responses to human disturbance: a review and meta-analysis.” Biological Conservation 141.9 (2008): 2159-2173.
  13. Stromayer, Karl AK, and Robert J. Warren. “Are overabundant deer herds in the eastern United States creating alternate stable states in forest plant communities?.” Wildlife Society Bulletin (1997): 227-234.

11 thoughts on “Can Human Hunters become a Natural Part of the Ecosystem?

  1. ematth

    The chain of effects that occurs when nature is out of balance is amazing. I don’t believe that most people understand the importance of predators, especially in urban environments where the site of a predator is uncommon and frightening, especially when children and pets are involved. This class has really opened my eyes to the benefits of hunting. I really enjoyed your article, I think hunting could help counteract the imbalance induced by the lack of predators. However, I also completely agree that public opinion is going to be the most difficult obstacle to overcome with this proposition. How would you encourage a lay population that is focused on the tragedy of bambi or the adorable characters of Fern Gully, to educate themselves on the positive impacts of hunting?

  2. Lisa Angeloni

    This idea isn’t too far off from how wildlife biologists currently manage elk populations that are above carrying capacity. They typically use hunting to control populations in natural areas without predators, though perhaps not to the extent that you’re suggesting and not immediately next to urban areas (mainly because of safety concerns).

    The Yellowstone wolf-elk-vegetation story is an interesting one that has received a lot of attention lately, because recent findings have questioned its simplicity. This is a case where the media portrayed the story as simpler than the reality. Here are a few articles that discuss the controversy and complexity surrounding the Yellowstone wolf story (but keep in mind that some of this has also been criticized for going too far in the other direction of rejecting top-down effects of predators):

    Mech LD. 2012. Is science in danger of sanctifying the wolf? Biological Conservation 150:143-149.

    Marris E. 2014. Rethinking predators: Legend of the wolf. Nature 507: 158-160.

    Middleton A. Is the wolf a real American hero? The New York Times. March 10, 2014, page A21: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/10/opinion/is-the-wolf-a-real-american-hero.html

  3. reneev

    I still have mixed feelings about hunting. I think that keeping natural predators around should always be the priority because nature can take care of itself as long as humans don’t interfere. However, I can understand that in certain more urban areas, those predators are considered a nuisance and are relocated (or were wiped out years ago). Hunting can be effective, but only when there are no natural predators, and when the hunters are selective about the individuals they choose.

    1. amajor Post author

      In the case of selective hunting, there are certain seasons where only animals of one gender can be targeted, like there would be seasons where only does or only bucks can be hunted and so on.

  4. mplatt

    I agree that when possible we should let nature take care of itself, aka keeping around natural predators. I also agree with Dr. Angeloni, if these populations of ungulates are too close to urban life so that natural predators shouldn’t be released, wouldn’t it be dangerous to have hunters shooting things as well? While I do see the value in hunting I also believe it is more complicated that just predators versus hunting.

  5. ssteele1

    I think with any program implemented to “fix” the ecosystem management is key. If we can better select which animals we are removing from the population we can act more like a natural predator rather than a different “natural selection” acting on large males and healthy animals. Either way, I think this could, and has been shown, to be useful. It may not completely fix the problem, but most solutions don’t. However it is mitigating the effects on riparian areas and so forth, good article!

  6. leorah

    Really well written!! A very good argument.
    Human hunting is a great management tool for wild herbivore populations. I think if you could incentivize hunters, through education or monetary incentives liked reduced price permits, to hunt in these particular locations regularly, this is a really great idea. The other danger is public safety – in natural areas near urban centers you run the risk of hikers walking through your hunting area, so education and hunting-season precautions would be a must.

  7. mberne

    I think human hunting is a great idea for places that lack natural predators as a was of population control. Although human hunters are not as effective/ efficient at it is is better than nothing! I think it would be a great idea to educate hunters on which herbivores might be better to hunt than others. As long as it could be somewhat controlled and safe I think its a great idea to implement the idea of human hunting!

  8. Savimay

    After doing the science in the media project on hunting, I found that basically hunting is a great method for population control IF natural predators are not an option. The ecosystem and ungulate population is much healthier and socially stable when natural predators are in the system, which humans have been thus far incapable of mirroring these effects. But if the natural predator can’t be introduced, humans are efficient at population control which will help to restore the vegetation important for other species as well.

  9. Lacey Humphreys

    I completely agree that hunting is a good thing as long as we are doing it sustainably. The introduction of apex predators would also thwart excessive population growth of ungulates, however it is very controversial to ranchers and farmers who make a living on their herds of ungulates. I would also have to agree that education is the number one resource, not everyone is a wildlife major and understand the steady state of earth’s ecosystem. If more people were educated maybe we wouldn’t have so many problems with extinction and overpopulation of ungulates…

  10. Amy D'Arcey

    It’d be great for the populations of ungulates if people could be convinced to hunt the same sorts of animals that predators would; the sick, the old, the weak. I can’t imagine an incentive great enough to convince people to do that but if we could then I think human hunting would have an even better effect.

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