Environmental Benefits of Hunting

            But it isn’t just about the human cost. Hunting and trapping is also about maintaining the balance of the ecosystems as determined by human presence. I’ve been told by a trapper that “managing wildlife is like being a farmer; these animals are an important resource. If you were a farmer, you wouldn’t let your cows infect each other with disease, and you definitely wouldn’t run them over with a tractor.” He was referring to the two problems in ecosystems that animal harvesting directly works against: car-collisions and disease. Because road-kill is left on the road, collisions rob the animals’ community of biomass, or the nutrients and energy stored in the bodies of organisms. After a normal death, this biomass would be incorporated into the bodies of scavengers, bacteria and fungi and eventually other organisms in the community. But instead, it is lost in incidents that cost the community, the individual animal, and people. Although hunting as a food source doesn’t allow the community’s retention of biomass (sport hunting does if the carcass is left behind), it does use the animal resources in a productive way, feeding people instead of lying on the side of the road attracting more creatures to be killed.

            As stated earlier, hunting and trapping benefits biological communities by preventing the spread of disease as well as retaining biomass. This is because hunting seasons (in temperate regions) are generally set up in early autumn, just before food becomes scarce. This scarcity tends to weaken animals immune systems and makes them prone to disease. These maladies can spread to other animals over the winter, either from predation or close contact with others during hibernation. The weak animals that get harvested are often the ones that will find less food and get more diseases, so harvesting them early reduces the spread of disease in their particular community.  

The problem with deer is the poster child for hunting as wildlife management, and with good reason. Higher deer densities have affected growth, survival, and reproduction of many plant species which have aesthetic, economic, or ecological value. Densities of 5-10 deer/square kilometer show few effects on plant growth or survival rates. However, densities of 25 deer/square kilometer have decreased mean leaf area of small herbaceous plants by 26 (T. flexipes, T. cernuum) to 40 % (Trillium grandiflorum) compared to protected populations. The second generation of protected populations in this area displayed a flowering rate of 19 times that of the non-protected population. Many species of trees have also been shown to have reduced growth as a result of high deer density. In addition to growth, deer have been shown to decrease or eliminate (depending on the density of the plant) flowering in plant populations, and therefore their reproduction.

Deer can even irreversibly change the species composition of a community by driving the environment to the point where it finds an alternate stable species composition. Deer have especially strong ability to change density of legumes, which often shelter nitrogen producing bacteria. The change in their populations can greatly decrease nitrogen in the soil. (Russell, 2001). Also, as deer change the success of certain plant species, they may also change the success of herbivores pickier than themselves, and also that of species along many different food chains.

Most of these economic and ecological consequences can be either avoided or reversed if deer densities are reduced to harmless levels. Wildlife management in the form of hunting and trapping is designed to bring animal populations to an economically healthy level for the amount of space they have. To do this, national and state wildlife management groups collect data on population size and ecology to determine the pricing of licenses, length of harvesting season and the kill/trap quota for each species in their jurisdiction. Hunters are expected to follow these quotas and, especially for deer hunting, only take particular sexes and ages of animals. The purchase of hunting and trapping licenses also give management organizations funding for more research and conservation efforts to protect wildlife.

To find out about environmental damage caused by the meat industry, check out this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/27/weekinreview/27bittman.html. In addition to the environmental effects of the actions of meat producers themselves, consuming commercial meat also promotes the environmental damage done in the process of growing food for the meat. This is one of the problems with a meat heavy diet: meat animals are second on the food chain, so they need food too, and more of it. It is a biological law that each organism on a food chain needs ten times as much food as the organism before it to meet its energy needs.

            To maintain the crop yield needed to run to feed the nation’s many domestic animals, we apply a lot of fertilizers and pesticides to our fields. Fertilizers can get into field run-off and cause eutrophication and low biodiversity in water bodies. Also, the creation of fertilizers requires the fossil-fuel guzzling Haber-Bosch process. Pesticides have the potential to harm ecosystems by killing off insects, which are often at the bottom of the food chain. To read more on the environmental impact of crop agriculture, check out http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture

Hunting and trapping preserve wild lands, especially forests, where agriculture and high deer densities transform and destroy them. The preservation of forests allows for the maintenance of their many positive ecological effects. Forests have a dark color and are made up of photosynthetic trees, which mean that they absorb light energy to warm and run the biological processes of Earth. Forest trees are also a large carbon bank for Earth, and their destruction adds to the amount of carbon dioxide escaping into the atmosphere (for the effects of high carbon dioxide levels, click here). Even if tree seeds are planted to regrow a forest, they often will not take root because of the hot and dry environment created by the lack of forest. Hunting for food can control deer densities and cut down on the need for the meat industry, so it has high potential to save forests and keep their ecological benefits. To investigate hunting regulations and licensures in Ohio, proceed to http://www.ohiodnr.com, or go to the Department of Natural Resources site for your home state.