Vail Daily column: Big-game hunting and sustainability
Few things on this planet can compare to walking in the wild and stumbling across a creature in its natural habitat — be it an elephant in Africa, an orca in the oceans surrounding the Pacific Northwest or a black bear or moose in our local Rocky Mountains. The larger and more charismatic the animal, the more spectacular the feeling is. And few people know the full potent and power of this feeling like the hunter who scours the hillsides in the earliest light of day, looking for the largest and most charismatic of the megafauna, and in doing so, helping to keep that precarious equilibrium in balance.
Part of the Food Chain
When we see these animals, we are not just gazing on a solo individual in the wild, but also on an important cog in an extremely complex structure called an ecosystem. One of the main components of an ecosystem is the food chain, which in laymen’s terms is essentially a flow chart of which animal eats which. The source of the food chain is not local to this region, or even this planet. In fact, it is around 93 million miles away, that bright star we call the sun. In brief, the energy from the sun is converted into sugars by plants that are then eaten by herbivores that are sequentially eaten by carnivores. While this one sentence explanation may seem simple, this food chain is ideally in a complex equilibrium caused by countless interactions between the living things on earth.
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The classic example of ecosystem disequilibrium is when invasive species are introduced, such as the zebra mussel. There are plenty of other case studies around the globe of invasive species wreaking havoc in ecosystems, but just as adding new species to the environment can cause mayhem, so can removing one.
The classic example of this is the wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Wolves were extirpated in the first half of the previous century leading to booms in ungulate (hooved animal) populations. Making a long story short, this boom had adverse effects on the ecosystem because vegetation was being removed at an alarming rate by the ungulates’ unchecked population growth.
This caused advanced erosion rates, among other problems, that could have eventually been extremely detrimental to the park. Wolves however, were reintroduced in the 1990s, and the equilibrium of the area is slowly being re-established.
Locally, a similar event is happening, which could eventually lead to similar consequences. The predators of the region (cougars, bears, bobcats, etc.) are losing their ability to keep the herbivore populations in check due largely to human interaction and expansion. This loss can lead to disequilibrium in the ecosystem as the higher herbivore population decimates vegetation, which in the long run, this will undoubtedly prove unsustainable for the Rocky Mountain ecosystem that we love.
Everything in Balance
While these animals are some of the most charismatic of species, humans currently play a large part in the mitigation of unbalanced ecosystems by playing the role of the predators we lack. By hunting big game such as deer or elk, we will not only be getting a trophy mount, but we will also be playing the role of an important member of the food chain; the apex predator.
While that elk you see bugling on the mountainside is undoubtedly beautiful, it is important to keep in mind that too many elk can be very damaging to the ecosystem as a whole. Due to the stigma on carnivores such as bears (the extirpation of the grizzly is a prime example), cougars and coyotes, it is unlikely that predator populations alone could keep herbivore populations in check. Hunting is a way to play a part in the local ecosystem, enjoy a little piece of wildness, and maybe even put a little food on your table.
Taylor Haas was a summer naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. He has a B.S. in zoology from the University of Oklahoma. He also likes to sing songs and friends call him the Piano Man.