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November 24, 2008
How the decline of hunting is changing the natural order of predator and prey
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November 24, 2008

A More Dangerous Game Bears On The Golf Course, Deer On The Windshield, Wolves On The Walk Back Home

How the decline of hunting is changing the natural order of predator and prey

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"I'll be back for supper," he said.

USUALLY WHEN wild animals change their behavior and become more visible to humans, it is because they are diseased or hungry, or they have been drawn out by Dumpsters, dogs or other signs of human development and urban sprawl. These factors explain in part why there have been so many recent sightings of bears on golf courses or in suburban trees, why a herd of bison wandered into the Canadian village of Fort Providence two years ago, why deer have become a traffic hazard throughout the U.S. and why coyotes sometimes show up on Sunset Boulevard.

But over the last decade the North American ecosystem has also seen an unanticipated trend upsetting the always delicate relationship between man and wildlife: The hunters have been going away.

Surveys by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicate hunting in general has tumbled precipitously, down 10% in the past decade alone. Bird hunting has dropped by a quarter during that time, and small-game hunting by 31%.

Once common fall rituals are fading. In rural New England not long ago hunters walked logging roads, shotguns in hand, looking for grouse. On the Great Lakes hundreds once lay in flatboats amid flotillas of duck decoys, waiting for the great formations of ducks to darken the sky. And in the South men gathered in teams to hunt wild boar, to be roasted afterward on a spit. Those days are gone, or going fast, and traditions like fathers teaching their sons where to place a tree stand or how to field-dress an elk are, in many families, dying. Stricter gun control regulations have made simply owning a gun far more complicated. In some communities it is easy to find game on the golf course or your neighbor's lawn but almost impossible to find a place to hunt safely.

The news of hunting's decline will no doubt cheer those who see it as a cruel pastime. But what the critics do not realize is that as the hunters have stepped back, the animals (especially predators) have come forward—with potentially disastrous consequences for all.

Valerius Geist, a professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Calgary and an expert on the behavior of large mammals, calls what is happening "the recolonization by wildlife." The first sign, he says, "was when the herbivores returned," a reference to the overabundance of deer, moose and elk in North America. After the herbivores, Geist says, the carnivores are never far behind. "We are just now beginning to experience that phase," he says. As recently as 1994 there were about 50 wolves left in the Yellowstone region (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming), but the population there now stands at more than 1,500; in Minnesota wolves climbed from about 500 in the 1950s to more than 3,000 today.

The third phase of animal recolonization, Geist says, is "the parasites and diseases returning in full force."

ON A sunny July day, Adam Walker drives past a stately Long Island home in Westhampton, N.Y., then eases his white Chevy Malibu to a stop on a wedge of land between the main building and the water. "That's where I'll set up my shot," he says, pointing to a cedar tree. "Yeah. Good site." By day Walker, 32, works as an arborist for a Long Island tree company. He moonlights as a deer hunter.

The Hamptons, like a lot of New York State, are lousy with deer, and have been for at least the last decade. At first the animals presented a sort of graceful nuisance, wandering out of the shrinking woodlands to eat the roses behind the poolhouse. Yet with fewer hunters taking their limit and the likelihood of fewer deer dying in the generally less severe winters, the animal's numbers became unmanageable. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that Long Island's deer population is 20,000, up from about 3,000 in the late '70s. And the consequences have escalated.

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