Hunting: America has adapted so as not to decimate its wildlife resources
As I glided along a shallow beech ridge, I marveled at the size of the trees. Trunks so wide that two grown men could stretch around them and not touch their hands rising several stories high. I wondered how old they were, imagining the primeval forest until I peeked past a ramshackle stone wall winding through the woods. The ancient forest had once been cut down and converted for agriculture or ranching and then returned. How was it back then? How many hunters had trod the same ground in a similar pursuit, and how much has hunting changed in the relatively short history of our country and our continent?
For the early explorers who wandered the Bering land bridge and for the myriad generations to follow, hunting was primarily a means of gathering food, although over time it could also be a rite of passage and a source of tokens and artifacts to represent bravery or status. Bones, skulls, antlers, horns and feathers adorned the dwelling and the inhabitants.
The same was true for early explorers and settlers from other continents, with one notable exception. Most left behind a feudal system where the land and all creatures residing therein were owned by an elite class. Fish and game in the new world were initially free and available to anyone. This would eventually change in small but very profound ways.
Civilization eventually spawned a division of labor. Rather than a subsistence lifestyle, where each family was responsible for producing or procuring their own food, some stayed or became farmers while others cut wood, built houses or sailed the seas to bring back oil to light the lamps. And some have become hunters.
The “New World” abounded with a seemingly limitless abundance of fish and game. Waterfowl and passenger pigeons darkened the skies during migration. Deer and antelope played in the grasslands and woodlands from coast to coast, and buffalo roamed the plains in unimaginable numbers. Atlantic salmon flooded the rivers and cod could be fished nearby and even from the shore.
The growth of urban centers and skilled labor created an increased demand for food, which was supplied by commercial fishers and hunters. Ducks were slaughtered by the hundreds, sometimes by the thousands, and packed into barrels and shipped to places like New York and Boston. The deer came from the woods of northern Maine by train, as did the plains buffaloes.
However, not all were there for profit. An increasing number of hunters and anglers sought fish and game as a source of recreation and sport. With fewer ducks arriving each fall, fewer roosting pigeons each spring, and fewer deer frolicking in the fields, they recognized that the bounty was not limitless. They began pressuring local, state and even federal governments to act, pleas that went largely unheeded until the situation became so dire that some species were teetering on the brink of extinction.
The modern conservation movement was born out of hunters and fishers. Their pleas ultimately spurred governments to action. Closed seasons and catch limits were put in place to protect species from overexploitation, especially where and when they were most vulnerable. While commercial fishing continued, commercial hunting was eventually abolished and game became largely a recreational resource.
This philosophy eventually became the North American model of wildlife conservation, where fish and game were considered common property, owned by all but managed through the stewardship of government agencies. The intention was to ensure that the resources remained sustainable and also made available to the public in a fair and equitable manner.
Recently, there has been a more subtle change within the hunting community. Formerly, they were only consumers in search of leisure and food. More and more of them are taking on a bigger role, becoming good stewards of the land and the wildlife that reside there by improving the habitat through things like forest management and food patches. Rather than just taking any deer, hunters are more aware of the importance of balancing age and sex ratios within the herd, harvesting sufficient numbers of deer and letting the deer through. young males.
More and more hunters are getting involved, actively or passively, in wildlife conservation organizations. Groups like Ducks Unlimited buy and manage vital but rapidly diminishing wetland habitats. The National Wild Turkey Federation has led efforts to trap, translocate, and restore the birds to their historic range, and in some cases beyond. The National Deer Association has combined the strengths of the Quality Deer Management Association, Mule Deer Foundation and Whitetails Unlimited to ensure proper management and minimize the impact of diseases like EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) and CWD (chronic wasting disease). The future looks bright, but we must remember that it is hunter dollars that largely ensure the continued conservation and preservation of all wildlife.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered guide from Maine who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]
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