by Clint Calhoun
As we approach the winter months, we also enter a time either long-awaited or long dreaded by humans: hunting season. Thousands of North Carolinians at this time are eagerly looking forward to their early morning ritual of getting up a few hours before sunup, making their way through the dark woods to their favorite tree stand or hunting blind to acquire perhaps the first kill of the year, or perhaps add to kills that have already been made. For some, hunting season has already begun, but early fall hunting really serves as a leadup to rifle season, the coup-de-grace of the great American hunter. Now for thousands of other North Carolinians, the idea of shooting animals, particularly Bambi and his extended family, is not only repugnant, but is also as uncivilized as breaking wind in church or trying to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. The purpose of this article is not to argue either of these competing mindsets, but rather to look at some aspects of our unbalanced ecological systems that make may make hunting a necessity rather than a hobby or pastime.
When we think about our ecosystem, ecological roles are filled by different animals at what are known as trophic levels. Plants make up the lowest trophic level, yet provide the energy needs of the other trophic levels. Primary consumers make up all the things that directly feed on the producers. Secondary and tertiary consumers fill the roles of feeding on the primary consumers or secondary consumers, depending on the position in the pyramid. Humans are omnivores so we operate within the entire pyramid, like other large omnivores such as bears.
The ecosystem of the eastern forests is tremendously out of balance. Numerous species in North Carolina were hunted to near extinction. Wolves were eradicated. Eastern cougars were virtually extirpated, except for the remaining Florida panthers, a subspecies of the eastern cougar. Even large primary consumers such as bison, elk, and even white-tailed deer were hunted to extinction or near extinction in North Carolina due to lack of herd management practices. Very little thought was given to the importance of balance in the ecosystem. Efforts to re-establish the deer herd were enormously successful due to the importation of deer from the Midwest. However, there were no efforts to re-establish the predators that once roamed our forests.
White-tailed deer now are the most numerous wild large grazers in North Carolina. They are also among the most adaptable species in our state. They live in city parks as easily as they live in rural areas. Further, the loss of competing large grazers such as elk and bison has reduced competition for food resources, giving deer a free buffet. In a balanced ecosystem, limiting factors such as competition and predators would help maintain balance in the ecosystem and prevent overpopulation. Instead, the deer herd continues to grow, made possible by the lack of hunting pressure from predators and competition from other grazers. In rural settings, deer populations generally have enough resources, but as rural areas become more suburbanized, land fragmentation occurs, disrupting habitat and creating greater opportunities for parasitism and disease. Many people think that coyotes serve as a replacement for wolves and that bears are major predators of deer, but this is simply not the case. Both will occasionally take fawns or may run down an old or weak deer, but they generally fill a much different ecological niche.
If we look at our growing bear population, this is another example of our ecosystem being out of balance. Like deer, the population has been growing for years, but more than that, we have altered habitat, changed the landscape and have moved deeper and deeper into forest areas that were once wild and now have become more domesticated thanks to the human desire to live in the forest. When the ecosystem gets out of balance, it usually has many negative effects, most of which don’t end well for wildlife. If we think about how we as humans have interacted with the environment, we have created the ecological monster that we have today.
So, the question becomes, how can we restore balance? For starters, we must better understand our role in the ecosystem. Hunters, probably more than anyone, recognize the role they play in the ecosystem. Hunter education programs have really been helpful in helping hunters understand their role in wildlife management. Additionally, hunters are more interested in conservation of species than most people realize. This isn’t to say there aren’t bad actors out there, but without hunters and the information they provide by mandatory reporting of harvests, state wildlife managers wouldn’t be able to make smart decisions regarding state wildlife. Anytime state wildlife rules are made, the NC Wildlife Resources Commission requests public input. Hunters provide most of the input which is used to determine length of seasons and bag limits. Humans, as the top apex predator, are responsible for being good stewards and maintaining balance in an out of balance ecosystem. This means we must be smart. We must educate ourselves about the wildlife in our neighborhoods so that we can know how to make sustainable decisions about our local ecosystems.
Until Next Time!
Clint Calhoun teaches high school science and outdoor education classes at Lake Lure Classical Academy and has worked as a naturalist and biologist in Hickory Nut Gorge for over 25 years.