The Role of Hunting
Man has hunted wildlife since before recorded history for both food and as a means of protection from the elements. Prehistoric hunters may or may not have understood their role in hunting but rather knew it as a means of survival. Along with predators and outbreaks of disease, these prehistoric societies helped to keep animal populations in balance with the habitat.
In North America, the Native Americans were the first conservationists for wildlife populations. Native American tribes, either sedentary or nomadic, understood their role in the environment and did not attempt to control it but rather co-existed as part of it. They harvested what they needed and respected the predators that did the same, thus maintaining a balanced, healthy ecosystem. Under their stewardship, wildlife populations thrived.
When European settlers first arrived on the North American continent, they found a thriving ecosystem with abundant game. These new comers to North America were more sedentary and practiced farming and ranching. They attempted to eliminate predators that once helped to control wildlife populations because they posed a threat to livestock. European settlers also brought with them a new set of values and traditions, harvesting animals from abundant wildlife populations not only for subsistence but also for profit. Market hunting became a way of life for many. Market hunters harvested vast quantities of game most of which to be shipped to the northeast or overseas for a profit. In those days, there were no bag limits, seasons, and legal means of take or wanton waste laws to regulate the take of wildlife and by the turn of the century many wildlife populations were in serious jeopardy.
In the early 1900’s, Aldo Leopold, considered to be the father of modern wildlife management, introduced the concept of sustainable harvest and stewardship of both wildlife and wildlife habitat. He understood the need for regulations limiting the harvest of animals but also the need for harvest to sustain healthy populations.
Today hunting is still a vital part of wildlife management. After the days of population devastation, many species are once again thriving. With the loss of natural predators it has become the role of hunters to balance wildlife populations with the carrying capacity of the habitat. Biologists and managers spend many hours in the field conducting surveys to determine population densities to make recommendations on harvest that will not only benefit wildlife populations but also ensure that the habitat upon which those populations exist will not suffer detrimental effects.
A prime example of the necessity of hunting as a wildlife management tool can be seen in the Texas hill country deer herd. For years, restrictive harvest and the old school thinking of not harvesting does allowed the deer population to explode to the point that overpopulation affected the health of the deer population and the habitat upon which they depended. Periodic die-offs, due in part to starvation, along with degraded habitats, became a cyclical event occurring every few years. By using hunting as a management tool we are able to estimate populations, calculate the carrying capacity of the habitat and harvest surplus animals, thus keeping wildlife populations in balance with the resources that are critical for their survival.