January 08, 2009
Chad Love: Survival of the Weakest?
By Dave Hurteau & Chad Love
My primary deer hunting spot is an extremely popular and heavily-utilized public hunting area. Beginning in October bowhunters swarm this place, followed by legions of blackpowder hunters, who are in turn followed by division-strength hordes of orange-swaddled, cell phone-talking, cannon-toting sniper wannabes whose primary woodcraft skills involve walking around loudly and aimlessly, leaving truly prodigious amounts of trash strewn across the landscape and then gathering around their RV to bitch about not being allowed to drive ATVs on the area.
Ultra-deadly super predators they're not.
But according to a recent Newsweek article featured on Stephen Bodio's excellent Querencia blog, the modern hunter is so efficient and so effective that he is single-handedly responsible for no less than the wholesale reversal of the evolutionary process.
From the story:
It’s Survival of the Weak and Scrawny :Researchers see 'evolution in reverse' as hunters kill off prized animals with the biggest antlers and pelts.
"Researchers describe what's happening as none other than the selection process that Darwin made famous: the fittest of a species survive to reproduce and pass along their traits to succeeding generations, while the traits of the unfit gradually disappear. Selective hunting—picking out individuals with the best horns or antlers, or the largest piece of hide—works in reverse: the evolutionary loser is not the small and defenseless, but the biggest and best-equipped to win mates or fend off attackers."
The gist of the article is that by selectively harvesting the largest and most impressive specimens hunters are, in essence, altering the natural evolutionary process by allowing smaller, weaker inferior animals to sneak in to breed and propagate their traits. It sounds plausible in theory, especially to a non-hunting public that assumes hunting involves walking into the woods, choosing the animal you want and then shooting it as it placidly chews its cud and gazes at you with its big brown deer eyes. In reality, it's a ludicrous assertion. For example, take a look at the age-class breakdown for any recent state deer season harvest and compare that data to the same harvest data from say, 30 years ago. If the article's basic thesis were true, by now we should be shooting whitetails with the body size of a dik dik, the rack of a pygmy goat and the brain of a TSA airport screener, right?
But here's a serendipitous juxtaposition between agenda and reality.
From the story:
"Elk still range across parts of North America, but every hunting season brings a greater challenge to find the sought-after bull with a towering spread of antlers."
"Perhaps the largest elk ever produced in the wild—a Utah bull taken in 2008 by a hunter on public land—has been confirmed as a new World's Record. The official declaration was made today by the Boone and Crockett Club."
And remember my public hunting area, which according to the article's reasoning should by now be thoroughly de-populated of dominant bucks? One evening recently I sat on the side of a hill on that area and watched through binos as one after another buck slowly walked into a small winter wheat field and began feeding. These bucks had been subjected to constant, unending hunting pressure for over three months and survived. I'm fervently hopeful that they all got busy during the rut and passed on their inferior genes to the next generation because I can get into that kind of evolutionary monkey-wrenching...