Dec. 9, 2009: Many reasons why we still hunt

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To The Editor:
I heard about a conversation that took place between a Mohonk Preserve employee and a visitor the other day. The Mohonk Preserve is the largest privately owned preserve in New York State located in the Shawangunk Ridge area of Ulster County. The visitor had commented that he did not know that hunting was allowed on the property and asked, “How long has hunting been allowed on the preserve property?” The employee calmly answered, “Oh about 10,000 years ago or so.”
Humans have been hunting in the Catskill and Hudson Valley region for quite some time. However, with the advance of urbanization in the region, hunters and hunting face great challenges. Parcelization leading to fragmentation has made access more difficult for hunters to seek out and harvest wild game. Although most Americans support hunting or are not opposed to it, few are involved. Children and adults have become less familiar and educated about the practice and less willing to invest in this ancient activity. I refer to it as an activity and not as a sport since for the majority of hunters harvesting a deer means more than just a mere game. Unlike any other game, the real work begins after the deer is down and the pursuit of the animal is over. It is unusual and rare for a hunter, or a tree feller for that matter, to kill a deer or fell a tree simply for the sake of killing either.
Today, hunters are different than they have been historically. Hunters are older as fewer young people are getting involved each year. This is probably the case since fewer adults are familiar with the practice which greatly increases the chances that their children will not become hunters either. So we have fewer hunters, what does it really matter?
Hunting, similar to farming, fishing or gardening, teaches self-sufficiency and connects individuals and society to the land and its forests. Perhaps even more important are the ecological services that hunters and some of the forest management used to promote better hunting provide for society. Remember the conversation between that Mohonk Preserve employee and visitor on the Shawangunk Ridge?
For many who frequent the Shawangunk Ridge, the biodiversity in flora and fauna is quite remarkable. One could argue that this abundant biodiversity is the result of chance. However, closer observation of historical land use practices would probably indicate otherwise. Humans have been burning the ridge for thousands of years as one way in managing forest habitats. The Shawangunk Ridge happens to lie like an island in the middle of a few remarkably fertile river valleys: Neversink; Rondout; Esopus; Hudson; Shawangunk; and Wallkill. Humans were most likely always abundant in these areas. In burning the nearest ridge adjacent to their villages, shrubs and trees that provided fruit and nuts were enhanced while hunting animals that sought food and cover in these areas was also improved. This legacy can be seen by the large stands of chestnut oak, pitch pine, red oak, blueberry, huckleberry, sassafras and sweetfern still present today. These species thrive in burned over areas and can outcompete those species that are less tolerant of fire such as red maple, American beech and white pine. In other words, humans in the past managed their forest for a variety of benefits, but one being for more edge species such as the white-tailed deer.
White-tailed deer thrive in disturbed areas, sometimes referred to as edge habitats. These include burned over areas, abandoned farm fields, power-line corridors, roadsides, back yards, wind-blown areas, beaver meadows and more. Most of New York State’s forests are becoming mature where very little sunlight reaches the forest floor; which reduces edge habitat. As a result, you’re more likely to find a hunter today hunting close to a road, house or development where herbaceous growth and shrubs are able to grow in full sunlight.
Lack of forest management that creates disturbance in the forest for younger growth to prosper can lead to food and cover shortages for these edge species such as deer, grouse and rabbit to forage upon and evade predators from. Large herbivores like deer can literally create a browse-line in the forest reducing species composition as well as any tree and shrub growth below five feet that provide cover and habitat for a variety of small mammals, insects and more. Hunters can provide an ecological service in remedying this situation by reducing the deer herd and simultaneously reducing browse pressure on the forest understory. Also, humans can also take it a step forward by creating better habitat for more deer by enhancing food sources through forest management. Disturbances that provide growing space for more herbaceous growth, tree seedlings and shrubs can provide more food to satisfy the appetite of the hungry herd creating a healthier forest understory and deer herd resulting in greater biodiversity. Biodiversity can be sustained or enhanced only by matching the available food sources provided by vegetation to the number of deer in an area. The less forage in an area, the fewer deer there should be and vice versa. This takes work! Without hunting and/or forest management biodiversity will most likely suffer resulting in disturbance-free species only: beech and maple.
Aldo Leopold once remarked, “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.” He was referring to the mountain’s vegetation. It is not the deer’s fault, but our responsibility to fill our niche in providing our ancient use of hunting and the disturbances that perpetuate better hunting habitats that ironically serves for a healthier deer herd and diverse forest.
As in the past, hunters today still provide for an enhanced wildlife habitat by other ways than just burning or cutting the forest. All hunting, fishing and trapping license fees go directly into the Conservation Fund. NYS DEC’s Division of Fish, Wildlife, and Marine Resources primarily fund its research and management program with money collected from the dedicated hunting men and women of New York State. In addition, federal Pittman-Robertson funds are derived from excise taxes on hunting arms, ammunition and archery equipment that are matched by each state and used in wildlife management and conservation.
The value that hunters and hunting provide to conservation of biodiversity, wildlife and their habitats is tremendous and should not be overlooked. It is a pastime that should not be past, but instead growing. In the past animals have been hunted to extermination. Most of these events occurred where market hunting existed in the place of sustenance. In most cases, hunters pay for many of the ecological services that society enjoys throughout the state free of charge. More importantly, most wild food is rich in vitamins, protein, is low in fat and delicious depending on how it is prepared. For more information on forest management please visit www.catskill forest.org or call 586-3054.

Ryan Trapani,
Education Forester
Catskill Forest Association