Scientists have warned that a strong focus on hunting—instead of rewilding key species—is “reinforcing” biodiversity loss.
Parts of the U.S. are currently facing a biodiversity crisis for a variety of reasons including habitat degradation, invasive species, and climate change.
A new study published in the journal BioScience reported that state agencies are taking “the provisioning of hunting opportunities as their top priority.”
“Among species of wildlife, relatively few are hunted. So the focus on hunted species can tend toward the homogenization of wildlife communities, reinforcing the loss of biodiversity,” John A. Vucetich, a distinguished professor of wildlife conservation at Michigan Technological University, who worked on the study, told Newsweek.
“For example, the species of wild mammal with the most biomass on the planet is white-tailed deer. Overabundant deer populations have a negative impact on biodiversity—manifest mainly through over-browsing. The overabundance of deer is importantly a result of efforts to maximize deer abundance for the sake of hunting. Also, for example, considerable effort is devoted to promoting pheasant populations in several states for the sake of hunting, even though pheasants are not even part of these states’ native biodiversity.”
A survey undertaken as part of the study found that Americans are not happy with the way things are currently run. The study found that Americans, even those who identified as hunters themselves, did not support the prioritization of hunting.
The researchers asked residents from Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and West Virginia, to prioritize a list of actions that could be undertaken by state wildlife agencies. This included the restoration of either extinct or imperiled species, increasing hunting opportunities, the purchasing of lands for recreational access, the management and improvement of existing habitats, and the removal of invasive species creating issues for the surrounding ecosystem. Researchers found that overall, what mattered most to residents was the restoration of extinct or endangered species.
“Because funding and human resources are limited, giving lower priority to rewilding means less rewilding at a time when more rewilding should be occurring. For context, hunting is a fine part of America’s heritage. And, hunting can be complementary to rebuilding biodiversity. But at this point in human history, more attention needs to be devoted to stemming the biodiversity crisis,” Vucetich said.
Vucetich notes that the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, for example, has a webpage entirely devoted to hunting, while there is none devoted to endangered species.
“There is nothing really distinctive about Mississippi in this regard, it is one of many examples,” he said.
Not only was rewilding the most frequent priority among residents, but it was also the most frequent even among those who identified as hunters themselves. Researchers also found that restoration appeared to be more of a priority for younger people.
Various species have faced threats in the U.S. due to hunting and loss of habitat. While hunting initiatives are prioritized in some areas, there are rewilding efforts in some states. An example of this is the gray wolf population in Colorado.
Gray wolves used to be widespread across Colorado, but humans wiped them out in the state by the 1940s. However, those who back the move state that wolves are vital to the ecosystem, and should never have been driven out in the first place.
Vucetich said he hopes the results of the survey will raise awareness with state agencies and be a “catalyst for change.”
“We’ve shown that constituents’ interests are perhaps different than what they may have thought. Most state agencies are importantly supported by funding mechanisms that are too tightly tied to revenue generated by hunting. Updating those funding structures would go a long way toward positive change. Many state agencies see their primary existential purpose as the promotion of hunting. This purpose is sometimes emphasized in agency mission statements. Positive change would include state wildlife agencies re-envisioning their purpose to focus on rewilding,” Vucetich said.
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This article by Robyn White was first published by Newsweek on 2 December 2023. Lead Image: A stock photo shows a wolf. The U.S. state agencies tend to prioritize hunting over rewilding species that are struggling amid the biodiversity crisis. GETTY/HKUCHERA.