Carrying Capacity

In the hunter education curriculum of Washington State, we teach a section on carrying capacity. It is the concept that all ecological habitats have a maximum support limit for wildlife. This maximum is built off of finite resources- mainly food, shelter, and water available to animals for their survival. This habitat limitation is used to determine hunting limits in a given area- called a game management unit (GMU). Wildlife biologists hired by the state, study these carrying capacities and health of different species. When a wildfire comes through and destroys habitat, the hunting limits are raised in that GMU for the season to avoid what is called “winter kill”- usually the collapse of a species because of sudden loss of habitat, resulting in a mass die off during the harsher winter months. Starvation is the root cause of these animal’s decline.

Any ecological system has a carrying capacity, and all living things within that system thrive or decline with the health of that environment. Another important detail we teach in Washington State hunter education is human encroachment on wildlife, specifically habitat destruction for development, which is acknowledged as the number one cause of the loss of habitat for wildlife. What we do not connect is the human ability to “transcend” carrying capacity, living beyond the means of their environment, through industrialization. Humans have no carrying capacity- they expand exponentially- for the most part- though virus outbreaks and natural disasters can hinder populations for a period of time. Still, human population continued to grow without any need to accommodate their environment. We do not see a reason to hinder our expansion, as humanity generally believes it is divine right or manifest destiny, which allows their ultimate conquest of the natural world.

It is this egoism and complete lack of connection to nature’s limitation, which will be our ultimate downfall as a species. There is a mass extinction in progress, brought on by human overpopulation and consumption, a nightmare in the making. Because of the disconnect from nature and the biological indicators which dictate life on earth, people have become threatened by the collapse of nature, and are scrambling to point the finger at anything but themselves. Case in point- predator species.

In a recent hunting report, I found myself wondering why the editors of this publication chose to feature historical photos celebrating the mass slaughter of cougars in the west. I was taken aback by this ending page of the report, as it seemed very insidious. Never had I seen such blatant hatred of wildlife portrayed in our field report. I wrote to the editor of this publication and voiced my concerns. He responded by saying because of mismanagement of predators in Idaho (his home) the populations of wolves and cougars had exploded, and elk and big horned sheep populations were crashing because of over predation. He warned me that soon, Washington State woulds be feeling similar effects, as we too have stopped allowing dog hunts of predators and left wolves protected from hunting all together.

He went on to say his family and beloved pets were under constant threat of cougar and wolf attacks from the wilderness beyond his backyard. As I read his response, I could not help but wonder how he didn’t see the irony in his choice to move into the wilderness, and then feel threatened by the wildlife there, blaming the animals for his situation. Without sounding too confrontational, I asked him about human encroachment on animal habitat and the likelihood of our destruction of habitat as part of the reason elk and sheep populations might be in peril. I reminded him that ecosystems were limited to their carrying capacities and that animal populations cannot grow beyond those limitations. He said he could not say- and that I should contact my local wildlife biologists to get more information.

I did- and here’s a current project biologists for Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife are working on related to human caused habitat loss. These studies affirm my theory that people are having a much higher impact on wildlife than any wolf or cougar. I would also suggest that cattle and sheep being herded onto public land where what’s left of habitat protection for wildlife exists, puts elk and big horned sheep at risk to domestic animal diseases. Idaho’s own wildlife biologists working for state fish and game agencies also point to domestic sheep and goats being the cause of declining big horn population. Wolves and cougars are not the issue folks- we are.

Man- yes- men in particular, have been driven by fear of what they cannot control since the dawn of humans. This rather reptilian reaction to “other” was a once important part of discerning a threat- but remains cultivated as a way to project fear as hatred towards anything- specifically predator species, and people who don’t look or think like “us”. The willingness for people to turn into ignorant mobs and hunt down what they cannot understand seems to be an outdated model- one that would only feed destruction, which ultimately consumes all- our consumer culture today.

The insidiousness of these “hunted” cougar pictures goes far deeper than habitat destruction and human encroachment on the wilds. What my subconscious was reacting to in these pictures was a haunting familiarity to other photos I have seen in history books- ones in which it is not feared predator animals hanging, but people. Man’s desire to hate what he fears runs deep. I dare to speculate that the hatred towards wolves and cougar, are in the exact same vein of ignorance as white men’s fear of other races. This fear of the other has haunted humanity long enough, and our own carry capacity for the abuse of human rights has worn thin. My hope is that soon, this ignorant fear will collapse, not unlike the elk and sheep populations in Idaho, forcing us to take a hard, long look in the mirror.

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