By permission of the author:
Valerius Geist, PhD., Professional Biologist, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science, The University of Calgary, sent the following note to Newsweek in response to an article published in their online magazine, “It’s Survival of the Weak and Scrawny“.
The note is followed by a direct response from Dr. Geist on the information contained in the Newsweek article and the job or reporting about the topic of hunting and genetics. First the memo.
While it is perfectly true that net-fishing and selective removal of large males leads to hereditary changes in the population affected, these insights are quite old, and in the case of trophy hunting, have long ago been mitigated successfully. To claim otherwise is to mislead the public. It also avoids accountability. If knowledge is old, and has not been acted on, for instance, by the fishing industry and the scientific bodies controlling such, then the public is entitled to know why. What has been done here is to take those accountable for precious public resources off the hook. In Europe trophy hunting and management has a very long, colorful and at times distressing history. However, such led to reliable knowledge of how to restore populations damaged by ignorant trophy hunting in earlier times. The management practices on the Ram Mountain population of bighorns you referred to led to the expected results. It escaped you that there were other experiments and management practices that led to enormous horn growth in bighorns (and other big game). Again you misled the public. Elk, far from being remnants of an earlier abundance are populations restored to unprecedented abundance as well as quality. That’s the miracle of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation that you have ignored. Ironically, that model is being discussed for potential global application. These matters are for more complex than you have exposed to the readers, misinforming such.
Valerius Geist, PhD., Professional Biologist
Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science
The University of Calgary
Bighorns featured strongly in the Newsweek article and the comparable article in the New York Times, only here the illustration is not that of a bighorn, as claimed, but of a European Mouflon. This misidentification is an inkling of the knowledge displayed in these articles. Since both go back to the Coltman at all 2003 study, which Nature then sensationalized, I wrote then a reply to Nature, which they rejected because it contained too many references! I am appending it to this e-mail.
Contrary to any impression conveyed by Darimont et al, but especially the reports in the public media, the premise, that humans are a primary agent of change on their prey is not new. It’s old hat, very old hat. We have been change agents from early prehistory as aboriginal hunters, and what we did not exterminate, survived at times in a dramatically different form. A good example is the dwarfing of the Ice Age American giant, long-horned bison (Bison antiquus) into today’s short-horned dwarf (Bison bison). It’s an insight we owe to some wonderful Canadian archeological work coupled with recent DNA evidence (Michael Wilson, when he was at the U. of Calgary). That humans have taken prime-aged big game for hundreds of thousands of years is shown in the archeological record (Mary Stiner from the Univ. of Arizona) as well as in research into native hunting practices (Charles Kay, University of Utah). That’s all missing in Darimont et al. Too bad. Unlike in the news media, however, they do not claim in the scholarly paper that the topic is original with them, which it is not. Drawing attention to it is, in my judgment, quite laudable.
However, the news media, through interviews of the authors, claims that the insight, that humans as top predators change prey profoundly is new. And that does much more than mislead the public or usurps credit for originality where there is none. It does a public disservice. It allows responsible parties to avoid accountability. If knowledge is old, and has not been acted on, for instance, by the fishing industry and the scientific and administrative government bodies controlling such, then the public is entitled to know why. What the news media does is to take those accountable for safeguarding precious public resources off the hook. Is not the real story here the many scientists working in DFO, for instance, that saw their work and advice not merely ignored but denigrated, who were muzzled, who saw the rape of our fisheries by multinationals in cahoots with our politicians, and who could do nothing about it, who retired claiming their life’s work was in vain, with some suffering depression and nervous breakdowns? Ignoring, belittling or ridiculing inconvenient scholarly research has a long tradition, certainly with Canadian federal bureaucracies! I can vouch for that.
Now, please, let me put it slightly differently. Had the scientists involved made it very clear that they were dealing with an old issue in fisheries, one that goes back some 50 years, then the reporters would have been forced to ask what has happened with this knowledge. What have the bureaucracies managing ocean fisheries or fresh water commercial fisheries done with it? Had they asked that question, they would have called on the various Canadian and US bureaucracies, and held them accountable. It would have exposed the scandal. It has not! Quite the contrary it, has taken all these public agencies, closely controlled by commercial interests, as well as the colluding politicians, off the hook. And in this regard, the scientists and journalists presenting matters publicly have not merely misled the public, but have done fisheries, the public and the environment a great disservice!
On the matter of trophy hunting the public was thoroughly misled. However, trophy hunting, the problems it generates, as well as effective mitigating measures, have a very long, detailed history (see my attached draft to Nature). We are well informed about it. What was presented in the news media is not merely highly selective, distorted material, and therefore poor scholarship by the scientists involved, but smacks of deliberate advocacy. Since bighorns are so central to this debate, let me please fill in a bit of the background.
In the 1960’s and early 70’s bighorns in North America were at a crisis point. Populations were being lost, the geographic distribution range shrank and shrank and it looked very much as if we would have to place bighorns continentally on the endangered list. I came into the picture at that point. What follows I have not publicized as I am not in the habit of beating my own drum, running to the news media etc. So, this is going to be new, even to my old Alma Mater the University of Calgary. In 1971 I had published a monograph on the behavior of mountain sheep, having such researched for six years, four of which were spent in the field. The book got attention and acclaim winning the Wildlife Societies 1972 Book-of-the-Year Award. From June 18-20, 1974 the Boone & Crockett Club, National Audubon Society and the Wildlife Management Institute held a seminal meeting on mountain sheep at the University of Montana, Missoula. The participants comprised scientists, wildlife mangers, members of conservation organizations, but also outdoor writers, including the famous Jack O’Connor. I was given the honor of presenting the Key Note address on the management of mountain sheep. I explained two crucial matters: namely, (1) how the behavior of the mountain sheep preclude their dispersal from relict population to abandoned habitat. This had to be countered by aggressive reintroductions, which was done, and which led in 25 years to an increase of about 50% of mountain sheep populations in North America (see for details Dale Toweill and Valerius Geist 1999 Return of Royalty, Boone & Crockett Club and Foundation for North American Wild Sheep. This book won the 2005 Literary Prize for technical writing, Prix Technique, of the Conseil International de la Chasse, Paris). Within two years the Foundation for North American sheep came into being largely financing and guiding this recovery. Secondly (2) I dealt with how the biology of mountain sheep dictated a totally different management compared to that applied to the ever popular white-tailed deer. It focused on how to hunt trophy rams without hurting the population (based on ancient European understanding). This also was effective, as it was now a science-based approach to mountain sheep management. Hunting old, large-horned males after that had done most of their breeding was the goal. Let me explain: rams grow horns massively early in life, and less and less after about seven years of age. However, some horn growth occurs throughout life. The peak of rutting activity resides with six years old rams carrying ¾ curled horns. They become full curls at 9-10 years of life, although there is variation. Many rams, especially the most vigorous, those with the best horn growth, do not survive the fatal stresses and strains of reproduction and die before 9 years of age. Roughly 50% of the rams survive to that age. That is, natural selection for large horns is limited by the early death of rams with vigorous horn growth. Taking a small fraction of the remaining full curled rams would thus do least damage (breeding is not the only thing full curls can still do, they also are key to leading young rams to distant habitat patches, maintaining the populations tradition of range utilization. They also “police” rutting, subduing excessive activity by young rams and thus allowing them to enter winter in better body shape, increasing their growth next year, and reducing their mortality. Most breeding is done by vigorous, young full curls. Old full curls drop off in breeding activity. Some of the very largest-horned rams I observed during the rut were bystanders! Matters are complex! ).
However, there were objections. Why waste rams 6-9 years of age to natural mortality? Could hunters not harvest such? There is a huge, aggressive demand for licenses to hunt bighorn rams! Moreover, in some populations rams never reached full curl status because of poor forage conditions. Ergo, why not set the limit at ¾ curl instead of full curl? To make matters short, the – now infamous – Ram Mountain study, in which rams were taken at the ¾ curl level, demonstrated conclusively that such led to negative selection for horn size as well as genetic loss. The ¾ curl limit was thus a very bad idea, as most of us expected from the outset.
The ram mountain study is not representative of sheep management, as the press would have us believe, far from it. It was a deliberate test of a hypothesis and it was conclusive. To present such as representative of North American sheep management is false and misleading, viciously misleading! Now, that does not mean all jurisdictions managing sheep are in full agreement. They are not, as vividly illustrated by the debate of Dr. Wayne Heimer for a full curl limit for Dall’s sheep in Alaska, (which has worked well), with the current managers. The fact that such a vigorous debate can take place is in itself evidence how very much management agencies are concerned to avoid genetic damage to sheep populations!
It has also escaped that vigorous breeding bighorn rams interact with others frequently, and in their frequent, severe clashes of heads “broom” or break back the horn tips. That shortens the horns. Consequently, many of the vigorous breeders never reach full curl or even 4/5th curl status and cannot be legally taken. Moreover, on the Ram Mountain study area rams are now under the full-curl rule. That is, there is practically no hunter kill, as Ram Mountain rams only exceptionally reach full-curl status. And if they do, they are virtually past breeding.
Not only was sheep management in North America misrepresented in the media, but there is no mention that current management practices have resulted not only in a rebound of numbers, but also of trophy size. Far from bighorns deteriorating in horn size in North America, there have been startling increases! Let me give you several examples.
1) A student of mine, Mrs. Beth MacCallum, was instrumental in the matter of rehabilitating coal strip mines to custom-built bighorn sheep habitat close to Hinton in Alberta. For us this experiment was a test if we understood sheep ecology, as we claimed we did. When all was said and done, mountain sheep reproduction exploded! Bighorns from Jasper National Park visiting the custom-built sheep ranges voted with their feet, and never returned to the park. The rehabilitate strip mines attracted mule deer, elk, grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines but also birds and the number of nesting birds rose steadily year-by-year. A moon-landscape was transformed into an oasis of life, and spectacularly so. The female sheep doubled in body weight, while the rams grew into the largest seen in North America since the ice ages! Their horn sizes broke all North American records! The biggest bighorn rams ever in North America were taken from these rehabilitated strip mines. Why is that not mentioned?
2) Earlier on, the reintroduction programs generated continentally exceptionally viperous bighorns whose rams also grew record sized horns. That’s what the Boone & Crocket club is pointing out. They have never seen so many record sized bighorns as in the recent decades. And this is true for other big game species as well. Far from loosing big males, as falsely publicized, we are generating more and more of them! Why is that not mentioned?
3) There were other studies on the effect of hunting on bighorn sheep populations such as those by Bill Wishart, also of Alberta, in which he tested how culling of females affected the growth and development of rams. He found that in population with culling, rams grew longer horns than in populations without culling. Why was this not mentioned?
4) Since trophy hunting and management is centuries old, why was it never mentioned that reversing selection for large horns or antlers restored trophy size? Loss of hereditary potential through hunting was long recognized as well as the antidote: reintroduce the missing factors, the missing genes, from adjacent populations – or merely wait and let normal dispersal do it for you. Why is such not mentioned in the mew media?
5) Research established an excellent database for the Ram Mountain population. Hunting regulations have been altered so that now a full-curl restriction is in place, virtually terminating hunting mortality in rams. We will now be able to trace recovery, genetic as well as phenotypic in horn and body size. Why is that not mentioned?
6) We have a very big reservoir of un-hunted bighorns sheep in North America in various parks, game reserves, and military ranges. Why is that nor mentioned?
In short, the news media focused deliberately on the one study, which, by exceptionally severe selection on large horned rams, generated the expected results. They failed to inform that this was exceptional, and that great care is being taken for decades – continentally –not to loose the large males in big game species. Clearly, nobody interviewed the actual mangers of mountain sheep populations. Why not? Why have the critics not bothered reading hunting regulations?
There is more to it.
The matter of trophy males contains counterintuitive ironies. Very large horns or antlers are not adaptive. They are freaks. They may be the biggest, but they are not the best! Otherwise they would not be rare in normal population. The genetic breeding of huge-antlered freaks on deer farms, currently, is not breeding the “biggest and the best”. It is genetic wreckage of the adaptive genome of the species, and done for the frivolous pleasure of an affluent clientele. It has nothing to do with hunting or with wildlife conservation. Quite the contrary!
Why is that not being mentioned?
The adaptive horn/antler configuration is that of the “average male”. We know, from centuries of experience, exactly how to produce “trophies” without genetic manipulation. In a nutshell, offer superior food for body and antler growth and insure that he male does not breed. To generate “trophy heads”, feed the population maximally with a diet rich on protein and minerals for about five generations. Even then maximum growth will not set in, unless the male can be prevented from breeding. Excluded from the stresses and strings of reproduction and fighting, the males save their summer’s fat stores, survive winters splendidly, and may begin body growth the following spring with enough body resources to give growth a real boost. Such males grow more year-by-year and become exceptionally large in body and trophy size. This has been done artificially. In nature, however, without human manipulation, exceptionally large antlers or horns indicate that their owner may be a non-breeding male. Far from being the epitome of male hood, such individuals are shirkers (cowards) that do not participate in rutting. I have observed such in the field. (However, I have also seen one reversal in which a huge shirker reverted and became a successful breeder). Should genetic loss be incurred it can be rectified by transplantation, also a very old idea. No big deal!
Is a one-sided treatment of trophy hunting adequate scholarship? Or are we dealing with calculated advocacy? Are these deliberate attempts to deceive, mislead and inflame the public? Does investigative journalism not sort that out?
Reading Newsweek’s article the impression is gained that In North America bighorns are mismanaged and elk, for instance, are dwindling. This fiction could not be further from reality. It is following a popular pessimistic view fanned by some environmentalists that all nature here is going irredeemably to hell, ignoring the successes of conservation work, robbing the public of hope, instead of inspiring such to get on with restoring the biosphere.
Our wildlife populations, far from being remnants of an earlier abundance are populations largely restored to unprecedented abundance as well as quality. That’s the miracle of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. It has restored much of the continent’s biodiversity, developed a large-scale model of more than mere sustainable use of a renewable, publicly-owned resource, generated a new economy based on wildlife creating wealth and employment, It is wonderful news, but it has been ignored. Why? Is it an “inconvenient truth” to extreme environmentalists? Ironically, that model is being discussed for potential global application.
Valerius Geist, PhD., Professional Biologist
Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science
The University of Calgary