Predators respond to the distress screams of the prey species they hunt because they have to. Competition for food demands it. The more scarce food is, the more fierce the rivalry and competition. And the protein that predators secure by their ability to successfully compete for those resources defines the fine line between prosperity and deficiency. Predators that fail in this quest die and become sustenance for those that have honed their skills.
Of course, this is a simplification of nature’s extremely complex predator/prey relationships. Predation in its actions and reactions is more than just a transfer of energy. It represents an interaction between two or more species, between hunters and the hunted. The relative health and prosperity of some predators might depend on the abundance of their prey, and the population of the prey might be controlled by its predators. The symbiotic relationship between the Canada lynx and snowshoe hare provides the perfect model.
An Example: The Lynx-Hare Relationship
Studies have shown that cyclic declines in snowshoe hare populations in Northern boreal forests are linked to excessive browsing during population increases, which creates a food shortage. The high mortality caused by nutritional deficiency reduces hare populations and, thus, impairs reproduction the following breeding season.
The hare is the primary food source of the Canada lynx, and a decline in hares causes a sharp drop in lynx numbers and a reduction in recruitment of young lynx into the population. Predator populations stabilize somewhat at lower levels until, with a decline of predators and a growing abundance of winter foods, hare populations rebound and the cycle is repeated.
The predators we hunt—coyotes, foxes, cats, raccoons and all else—live and die by similar codependencies. It is not necessary to understand the complexities of predator/prey relationships to be a good hunter. But it is key to explaining why hiding in a bush and imitating a predator’s supper is an effective means of hunting them.
Add Man to the Equation
But there’s another key variable to consider. It would be folly to exclude man, the hunter, from nature’s equation for equilibrium, for we too can have a cyclic effect on the predators we hunt and, in turn, the prey species they hunt.
Generally, we do not hunt predators to eat them—or to sustain ourselves monetarily. However, the value of fur and the relative profitability of harvesting it have historically impacted how aggressively we hunt furbearing animals, and how we affect their populations.
In a study conducted by the American Sheep Industry Association, there was a positive correlation between the price paid for a coyote pelt and the number of coyotes harvested that year. Knowing this, it probably won’t surprise you that this, in turn, reduced the rate of predation on domestic livestock and, no doubt, wild prey species.
Back in 1982, coyote pelts brought an average price of $34.92, and 421,000 coyotes were harvested by private fur hunters and trappers. However, a decade later, when the average price paid for coyote pelts had dropped to $13.53, the annual harvest decreased to 158,000. That’s a 63 percent decrease in 10 years. Coyotes were still abundant, but it wasn’t as profitable to hunt or trap them.
Sheep and lamb losses in states where annual data were available increased from 6.9 percent of the stock sheep and new-crop lamb inventory in 1983, to 11.7 percent of the same inventory in 1994, a 70 percent increase.
The repercussions of a diminished fur harvest effort were also felt in the Dakota prairie pothole regions, where predator numbers increased (red foxes, raccoons and skunks, primarily) and impaired ground-nesting bird recruitment.
An experiment conducted by the Delta Waterfowl Foundation, examining the effects of predation on ground-nesting birds, found that areas where predators were removed had an average of 70 percent apparent nest success for upland nesting ducks. In adjacent locations, where no predator control was exercised, ducks only experienced 39 percent success.
Many wildlife biologists agree that predators are the number one factor limiting duck population growth. Those biologists would probably also agree that fur hunters and trappers are the primary agents of predator control. We directly affect waterfowl nesting success by choosing to harvest less fur when prices are down.
This creates a good news/bad news scenario for avid predator hunters. The bad news first.
Bad News, Good News
Since fur prices crashed back in 1987, it has been less profitable to hunt and trap furbearing animals. Select mountain-type coyotes that were once worth $100, red foxes that fetched $80 and Western bobcats that demanded $500 are far less valuable in today’s market. Changes in fashion, economic upheaval in foreign markets and (to a lesser extent) anti-fur campaigns waged by anti-trapping and anti-hunting groups, have all combined to make fur harvesting less profitable. Consequently, less fur is being harvested than when prices were more favorable; predator populations are on the rise.
As predator populations grow, they have an adverse effect on game and nongame species, as well as domestic stock. The presence of mange, parvo, distemper and other diseases is becoming more prevalent as predator populations in some areas reach and exceed the carrying capacity of their habitats. Death by disease is often nature’s answer to overpopulation.
The good news? We can help, by choosing to harvest more predators even though profitability is diminished. There has never been a better time to dust off the varmint rifle and round up your favorite calls and camo. It’s the perfect opportunity to initiate a new domino effect—one that will reduce predator numbers and produce a more vibrant animal community; one that will extend your time in the field deep into the winter months and keep you out in the field hunting when you thought hunting season was only a fleeting dream or something to wait for.