What we can learn from elk hunters

August 18, 2020 by Joshua
in Nature

A friend saw elk for the first time after starting spending time in Idaho on a ranch. He’s vegetarian. He met hunters.

He was talking to a hunter once. They saw a herd of elk. The hunter asked, “how many elk do you see in that herd?”

“About a hundred.”

“I’d guess about that many too. The land around here can support about eighty through the winter.”

“I guess that means about twenty won’t make it?”

“No, about twenty will make it.” The hunter explained that elk don’t triage. They don’t survey the food, figure out how many it can support, and tell twenty they have to die so the rest can make it. They all eat what they feel like as long as they can. When the food runs out, they all start dying.

I don’t know how accurately the hunter described elk’s habits and results. I’m sure he feels motivation to describe them to justify his hunting them. After all, he’s describing a complex system with predators and more, but I suspect the pattern holds somewhat.

Figuring the hunter knows these patterns, I suggest to my friend to ask a question of value to the rest of us that we might learn from him: “If humans end up with only enough food or some other resource for eighty percent of us, how many of us will make it?”

Question to the reader: how do you think humans will react to running out of resources? Will we triage? With the complexity and size of our systems and communities, will we know of resources falling below levels we need?

I don’t see why we should expect we would triage any more than they would. On the contrary, I would expect that as running out of resources led to human population decline, we wouldn’t just die. Warlords and demagogues would gain power. We would start wars over resources and kill more people than the lack of resource would. Those wars would consume or destroy a lot of resources. We have a lot of nuclear weapons near a lot of already-unfriendly borders.

Since that conversation, it occurred to me that elk endure winter for a renewable resource. Spring brings solar-powered vegetation that can support their reduced numbers regrowing.

If we exhaust a non-renewable resource—like access to clean air or water, or non-renewable on a human time scale, like aquifers or fish populations below certain thresholds or that require coral reefs—we may not be able to regrow. Unlike elk regrowing in the spring and summer, we’d be stuck at the lower number.

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