By Ron Baker

Is shooting Fox squirrels a biologically and ecologically sound practice? Many game managers and commercial wildlife biologists would tell you that it is. The traditional game management philosophy is based upon the premise that hunters are enhancing the quality of “game” populations by eliminating a certain percentage of each “game” species during autumn so that there will be more food, shelter and territory for those that survive the hunting seasons. But this premise is based upon false assumptions.

A typical example of the illogic of game management is a plan formulated by a game manager in Michigan for the “management” of Fox squirrels. It should be noted that Fox squirrels moved in and, for the most part, took the place of gray squirrels after the forests in southern Michigan were logged at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Fox squirrel is smaller than its gray cousin and requires less food and territory. In a truly “natural” situation in a southern Michigan climax forest, the Gray squirrel would predominate. As usual, it was man who compounds this problem with his wildlife “management” schemes.

According to the game manager, a pair of Fox squirrels will produce a litter of three each spring. He further claimed that during early autumn, many young squirrels leave their mothers and try to find territories of their own. This competition for living space results in stress on the species. Therefore, according to the game manager, a well-regulated September hunting season in which hunters would kill about 40% of the squirrel population would benefit surviving squirrels. According to him, they would have the food stored by all, be housed in the best dens, would be subject to less disease and intraspecies competition. It may sound convincing to a neophyte naturalist but the truth is that, like other game management practices, the squirrel hunting scheme is biologically and ecologically unsound, if not destructive of the species and its ecosystem.

The game management philosophy is perpetuated by commercial wildlife biologists and game managers whose job it is to expand recreational hunting and thereby achieve kill statistics as high as each “game” population can withstand. In other words, they are basing their recommendations upon a subjective, pre-conceived standard. Their jobs are not to help wildlife for the sake of wildlife but to maximize “harvest.” Instead of trying to maintain natural or restored ecosystems wherever possible, and create conditions conducive to the greatest diversity of animal life, the solution advocated by game managers is to use hunting and trapping as theoretical improvements upon intraspecies and interspecies population dynamics. But this creates many more problems than it solves. In fact, there is no solution to wildlife problems that can be imposed through hunting which equals or exceeds Nature’s method of naturally regulating animal populations.

The management plan assumes that there will be a huge number of young squirrels suddenly leaving their mother’s dens attempting to establish territories at the same time. But this doesn’t happen. Litters are not born at exactly the same times. Usually there’s a 3 or 4-week differential between the first and last spring births in a particular geographical area. In some areas, squirrels are born throughout the spring and most of the summer. Some litters are lost entirely to disease or parasites. Some young squirrels are eaten by predators; another of nature’s ways of ensuring that there will not be a hue glut of young squirrels suddenly seeking territories. While squirrel populations are cyclic (fluctuating up and down over a period of years in response to environmental variables), mortality, from whatever causes, usually occurs at a fairly consistent annual rate, which may peak out during late winter after squirrels have consumed most of the food from the previous autumn. In nature, there is seldom a huge die-off of squirrels at a particular point in time. That occurs only when they are heavily hunted during autumn. Nature, on the other hand, is relatively well balanced, while game management by the use of hunting upsets this equilibrium.

If 40 percent of the Fox squirrels in a particular geographical area are killed during a hunting season, potential food is taken away from owls, hawks, foxes, coyotes, fishers, bobcats, martens, etc. With fewer squirrels during the winter, these predators must locate other prey, such as snowshoe hares and mice (which also may be low in number during a particular year, especially where hares have been hunted during autumn and winter). This reduction of prey species through annual hunting encourages low predator populations, further disrupting the fragile ecostructure.

An abrupt kill of many individuals activates nature’s compensation for a sudden crash – if a Fox squirrel population suffers moderate losses to hunting during autumn, surviving females will respond to increases in the sizes and/or numbers of their litters. [Editor’s note: Compensatory rebound is a phenomenon that wildlife management agencies take advantage of.] A greater number of females will mate and bear young to fill the vacuum created by the sudden loses. In nature, animal populations tend to cycle around or just below the maximum number that a particular type of habitat can safely support. So the hunting of squirrels (or any other species) has only short-term validity as a management tool. It actually maintains or increases game populations, thereby perpetuating hunting and in process creating many more problems than it solves.

Will squirrel hunting lessen the incidence of disease? No. Squirrel hunting is non-selective. The Fox squirrel management plan is a statistical model which does not take into account many of the variables found in the real world of nature. No one can predict with certainty that hunts during a given year will not kill a disproportionate number of healthy squirrels – those who already have the choicest food and territory – thereby leaving a large number of stressed or diseased squirrels with lessened long-term survival potential. Since there is no way to implement selective squirrel hunting, there is no guarantee that hunting would not impair the health of the species or result in higher mortality rates during some years than would be the case without hunting. Further, there is no proof that the incidence of disease is related to population size. (Remember that the purported goal of the management plan is to improve the health of the squirrel population!)

Will it distribute squirrels more evenly over the best habitat? In order to reduce the squirrel population by 40 percent over a wide geographical area, there would have to be such a huge number of hunters and/or bag limits would have to be set so high that the goal would be unrealistic. Even if the plan were to succeed, hunting pressure and “harvests” would have to be such that there would be a sparse but relatively even distribution of squirrels over the best squirrel habitat after the hunting season; and this would be unlikely to occur. In fact, most hunters would probably hunt squirrels in areas where they were the most plentiful – near sources of food in the most favorable habitat. There would also be a significant amount of acreage that would not be hunted, for example, some posted lands and private sanctuaries. There would be higher wintering squirrel populations in these areas than in areas where they had been hunted, so that the overall objective of a 40 percent reduction on a broad geographical range would not be achieved.

Are they increasing territory and reducing competition? Hunting pressure and gunshots create stress on squirrels and probably disperse many to other areas, resulting in temporary displacement and aggressive behavior as they are forced deep into the territories of others. This would be exactly the opposite of the hunting plan’s purported goal of increasing potential territory and reducing competition.

What about the long-term benefits for the species? Are conditions really improved for “game” animals that survive hunting seasons? That is, after all, the purported goal.

Will Fox squirrels have more food? There would not necessarily be more food for survivors because, even assuming a high 40 percent squirrel kill, some squirrel territories which had good food sources might remain vacant after hunting seasons and there would be no guarantee that surviving squirrels would locate the caches of food that had been stored earlier by those that had been killed by hunters. Many squirrels bury beechnuts, acorns, seeds from white pine and hemlock cones, etc. They seem to remember these locations and come back later to dig them up. Other squirrels would not be as likely to locate most of these – especially after the ground had been covered by deep snow. And since most hunters would seek squirrels in areas where there was ample food (and thus, more squirrels), many survivors would be from peripheral areas or areas with a less adequate food supply.

Will there be better territory? There would be no guarantee that surviving squirrels would have the best territories; potential territory would be increased, but prime habitat is usually limited and a squirrel can cover only so much acreage in its search for food. While squirrels sometimes range for a mile or two from their homes, most foraging is done much closer to their grounds unless food supplies become scarce, or there is a rich supply of food in another area which is out of their territories. Moreover, there is no guarantee that a certain percentage of young squirrels would be able to locate the best territories simply because 40 percent of the population had been removed by hunters. (And if there is reasonably good feeding throughout an area, most squirrels will remain in the general location once they have established themselves.) So even if the 40 percent hunting losses were evenly distributed in relation to squirrel density, there would still be more squirrels in some areas than in others after hunting seasons, and there would still be some vacant territories.

In nature, the populations of all animal species are controlled by a complex system of environmental variables: food, territory, shelter, predators, parasites, disease, intraspecies competition for territory and mates, etc.

Is the Fox squirrel management plan ethical? Or is any other plan ethical in which hunting and/or trapping is employed? Supposedly, hunters are doing animals a service by improving conditions for those that survive hunting seasons. Hunting takes potential food away from predators. So the squirrel management plan not only causes squirrels to die prematurely, it also creates suffering for the animals that feed on them. We cannot alleviate suffering and death by causing more suffering and death. Game management deals with groups, not individuals. No respect is shown for the individual animal, for the animal that is shot or wounded, or for the predators that die because prey species are killed by hunters. According to game management philosophy, these animals are expendable. If we are to call ourselves human beings, then we should try to prevent unnecessary suffering and death, not encourage it as a recreational pursuit. If the life of any animal can be reduced to a statistic, then of what value is life – any life?

Ron Baker is a wildlife biologist and naturalist who is an editor and contributor to the Backwoods Journal. He homesteads in the Adirondacks with his wife. He is the author of The American Hunting Myth and is Vice President of C.A.S.H. He can be reached through C.A.S.H.


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