Tag Archives: adaptation

The Future of Hunting: Part 1

The next two articles address the future of hunting and the changes I predict will happen to both hunters and their prey through the natural processes of adaptation and evolution.

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Rest assured hunting will change in the future, just as it has been changing rapidly over the last 10 or 20 years. The three primary factors driving these changes: a) an exploding human population, b) the development of super high-tech hunting equipment, and c) the hyper-adaptation of prey-animals which is necessary for their survival, especially with elk and deer.

What’s been occurring, and will continue to occur is a split–or chasm–developing between hunters and super-hunters. Hunters will either do what it takes to get a buck, or they will fail most of the time. Most hunters can be divided into two camps depending on their priorities. These two camps are: a) Super-hunters dedicated to the sport and willing to spend tremendous resources for trophy-class animals, or b) Fair-weather hunters who spend little time afield, hunt mostly for fun rather than food, hunt mostly on weekends, and are happy with any animal whether a spike or a 4-point.

A similar split is occurring between regular deer (and elk) and super-deer. This means that there will be isolated groups of younger, less experienced, and less pressured animals that react much like their ancestors did and get shot. The rest will adapt quickly to modern hunters, develop much more specialized bodies, and evade the average hunter for life.

In this article we’re going to focus on the changes that I predict will occur, or are occurring, in today’s deer and elk:

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Changes in Deer:

– Deer will become completely nocturnal. The reason you see more deer at evening and morning is because they’re most active at night. But if left undisturbed, deer will occasionally rise and feed during the day. In the future, not so much. Deer’s eyes are already adapted to see well at night, but in the future I predict that their eyesight will become further specialized to low-light conditions. The trade-off is that their eyes will become highly light-sensitive, causing them to bed even farther into super-deep/dark timber and never emerge until it’s completely dark. So much for seeing deer early and late.

– Deer will grow narrower racks. This is already the case in places like Oregon and Washington where the bucks live in dense timber most of the time. But if all western deer adopt a nocturnal lifestyle, they will be forced to move more frequently through dense timber and thus grow narrow racks.

– Deer will grow longer legs, similar to elk. Deer naturally have a difficult time moving through deep snow; basically anything over 30 inches. Because of this, deer–unlike elk–are forced to winter on lower elevations. The detrimental problem is that humans have developed almost all winter range elevations, especially here in Utah. And any deer forced to winter in low elevations is highly susceptible to death via highways, dogs, poachers, destruction of native forage, and overall human-induced winter-time stress which forces deer to burn up all their fat reserves before spring green-up. As this is a fairly recent phenomenon, today’s deer haven’t had time to develop bigger bodies and longer limbs which would allow them to winter much higher up…but they will!

– Deer will grow bigger hooves. Until recently, deer haven’t lived in very cliffy or rocky terrain. But they are starting to. Today’s animals, with their dwindling habitat, the threat of long-range rifles, and increased hunter pressure, are forced into some very unnatural and rugged terrain. My brother-in-law Josh actually found bucks living in and around caves in the unit where he hunts. Have you ever noticed how small a deer’s hooves are compared to cliff-dwelling species such as sheep or goats? As a taxidermist I have the unique opportunity of comparing characteristics between different species. Sheep and goats have approximately the same body mass as deer, but their feet are nearly twice as large. Other than size, another interesting difference between deer and goat hooves is the foot pad. The footpad of any hooved animal is made of a softer, cartilage-like material. But the goat’s hoof is much softer than the deer’s which allows goats to grip onto rocks easier. I predict that deer will develop not only bigger hooves, but softer ones too.

– Deer will grow bigger brains. Any trophy hunter already knows how incredibly smart today’s bucks are, but they will become smarter yet! This is a simple law of nature: survival of the fittest/smartest. As humans develop smarter and smarter hunting technology, the deer will be forced to adapt. In an article from last year I wrote about all the different–seemingly ingenious ways–that deer have adapted to hunters just in my lifetime. Big bucks are using multiple levels of thinking to evade hunters. Some examples include using does as security buffers between open feed and treeline, moving into non-deer habitat such as caves, and using complex sentinel-based security systems.

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Now let’s look at future changes in elk:

– Elk will be silent, like deer! After just a few decades of calling to them, big bulls are becoming silent. This was the basis of the relatively recent invention of the “silent calling” technique, wherein modern bulls often approach without calling back to the hunter. Thirty years ago it was easy to bugle a bull in. As this became increasingly ineffective, we began cow calling to them. But even this technique is becoming increasingly ineffective. Bulls are beginning to mistrust any calls, and instead relying more on wind direction and scent to verify a threat. Also, as archery equipment becomes more innovative and effective, bulls are hanging up farther and farther back. Since both cow calls and bugles are the elk’s greatest weakness, I predict a time when elk are completely silent and use scent and wind direction to rut around–just as deer do.

– Elk will grow narrower and smaller racks. Just like deer, elk will move deeper and deeper into the timber and will therefore grow narrower racks for easier travel through dense timber.

– Elk will grow bigger ears. Relative to their bodies, elk ears are fairly small, albeit efficient. But as with mule deer, there’s always room for bigger ears. Since elk will become more timber-dwelling, and since sound doesn’t travel nearly as far in thick forests, elk will need bigger ears to funnel available sound waves.

– Elk will develop better vision. Elk and deer eyes are practically the same: good night vision, wide field of vision, and sensitive to movement. But deer species’ eyes have two major weaknesses: a) they can’t see the color red, and b) they can’t see fine detail. This is why an elk can’t see you standing five feet away, unless you move. Of course they use their noses to make up for it, but their eyesight is still relatively weak compared to our own. So, in the future I predict the elk and deer will either develop the ability to see red, and/or their eyes will evolve to see better detail.

– Elk will have smaller bodies. During the last ice age, animals had much bigger bodies. This allowed them to survive low temps, move through deep snow, and evade larger predators such as saber-tooth tigers. After the ice age animals got smaller. Today’s elk are relatively giant compared to other western big game animals. This is advantageous during winter, but for the rest of the year it hinders them in two primary ways: a) they need water more frequently, and b) they need to eat more, and more often. As any predator knows, it’s much easier to ambush an animal that’s feeding and watering. Unlike deer, this makes hunting elk over water a viable option. Also, because elk are grazing animals–rather than foraging animals–it’s easier to predict food sources and travel routes. In the future, smaller elk won’t need to water as often, and will likely adapt their palate to browse-type foods such as forbs/shrubs/etc. As a result, they will bed earlier, rise later, and probably become completely nocturnal as well.

– Elk will grow smarter. I suppose they’re already kinda smart, but they’re getting much smarter. Last year, while hunting with my wife, we called up a herd bull using estrus calls. The bull came stomping in, and then, just before showing himself, pushed two cows right through us. When the cows passed the shooter they picked up her scent and bolted taking the bull with them. This well-thought-out security measure worked perfectly. Very admirable, but very disappointing. In the future I predict much more complicated hunter-evasion techniques by these highly adaptive animals.

Conclusion:

For all of evolution, both predator and prey were forced to adapt to each other in order to survive. In today’s world, finding and harvesting a trophy animal is getting harder by the year. Today’s deer are ingenious survivors capable of adapting to us and evading us no matter what we throw at them. There are many factors at play, but it just proves that technology is not the answer. On the flip side, we should be thankful that our beloved deer are such brilliant survivors. Otherwise there would be nothing left to hunt, here in the future.

Stay tuned for the next article where we’ll analyze the future of hunting and the inevitable division between hunting camps. I think you’re gonna like it.

Mule Deer Adaptation

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My biggest frustration is empty woods. In places like Monte Cristo and the Manti-Lasal range, a hunter can travel past supreme habitat all day long without catching sight of a single deer. Thirty years ago, these places were crawling with deer, even giving up dozens of record-book bucks along the way. Today, not much about these woods has changed except there are almost no deer. And the few deer that still exist are the neurotic descendants of lone survivors.

During the seventies and eighties, while hundreds of trigger-happy hunters clambered around the mountainsides shooting wildly at any buck that dared step into the open, those few crazy-bucks held up in the thickest trees. They sprung from cover at the slightest human sight or scent and barreled along thick tree lines and out of sight without glancing back. Even something as benign as a squirrel’s bark would send these wide-eyed crazies flying into the next valley, never stopping to question the validity of the threat as they retreated into some dark hole on some private property or high mountain cliff. Today, the descendants of these neurotic deer are all that’s left—no longer Odocoileus hemionus, but Odocoileus neuroticus.

My friend Scott and I often travel together down a long and dusty road leading to an area on Monte Cristo where we both hunt. Every time we drive past a certain clearing in the trees above the road, Scott points out the exact location where his brother-in-law once shot a little two-point buck long ago. This appears to be the highlight of his family’s gun hunting tradition in recent years. Now, each time I drive down that road and look at that hillside clearing, I can’t help but wonder if that little buck was indeed the last of a generation of careless mule deer—yesterday’s deer.

What the modern mule deer lacks in numbers it makes up for in elusiveness. As an example, there are a few spots where I hunt that are always covered in deer sign—tracks, rubs, and droppings everywhere. But in a hundred days of hunting you’ll never actually see a single animal—at least not during daylight. It’s well known that deer are crepuscular animals (being most active in the morning and evening). But on heavily pressured public areas where I hunt, I’ve observed that today’s deer are mostly, if not completely, nocturnal. For the bowhunter, setting the alarm for 5 a.m. is almost useless because the deer have already fed, watered, and traveled to hidden bedding areas by starlight. That “great” area you chose to sit and watch before first light, remains quiet and empty as the sun comes up. It doesn’t matter how early you arrive because you’ve already missed the action. Utah wildlife biologist and author, Walt Prothero, wrote extensively on the mule deer’s keen ability to adapt to modern dangers. In his book Mule Deer Quest he wrote the following:

“But mule deer are quick learners and highly adaptable… The bucks that didn’t pause to watch their backtrail survived to do most of the breeding and pass on genes that made them more secretive. Bucks have essentially become nocturnal, at least during hunting seasons. They don’t pause in the open during daylight hours, and they won’t even come out in the open unless it’s dark. Most won’t move unless they’re certain they’ve been located (Prothero, 2002).”

Traditionally, mule deer experts have agreed that mule deer must rise out of their beds to feed occasionally throughout the day in order to maintain adequate energy and fat stores. However, in most of the high-pressured public areas where I hunt, I have observed that this is no longer the case. These modern mulies have simply adapted to a nocturnal lifestyle which provides plenty enough food ingestion at nighttime to negate daytime feeding. It’s like saying humans have to get up to eat occasionally during the night to survive. It’s just not necessary.

Another example of the mule deer’s ability to adapt to adverse conditions took place following the particularly harsh winter of 1983-1984. Every single deer in the mountains of Northern Utah was forced down to the lowest possible elevations in order to survive the extremely high snowpack. This forced many of the herds into our cities and even farther into the farmlands west of Ogden. By springtime, many deer had simply adapted to the city lifestyle and never did return to the mountains. Even today, small herds of mule deer are living year-round in the suburbs of Logan, Brigham City, North Ogden, West Weber, Hooper, Farmington, Bountiful, and many other small cities.

This amazing ability to adapt to innumerable adverse conditions—primarily man-made conditions—is all that’s kept the wily mule deer from becoming an endangered species.