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Trophy hunting smear evolves from fish tale

Illustration by Tim Martin
llustration by Tim Martin
By Mike Handley

-- Never underestimate the power of words or those who wield it.

A major news magazine, several newspapers, websites and bloggers last week published stories slamming the practice of "trophy hunting," or so it seemed to both hunters and anti-hunters who began circling wagons.

The first was offered by Newsweek, in an article entitled "It's Survival of the Weak and Scrawny: Researchers see 'evolution in reverse' as hunters kill off prized animals with the biggest antlers and pelts." http://www.newsweek.com/id/177709 Following suit were the Toronto National Post, the Calgary Herald and several others, both offline and on, like the National Geographic Society's website.

Problem is: The study at the root of all the hoopla concerned mainly fish and snails.

There were references to Norwegian caribou, an isolated population of bighorns in Alberta and even plants like ginseng. But "trophy hunting," as we know it, was not the premise. The study's conclusion was that man's removal of the bigger and older fish (mainly cod and salmon) through commercial fishing has left younger fish to do the breeding, which has led to a significant decline in their general size.

The only reason the study jumped the species barrier is because a separate study in Alberta, where a bighorn sheep population has suffered a similar fate, augments the argument for man's unhealthy influence over nature. Ditto for a certain snail and a caribou herd in Norway.

That hunting was even associated with the fish study is mostly due to the bighorn research, which in itself has spurred great debate within the sheep hunting and wildlife biology communities.

Yet this scientific research paper, thanks to poor or intentionally misleading reporting from media outlets, has fanned the flames of the anti-hunting debate.

Genesis

The grist for the mill, as one science journalism watchdog group put it, was a study - "Human predators outpace other agents of trait change in the wild" - published Jan. 12 in the online issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (www.pnas.org). The paper's public unveiling spawned press releases from both the University of Calgary and UC Santa Cruz, because both institutions sought to garner recognition for faculty members Paul Paquet and Chris Darimont, respectively. Paquet and Darimont were among the six co-authors.

Neither the original study nor the press releases were anti-hunting per se. Slipshod or lazy reporting by Newsweek, poor choices in packaging the story and, quite possibly, simple bias are responsible for all the spikes in blood pressure.

Newsweek was first. The writer, Lily Huang, perhaps aware that she was going to scoop other news outlets, used creative license and - because of the "reverse evolution" theme - added references to tuskless elephants and shrinking red kangaroos, changes wrought mainly by poaching and the trade in ivory and leather. Most alarmingly, her article is short on attribution and just plain wrong where hunting and hunting regulations are mentioned.

The source for the study's bighorn references is Marco Festa-Bianchet, a professor of ecology with the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, who has spent much of his professional life studying an isolated population of bighorn sheep in Alberta. Thirty years of research on Ram Mountain raises compelling questions about the link between smaller horns and body weights to the systematic removal of the dominant breeders. But unless he changes his tune in a book due out next month, he has admitted that his findings aren't necessarily provable.

The Newsweek reporter quoted other biologists as well, who supported the plausibility of selective harvesting's effect upon a gene pool. One of those was Don Melnick, professor of conservation biology, anthropology and biological sciences at Columbia University, who was paraphrased thusly:

"Artificially selecting animals in the wild - in effect, breeding them - is 'a very risky game … It's highly likely to result in the end of a species.'"

Yet for all the compelling quotes from learned sources, the Newsweek article makes some incorrect statements that, while supporting the overall premise, do not support the argument on the larger scale of big game hunting's impact.

Debunking the Myths

The Newsweek article has drawn numerous complaints, from both within and outside of academia. The reluctance to point out that the findings are a hypothesis, not a statement of fact, aside, it has problems.

The magazine article's lead photo shows Teddy Roosevelt and another man with skulls of three African antelope. The caption reads: Theodore Roosevelt and another hunter hold the heads of kudus they killed on an African safari in the 1910s. Wrong: Two of the three skulls pictured belonged to elands, the heaviest of Africa's spiral-horned antelope. Only one might belong to a kudu, probably a representative of the western subspecies, judging from the mass and shortness of horn. But to compare an eland to a kudu is to compare a steer to a deer.

The article also contains this statement, sans attribution: "Elk still range across parts of North America, but every hunting season brings a greater challenge to find the sought-after bull with a towering spread of antlers." Wrong: Boone and Crockett Club records reveal a steady and amazing increase in the number of exceptional bull elk harvested in North America - from 106 during the 1980s to 279 in the '90s and 431 since 2000. And these are the cream of the crop: with a minimum 360 inches for typicals and 385 for non-typicals. Hundreds of others qualified for the (lower) Pope and Young Club's archery minimums. And many exceptional animals go unreported.

Another portion, possibly paraphrased from Montana conservation biologist Richard Harris, says: "The most popular method of regulating hunting - restricting legal game to males with a minimum antler size - results in populations overrun with females and inferior males, which is ultimately no service to hunters." Wrong: Wildlife agencies might have once restricted the harvest to males, but that is no longer the case in most areas of the U.S.  And in the few places where actual antler size restrictions are in place, the state rules are designed only to protect one or two age classes of buck or bull - a correction to the decades-long overharvest of first- or second-year males. Regulations beyond this are generally self-imposed, not mandated by wildlife departments.

Neil Thagard with the Wild Sheep Foundation in Cody, Wyo., which has raised $70 million for sheep conservation in its 32 years, was among many who posted rebuttals to the Newsweek piece.

"For Lily Huang to cite Marco Festa-Bianchet's work as gospel is erroneous journalism at best. This research only captures a small isolated population of bighorn sheep in Alberta, Canada, and the result of academia vs. wildlife management.

"In the Ram Mountain research, it states that hunter harvest of rams was very restricted with one to three rams being taken each year up until 1995, when the horn curl criteria was increased from 4/5 curl to full curl in 1996. With the new regulation, only three rams were harvested from 1996-1999. One of these was an 11-year-old that had sired a number of lambs and was well past his productive breeding years. The reduction of body and horn size of these bighorns may be attributed to nutritional factors as much as any other factor, not to mention the stress implied by the researchers through continued capture of these animals.

"Horn growth in males is a bonus. When rams receive nutrition through forage, the nutrients first enhance the body condition; additional nutrients then allow for horn growth. In good forage years, horn growth of healthy animals may be exponential; in poor forage years, horn growth will be less.

"I thank Lily Huang for elevating the interest of our wildlife and wild places; I just hope, in the future, she will do further research prior to publishing such a half-hearted report as she recently has done," Thagard wrote.

The attacks on the article don't end there. Biologist Valerius Geist, professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Calgary, posted this response:

"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 ...

"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 far more complex than you have exposed to the readers, misinforming such," he wrote.

One Got it Right

While Newsweek, science bloggers and many Canadian newspapers seized upon the hunting aspect of the study and portrayed trophy hunting and current wildlife management in a negative light, one American newspaper didn't take the bait.

The New York Times' version of the story - based on the very same study and subsequent press releases - was far closer to the nature of the study. While writer Cornelia Dean did refer to the findings as more sweeping than previous reports about the effects of overfishing, buoyed by the bighorn research, she did not choose to apply it to hunting in general or trophy hunting in particular.

See for Yourself

If you'd like to see exactly how various news outlets treated the story and the responses generated by it, simply Google "trophy hunting evolution."

-- By Mike Handley / Editor, Rack magazine

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