The megafauna are alright.
I lived for a number of years in a state that has a long and storied hunting and trapping legacy. Each year, eager outdoors-persons send in their applications for a deer tag. Then, depending on their status as rural landowners or the number of preferences they have (a type of ranking assistance from not having received a coveted buck tag the year before), they wait anxiously for notice from the state’s Game Fish and Parks department telling them how many, or what type, of tag they are awarded. How many, or what kind (buck or doe) they get to shoot.
Now, I’m not equipped to have a conversation about the ethics of recreational hunting. That’s not what this is about. But what I want to talk about is that a hunter’s odds of getting that buck tag and a chance for a trophy to hang on the wall and stare at the children over breakfast is dependent not just on the number of other hunters who want that buck but also the number of tags being issued that year of each type. And that number depends on one major factor: population.
Deer population, not people population. Though, the higher the deer population, the closer they get to the people population. And that’s when they start to issue more tags.
Hunting, besides a recreational activity for some and a food-on-the-table activity for others (and for still others, both), is also a means to control the deer population. Too many deer running amok can damage the local ecosystem. They eat all the food that songbirds and other wildlife might like (or require, to survive). Folks don’t take kindly to deer getting into town. They eat the strawberries and tomatoes in their gardens. And they have a weird habit of jumping out in front of cars. Especially when they’re feeling sexy.
But after reading this week’s chapters in The Reindeer Chronicles, I started to wonder how essential (or even beneficial) this artificial population control really is. Ultimately, though they used to be able to manage themselves, the way we’ve used the land in these rural areas may require human management now. I don’t know enough about this to be making suggestions. But it’s worth looking deeper, all the same.
In her book, Judith Schwartz tells the story of a young Sámi reindeer herder in Norway named Jovsset Ánte Sara who had been ordered to reduce the size of his herd by a government order. The order was well-intended. They claimed that “the current reindeer numbers must be curtailed to minimize damage to the fragile tundra ecosystem.” But for Sara, who is part of the remaining five percent of the indigenous Sámi people still herding reindeer, herd is inextricably tied to a cultural heritage. His sister, Máret Ánne, explains that “Sámi reindeer herding is, for me, the Sámi bank: for language, handicraft, knowledge of the environment, ecology.”
And so this artificial restriction by the government, well-intended or not, represents a sort of cultural as well as personal existential threat.
But let’s to back to where we started. The megafauna are alright. What if—just hear me (and Schwartz) out—the animals understand what they and the land need better than we humans do?
Schwartz looks to research done by Allan Savory in the 1960s which demonstrated that “grassland ecosystems co-evolved with ruminants.” A ruminant is a grazing animal, typically one with multiple stomachs. The key idea here is that the activity of those animals has a positive impact on the land, if they are allowed to graze in their traditional manner.
Rather than, as the government argued, the number of animals grazing in a particular area being a problem, Savory’s research indicated the more important factor was “the time plants are exposed to grazing pressure.” Historically, a herd did not stay in one place as they might be inclined to do when humanly managed. Says Schwartz, “For example, if cattle hang around the same spot indefinitely—say, by a riverbank—they may damage it, whereas two or three times the number of cattle kept on the move might benefit the land. This makes sense intuitively. Under wild conditions, ruminants would never stay anywhere long; predators would be at their hooves.”
On the other hand, Savory’s researched showed that “when people fenced animals away from deteriorating land, the land’s condition got worse instead of reviving.”
The megafauna are alright. They know what they are doing.
Schwartz writes that reindeer actually keep the landscape cold, which is critical given the rapidly warming conditions and melting permafrost in the very areas where Sara is herding his reindeer. It has to do with what kind of foliage grows in an area, which is really dependent on who is eating it and how. When the reindeer are grazing, shrubs and small trees proliferate. These plants “have a lower albedo, or reflectivity, than the grassy heath that would otherwise dominate.” That grassy heath, made up of darker and less reflective leaves that absorb solar energy, will accelerate thawing, she explains. According to a NCoE Tundra report, “the reindeer, on the other hand, prevent the “invasion of trees, tall shrubs and and forbs” and help “maintain the openness of the tundra, which is a precondition for the survival of many small-sized arctic plant species.”
In addition to helping cultivate the right kind of flora, the reindeer also have a habit of trampling with their big heavy hooves. This creates a hard snow pack which is much less prone to thawing. Research confirms that “soil temperature in places where animals grazed was lower by at least 15° C (27° F).”
In this chapter, Schwartz highlights the wisdom of the animal kingdom in managing their own environments. While we see how the Sámi reindeer, if allowed to graze traditionally, “their shrub-browsing and trampling ensures the prominence of lighter-toned grasses and lichens that reflect sunlight and keep the landscape cool.” But it’s not just the reindeer, and it’s not just Norway. “In North America and southern Africa,” she writes, “large herbivores—buffalo in North America; wildebeest, kudu, giraffe, and whatnot in Africa—maintain open savannah. Over time, their activity built the rich, fertile soils, the mollisoils, of these regions.” Elephants knock limbs from trees just by moving around, which scatters pods that other wildlife rely on for food that they couldn’t otherwise reach. “Simply by walking, they create pathways, and by digging for water, they create waterholes.” And then, she says, there’s dung. We aren’t going to talk about dung, but I’m going to leave to your imagination how much we might be talking about and all the ways that can keep an ecosystem afloat through nutrient cycling.
Essentially, letting these animals live their lives is vital to keeping the ecosystems functioning as they were meant to do. The chapter goes on to talk about whales and donkeys and dingos, and the contributions they each make to the planet as we know it.
Schwartz writes that “they are ‘ecosystem engineers’ through their very existence.” It makes a person wonder if our human efforts to engineer these systems will inevitably fall short of what could be accomplished if left to their own devices. We may see ourselves as their caretakers, but, as Schwartz puts it, “we can never approach the wisdom of these animals.”
Read an adapted excerpt of this chapter at Yes! Magazine and see the art installations created by Máret Ánne Sara in protest of the government culling of the herds
Photo by Simon Harrod, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Will Willingham.
We invite you to join us, and the reindeer, for this challenging exploration of possibility as the first of our winter book club selections. Our reading schedule is below:
February 3: Ch. 1-3
February 10: Ch. 4-5
February 17: Ch. 6-7
Buy The Reindeer Chronicles by Judith D. Schwartz