Extinction by Hunting
03/11/01 Commentary by John Nolt
John Nolts radio commentaries, Thoughts on Philosophy and the Environment, are heard Sundays at 10 a.m. on the Knoxville Progressive Radio program on WUTK, 90.3 FM.
Though hunting is now fairly well regulated by law, historically it was a chief cause of extinction in Southern Appalachia. The first to go were the large mammals. When Europeans first settled here in the late eighteenth century, for example, woodland bison were still plentiful. But hunters quickly learned to ambush them at natural salt licks, where the bison congregated. By 1800 they had become rare. Within a decade or two they were extinct.
Eastern elk, too, once inhabited the forests of Southern Appalachia. Like the woodland bison, the elk sought the salt licks, and, like the bison, there they were relentlessly slaughtered. They were extinct by the start of the Civil War. Elk recently reintroduced to the Smokies are not eastern elk but a non-native variety.
The Southern Appalachians were originally home to two kinds of wolves: the red and the gray. Both were hunters of deer, bison, and elk. As the settlers eliminated their prey, they turned increasingly to farm animals. The result was an escalating war of extermination that lasted until about 1920 when, somewhere deep in the Smokies, the last wolf cry was silenced.
Though driven from the East and in constant retreat, gray wolves maintained substantial refuges away west in the Rockies, in Alaska, and in Canada.
But the smaller red wolf, whose range never extended beyond the Southeast, was hunted almost to extinction. By the mid 1970s, there were maybe a hundred red wolves left in the world, mostly in Louisiana and Texas. Many of these could not find mates and had begun breeding with common coyotes, so that the strain was rapidly disappearing. During the 1990s attempts were made to reintroduce red wolves into the Smokies, but some of the wolves wandered repeatedly out of the Park;
some succumbed to parvo virus, probably caught from coyotes whose range had expanded to fill the niche left by the wolves; and some lapped up puddles of sweet-tasting antifreeze from parking lots and died in agony as ethylene glycol crystallized in their kidneys. As a result, reintroduction efforts were suspended, and the Smokies are once again empty of wolves.
Nobody knows when (or even if) the eastern cougar disappeared from the Southern Appalachians. Wary hunters, they were themselves hunted mercilessly for over two centuries. Sightings are still sometimes reported, but wildlife officials believe that if there are any big cats here they are released or escaped western cougars, not the native eastern variety.
Two remarkable Southern Appalachian birds, the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet were hunted to extinction early in the 1900s. The Carolina parakeet, the only member of the parrot family native to the eastern United States, was a large and flamboyantly colored bird, about thirteen inches long, mostly bright green, but with a yellow head and neck and orange cheeks and forehead. Carolina Parakeets were exterminated because they raided orchards, because ladies prized their feathers for hats, and because their bright colors made them useful for target practice.
The passenger pigeon may have been the most abundant bird species on earth. Ornithologists estimate their precolonial population at two to three billion. Their extensive winter roosting grounds along river bottoms in the Southern Appalachians are recalled in the names of two rivers, the Pigeon and the Little Pigeon, and in the name of the city of Pigeon Forge.
Despite their numbers, the passenger pigeons succumbed quickly. Market hunters across the eastern United States blasted hundreds of millions from their roosts or from the sky. The meat was shipped by rail to New York and Chicago, where it had become fashionable. Well before the passenger pigeons vanished, there were warning signs and scattered calls for conservation, but most people seemed to think that so numerous and familiar a bird could never be eliminated.
Their last precipitous decline surprised even the conservationists. As their numbers fell, the pigeons ceased to mate. Apparently their mating instinct was triggered in a way that we will now never understand by something in the presence of the great flock. The last known passenger pigeon, a female named Martha, died in the Cincinnati zoo in 1914.
These extinctions were warnings. Hunting was only the first great wave in the storm of extinction now sweeping the globe. Hunting targets larger animals, but today it is smaller animals and plants that are being lost, not to hunting, but to pollution, habitat destruction and competition from invasive organisms transported from distant ecosystems. These causes are harder to regulate, and as a result the pace of extinction is quickening.
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