Hunting and Trapping

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Hunting and trapping

Wild animals are a potentially renewable natural resource. This means that they can be harvested in a sustainable fashion, as long as then birth rate is greater than the rate of exploitation by humans. In the sense meant here, "harvesting" refers to the killing of wild animals as a source of meat, fur, antlers, or other useful products, or as an outdoor sport. The harvesting can involve trapping, or hunting using guns, bows-and-arrows, or other weapons. (Fishing is also a kind of hunting, but it is not dealt with here). From the ecological perspective, it is critical that the exploitation is undertaken in a sustainable fashion; otherwise, serious damages are caused to the resource and to ecosystems more generally.

Unfortunately, there have been numerous examples in which wild animals have been harvested at grossly unsustainable rates, which caused their populations to decline severely. In a few cases this caused species to become extinctthey no longer occur anywhere on Earth. For example, commercial hunting in North America resulted in the extinctions of the great auk (Pinguinnis impennis ), passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius ), and Steller's sea cow (Hydrodamalis stelleri ). Unsustainable commercial hunting also brought other species to the brink of extinction , including the Eskimo curlew (Numenius borealis ), northern right whale (Eubalaena glacialis ), northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus ), grey whale (Eschrichtius robustus ), and American bison or buffalo (Bison bison ).

Fortunately, these and many other examples of overexploitation of wild animals by humans are regrettable cases from the past. Today, the exploitation of wild animals in North America is undertaken with a view to the longer-term conservation of their stocks, that is, an attempt is made to manage the harvesting in a sustainable fashion. This means that trapping and hunting are much more closely regulated than they used to be.

If harvests of wild animals are to be undertaken in a sustainable manner, it is critical that harvest levels are determined using the best available understanding of population-level productivity and stock sizes. It is also essential that harvest quotas are respected by trappers and hunters and that illegal exploitation (or poaching ) does not compromise what might otherwise be a sustainable activity. The challenge of modern wildlife management is to ensure that good conservation science is sensibly integrated with effective monitoring and management of the rates of exploitation.

Ethics of trapping and hunting

From the strictly ecological perspective, sustainable trapping and hunting of wild animals is no more objectionable than the prudent harvesting of timber or agricultural crops. However, people have widely divergent attitudes about the killing of wild (or domestic) animals for meat, sport, or profit. At one end of the ethical spectrum are people who see no problem with the killing wild animals as a source of meat or cash. At the other extreme are individuals with a profound respect for the rights of all animals, and who believe that killing any sentient creature is ethically wrong. Many of these latter people are animal-rights activists, and some of them are involved in organizations that undertake high-profile protests and other forms of advocacy to prevent or restrict trapping and hunting. In essence, these people object to the lethal exploitation of wild animals, even under closely regulated conditions that would not deplete their populations. Most people, of course, have attitudes that are intermediate to those just described.


The fur trade was one a very important commercial activity during the initial phase of the colonization of North America by Europeans. During those times, as now, furs were a valuable commodity that could be obtained from nature and could be sold at a great profit in urban markets. In fact, the quest for furs was the most important reason for much of the early exploration of the interior of North America, as fur traders penetrated all of the continent's great rivers seeking new sources of pelts and profit. Most furbearing animals are harvested by a form of hunting known as trapping.

Until recently, most trapping involved leg-hold traps, a relatively crude method that results in many animals enduring cruel and lingering deaths. Fortunately, other, more humane alternatives now exist in which most trapped animals are killed quickly and do not suffer unnecessarily. In large part, the movement towards more merciful trapping methods has occurred in response to effective, high-profile lobbying by organizations that oppose trapping, and the trapping industry has responded by developing and using more humane methods of killing wild furbearers.

Various species of furbearers are trapped in North America, particularly in relatively remote, wild areas, such as the northern and montane forests of the continental United States, Alaska, and Canada. Among the most valuable furbearing species are beaver (Castor canadensis ), muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus ), mink (Mustela vison ), river otter (Enhydra lutris ), bobcat (Lynx rufus ), lynx (Lynx canadensis ), red fox (Vulpes vulpes ), wolf (Canis lupus ), and coyote (Canis latrans ). The hides of other species are also valuable, such as black bear (Ursus americanus ), white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus ), and moose (Alces alces ), but these species are not hunted primarily for their pelage.

Some species of seals are hunted for their fur, although this is largely done by shooting, clubbing, or netting, rather than by trapping. The best examples of this are the harp seal (Phoca groenlandica ) of the northwestern Atlantic Ocean and the northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus ) of the Bering Sea. Many seal pups are killed by commercial hunters in the spring when their coats are still white and soft. This harvest has been highly controversial and is the subject of intense opposition from animal rights groups.

Game Mammals

Hunting is a popular sport in North America, enjoyed by about 16 million people each year, most of them men. In 1991, hunting contributed more than $12 billion to the United States economy, about half of which was spent by big-game hunters.

Various species of terrestrial animals are hunted in large numbers. This is mostly done by stalking the animals and shooting them with rifles, although shotguns and bowand-arrow are sometimes used. Some hunting is done for subsistence purposes, that is, the meat of the animals is used to feed the family or friends of the hunters. Subsistence hunting is especially important in remote areas and for aboriginal hunters. Commercial or market hunts also used to be common, but these are no longer legal in North America (except under exceptional circumstances) because they have generally proven to be unsustainable. However, illegal, semi-commercial hunting (or poaching) still takes place in many remote areas where game animals are relatively abundant and where there are local markets for wild meat.

In addition, many people hunt as a sport, that is, for the excitement and accomplishment of tracking and killing wild animals. In such cases, using the meat of the hunted animals may be only a secondary consideration, and in fact the hunter may only seek to retain the head, antlers, or horns of the prey as a trophy (although the meat may be kept by the hunter's guide). Big-game hunting is an economically important activity in North America, with large amounts of money being spent on the equipment, guides, and transportation necessary to undertake this sport.

The most commonly hunted big-game mammal in North America is the white-tailed deer. Other frequently hunted ungulates include the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus ), moose, elk or wapiti (Cervus canadensis ), caribou (Rangifer tarandus ), and pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana ). Black bear and grizzly bear (Ursus arctos ) are also hunted, as are bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis ) and mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus ). Commonly hunted small-game species include various species of rabbits and hares, such as the cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus ), snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus ), and jackrabbit (Lepus californicus ), as well as the grey or black squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis ) and woodchuck (Marmota monax ). Wild boar (Sus scrofa ) are also hunted in some regionsthese are feral animals descended from escaped domestic pigs.

Game birds

Various larger species of birds are hunted in North America for their meat and for sport. So-called upland game birds are hunted in terrestrial habitats and include ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus ), willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus ), bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus ), wild turkey (Meleagris gallopava ), mourning dove (Zanaidura macroura ), and woodcock (Philohela minor ). Several introduced species of upland gamebirds are also commonly hunted, particularly ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus ) and Hungarian or grey partridge (Perdix perdix ).

Much larger numbers of waterfowl are hunted in North America, including millions of ducks and geese. The most commonly harvested species of waterfowl are mallard (Anas platyrhynchos ), wood duck (Aix sponsa ), Canada goose (Branta canadensis ), and snow and blue goose (Chen hyperborea ), but another 35 or so species in the duck family are also hunted. Other hunted waterfowl include coots (Fulica americana ) and moorhens (Gallinula chloropus ).

[Bill Freedman Ph.D. ]



Halls, L. K., ed. White-tailed Deer: Ecology and Management. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1984.

Novak, M., et al. Wild Furbearer Management and Conservation in North America. North Bay: Ontario Trappers Association, 1987.

Phillips, P. C. The Fur Trade (2 vols.). Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1961.

Robinson, W. L., and E. G. Bolen. Wildlife Ecology and Management. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1996.


Freedman, B. Environmental Ecology. 2nd ed. San Diego: Academic Press, 1995.

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Hunting and Trapping

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