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The history of hunting and decline of large mammals

Deer season is coming soon. The big game that is hunted, and why they are hunted, has changed over the course of human history. I was thinking about that recently when I read an article in the scientific journal the The Prairie Naturalist that analyzed animal remains in archeological sites in the Northern Great Plains to estimate the abundance and diversity of large herbivores that were hunted.

Various hypotheses have been developed to explain the decline in large mammals since the last ice age. Some studies point to overhunting as a factor. Other studies point to climate change, changes in vegetation, or other factors.

Pleistocene (10,000 - 20,000 years before present)

For most of human history, the primary reason for hunting was to obtain food, and the species hunted was a function of availability and animal size. During the late Pleistocene, or ice age, the archeological evidence indicates that more than two dozen species of large herbivores were hunted, with mammoths accounting for a largest portion.

Other species hunted included two species of bison, camels, pronghorn, two species of deer, elk, and close relatives of today’s horses and donkeys.

Holocene (500 - 10,000 years before present)

During the Holocene, the diversity of remains in the archeological sites declined from 26 species to 10 species, and hunting shifted from largely mammoth to overwhelmingly bison, a large animal that traveled in large herds.

Other species hunted included pronghorn antelope, elk, moose, whitetail, and mule deer. The authors in the scientific article noted that in addition to the decrease in the number of species hunted, the size of the species hunted decreased as well. They also noted that these trends seem to be continuing to the present day.

500 years ago - now

From 500 years before present to now, hunting was largely related to commerce. Prince Maximilian of Weid at Fort Union (near present-day Williston) reported that the American Fur Company exported between 20,000 to 30,000 deer hides in 1833. Then European settlement in the 1870s and 1880s resulted in the near extirpation of all the large herbivores in the Northern Great Plains.

These days, of course, hunting is regulated, and hunter preference is for large antlers and horns. With several other factors such as climate change, chronic wasting, and habitat loss, one cannot help but wonder what the future holds for our big game animals.

Further information

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of "Natural North Dakota"and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005, Chuck has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for the Lake Metigoshe Mirror, and his “The Naturalist” columns appear in several other weekly North Dakota newspapers.
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