Article published Friday, October 19, 2007, at National Review Online.

Get Your Hunt On: It’s good for the animals.

By John R. Lott, Jr.

Do vegetarians benefit from hunting? Well, let’s just say that all those vegetarians who have adopted their non-meat eating lifestyles because they abhor harming animals might be in for a real shock. Farms actually depend crucially on the ability to kill animals that eat their crops. So vegetarians might consider whether the fine print under their organic labels actually contains the words “no animals were harmed in the making of this food.”

With hunting season starting in various parts of the country, it may be time to acknowledge what vegetarians, as well as hunted animals, owe to hunters.

Deer, rabbits, and various rodents cause extensive crop damage. Not killing those animals would raise the total expenditures on vegetables for the average American by some $500 more per year. Vegetarians, who consume even more vegetables, would presumably have to pay even more. Are vegetarians and members of PETA willing to pay that higher price to prevent such animal “cruelty”?

This is just one of the interesting facts cited in Frank Miniter’s new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Hunting. A book as sure as any that lives up to its title. But what should really concern everyone is that the number of hunters in the United States has fallen from 14 to 12.5 million between 1996 and 2006.

At a time when cities and counties are paying professional hunters $450 per deer to weed out excessive populations, the high fees we charge hunters discourages those who would be willing to do the task for free. It is not merely a question of these amateurs running around shooting in residential neighborhoods. Heavier deer populations in rural areas force deer into more urban areas.

As deer populations continue to expand, the animals are a threat not only to man, but to themselves as well. However beautiful deer might be, as more and more deer move into heavily residential areas, their interactions with people produce all sorts of potential problems. About 275,000 automobile accidents involving deer are reported each year, killing between 130 and 200 Americans and sending around another 26,000 to emergency rooms. Some insurance industry estimates put the number of accidents at 1.5 million, but many of those that involve deer are too small to report.

In addition to accidents caused by deer, another important threat is that of disease. An increase in deer population, coupled with the spilling over of populations into more human occupied areas, likely leads to the spread of, and increased human susceptibility to Lyme disease and other diseases associated with deer populations.

Deer themselves also directly benefit from their population being controlled by people. If left unchecked, deer populations will expand to consume the available food supply. The consequent “boom and bust population cycles” are well known to scientists. Without other predators to keep deer populations low (and most residential areas would be reticent to introduce significant numbers of wolves or cougars), once the deer have stripped areas of available food, populations plummet from starvation.

The deer that plague farms are pretty smart and difficult to control. Just as gun-free zones serve as a magnet for human criminals, hunting-free zones have a similar effect for these produce thieves. When states and local governments adopt hunting free zones near residential areas, guess where the animals go: They hide in these safe zones during the day when they might get shot and come out at night to eat the produce at nearby farms.

Unfortunately, while some abhor hunting, other methods of controlling deer — ranging from fences, to predator scent boxes (which involves capturing predators such as wolves), to contraceptives — have proven to be expensive and relatively unsuccessful in controlling deer.

The benefits of hunting extend well beyond deer and agriculture. Florida and Louisiana have about the same number of alligators, but Florida faces a problem Louisiana doesn’t: alligator attacks on humans. Alligators grow over their lives and can live to be over a100 years old. As they age their means of sustenance changes. A four foot alligator will eat fish and frogs. A twelve foot one will eat deer, dogs, and even people. Hunting keeps the number of these largest alligators in check.

Cougar hunting produces similar benefits. When young male cougars mature they are forced out of the dominant male cougar’s territory or they risk being killed. In California, where hunting has been banned since an initiative 1990, this is increasingly forcing them into human populated areas.

Preventing hunting also has another downside. It causes these dangerous wild animals to lose their fear of humans. In turn, they adapt to their surroundings, treating humans as just another vulnerable food source, and increasing the likelihood that they will attack.

Knee-jerk environmentalists and animal rights groups may often be the worst enemy of the animals that they seek to protect. Possibly it is just misplaced altruism that confuses how human and animal populations grow. But if you really want to be altruistic toward animals, make sure that there continue to be enough hunters to manage wild animal populations. Oh, and keep eating!

*John Lott is the author of the book, Freedomnomics and is a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Maryland.

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