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January 08, 2009

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Chad Love: Survival of the Weakest?

My primary deer hunting spot is an extremely popular and heavily-utilized public hunting area. Beginning in October bowhunters swarm this place, followed by legions of blackpowder hunters, who are in turn followed by division-strength hordes of orange-swaddled, cell phone-talking, cannon-toting sniper wannabes whose primary woodcraft skills involve walking around loudly and aimlessly, leaving truly prodigious amounts of trash strewn across the landscape and then gathering around their RV to bitch about not being allowed to drive ATVs on the area.

Ultra-deadly super predators they're not.

But according to a recent Newsweek article featured on Stephen Bodio's excellent Querencia blog, the modern hunter is so efficient and so effective that he is single-handedly responsible for no less than the wholesale reversal of the evolutionary process.

From the story:

It’s Survival of the Weak and Scrawny :Researchers see 'evolution in reverse' as hunters kill off prized animals with the biggest antlers and pelts.

"Researchers describe what's happening as none other than the selection process that Darwin made famous: the fittest of a species survive to reproduce and pass along their traits to succeeding generations, while the traits of the unfit gradually disappear. Selective hunting—picking out individuals with the best horns or antlers, or the largest piece of hide—works in reverse: the evolutionary loser is not the small and defenseless, but the biggest and best-equipped to win mates or fend off attackers."

The gist of the article is that by selectively harvesting the largest and most impressive specimens hunters are, in essence, altering the natural evolutionary process by allowing smaller, weaker inferior animals to sneak in to breed and propagate their traits. It sounds plausible in theory, especially to a non-hunting public that assumes hunting involves walking into the woods, choosing the animal you want and then shooting it as it placidly chews its cud and gazes at you with its big brown deer eyes. In reality, it's a ludicrous assertion. For example, take a look at the age-class breakdown for any recent state deer season harvest and compare that data to the same harvest data from say, 30 years ago. If the article's basic thesis were true, by now we should be shooting whitetails with the body size of a dik dik, the rack of a pygmy goat and the brain of a TSA airport screener, right?

But here's a serendipitous juxtaposition between agenda and reality.

From the story:

"Elk still range across parts of North America, but every hunting season brings a greater challenge to find the sought-after bull with a towering spread of antlers."  

Field Notes:

"Perhaps the largest elk ever produced in the wild—a Utah bull taken in 2008 by a hunter on public land—has been confirmed as a new World's Record. The official declaration was made today by the Boone and Crockett Club."

And remember my public hunting area, which according to the article's reasoning should by now be thoroughly de-populated of dominant bucks? One evening recently I sat on the side of a hill on that area and watched through binos as one after another buck slowly walked into a small winter wheat field and began feeding. These bucks had been subjected to constant, unending hunting pressure for over three months and survived. I'm fervently hopeful that they all got busy during the rut and passed on their inferior genes to the next generation because I can get into that kind of evolutionary monkey-wrenching...



From what I gather, many of the commando joe hunters can't sit still for more than 15 minutes and spends too much time playing with his cell phone/blackberry/iphone waiting for downloads from his game camera to tell him where the animals are.

Then he bumbles off wearing the latest camo duds, hops onto his atv/bad boy buggy and motors his fat a$$ over to where the animal of choice once was. Upon arrival he sits there another 15 minutes before getting bored and goes in for lunch.

I'd say the fittest of the species are laughing their a$$es off @ many of today's "hunters".

Mike Diehl

The error in this is the assumption that the weaker, smaller animals are "less fit." From a purely natural selection point of view, one would not that the selection landscape has changed, and that smaller animals are now MORE fit under a fitness regime that includes effective predators that target large, big-antlered animals. The predictable result is selection for animals that are some combination of (1) more sneaky, (2) less visible, or (3) bearing smaller antlers.

I've long-suspected that selection for small males is occurring in southern Arizona. There's a lot of baloney about how small the "Coues" white-tailed deer is. That is true of the males. The females I have seen are often within the range expected for other parts of the country -- bearing in mind that around here they're not corn fed on amber waves of grain.

My explanation is that AZGFD issues too many permits, such that males very rarely live past 2-3 years of age. In the absence of robust, mature males, even a shy, diminutive, weak male (if he is cuatious and stealthy) has excellent access to females, and it is his genes that are passed along. Perhaps the ultimate result will be antlerless male deer. You can only shoot "antlered deer" in AZ.

Make no mistake there are PLENTY of does out here. I can't go rabbit hunting anywhere without pushing around at least one doe.


you dont have to worry about that in mitchell county nc. around here anything with horns, no matter how small gets shot, that why its so hard to do managment on 200 acres srounded by roads. you have every redneck within 15 miles spotlighting and shooting anything that moves.

Chad Love

Mike, I just don't think that it's possible for hunting to have any impact on selection one way or the other and here are my admittedly non-scientific and purely anecdotal reasons.

One, although it seems counter-intuitive I actually believe that if anything hunting pressure tends to skew selection toward potentially larger bucks, not away from it, and the key word there is potential.
The vast majority of bucks harvested during most states' firearms seasons are year-and-a-half old bucks. Simply put, lots of young, stupid deer tend to get shot first. And despite the reams of sometimes spurious stories written on how big bucks turn so stupid during the rut, my own experience on public land has taught me that rut or no, a big mature whitetail will respond to hunting pressure no matter how badly he wants to get some, and that hunting pressure drives a lot of rut activity nocturnal.
A big whitetail with a few seasons under his belt knows those smelly, loud boomstick things aren't around at night, so he's free to whip smaller bucks and breed with impunity.
And that segues into my next point, which is the seeming absence of large dominant bucks doesn't necessarily mean an absence of large dominant buck genes. Every big buck was once a small, shy basket-racked buck. Just because those small bucks are small right now doesn't mean they don't possess the genes to grow big.

I will concede that hunting pressure can perhaps affect that potential by keeping a large numbers of potentially large bucks small by shooting them before they have a chance to get large, but then that just gives the few bucks that do manage to live an even better chance of breeding, which then sort of perpetuates the whole cycle over again.

So whatever it is that might be affecting the physical characterisitics of a given population I don't think it's being driven by genetics nearly as much as it's being driven by management practices.

And that's why I think the story is utterly bogus, and why I think the deer harvest age-class structures in states that actively promote higher doe harvest and quality management would bear that out. If you shoot more does and fewer bucks those bucks that survive will grow larger.
So if there was a genetic predisposition toward smaller deer wouldn't it manifest itself despite such management practices?

I guess it all boils down to I believe those small, shy, weaker animals the article references are more likely to be shot than large, dominant animals, not less likely because I simply don't have that much faith in my species' ability to consistently outwit an educated game animal.

How's that for a defeatist attitude?


That article shows why people who have no idea about a subject should know better than to try to write about it. Stupid is as stupid does...

Mike Diehl

Chad we mostly agree. I think the results that I expect for Arizona are primarily a consequence of game management strategies. But I can also see how natural selection would work to select for smaller, wiley bucks.

"So if there was a genetic predisposition toward smaller deer wouldn't it manifest itself despite such management practices?"

Not entirely. The game management practices impose a kind of skewed fitness regime. After all, it's the hunting rules that, if obeyed limit what we can shoot. We can see sexual dimporphism in many species, and this is often manifested as bigger males and smaller females. This observation indicates that given enough time, dimporhism can be sex-linked. But I think that your point that the 1.5-3 year olds tend to get shot is also very important. The wiley bucks, big or small, figure things out and avoid getting shot.

Maybe then, the characteristic that we're selecting for is "smarter deer." If they ever get themselves organized, things could get interesting.


Another point often overlooked is how well deer manage to coexist with humans. Deer are very adaptable and it is usually the smartest that make it from season to season without getting shot especially areas adjacent to suburbia.
A good example is my buddy's farm in NC where I hunt. It is only 96 acres, but mid-summer one can sit on his porch and watch the deer feed at the back of the field (about 350 yards). All the bucks are in velvet and every one looks to be a wall hanger. During our deer season which runs from mid Sept. to Jan. 1st if you bow, muzzle load, and firearm hunt, they are chased with dogs (but not from my friend's farm) and baited, but I see none of those spectacular bucks taken during the deer season.
The only time any of us has taken a better than average deer is during the rut. Personally I prefer to shoot myself a doe. I think they taste better and I am not into trophys. It just goes to show anecdotely that despite our new fangled equipment and hunting pressure the deer are in no danger of losing prime breeders.


Smarter deer or just more paranoid?

I think some deer are just a bit more skittish by nature and basically afraid of their own shadows. These deer tend to be more nocturnal and thus survive longer that those who don't.

FWIW, I don't think it's the boom stick that keeps deer freaked out as much as the intrustion of hunters into the woods in the dark. It doesn't take a spooky, paranoid animal long to figure out somethings up.



I've heard rumor of states that consider removing their antler restrictions periodically to help restore the balance of poor to good genetics in regards to antler production. Based on what i've seen in PA, either I've become a fantastically stealthier creature in the past 6 years or the management practices have a huge impact in antlers. But what I have also noticed is more very large bodied, even sway-back bucks with large twiggy forks. I suspect they are living to their seemingly advanced age due to the antler restrictions and will be more successful from a procreation standpoint than thier 8 point peers who are getting knocked down before they are 3. Don't get me wrong, the management system has added a lot of excitement, I just see how this story could have merit.


I covered this over on my blog, (The Hog Blog) when the article came out, and I'm actually glad to see it getting a fair slamming around the blogosphere.

The researchers themselves, at the end of Ms Huang's article, cleary say that the evidence to support this "theory" is far from conclusive.

What kills me is that the whole thing points at hunting, but uses examples that are primarily drawn from isolated populations of animals that are generally (exception of Quebec bighorns) poached. Huang also excludes any mention of other likely causes for diminution of some species, that may include changes in climate and/or habitat.

The general theory of Darwinian Selection is interesting and plausible, and I can't argue with the fact that we should pay attention. But the article as published by Newsweek is misleading at best, and intentionally propagandistic at worst.

The argument itself, that hunters are hurting the species, is ancient in the anti vs pro hunting debate, and it's been roundly rejected as having any grounds in fact... anecdotal or scientific. Huang's article strikes me as little more than an attempt to revive the argument in order to sway a few more non-hunters against the sport.


I too regard the comments trophy hunting is degrading the big game population with grave suspicion. It seems the comments come from two areas; [1] from animal rights activists, and [2] from lazy big game hunters. The animals are there, but the “best and brightest” aren’t going to be easily seen or hunted.

I’ve noticed today’s majority of big game hunters…no matter the choice of hunting implement… want easy access, meaning: ATV, 4x4 trails/roads, and convenience to set up manufactured deer stands or access to transport heavy duty building materials for said stands.

BTW stand hunting is not the best type of hunting for trophy North American animals IMHO.

I dare write 90% of Upstate NY big game hunters are hunting in glorified, landscaped suburbs or parklands bogusly being defined as big game habitat. These aren’t lands inhabited by the “best and brightest” big game.


my question is this. Are the genes from a year and a half year old deer different when he turns 4 or five year olds? do genes change with age? Does a deer that breeds at 1 1/2 produce an interfior deer than if it would breed at 4 1/2? I don't think so, that is why QDM works, cuz those deer are just waiting to grow large, no matter how many years of yearling harvest takes place.



I cannot be held responsible. Considering how few vacations days I, like most Americans get, and considering that when drawn for a tag my season is about a week, I have no choice but to shoot whatever is legal regardless of it's a monster of a little fork horn.

Garden Patio

Thats an interesting post, i wonder what would happen if only the "weak and scrawny" humans survived. Food for thought. Keep up the good work with your blog, it's excellent!


Garden Patio,
There is a long held philosophy that civilization will cause the decline of the species in the long run becuase we now protect genes that would otherwise have been weeded out. It's a harsh view, but the prevelance of food allerghies are a pretty strong arguement.


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