An article I published in the July/August 2014 issue of Natural History magazine (Life on the Edge), prompted a comment from a reader. A Mr. Palmer wrote:
The article “Life on the Edge” by Bruce L. Smith in your July-August issue (adapted from his book on mountain goats) is excellent, except that it is marred by his abuse of the word “harvest” as a euphemism for thrill-killing of animals. “Harvest” is properly used to describe gathering a crop that has been planted for that purpose, or the whole scope of food gathering (animal and plant) in the hunter-gatherer tradition. Killing animals for fun is not “harvesting.”
I was sent Mr. Palmer’s letter by the magazine’s editors, and because his viewpoint is shared by others, I offered the following response, which I’m sharing here:
I thank Mr. Palmer for his comment about my use of the term “harvest” in the article about the mountain goat. As he correctly points out, our species has a very long history of harvesting plants and animals from the land for our uses, and the term harvest has a long history in the wildlife management/conservation profession. Hunted species of herbivores produce an annual, harvestable surplus; that is, populations reproduce at a rate that if unchecked by mortality would exceed available habitat and resources. Predation, disease, accidents, etc. dampen such growth, and regulated hunting by humans to harvest this surplus has a long tradition in the North American model of wildlife conservation. My intent was not to sugar-coat hunting by humans in calling it harvesting.
However, harvest of any species of the public’s wildlife (or population thereof) must be justified—justified by rigorously-collected data that demonstrate that hunting is consistent with a species’ conservation. Accordingly many wildlife species are not subject to hunting in North America, most bird species for example. At the extreme among large mammals, white-tailed deer are highly fecund and produce a large surplus each year. Their harvest (even culling in some state and national park units and municipalities) has been justified to reduce damage to natural habitats (and consequent impacts on other animal species) and suburban landscape plantings, limit roadway hazards, and forestall disease outbreaks in the deer. Of course human reduction of most large predator species has removed a significant constraint on increasing deer populations.
Mountain goats have been hunted for food and sport, including as wildlife trophies. Where this recreational pursuit is justified, the low reproductive rates and high juvenile mortality of native populations require conservative hunting prescriptions. In Life on the Rocks: A Portrait of the American Mountain Goat, I describe the reasons for historical overharvest of many goat populations, how wildlife managers are taking corrective actions, and the sensitivity of this species not only to hunting but to other human impacts on the animal and its environment. As a unique and integral thread in the fabric of our public, wildland landscapes, mountain goats afford many values compelling our attention to their conservation.