Influence of Hunter Adaptability on Resilience of Subsistence Hunting Systems

By Brinkman, Todd J.; Kofinas, Gary P. et al. | Journal of Ecological Anthropology, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Influence of Hunter Adaptability on Resilience of Subsistence Hunting Systems


Brinkman, Todd J., Kofinas, Gary P., Chapin, F. Stuart, III, Person, David K., Journal of Ecological Anthropology


Abstract

The capacity of hunters to shape the fundamental properties of their lifestyle at times when extrinsic factors change the availability of subsistence foods is critical to subsistence cultures. Recent changes in deer hunting on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska illustrate the social-ecological challenges to the resilience of a rural subsistence hunting system and raise the broader question of whether efficient hunting strategies necessarily enhance resilience. During the latter half of the 20th century, indigenous people of Alaska's Prince of Wales Island adapted to changing subsistence opportunities by capitalizing on increased availability of deer due to clearcut logging and the construction of roads. Consequently, deer became a more important source of protein. Four decades later, a decline in logging activity is likely to reduce deer availability due to successional changes in habitat. In the face of this social-ecological change, the resilience of the deer hunting component of subsistence traditions will depend on hunters' capacity to adapt to irreversible landscape changes by adopting different harvest strategies that may require more effort to maintain sufficient levels of subsistence harvest. For example, hunters may return to pre-road hunting methods or reduce their reliance on deer for meat and re-emphasize marine resources. These ecologically driven changes in social harvesting practices suggest that adaptability protecting the fundamental properties of a subsistence system from one disturbance may increase vulnerability to another. We show that increased efficiency of a subsistence system did not necessarily enhance resilience if system flexibility is reduced.

Introduction

In an environment where people have on-going access to wild plants and animals as a subsistence food source, cultural connections to the land often depend strongly on hunting and harvesting those foods (e.g., Wolfe and Walker 1987). However, rapidly changing social, ecological and economic factors often challenge peoples capacity to maintain a subsistence hunting lifestyle. We describe a subsistence system in which people diversified their harvest and diet from mainly marine resources to a greater dependence on Sitka black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis) in response to new and more efficient (return per unit effort) hunting opportunities. In the face of more recent ecological changes, these hunters may be forced to change their harvest strategy again. We examine current and projected landscape changes-regrowth of forests following clearcut logging- and their likely effects on the availability of deer, upon which rural communities have come to depend nutritionally and culturally. Flexibility is critical to the resilience of a subsistence lifestyle and, therefore, to the resilience of cultural traditions and identity at times when extrinsic factors cause changes in the availability of subsistence foods. Further, our case study illustrates that movement of a subsistence system to a more efficient state does not necessarily enhance resilience. We describe how adoption of a more efficient hunting method increased the system's rigidity and its vulnerability to future disturbances, particularly those imposed by external forces beyond the control of local hunters. It is our hypothesis that human adaptation to higher efficiency and potentially reduced resilience often occurs rapidly, whereas the building of resilience at the cost of more effort may be slow and result in a reassessment of social-ecological values. The main components that we address are applicable to many social and ecological circumstances.

Adaptability and Resilience

The ecological anthropology of traditional hunting cultures has long focused on questions of adaptation and changing human-environment relations (Bennett 1976:243-305; Moran 1982:4). Variables such as resource diversity, social organization, and worldview have been addressed to explain the structure and function of those systems. …

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