The man next to me at the range was teaching his wife, young son, and teenage daughter to shoot pictures of squirrels with an auto-loading, AR-styled, .22 caliber rimfire rifle. He seemed like a bearded Al Bundy from Married with Children, and had the same defeated look about him. During a break in the fire, I asked him with all sincerity if he ate a lot of squirrels. He almost seemed pleased with the question, and explained to me that you have to feed the family any way you can when the End Times come.
At that point, his daughter was embarrassed enough to case the rifle and hide out in the family van just to avoid the coming discussion of apocalypse. This was not an isolated incident. If I go to the range two or three times, I’m guaranteed to find someone who is banking on the local wildlife to bail him or her out of the amorphous SHTF scenario.
The idea of returning to a life independent of domesticated plants and animals is an appealing one, and nothing puts you off the grid like paring things down to just you and nature.
The reality of making this kind of a transition, however, runs us into a troubling Malthusian catastrophe. If you read very much about people who survive on wild foods alone, true hunter-gatherers, you will find that the strategy can support population densities of roughly one or two people per square mile of territory. Given that the entire land area of the earth is somewhat less than 60 million square miles, the human population currently exceeds the carrying capacity of the planet by about 6.5 billion people, assuming that we all have to live on deer, squirrels, perch, and dandelion greens. If we suppose a disaster that wipes out 95% of the human population without damaging any of our wildlife, and the surviving people are evenly distributed across the land area of the planet, then we should be fine.
It’s true, of course, that the end of the world as we know it need not necessarily be so dramatic. A more survivor-friendly apocalypse might take the grid down, but leave our preparations intact. In such a case, hunting might well provide a valuable supplement to stored and cultivated foods. On the other hand, it certainly would not be part of a long term solution. A quick look through the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife web site shows that Maine’s most palatable game animals were decimated during the poorly regulated 19th century. Wild turkeys were the first to go, having been extirpated early in the 1800’s. A deer season was established within ten years of the 1820 founding of the state, and rules governing the taking of deer became progressively more restrictive until the season had to be closed entirely in the state’s most populous counties around the turn of the century. There were only about 2,000 moose left in Maine at the time, and there were approximately 0.7 million people in the state according to the 1900 census.
The situation has dramatically improved over the last 100 years. Careful wildlife management by the state government has allowed deer populations to rebound to an impressive 250,000, even as the number of people soared to more than 1.3 million. There are now about 30,000 moose, about 2,500 of which may be taken by permit each year. Wild turkeys have been reintroduced, and the population is healthy enough to again allow hunting.
Given the natural history of our game species, the state of nature in Maine is an impressive success story. The protagonist in this story is the state itself, which has insulated our natural resources against an incidentally antagonistic public for longer than any living person can recall. In the absence of government, a condition much anticipated by my armed and downtrodden friend at the rifle range, I’m afraid that the squirrel stew may not hold out for long.