Sociality and Sustainability

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Science  30 Aug 2002:
Vol. 297, Issue 5586, pp. 1447-1449
DOI: 10.1126/science.297.5586.1447e

Exploitation by humans has led to the extinction of populations and entire species of animals. This is not just a recent phenomenon; unsustainable harvesting has been a part of human behavior for centuries, if not millennia. Accepting that total bans on the exploitation of wild populations are rare, ecologists and environmental managers have recently devoted a lot of attention to quantifying levels of harvest that are sustainable for the long term. These estimates often suffer from a lack of data on population trends, behavior, and life history of the target species, which can limit the development of credible simulations and models.

Stephens et al. have analyzed a system for which the behavioral and population data are rich, enabling them to model harvesting with greater confidence. The alpine marmot, a social mammal with fluctuating populations, is protected in some areas of Europe but widely hunted in others, often to extinction. Of several widely used models of sustainable harvesting, Stephens et al. found that “threshold harvesting,” which assumes a certain safe threshold population density that can withstand harvesting, is the most appropriate for this system. The threshold in the case of the marmot, because of its sociality, is quite high: the annual removal of only 5% of the adult population would lead to extinction. Many exploited species (such as whales, ungulates, and primates) are social, and perhaps indices of unsustainabilty should be reduced for such species. — AMS

J. Appl. Ecol.39, 629 (2002).

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