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Carrying Capacity

Bayou-Diversity (11 May 2019) Carrying capacity is a fundamental term in the science of ecology. It refers to the maximum number of individuals of any type of plant or animal that an area can support in a healthy, sustainable condition. The availability and quality of food, water, and other habitat parameters determine carrying capacity. It is a concept that is apparently difficult for many people to grasp. Ranchers are not among them. They know how many cows the rocky, forty-acre pasture on the hilltop will support in contrast to the fertile, creek-side pasture of the same size. Wildlife management professionals, on the other hand, often have a hard sale in convincing their constituents that carrying capacity determines the number of wild animals in an area. For example, the number of ducks wintering in Louisiana marshes is directly dependent on the amount of breeding habitat available in the prairie pothole region of the upper Midwest and Canada. If a USDA program incentivizes farmers to drain and plant corn in these wetlands, the carrying capacity of waterfowl plummets because the region no longer supports as many breeding ducks – the same ducks that would fly south to Louisiana in the fall. Similarly, deer hunters often want to increase the number of deer on their clubs but fail to understand the limiting factor of carrying capacity as reality. The quality of deer habitat, as expressed in available nutritious foods, drives the herd size. Pine plantations will never have the deer carrying capacity of the rich, delta hardwood forests.

It is a biological certainty that humans are also subject to the principals of carrying capacity. I am mindful of the fact that when the Louisiana Purchase was signed the world population was 1 billion, and when my grandfather was born it was barely 1.5 billion, and that the current population of the planet is 7.7 billion. Already in some areas human carrying capacity for healthy, sustainable living has been exceeded. By 2050 the world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion. Will we have enough clean water, food, and renewable energy necessary to maintain our present lifestyle? Will our habitats be overcome by our own waste and pollution? Will we become like a mallard hen trying to nest in a dry corn field or a doe seeking nutrition in a pine thicket – just hanging on? Some think that technological advances will remedy the issues. Regardless, dramatic changes are inevitable – all compelled by carrying capacity. ©KO


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