An elk cow shot in Sweden is transported to a road. Big game hunting is facing threats from warming temperatures.

Sven Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

The Hunter Become the Hunted

Perhaps one of the hardest hit hunting groups in the world are the Inuit peoples of Alaska (known there as Eskimos), Canada, Greenland and Russia. These cold-weather populations have hunted polar bears for centuries. It's a way of life -- Inuit still hunt polar bears for food and skins. But with declining polar bear populations, Inuit are watching thousands of years of tradition melt away. They're also facing serious hunting dangers that were never part of the process, like hunters falling through ice that should have been solid until the end of the season.

It's not just the polar hunters who are running out of prey, though. People who wait all year for warmer-weather hunting seasons are increasingly disappointed. All of the popular game are affected, including fish, birds and big game.

­­Big game like moose, deer and elk, in places as diverse as the Midwest, the Rocky Mountains and Arizona, are facing numerous threats from warming temperatures. First, one of the greatest checks on the spread of parasites and insects is cold weather. With temperatures rising, more disease-carrying insects and parasites are infecting entire herds. And their food is affected, too: Big game live on plants. When plants are exposed to too much carbon dioxide, their nutritional value decreases, and they become harder to digest. Even herds that have plenty to eat could end up starving from malnutrition.

Mammals like deer and elk aren't the only ones facing starvation. Saltwater fish like spotted sea trout and certain types of snapper and grouper -- very popular with hunters -- are looking at a possible reduction in their food sources. The young of many saltwater species spend their early development in marshy areas near the coast. As sea levels rise, these low, marshy areas disappear, replaced by higher water. Because developing fish rely mainly on the zooplankton and algae that thrive in these marshes, the reduction of these fish breeding grounds could result in serious population declines. Freshwater fish are in danger, too. One huge threat is the rise in sea level, which could cause saltwater to flood into lakes and rivers. As salinity increases, survival rates for freshwater trout and salmon decrease.

Bird survival is also hard-hit by global warming, and not just because warmer weather disrupts their migration patterns. Scientists are warning of a potential 30 percent drop in the number of bird species if warming trends persist [source: Seasons' End]. One effect of global warming is prolonged drought, and with drought, protective ground vegetation dies off. This leaves upland birds like quail and grouse increasingly exposed to predators and at a loss for proper breeding areas. Ducks and geese are facing huge population decreases, as well: Atlantic coast waterfowl could lose the­ir habitat to rising sea levels, while those living in the Upper Great Lakes could see their habitat disappear to drought.

­Climate change isn't just a future concern for the hunting community. Hunters are already seeing evidence of global warming's effects on their pastime. Hunting seasons are getting shorter and less productive, and tourism sites that rely on hunters for income are feeling the pain. One Inuit community in Canada sees more than $ 1.5 million from tourists who pay big money for a restricted polar-bear-hunting license [source: Tesar]. But if global warming patterns continue to progress, we'll be looking at a completely different hunting world. People who hunt southern-migrating waterfowl in Nebraska already face the possibility that their prey won't show up at all -- that they'll stop their flight in balmy North Dakota instead [source: Seasons' End].