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Carrying Capacity

There is a limit to how many animals can live in a particular area.  That limit is called the habitat’s carrying capacity.  The quantity and quality of food, water, cover, and space determine the carrying capacity of an area.  If one basic requirement is in short supply, it becomes a limiting factor, and the carrying capacity is lowered.  A manager can increase the habitat’s carrying capacity by adding or increasing the missing ingredient.

Carrying capacity varies from year to year and from season to season.  It is usually greatest from late spring through fall, because this is when most young are born and grow.  With the coming of winter or a summer drought, food and cover gradually diminish, as does the habitat’s carrying capacity.

In a stable population, more animals are produced each year than will survive to the next.  Surplus animals are generally lost to starvation, disease, and/or predation.  Young wildlife and animals in poor health experience the highest death rates.  Harvesting game or fish for human consumption is one way to use the surplus. 

The obvious way to increase the number of animals in a population is to increase the number born and reduce the number that die.  However, if a habitat cannot support any more animals, those efforts will fail.  A long-term increase in population can be accomplished only by increasing the habitat’s carrying capacity.  The carrying capacity is increased and predictably more wildlife will survive by improving the food, water, cover, and/or space that a wildlife species needs.

Figure: In theory, the ideal deer population size is slightly below carrying capacity at point “X” where reproduction and nutritional requirements are in balance.

Carrying capacity graph

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