As a hunter, I am simultaneously a conservationist. My understanding of this role includes everything one associates with the word: naturalist, animal lover, environmentalist, manager, activist.
There are many reasons that I hunt. Here, I want to articulate how I conceptualize the relationship between my bow and arrow and my role in conservation. In other words, how can hunting be enacted as land ethic? Before I get into it though, a point of order to set the tone of the conversation.
I hear many conversations around hunting begin and progress the same way, generally depending on whether the conversation involves hunters or some combination of hunters and non-hunters (I differentiate non-hunter from anti-hunter). Depending on the scenario and people involved, I have repeatedly seen one of two problems develop. When the conversation is between two hunters, it often involves both of them reinforcing why their motivations to hunt are ethically and ecologically sound, reasons they’ve both given and heard hundreds of times and that, while factually true and ethically defensible, are nothing new by this point and long ago ceased challenging them intellectually. Both people eventually leave the conversation with their preconceived beliefs reinforced and secured. The problem here is that we sometimes resist the opportunity to truly challenge ourselves and explore new ideas, simply because we don’t need to.
Conversations involving hunters and non-hunters too often take the following course: the hunter presents a series of reasons why hunting is ethically and ecologically superior to purchasing meat from the store and why he/she is doing more for conservation than the non-hunter. For their part, I often hear non-hunters rely on cultural or media stereotypes, such as claims around animal rights or welfare. I think reliance on preconceived stereotypes can sometimes be a strategy to mask their own uncertain feelings about hunting and avoidance in having to honestly engage with these feelings. The problem with this scenario is that one person is discussing apples while the other is discussing oranges, and neither is really looking for the opportunity to try a new fruit, but rather just to prove that their choice is better.
The issue that I see in these exchanges – and one that I think derails many conversations that involve issues as complex as hunting – is people talking at one another, rather than listening to one another. There’s a great conversation to be had about the merits and joys of hunting, if only we could discuss these on a personal level and cater the conversation to the person with whom we are speaking. Don’t confuse adjusting our approach with pandering; it’s not the same thing. In addition, as hunters, we have great insight to offer about the very legitimate unease people feel about killing animals. Throwing elaborate scientific facts at someone who has an ethical block to the idea of killing animals will not help them understand; conversely, trying to convince someone of our moral superiority in gathering our own food when they are concerned about the effect of hunting on wildlife populations won’t move our case forward.
I believe that hunting is an important tool in the conservation of nature and maintenance of healthy wildlife populations. In fact, perhaps few people realize that when modern wildlife management began in North American, hunting was the central focus of this work and the primary tool used by managers. This, at the same time, is the basis for my ethical position on hunting. I believe it is ethical because of the positive benefits it contributes to conservation. In my case, my ethics are developed based on the science of hunting. I understand that this isn’t the case for everyone, but if we can agree on some basic facts, I believe that we can at least respect the direction we each take in developing our own personal ethics. At the end of the day, conservation is about making decisions, and even if we feel uneasy about the particular methods, understanding the facts will help us determine an effective course of action to address shared priorities.
A point that often comes up is that hunters contribute piles of money each year to wildlife management and habitat conservation efforts. This is true. In fact, the majority of money that is used for wildlife management efforts is generated through the sale of hunting licenses and tags (the pieces of paper that allow a hunter to kill an individual animal, such as a deer or a bear). Many of the conservation organizations out there are funded by a membership composed largely of hunters and anglers, meaning that, for example, most of the wetland conservation activities in Canada are funded by hunters. Wetlands, for their part, are absolutely integral to water filtration and are critical habitat for an abundance of wildlife. So the financial contribution of hunters is true, and it’s a valid case. The problem is that this point can be extended beyond its reach, with some hunters then presuming to claim without exception that hunters do more than non-hunters for conservation and that the work hunters do is inherently more valuable. Period, end of discussion.
If someone tells me they don’t hunt, but that they are dedicated to conservation, I ask them what they do. When they tell me that they volunteer for a local organization in their community, or donate to an environmental NGO, or do everything they can to conserve water in their own home, or compost, or anything else, I say great. I love it. Good for you, and thank you. It does no good for me to value what I do more than what someone else does. When they ask what I do? I tell them I hunt. One of these activities isn’t more important than the other. Sure, we can put a monetary value on our contributions, but why? For most people who are acting because of a sense of moral or emotional motivation, that won’t convince them that what I do is more valuable. (Having said this, the economic argument is actually a legitimate and established strategy to convince people of the value of conservation. For example, ecologists have attempted to put a monetary value on certain ecosystem services, such as wetlands, to convince people of the importance in their protection, but I’m not talking about that.)
Here’s how I think about it. When I pick up my bow and step outside to go on a hunt, I’m simultaneously thinking about the entire species of the animal I’m hunting, the local population of that species, the family group on the property I’m hunting, and the individual animal that I hope to kill. I understand how the removal of one deer might affect population and reproductive dynamics, and the habitat and the other animals in the area. As a result, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that my actions are having positive benefits for the overall health of the species I’m hunting and the other species that interact with it.
As an example, let’s consider the most popular big game animal hunted in North America, the whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Whitetail deer populations exploded in North America as a result of the reorganization and modification of land for modern agriculture, which creates perfect habitat for deer. Many people would say this is great; it is great, but those deer also have to continue to eat and find suitable habitat.
For the purposes of space, let’s focus on two points: every year, a certain number of deer are born, and given the finite space and food available in any area of habitat, a certain number of deer will die. They will die in great numbers from vehicle collisions, and they will die throughout the winter as a result of starvation and predation by other animals. Whenever a population of wildlife outgrows the ability of its habitat to support it (a term referred to by ecologists as “carrying capacity”), some individuals of that population will die, but not before many other members of the population suffer some form of malnutrition and stress due to competition for resources.
So the overall point here is that in order for all deer to be healthy, the population must remain at or below a certain number of individuals, a number that is determined by habitat characteristics. All things being equal, the rate at which the population reaches this upper limit is a function of the sex ratio (number of males and females) and age structure (the number of individuals at breeding age) of the population. That’s just how biology works. Each spring-summer, a doe (female deer) can give birth to 1-2 fawns, depending on her own health. If environmental or nutritional conditions are difficult (poor food sources or quality, a winter with heavy snowfall, etc.), reproductive capacity suffers. If there are too many females in the population, the population may increase too quickly.
So you can see that nothing happens in isolation: we need to maintain healthy deer to produce healthy deer. Hunting season for whitetail deer is in the fall during their annual breeding season, and the number of individuals of each sex that hunters are allowed to kill is strictly regulated to maintain healthy deer and healthy deer populations. The goal is to continue to ensure that the resources available in a given habitat can support the number of deer in that area throughout the winter, thus ensuring that does can give birth to healthy fawns in the spring, and so on and so forth.
Therefore, by removing 1-2 deer of a specific sex from an area of habitat through managed hunting, hunters are part of a larger effort and directly contributing to maintaining healthy deer populations and healthy habitats. I help to ensure that the remaining deer that are not killed by hunters can access enough food and habitat throughout the winter; I’m reducing the likelihood that either the deer I killed or others in the area will be hit by a car because they’re forced to search farther for resources; and I’m helping to ensure that individual deer will not be forced into such strong competition for resources with one another that they will die from malnutrition or exhaustion.
So whatever our thoughts on the act of killing, I recognize that I need to accept that removing certain individual animals from a population is necessary. Our own feelings and ethics around this are certainly individual. For me, knowing that I am thoughtfully engaged in carefully planned and effective conservation activities gives me a strong belief that what I am doing is morally right (for me). I like the knowledge that I am contributing to maintaining healthy wildlife populations. Does this diminish the emotions that I face in killing animals? No. Those are real. Does it mean I haphazardly choose the equipment (gun or bow) that I use to hunt? No. I put a great deal of thought into how those decisions change the nature of the hunt. Is hunting easy? No. It takes a great deal of preparation, practice, and dedication to be successful, an outcome that is in great measure determined by the guarantee that the animal dies quickly and with as little stress as possible.
For now, I’m motivated by the knowledge that there are a diversity of ways to engage in conservation, that many people out there are doing their own thing, that the combination of all of our actions is what will make a difference, and that supporting everyone’s conservation choices and capitalizing on opportunities for agreement will make this important task successful.
For me, I’ll keep picking up my bow and hunting.