Hunting as Land Ethic

As a hunter, I am simultaneously a conservationist. My understanding of this role includes everything one associates with the concept of conservation: naturalist, animal lover, environmentalist, manager, activist. Here, I want to articulate how I conceptualize the relationship between my motivation to hunt and my role in conservation. In other words, how can hunting be enacted as land ethic?

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The term “land ethic” was coined by Aldo Leopold. According to Aldo Leopold, humans are in need of a “ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants”. He goes on to say that the extension of our ethics to include our relationship with the environment is an “evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity”.

Hunting is an important tool in the conservation of nature and maintenance of healthy wildlife populations. It is important to remember that when the book on modern wildlife management was written in North American, hunting was the primary tool used by land and wildlife managers. This, at the same time, is the basis for my ethical position on hunting. In my case, my ethics are developed based on the science of hunting and its contributions to our continental conservation initiatives. 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 around conservation. At the end of the day, conservation is about making decisions, and even if we feel uneasy about particular methods, understanding the facts will help us determine an effective course of action to address shared priorities.

I think there are two paths this discussion can take, that I generally distinguish by referring to our motivations to hunt and our motivations to be involved in hunting. While these two paths are of course related, there are some subtle but important differences between them. First, there are reasons I see my individual hunting as part of conservation – my motivations to hunt. Second, there are reasons I see hunting as part of conservation – my motivations to be involved in hunting. In other words, there is a difference between explaining why I hunt to be a conservationist and why I believe hunting is conservation. Unfortunately, I don’t think the nuances in the differences between these two paths is clearly articulated in media or impromptu conversations between hunters and non-hunters.

In terms of the first path, I see my own individual hunting as a part of conservation. 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 the population of which it is a part, including gender and power dynamics among individuals. But I’m also thinking about the habitat and the other animals in the area. In this way, I am enacting, for myself, the intensely personal interaction that is vital to a commitment to conservation. Conservation is about more than monetary contributions; there is an undeniably important personal connection with nature that must be fostered to create conservationists. To paraphrase Aldo Leopold, we need to learn to “think like the mountain”, and this can only come from personal involvement with nature.

In terms of the second path, 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). In addition, many conservation organizations 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 not to be minimized, and it’s a valid case. The problem is that this point can be extended beyond its reach when people presume to claim without exception that hunters do more than non-hunters for conservation and that the work hunters do is inherently more valuable.

The second path is also taken when an individual hunter actually takes part in the hunting system: purchasing license and tags for a specific region of the province or state and participating in a carefully planned and regulated system of selective harvest.

As an example, let’s consider the most popular big game animal hunted in North America, the whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus). As some historical context, whitetail deer populations exploded in North America as land use changes for modern agriculture, which creates perfect habitat for deer. The argument that “hunting is required to control wildlife populations” is in some cases quite valid, but more often overused. However, it is relevant to remember that the current magnitude of whitetail deer numbers is a recent phenomenon, in glacial terms. Many people would say this is great, but those deer also need to be able to find suitable habitat.

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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.), individual reproductive capacity can suffer. On the other hand, if there are too many breeding females in the population, the population may increase too quickly, leading to too much competition for habitat resources. 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 individuals suffer some form of malnutrition and stress due to competition for resources. In short, habitat quality is the key factor in the survival and health of wildlife populations.

Every year, a certain number of deer will die from both hunting and non-hunting related causes. They will die from vehicle collisions and they will die throughout the winter and spring as a result of starvation and predation by other animals. 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 in any given geographical area 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.

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 to maintain healthy deer populations and healthy habitats. Hunters help to ensure that the remaining deer that are not killed by hunters can access enough food and habitat throughout the winter and that individual deer will not be forced into such strong competition for resources with one another that they will die from malnutrition, exhaustion, or vehicle collisions while searching for suitable habitat. 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.

So there are two paths that can explain the relationship between hunting and conservation: one that positions hunting as an integral component in the system of wildlife conservation in North America, and another that enables us, as hunters, to develop our own land ethic through our hunting activities. These two paths become intertwined at this point for me. Knowing that I am thoughtfully engaged in carefully planned and effective conservation activities that contribute to maintaining healthy wildlife populations is a powerful motivator to be involved in hunting; at the same time, the opportunity to be close to nature and share memories with friends and family are powerful motivators to hunt.

The relationship between hunting and conservation is simultaneously emotionally and scientifically grounded. It’s important that as hunters, we don’t constantly rely on the population management argument because I think we do a disservice to the more personal aspect of this discussion. Conversely, it’s also important that we remember the bigger picture, outside of our individual motivations to hunt. What we need to do is carefully articulate both of these foundations when discussing hunting with the non-hunting public. Many conversations that involve issues as complex as hunting are derailed by people talking at one another rather than listening to one another. Don’t confuse my suggestion that we all adjust our approach to conversation with the suggestion that we somehow pander to others; it’s not the same thing. There’s a great conversation to be had about the merits, ethics, and joys of hunting, if only we could consistently personalize the conversation to the particular context.

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? I would bet that few people measure the value of their contributions to conservation in purely economic terms. For most people who are acting because of a sense of moral or emotional attachment to the value of healthy natural places, the financial argument won’t convince them that what one of us does is more valuable than the other.

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.

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