Public Land, National Parks, and Conservation Priorities

The first national park in Canada was established in 1885. To put that in perspective, the toothbrush was invented the same year. That first park, Banff National Park, in Alberta, has an area of 6,641 square kilometres. Banff was the second national park in North America, after Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872. Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park is the second largest in the world at 44,807 square kilometres (second to Northeast Greenland National Park at a whopping 972,001 square kilometres).

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Banff National Park. Credit: Gorgo, Wikipedia.

Wood Buffalo National Park was created in 1922, specifically to protect the last free range herd of wood bison (Bison bison athabascae). At a time when the bison was being driven rapidly towards extinction, Canadians took steps to protect them through the use of a national park. To this day, wood bison are threatened and that park is home to the largest wild herd in the world. That’s a hell of a legacy to create with our national parks. The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) says that national parks are supposed to be the “gold standard for conservation in our country”.

 

Liard Wood Bison, Near Coal River, British Columbia

Wood bison. Credit: Alan & Elaine Wilson, Wikipedia.

National park land is owned by the federal government on behalf of Canadian citizens. The future of publicly owned land has been a hot topic in North America lately. In the United States, transfer of ownership in public land has been a recurring discussion, and the fate of public land was certainly an important 2016 American election item for hunters and outdoors people. In Canada, we have a long history of publicly owned land, or to be more precise, land owned by the representative of the Crown (of England) and held in trust for the public. The Crown is represented by the federal and provincial governments in Canada. In terms of public land, government held, publicly owned land is referred to as Crown land. Usually when Canadians talk about Crown land, we are referring to that majority of public land in the provinces that is owned by the provincial governments.

The Canadian Encyclopedia reports that roughly 89% of Canada is Crown land:  41% is federal Crown land and 48% is provincial Crown land. The three territories make up most of the federal Crown land: the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. Among the provinces, the amount of Crown land varies from 95% of land in Newfoundland to 85% of land in Ontario to less than 2% of land in Prince Edward Island. Some of these expansive swaths of land are open to the public for general use while others are held for economic development, such as mining and forestry. For example, in Ontario, about 10% of Crown land is managed as parks and conservation reserves. The remaining 77% of Crown land is managed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and this is the land that would be open for free public use for activities such as camping and hunting. For example, Canadian residents are allowed to camp for free on Crown land in Ontario for up to 21 days.

In terms of federal Crown land that would be considered public land for the purposes of this discussion, most of this is in the form of national parks. Parks Canada, the main federal agency responsible for park planning and management, lists 46 national parks, established between 1885 and 2015. At least every two years, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change is required to hold a Minister’s Round Table to examine Parks Canada’s management of national parks, and the public consultation period just concluded. From January 9-27, Canadians had the opportunity to submit comments to Minister Catherine McKenna expressing their priorities for national parks. Here’s the letter I submitted:

Dear Minister McKenna,

When people ask me what I love about Canada and what makes me proud to be Canadian, one of the first things I think of is the legacy in this country of celebrating and protecting natural and wild spaces. Canadian history is full of achievements related to protecting natural places and the wildlife that uses those places. As a result of having large tracts of protected and well managed habitats, many of those places in the form of National Parks, Canadians and visitors to Canada have been able to experience nature since the first National Park was created in 1885. Indeed, much of my own identity is intimately tied to the enjoyment of natural places and wildlife.

Unfortunately, I’ve watched as Canada’s priorities with regards to our natural habitats and National Parks have shifted from conservation to tourism and development. Canada has continued to allow activities that have eroded the ecological integrity and well-being of our National Parks and has put their future well-being at risk. Expansions in development and an increasing focus on economic generation through tourism are not conducive to maintaining healthy and resilient habitats for wildlife. In turn, this shift in priority is an erosion of Canadian values and the legacy of so many hard working conservationists throughout Canada’s history.

In planning for the future of Canada’s National Parks, I encourage you to focus on the following priorities:

  1. Stop expanding the development footprint in our national parks, particularly in Banff and Jasper.
  2. Re-invest in science and ecological monitoring to guide park management.
  3. Focus Parks Canada’s visitor experience programs on nature-based education and stewardship.
  4. Create more new national parks and national marine conservation areas.

The North American model of wildlife management and conservation is a leading example for the rest of the world. Our model has protected critical habitat for hundreds of species, prevented the extinction of species such as the bison, and implemented groundbreaking conservation policies devoted to managing migratory wildlife, to name only a few of Canada’s distinguished accomplishments. At the root of these accomplishments is a dedication to managing habitats and wildlife based on the best available scientific and local knowledge. A focus on conservation must remain the foundation of our management strategy in Canada. We have both a legal and moral obligation to care for the well-being of the habitats and wildlife that together define an important part of our national identity.

My stake in all of this, and the foundation for why I submitted a letter, is probably most simply boiled down to two main priorities, one being somewhat political and the other being more philosophical. First, I think it’s a great thing that we have so much publicly owned land in Canada and this land has come to be a big part of what many Canadians associate with our national identity (along with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, health care, and the flag). Our federal and provincial governments have a legal mandate to manage this land responsibly and with a long-term vision for maintaining its ecological integrity. As Canadians, we have a duty to hold our governments to that responsibility and ensure they continue to prioritize the conservation of public land. Second, I value the idea of conservation and the value of nature and wild places beyond their potential for economic value. Hunting is not permitted in national parks (aside from particular areas open to Indigenous communities) so my desire to see healthy park ecosystems is not about simply protecting hunting privileges. No, it’s much more deeply ethical than that and has to do with the intrinsic and moral value in conserving wild places.

While held as an iconic symbol of Canadian geography and identity, the value of national parks was ever only partially dependent on their enjoyment by humans. National parks are first and foremost intended to protect biodiversity and this should continue to be their primary function. The world’d biodiversity has been in consistent decline for decades, due to a variety of factors including climate change and expanding human development. Protected areas – including national parks – have been a key strategy to protect biodiversity since the 1800s. In fact, the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has called for 17% of global land and 10% of seas to be protected by the year 2020. Despite protected areas covering 12.7% of global land and 1.6% of seas today, global biodiversity continues to decline.

In Canada, protection of our national parks is not strong enough. Parks Canada has reported that almost half of our national parks are in fair or poor condition. CPAWS reports that in 2016, more than one third of ecosystems in Canadian national parks were in declining health. Wood Buffalo National Park – that island of hope for wood bison since 1922 – is at risk of being placed on the UNESCO “World Heritage in Danger” list because of the impact of upstream hydro and oil sands development. Numerous other developments have been approved in national parks, despite policies and regulations intended to limit development and its associated ecological impacts. Many of these developments are intended to increase tourism and the economic potential of parks, a goal that in principle does not seem so bad except that it has been happening at the expense of funding for conservation and scientific monitoring initiatives.

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“As of 2009, Parks Canada’s vision makes no mention of nature conservation or ecological integrity despite this being the first priority by law for managing our national parks” (CPAWS, 2016).

It’s no secret that environmental protection was not a strong priority of the previous federal government in Canada under Stephen Harper. This is hardly a controversial political statement. The Conservative Party’s own policy documents do not devote a great deal of space to environmental protection and there were countless budget cuts to environmental research and conservation programs under that government. For instance, the Conservatives watered down the requirements for public review of park management and removed the requirement for environmental assessments to be conducted on projects in national parks. In 2012, as a result of budget cuts, Parks Canada cut its conservation and science staff by 31%. At the same time, Parks Canada increased staffing in its visitor experience program by 9%.

By 2015/2016, only 13% of Parks Canada’s spending was devoted to conservation. There’s a problem with these priorities.

Our public land and the ecosystems and wildlife it contains are far too valuable to be neglected or de-prioritized for economic development. There are also political considerations that need to be accounted for, such as the continued rights of Aboriginal communities to their traditional territories, much of which is now vast amounts of Crown land. Public land literally belongs to all Canadians and is meant to be held so that it benefits all Canadians. In my view, what is far more important than any right to the land are our responsibilities to it. We need to remember the legacy on this continent that began with a dedication to protecting ecosystems and the wood bison. Aldo Leopold called this dedication a “land ethic”. He said that the extension of ethics beyond our responsibilities to individuals and society, to the land, is “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity”.

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Auyuittuq National Park in Nunavut, Canada.

An Afterward: A Hunter’s Perspective

I said that my desire to see large tracts of healthy ecosystems conserved is distinct from my desire to hunt. That remains true; however, there’s a larger picture to my perspective concerning human presence in protected areas that I think is relevant to the context of national parks and certainly the issue of public land protection.

When the concept of protected areas emerged in the latter half of the 19th century, it was defined by what is referred to as the “island approach” to habitat protection. From the 1870s to the 1980s, the approach to protected areas was to segment areas of land and manage them completely distinct from social needs and uses. More recent scholarly research has also found that protected area management that relies on human exclusion is both socially and ecologically ineffective. Although we can fence off protected areas, this does not insulate them from the impacts affecting the land around them or the social-ecological needs of human communities.

A 2016 study published in the journal Environmental Conservation specifically identified the disconnection between protected areas and society as a limitation of our current model of protected area management. The authors note that there is a danger in creating a duality between humans and nature that disconnects people from important ecosystem services such as hunting and gathering. There has been a paradigm shift in protected area management over the previous 30 years that departed from the “fences and fines” model that sought to exclude humans. By the 1990s-2000s, the dominant discourse moved towards a “landscape approach” and started to recognize that ecosystems don’t work as islands. We now recognize the importance of connected habitats, ecological buffer zones around sensitive areas, and the need to consider ecosystem functions.

It may be easy to lose perspective talking about how trends in protected area planning and management have evolved since the 1870s. If we go through human history over the last 10,000 years though, since the end of the Pleistocene, the idea that humans are conceptually and physically separable from the ecosystems around us is a foreign concept. In fact, over that same glacial time period, it’s a concept that is  also foreign to the large suite of wildlife that humans have shared this continent with. Current thinking around protected areas acknowledges their role as complex social-ecological systems “characterized by a set of interactions among humans and between humans and biophysical components” of ecosystems.

Humans and wildlife have evolved on this continent through important interactions defined by reverence, survival, predator-prey relationships, spiritual beliefs, competition, and symbiosis. The idea that we can and should separate these interactions is a distinctly modern cultural construct. Of course, some of the human-wildlife interactions have been devastating, but I don’t think these negative impacts have been a result of human connections with nature in and of themselves. Rather, the habitat destructions and species extinctions that have taken place especially over the last two centuries have in many cases been the result of a lack of understanding and knowledge (e.g. of ecological processes and the finite nature of wildlife populations). In other cases, human impacts on ecosystems and species have been a result of willful harm, but I don’t believe that segregation of humans and nature is the answer. It is possible to protect without excluding.

Therefore, I’ll complicate my previous statement about my desire to protect nature being distinct from my desire to hunt. Some of my most intensely personal interactions with wildlife and wild places have been thanks to my experiences hunting. There are just some levels of experiences that are unattainable through a purely observational interaction with nature. Eventually, to deepen our own understandings of nature, we need to be active participants in ecological processes. Active involvement in the processes and interactions that define wild places is a naturally human experience, despite our modern success in making that involvement unnecessary for our survival. But unnecessary doesn’t make it less valuable. Having said that, separating my desire to hunt from the intrinsic value I place on protecting wild places is only necessary if we accept a particular representation of hunting as invasive, intrusive, and disruptive – and I reject this representation.

Our idealized image of wildlife is often captured as the photo opportunities on the sides of roads in national parks. The existence of national parks is a great legacy of conservation on this continent and throughout the world; however, as with wildlife, humans also belong to these wild landscapes. In efforts to protect the wild nature of landscapes, it doesn’t have to be the goal to remove and exclude humans. Rather, our goal should be thoughtful, long-term, and effective management rooted in conservation. We need to cherish our public lands and recognize them for how valuable they truly are, and this value has nothing to do with the economic potential they hold.

I realize that this post might appear to be full of small contradictions: we should maintain a strong public lands and national parks system; I value protected ecosystems beyond their human uses; but then human exclusion from national parks is not my ideal vision for conservation; but then I don’t think we should be focusing on tourism and economic development within protected areas; but then I do think humans should be actively involved in the landscape. However, its the nuanced nature of each of these positions that makes them compatible.

Management of our national parks needs to be re-focused on conservation rather than increased tourism development. But we must learn to appreciate the intrinsic value of these places to convince governments. To draw again from Leopold, “a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided”. Leopold goes on to say, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect”. In Leopold’s view, without this love and respect, there can be no effective land ethic: “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in”. So our way forward with public land, national parks, and protected areas is to foster – in ourselves and society – a land ethic through seeing, feeling, understanding, and then coming to love these places.

Making Space for Predators in the Cultural and Ecological Landscapes

We need wolves, bears, and large cats on the North American landscape. They belong here, and neither the landscapes we call home nor our own cultures would be the same without them. It’s not only proper management practice to protect the place and role of predators in North America, it’s both a patriotic act and a moral responsibility.

I began this post some time ago, but just didn’t quite have a clear direction for it, so I shelved it until I had a real impetus to put it together. I found that impetus somewhat serendipitously in a mixture of personal interest and the politics of managing large predators. First, I recently read environmental historian Dan Flores’s new book American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains. 9780700622276 Second, there have been a number of recent controversies about the conservation status of predators in various North American jurisdictions and the subsequent management actions proposed for those species. In Ontario in particular, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) recently implemented an immediate ban on hunting and trapping for a species of wolf in selected townships throughout the province. I’m interested in exploring the sociocultural perspectives around both the idea and physical existence of predator species, in particular between hunters and non-hunters – often the cultural line that seems to divide much of the binary thinking about predators.

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Eastern coyote, Canis latrans

Ecologically, it should be no surprise to anyone that predators play an important role in North American landscapes. Very little that exists in natural systems is ecologically inert, without any kind of evolutionary or relational role. Predator-prey interactions are both complex and necessary for species on both sides of that relationship. Remember that North American species evolved on this continent alongside one another and the interspecific (between species) interactions were critical in their evolutionary histories. Predator-prey dynamics played an important role in shaping species’ behaviours and maintaining balance at various scales within a habitat. For instance, the threat of predation can impact the behaviour of certain species in ways that can be important for maintaining vegetation health or composition. In other cases, predator and prey populations are connected so closely that they literally need one another to keep populations within the carrying capacity of their habitat.

Despite this longer-term understanding of the ecological role of predators, our social values still paint a particular portrait of predators. I’ve heard Cameron Hanes and Joe Rogan comment that bears need to be managed because they impact moose populations. While this is certainly true, the repeated use of value-laden language gives the – even subconscious – impression that bears are somehow purposefully intending to wipe out moose populations or that bears are inherently evil for the impacts of their predation. This is ridiculous, so let’s put this kind of loaded language to rest now. Bears and other predators do not “devastate” or “decimate” prey species populations. The role of predators is to seek, kill, and eat their prey, and that is what they do. Both predators and prey are active participants of their ecosystems and their evolutions. There is nothing somehow immoral about this and we need to avoid anthropomorphizing predator-prey interactions.

Now, this does not mean that predator populations shouldn’t be managed. On the contrary, I am a strong advocate of harvest-based predator management; however, I think there’s an important distinction between managing predators and the portrayal of this task as simply “predator control”, as though the greatest achievement of wildlife management is maintaining low levels of predator species – usually either in the interest of protecting livestock interests or to maintain higher levels of desired prey species like deer. Instead, we should apply the same management philosophy to predator species that we do with prey species, appreciating the biological and cultural role of hunting within human communities, and striving to maintain sustainable, healthy, and balanced populations and ecological communities. This might seem overly picky in terms of the language we use, but our choice of language reveals a great deal about our perspectives and impacts how we are perceived by others, so it’s worth some consideration.

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One of the most demonized and misunderstood large predators on the North American landscape, the mountain lion, Puma concolor. Despite urban myth, mountain lions do not eat hikers and children by the hundreds.

The question is, how do we shift our collective perceptions around predators?

There are certain camps who share cultural perspectives about predators. Sometimes these groups are divided along the hunter/non-hunter line, sometimes along an urban/rural line – and as humans, we seem incapable of resisting the finger-pointing that often comes with these cultural divides. But the reality is, we all have a responsibility in this issue, and the nature of that responsibility depends on how we come into contact with the issue of predators. To hunters, I would say that we need to put an end to the short-sighted and arrogant demonizing of predators. It’s unethical and unpatriotic. To non-hunters (and in particular, anti-hunters who seem determined to end predator hunting altogether) I would say to stop mobilizing emotion over the charismatic nature of predators and to understand that species need to be managed in integrated ways. Sometimes, this management includes sustainable hunting measures, and like it or not, this is sometimes the most effective way to manage predators well. In both cases, these species are far more than the characters of myths and fairy tales; they are important members of complex ecological communities, and the oversimplifications on both ends of the spectrum only serve to damage our own claims to righteousness and the health of ecosystems.

Let’s look at wolves (Canis spp.) as a way to contextualize this discussion a bit. By wolves, I mean the various species of canids throughout North America. To put it bluntly, our various sociocultural perceptions have shaped a shameful history with the various Canis species. North Americans have intermittently embarked on campaigns of extermination against wolves, designed variously to protect livestock development, market hunting economic opportunities, and as a result of misguided perceptions of the physical threat wolves present. We’re fooling ourselves if we think that our history of wolf management on this continent has been defined by wisdom and forethought. We have both moral and national duties on this continent to change the trajectory of this history.

There are some organizations working to encourage the valuation of ancient predator-prey relationships. Just this week, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) released information on a campaign to protect Wood Buffalo National Park, which spans the border of Alberta and the Northwest Territories, from the effects of industrial development. In their press release, CPAWS cites as one of the reasons to protect the Park that is it “the only place in the world where a natural predatory relationship between wolves and bison has continued unbroken over time”. As North Americans, we have come to recognize the power of bison in this continent’s ecological and cultural history, and it is equally important to acknowledge the other side of the bison’s history, which is its interactions with predators.

Wolves are truly a North American species. Wolves evolved exclusively on this continent before emigrating to the rest of the world. They are both a natural and historical part of the North American landscape, and as such, I would say that it’s actually unpatriotic to not give wolves the respect they deserve – it would be some kind of national ecological sin to deny wolves their rightful place here. In tracing the evolutionary history of canids, Dan Flores explains that all members of the family of animals that comprise wolves throughout the world originated from a common North American lineage that is 5 million years old. At some point in their history, ancestors of today’s gray wolf migrated to Asia and Europe, later returning to North America. Meanwhile, a separate wolf lineage remained in North America, later becoming the red wolf, Canis rufus, and the eastern wolf, Canis lycaon. Ancestors of today’s North American wolves have been part of this continent’s ecology for 20 000 years, hunting the giant animals of the ice age along with many other large predators that are now extinct.

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A size comparison between (from smallest to largest) a black bear, a grizzly bear, and a recreation of the short-faced bear, which went extinct about 11 000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age.

There are, however, important reasons to consider predator management for the purpose of mitigating their pressure on species such as white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). At the same time I posted this discussion, I also posted one that reviews recent research on coyote predation on deer; however, I found myself reluctant to post that one by itself because I was fearful it would contribute to the dichotomized nature of predator conversations, so I wanted this post to offer some more depth to the conversation. In part, this fearfulness is in the context of recent changes to wolf and coyote management in Ontario and some of the backlash I’ve seen to these decisions.

On June 15, 2016, the Ontario government reclassified Eastern wolves (Canis lycaon) as Threatened on the basis that “the estimated population of mature individuals is less than 1000”. Eastern wolves were also assessed as Threatened by COSEWIC, the national committee responsible for assessing the status of wildlife in Canada. Part of the reclassification process in Ontario included renaming the Eastern wolf the Algonquin wolf.

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The newly renamed Algonquin wolf, Canis lycaon

On September 15, 2016, the Ontario MNRF – the provincial department responsible for managing hunting based on the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act (FWCA) – announced a full hunting and trapping ban on wolves and coyotes in 40 townships throughout the province as a measure to protect Algonquin wolves.

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) issued a statement opposing the decision and in their official submission to the MNRF outlined a number of compelling reasons why a hunting/trapping ban is “scientifically indefensible”. In the wake of the MNRF’s announcement, hordes took to social media expressing their complete disdain for wolves and coyotes, voicing poorly informed opinions about the merits of even recognizing the species, and suggesting that people should just continue to kill wolves and hide the evidence. In a much more poignant response, the OFAH skillfully walked a fine line that recognized the importance of Algonquin wolf recovery and genetic protection while also explaining why a hunting/trapping ban amounts to a short-sighted and unwise management decision. The OFAH argues that the FWCA offers more effective options to achieve conservation objectives for Algonquin wolves than an all-out hunting/trapping ban.

For instance, the OFAH notes that for the last 14 years, there has been a wolf hunting ban in core areas of Algonquin wolf range surrounding Algonquin Provincial Park (APP). Speaking to the effects of this ban, the OFAH cites both the Ontario and Canadian species at risk assessment bodies (COSSARO and COSEWIC, respectively) in acknowledging that while “human-caused mortality is identified as a significant threat, a reduction in hunting and trapping mortality from 67% to 16% resulting from a ban in townships in and adjacent to Algonquin Park in 2001 was followed by a comparable increase in natural mortality rates”. This means that hunting amounted to what is known as “compensatory mortality”, or in other words, that the wolves killed by hunters each year would have died anyway and therefore that hunting was not having an additive effect on the population (incidentally, this is really the backbone of the concept of sustainable harvest). In addition, there is a concern with genetic introgression from coyotes (in other words, through interbreeding, coyotes are making Algonquin wolves more coyote), and the OFAH suggests that without managing the population of coyotes, there is concern that we will lose more Algonquin wolf genes over time.

Though it might seem counterintuitive, I tend to agree with the OFAH that changing the status of Algonquin wolves might actually do more harm than good because it restricts the available options for conservation measures. What troubles me most, however, is the nature of criticisms from the very community that should appreciate the need for ecosystems that contain healthy and balanced predator populations. As hunters, we pride ourselves on understanding ecology and being committed to conservation. This means promoting the maintenance of landscapes complete with the richness of species that have evolved here and that have been integral to the relationships within their habitats. I agree that hunters are the strongest voice for conservation, so we need to use that voice thoughtfully, intelligently, and then powerfully.

Lest I be dismissed as some predator bleeding heart, recall that our own evolution and adaptation on this continent would not be the same without the other species living here. Indeed, Dan Flores notes that, “with the exception of our primate cousins, wild canids have been intimately associated with us longer than any other large animals on the planet.” There’s a value to wild life that is measured by some metric far beyond our socially constructed desires for growth, productivity, or predictability. We need to remember that the interactions and relationships between multiple species within ecosystems is what shaped our landscapes and what has made them the places we admire and rely on for food, recreation, and an important part of our culture. As such, we owe it to ourselves and these landscapes to be thoughtful and comprehensive in our attitudes and decision-making with regards to predators. We need to give them the space they deserve in our cultural and ecological landscapes.

Where Do You Draw the Line? Technology in Hunting

There is an issue that has become increasingly relevant in recent years as technological advances in hunting equipment have begun to outpace our conversations around its use. It’s a debate I’ve heard in different settings and for various purposes, but it comes down to a question that is personal, legal, and ethical in nature: where do we draw the line in our use of technology in hunting?

In any discussion of technology in the outdoors, there are people at both ends of the spectrum. The purists insist that the best way to experience the natural world is stripped of gadgetry, while those at the other end of the spectrum point to increased safety and comfort in embracing technological advances. In hunting, however, this debate involves another aspect that makes it all the more important to engage. Using technology to increase hunting success necessarily has an ethical question: is technology increasing our chances of success to the point and on the scale that we are moving away from what we collectively understand as the principle of “fair chase”, and if large groups of hunters are increasingly successful, will this necessitate changes to conservation and management policies?

There are three main aspects to the issue of the place of technology in hunting: personal choice, the legal obligation to regulate hunting, and the ethical implications of technology. The simple element of personal choice is certainly the most arbitrary aspect of this discussion and therefore the one that I find least interesting and compelling in my own conversations on this matter; but I’ll address it briefly.

Proponents on one side or the other about the use of technology far too often lack clearly articulated reasoning. Too often, the debate is just one more basis for division and self-righteousness among hunters that doesn’t advance either the discipline of hunting or our understanding of its place in wildlife conservation. I’ve said before that I disagree with the proposition that we are all in this together and need to support other hunters no matter what. I just don’t think that’s true in any area of life; however, it’s also important that we don’t find superfluous reasons for division.

Bowhunting is a common site of this debate, with traditional archers  decrying the use of fancy cams and sights on compound bows and compound shooters claiming that crossbows shouldn’t even be allowed in archery seasons. Compound-Bow---Prime---RIZE-AP-L Then, we hear bowhunters in general criticize the long-range nature of rifle hunting, claiming that by enabling the hunter to shoot from far beyond the effective range of the animal’s senses, it unfairly decreases the animal’s chance for escape and thus violates principles of fair chase. Just recently, a spear hunter stated that it is “easy” for someone to shoot an animal with anything from a rifle to a bow, but being a spear hunter makes one a “true hunter”. For their part, rifle hunters have pointed to what is perceived as a disproportionately high number of wounded and unrecovered animals from archery equipment.

But the proverbial line in the sand is not drawn so easily between “primitive” and “advanced” technology. If so-called primitive weapons are unethical, should we all be striving to shoot animals with the most advanced rifles from the longest ranges possible? If rifles give too much of an advantage, should we all be hunting with nothing more advanced than a longbow? Following that line of argument, why not go back to the atlatl orpic_1 spear?

 

 

The same arguments are voiced from the non-hunting community. As opportunities to share photos on social media have exploded, one encounters comments like, “why don’t you put down the high-powered weapon and kill that animal with your bare hands?” To which the obvious reply is that this would be not only illegal, but in most cases, tremendously unethical (stabbing a bear to death is just not as physiologically effective as puncturing both lungs with an arrow). A recent story about a black bear killed with a spear sparked outrage among the anti-hunting community. Would critics have been happier to see that bear shot with a high caliber rifle? I suspect there would have still been criticism from many. Nevertheless, it demonstrates the uncertainty about how people feel about the degree to which technology is used in hunting.

So one finds all these little micro-debates that take place within the overarching issue, and perhaps aside from a general – often unarticulated – commitment to fair chase, many of the perspectives expressed appear arbitrary with a hint of self-promotion. David Petersen, a thoughtful and insightful writer I admire, has tackled this question in his book Heartsblood. David Petersen rests on another basis from which he delivers quite a damning attack on what he and Aldo Leopold refer to as the “gadgeteer” hunter. In Leopold’s and Petersen’s minds, relying too heavily on technology is an erosion of the very values upon which the culture of hunting has been built. Leopold says that the increase in hunting technology has “draped the American outdoorsman with an infinity of contraptions, all offered as aids to self-reliance, hardihood, woodcraft, or marksmanship, but too often functioning as substitutes for them”. While Petersen’s focus on maintaining the values of “naturalistic hunting” is noble, his all out attack on any form of technology, such as the “space-age compound bow”, which he argues requires “far less skill and practice as an archer”, is disappointing and in my view falls victim to the divisiveness of which I have grown jaded.

Hopefully we can all see at this point that this line of argument is ridiculously circular and in most cases completely unproductive.

Therefore, my first point in this piece is this: we need to be more selective and methodical with our positions on this matter. As hunters, we need to choose more carefully when to criticize other approaches and when the divisiveness is truly warranted, because there are times that it is warranted. To do so, we need a strong understanding of both our own foundations from which we develop our perspectives and the overall purpose we are working towards – why does it even matter?

Here’s why it matters. Eventually, advancements in technology lead to a need to legislate that technology’s use in the hunting woods, so we need to find something more tangible on which to base our positions on these matters. It’s also important to remember that local ecological and cultural contexts play an important role in this conversation. What might be culturally acceptable in one place may be completely unacceptable elsewhere (e.g. the use of dogs). Likewise, what might give an unfair advantage in one type of ecosystem may be completely ineffectual in another (e.g. long-range optics). Therefore, it’s not enough to just cite our own individual methods as the right choice.

To me, the issue isn’t really about how much of an advantage I want to give myself through technologically advanced products. The crux of the matter for me, in deciding whether to use certain products and more broadly what kind of regulations I support, really comes down to whether a given technology contributes to making us more ethical hunters or undermines principles of fair chase. This gives me a somewhat more objective lens through which to examine the issue: rather than relying on my own personal preferences, I maintain a focus on ethical principles that are based on my beliefs about the important role of hunting in conservation. Now, I realize that ethics are also highly personally variable and there is no universally objective measure of what is ethical; however, I’ll assume that at the very least we can all agree that hunting strategies that make us more ethical are those that reduce the chances of poor shots and therefore wounded or unrecovered animals. In this way, I use an ethical principle as a proxy for what others might frame as an increased advantage over the animal.

Therefore, let’s think of this matter as the constant need to reevaluate in order to find that optimal place between increasing ethics and maintaining fair chase. I visualize this issue as a kind of bell curve, normal where the bulk of technology in the middle of the curve is completely ethically acceptable. On the lower end of the curve, we find such a stripped down level of technology to the point that we may actually be reducing kill efficacy or reliability (relative to what we have available to us); on the higher end of the curve, an intensification of technology gives us a disproportionate advantage over the animal and begins to undermine fair chase.

Having said this, I realize that human societies have been hunting with the most primitive weapons for centuries, but remember, the modern North American model of wildlife conservation is intimately tied with ethical hunting. Remember also that I’ve just defined ethical hunting as using approaches that lead to quick, clean, and reliable kills. A good friend of mine who I have great respect for uses primitive methods to hunt. I’m not denouncing primitive weapons in a philosophical sense, only pointing out that in a very general sense, we have methods that are more consistently reliable in their ability to ensure shot placement and killing efficacy for the wider hunting public.

We could spend hours going through every possible example of hunting gear and debating where it falls on my imaginary bell curve and still not cover everything. There are a couple examples, however, that I think illustrate the points reasonably well. $_35First, there’s no doubt that the invention of affordable range finders changed hunting.  Some might argue that range finders encourage longer range shooting by enabling hunters to take shots from distances that would otherwise be well beyond what someone could reliably estimate with the naked eye. On the other hand, my argument would be that electronic range finders provide more precise knowledge about shooting distances (including compensating for angled shots) and therefore help ensure proper shot placement and quicker kills. Here’s an example of using electronics in hunting that I would suggest makes us more ethical hunters while not eliminating the need for extensive practice with whatever you are using to hunt.

Phantom-3-3-e1428477888137-1940x1089

On the other hand, it wasn’t too long after drones started to become more commercially available and affordable that discussions around the ethics of their use in hunting emerged. Relatively quickly, hunting organizations spoke out against the use of drones and multiple jurisdictions have banned their use in hunting (in Canada these include both British Columbia and Saskatchewan). I can’t think of a particular group that has steadfastly defended the use of drones in hunting across the board, though I’m sure there are groups that are less opposed to their use in certain contexts. The argument against drones is that they cross that threshold into giving hunters an unfair advantage over animals, reducing principles of fair chase.

I don’t claim to have a solution or some kind of quantifiable metric against which to measure all technology. On the contrary, my point is that this issue is complex and much more important than the micro-debates between individual hunters. I’ve definitely thought about a whole range of advancements in hunting and how I feel about them based on this premise. From high-fence hunting and game farms to two-way radios and hand-held GPS units to safari and helicopter hunts to the use of baiting and artificial scents, I know where I come down. To do this, I’ve had to develop a line of thinking that I can apply to a range of issues.

As technology continues to advance, we’re going to need to continue to address it both culturally and legislatively. The technological advancements that we’re going to see in the future will be wide ranging in nature and application, so what we need to strive for is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but a philosophical basis as a guide to navigate our understandings and responses. It’s not going to be enough to address new technologies on an ad hoc basis without some kind of larger guiding principle. I suggest that that guiding principle should be finding a balance between using technology to make us more ethical hunters while not eroding our commitment to fair chase.

It’s fine to adopt new strategies and products that increase our chances of success, but in doing so, let’s not lose sight of the importance in the chance to be unsuccessful, too.

Hunters, Environmentalists, and Vegans Have More in Common Than We Think

My last post suggested that we can, and indeed should, be conscientious to the perspectives of our audiences when framing our messaging about hunting. This is a position that is perhaps a stark contrast to the paradigm of the “unapologetic hunter”, an approach that I quickly found to be tiresome and increasingly unproductive. Rather, I’ve tried to make the case that creating new allies is valuable for hunters and that we need to cultivate allies in many different social communities; however, I think we already have far more allies than we may at times recognize.

One of the more common pieces of rhetoric we hear in the hunting community is how the “tree huggers,” “liberals,” “environmentalists,” or “vegans” are trying to put an end to hunting. As the drama plays out in much of the media, these other groups will never understand why we hunt and want only to take our guns and our hunting opportunities. I think that much of the reaction from the hunting community is due to the perception that these other communities see hunters as nothing more than bloodthirsty murderers acting without regard for animal welfare. For our part, I think too many hunters pigeonhole non-hunters as people who will never truly understand what it means to have a relationship with wildlife and can never measure up to hunters in our contributions and commitment to conservation. This kind of in-group situation can quickly lead to increasingly reactionary responses, cutting off more poignant opportunities for communication and understanding.

So bear with me for a moment when I suggest that the proposition that hunters and environmentalists (as a proxy for these various “others”) are necessarily opposed is, at the very least, exaggerated and misguided, and at most, harmful in the long-term to conservation. I believe that at the very foundation of our ethics, there is actually far more in common between of many hunters and non-hunters than we often recognize. I think that from the ideologies, motivations, and political priorities of these groups are many opportunities for alliances.

I’ve said before that my choice to hunt is rooted in an intense affection for nature and fascination with wildlife, and it’s a way of being an active participant in conservation. Tracing this sentiment back to its origins, one finds, in me and I suspect in many other hunters, a concern for preserving healthy habitats, protecting animal welfare, eating nutritious and ethically gathered food, promoting progressive environmental policy, and enacting a personal relationship with the natural world. I’m fortunate to have had opportunities throughout my life that have exposed me to a wide variety of experiences and perspectives related to coming to understand the natural world. These experiences have variously led me down paths to identifying as an environmentalist, a one-time vegetarian, a self-proclaimed tree hugger, and a hunter-conservationist. Each of these paths, these identities, began from different experiences, and they each played their own part in constructing a set of ethics that I hold today and choose to put into practice through hunting.

As hunters, we often use our commitment and contributions to conservation to justify hunting. Indeed, the “fathers of the conservation movement” were hunters; the history of the North American model of wildlife management, one of the most successful conservation models in the world, is the result of numerous organizations, policies, and achievements that are largely bound up with hunting. For example, the Migratory Bird Treaty was signed between Canada and the United States back in 1916. We wouldn’t have the successful conservation measures we do today without managed hunting.

Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, 1903.

However, we also need to remember that without the powerful figures and campaigns of the environmental movement, we would be without much of the scientific knowledge and popular affection related to protecting wildlife and natural habitats. Indeed, without the indispensable overlap in the priorities of various hunting and non-hunting communities that has generated such a powerful political voice, we would be without many critical achievements and conservation initiatives.

Temagami blockade

The Temagami Blockades that opposed logging in old growth pine forests in Temagami, Ontario, 1989.

But this should not become some kind of exercise in conservation score-keeping between hunters and environmentalists. I find it ridiculous and short-sighted to hear hunters use environmentalists as the scapegoats for everything that threatens hunting, and environmentalists use hunters as scapegoats for everything that threatens the ideal of the pristine, untouched nature. Environmentalists are not our enemies. Certainly there are some environmental NGOs that have proclaimed a staunch anti-hunting position, but there are others that take a much more nuanced approach. Sweeping generalizations about groups of people are rarely accurate or productive. The writer David Petersen suggests that there is an important distinction to be made between “animal rightists” and “animal welfarists”. Animal rights advocates, he explains, are against the use of animals by humans in any way, while animal welfare advocates are concerned with the “humane treatment and responsible care” of animals that ensures they have “freedom from unnecessary pain and suffering”. In some instances, Petersen notes that “in a philosophical confluence of odd bedfellows, both nature hunters and anti-hunters ‘appeared to perceive an equality and kinship, rather than a hierarchical-dominant relationship, existing between humans and animals'”. I have found similar philosophical confluences in my own life.

I have a good friend who is vegan, and she and I have had many productive conversations about the ideas that led us to both embrace a partially overlapping set of ethics around human-animal relationships. While at first glance appearing to be completely opposed to one other, it occurred to us that we both took the paths we did as a way to enact similar ethical principles. We realized that at the root of things, we are both motivated by a desire to think deeply about the origin and ethics of our food sources and the relationship we have with animals through our food choices. We both value a human-animal relationship that excludes suffering. In this case, she chose to avoid eating animals, while I chose to pursue a way of gathering my own meat that gives me greater control over ensuring that the animals I eat are killed ethically. So while sharing similar philosophical foundations, it’s true, our paths eventually diverged, and this leads me to my next point.

Wildlife conservation is an ongoing effort. If we learn from history, healthy wildlife populations and natural habitats are not something we achieve overnight. Conservation is a shifting terrain that needs to continuously respond to pressures on wildlife and habitats as they arise. Our actions need to be multifaceted and take place in a variety of social, political, cultural, and intellectual arenas. There’s no such thing as too many conservationists. By the same token, it means that no one group will be able to take on every struggle and campaign; we need diversity in the conservation community and in our strategies. Does this mean that our viewpoints and goals need to align perfectly with every other group 100% of the time? No, but it does mean that we need to seek out those moments where our goals do align with those of other groups. There will be points in time when hunters and animal welfare activists can work together. Of course, it may also mean that we need to separate when our agendas do not fully align. But what might perhaps be an inevitable divergence in priorities should not prevent us from working together when possible. At the very least, when we do have to go in separate directions, we can do so with a deeper understanding of one another’s perspective.

Of course, this challenge goes both ways. To those non-hunters reading this who take a different approach to conservation activism: I also encourage you to seek out and capitalize on those opportunities for ideological and strategic overlap between your priorities and those of the hunting community. The challenge is to actively foster understanding, and to highlight points of shared priorities rather than division.

Let’s both – hunters and non-hunters – think about our long-term goals and determine the points of agreement that can lead to immediate actions. I would bet that in more cases than not, we will find that even when we disagree on the particulars of our personal beliefs about human-wildlife relationships or intermediate-term priorities, we can at least agree on some shared ethical principles, at least one action we can take, and ways we can engage with one another positively towards achieving our long-term conservation goals. Let’s remember that this endeavour is much larger than our own individual desires, and we owe much more to wildlife on this continent than we do to our personal priorities. To adapt David Petersen’s quote of Field & Stream columnist George Reiger, if humans fail in our efforts at conservation, it will be because we have been “too demanding of rights and too indifferent of responsibilities”. Let’s all remember our responsibilities.

Framing Hunting Messaging: Not Pandering, Being a Good Ambassador

I suppose like many people, when I encounter a new idea, I often come to a better understanding of the information by referencing it to things that are familiar to my own life. Sometimes this happens more unconsciously as simply a way to make sense of what I’m taking in; other times, I come across something that clearly has direct applications to my own priorities and interests. I recently came across a study that has the potential to help us more meaningfully engage with the public and change the way people respond to hunting.

As a preface to this post, I should comment on two things. First, I believe that language is a powerful tool that can be used to either productively advance our priorities or completely squander opportunities to create understanding. The development of language in the history of human evolution was quite the turning point for our species. Our languages embody and express our worldviews – our understandings of the world that give meaning to our experiences and the phenomena we encounter. Language is not just an objective and technical representation of the world; rather, different cultures understand the world differently, and language is inextricably bound with this understanding. The role of language in framing our ideas and therefore its importance in genuine communication cannot be understated.

A second prefacing point has to do with something that, while perhaps an understandable symptom of highly emotional issues like hunting, is becoming increasingly frustrating to me. It’s a defensive sentiment that produces one outcome: it stalls conversations and prevents mutual understanding. Too often, the conscientious among us who suggest we should carefully frame our discussions with non-hunters are accused of “pandering” or being “politically correct”. These narrow-minded accusations seem to imply that wanting to represent hunting in a way that reflects the respect we have for it somehow makes us weak, sensitive, or overly “liberal”. This is ridiculous. I challenge anyone to find me a time when any interest group (hunters, anti-hunters, etc.) has taken an uncompromising stance in a conversation and come out of that encounter having advanced their interests in any way. This response teems with arrogance and ignorance, and it’s not helpful.

I recently had the opportunity to have one of my pieces about our choice of language published as part of an essay series on the Meat Eater website. I had some very positive responses from people about that piece, and I also heard some of the responses I just mentioned above. In any case, it got me thinking more about this idea, and I came across a paper that I think compliments this broader discussion.

In a recent paper titled “Red, white, and blue enough to be green: Effects of moral framing on climate change attitudes and conservation behaviors” published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers from Oregon State University examined the way different audiences respond to information about climate change. The study found that the “moral framing” of climate change information changed how people of different political ideologies responded to the messaging. In particular, conservatives (typically a group resistant to climate change messaging) responded more favourably when the messages were bound in moral frames and suggested that protecting the environment “was a matter of obeying authority, defending nature and demonstrating patriotism” rather than it being about environmental justice or equality.

In addition, both conservatives and liberals were more likely to respond favourably when they perceived that the messages had come from people with similar political ideologies to themselves – they were more likely to believe people when they already had something in common with them. The study also found that it isn’t only attitudes that change depending on the framing of the messaging. Individuals were more likely to change their behaviour when they perceived that the messages both reflected their values and came from people who shared those values.

So our ideologies play an important role in influencing our acceptance or rejection of information, including matters that are largely seen as scientific fact (and yes, 99% of the scientific community agrees that climate change is real and is happening, so let’s get that out of the way). This suggests that it is not simply a battery of hard facts that will convince others of our viewpoints or opinions. We need to take a much more carefully constructed and strategic approach in our interactions.

My immediate thought was that this study has fascination implications for how we approach hunting advocacy, whether it be in one-on-one conversations or at larger political levels. The study’s findings tell me that it does matter how we frame our arguments and opinions. The findings also tell me that shifting our approach to match our audience is not pandering, it’s making a choice to be positive and effective ambassadors of hunting.

For us as hunters, this means that we can’t only preach to the choir. We need to be speaking with non-hunters too. The non-hunting voting majority has the ability to influence laws that affect hunting and conservation, and it is non-hunters who are going to be best situated to influence other non-hunters. In other words, we need allies to make allies. We need to engage with a variety of perspectives and priorities related to conservation, so that we can actively cultivate hunting supporters. To do this, we should focus on aspects of hunting that are most likely to be well received by our audiences, those aspects that will have a point of reference in their own lives. I think that the moral and ethical foundations of hunting, and the successful history of harvest-based conservation policies in North America, provide us with a wide enough variety of strong points for these discussions that it should be easy enough for us to shift our approach as appropriate.

One way to start putting these ideas into action is to be attentive to the motivations of our audiences. If someone expresses that they are motivated by the desire to maintain healthy wildlife populations, we can explain how hunting does this through effective population management. If someone tells you that they are motivated by concerns for animal welfare, we have an opportunity to explain that hunting organizations have been critical in habitat protection and that hunting can help reduce human-wildlife conflicts. If someone else is motivated by personal nutrition, we can cite the multitudes of nutritional benefits in eating wild game. There are many ways that we can appropriately respond to a wide range of audiences and we owe it to ourselves to think through all of these aspects of the discussion and be constructive in our approach.

The research and understanding is there folks, it’s now up to us to choose to use our knowledge to capitalize on opportunities to be good ambassadors of hunting. Let’s remember how positive hunting is in our own lives and how pivotal it has been in the history of conservation, and ensure that we are representing ourselves in equally positive ways.

I Support the Seal Hunt: An Ecological and Social Basis for Reconsidering Perceptions

Kugaaruk, Nunavut

Kugaaruk, Nunavut

I’m writing this from Kugaaruk, a community of about 800 people in Nunavut’s Kitikmeot Region. Kugaaruk is on the southeast side of Pelly Bay, which at its north end opens up into the Gulf of Boothia, in the Canadian Arctic. The community itself is right at the mouth of the wide Kugaaruk River and is surrounded by an amazing topography of rocky hills and islands. Right now, the ice in the bay is flat and smooth, but during years with strong North winds during freeze-up, it can be full of chunky ice that is blown in from the Gulf of Boothia. The community faces west out to the water, so the sunsets here are incredible as the sun goes down over distant hills across the bay. It’s a community with a strong hunting culture, the most important being caribou, ringed and bearded seals, polar bears, musk ox, narwhal, and Arctic char.

The bay in 2015 full of chunky ice that floated in from wider out in the ocean.

The bay in 2015 full of chunky ice that floated in from wider out in the ocean.

The project works with local hunters to examine numerous aspects of ringed and bearded seal and polar bear ecology. When a hunter kills a seal, he or she records certain morphometric data (body measurements, weight) and collects physical samples of the seal, such as blubber (for body condition and feeding analysis), the lower jaw (for age analysis), reproductive organs (to examine reproductive rates and success), and the kidney and liver (for contaminants analysis). I’ve also spent time interviewing hunters about all aspects of seal and bear ecology in the region, including their life history, behavior, and population dynamics.

Kugaaruk River and the old stone church, taken March 2016.

Kugaaruk River and the old stone church, taken March 2016.

 

One of the questions I’ve received from community members a couple times is if we, as researchers, support the seal hunt. On a couple occasions, there has been concern that wildlife researchers are producing information that will contribute to anti-seal hunting agendas. Seal hunting has received a lot of controversial media and activist attention over the years, leading to a perception among the general public that the seal hunt is somehow inherently unsustainable or wrong. The fact is that these representations of the seal hunt are simply wrong – both ecologically and socially.

The research I’m working on has been primarily focused on ringed seals (Pusa hispida). Modern seals, known as pinnipeds, emerged as a distinct evolutionary group about 50 million years ago. Today, there are three broad groups of seals that are recognized: Odobenidae, Otariidae, and Phocidae. The Phocidae, of which ringed seals are a member, split from other seal lineages about 33 million years ago.

Kit M. Kovacs : Norwegian Polar Institute

Photo: Kit M. Kovacs / Norwegian Polar Institute

Ringed seals weigh 50-70 kg, are about 1-1.5 m in length, and are truly an Arctic species, meaning they rely on sea ice for essential habitat. Seals remain in the Arctic all year, digging breathing holes up through the ice with their sharp claws (I was feeling them the other day, and you could easily slice your finger open on one of these things). They excavate dens beneath the snow on the ice where they give birth to one pup each spring. They are one of the top predators in their habitats and are the main prey for polar bears. As the Arctic’s most abundant seal, they are therefore an important species to monitor, providing information about general environmental changes and ecosystem health.

Ringed seal worldwide range. Credit: Mirko Thiessen

Ringed seals have a circumpolar distribution, found in all regions of the Arctic. Credit: Mirko Thiessen

Due to their abundance and wide distribution, precise estimates of ringed seal populations are extremely hard to achieve; however, there are a lot of them and their populations are considered stable and abundant. Reductions in sea ice habitat due to climate warming pose the greatest long-term threat to ringed and other seals by shortening the time that this critical habitat is available to them for breeding and basking (when they haul out on the ice for the annual moult).

At least until recently, much of the media representation surrounding seal hunting has been dominated by organizations like PETA, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Paul McCartney (I also have to clarify once in a while that I’m not related to him).

Images like this from IFAW propagate misinformation about the seal hunt. I'm not sure if seals have tear ducts.

Images like this from IFAW propagate misinformation and emotional reactions about the seal hunt.

Images of whitecoat seals – as newborn seals are called – being killed while laying on the ice, surrounded by anthropomorphizing terminology such as “slaughter”, “baby”, and “helpless” present the seal hunt as defined by cruel methods and unethical targeting of particular individuals.  The use of this type of terminology is a common tactic among antihunting campaigns, and has been used in other well known circumstances. Unfortunately, these now iconic images are never published with a disclaimer updating the viewer of changes to seal hunting laws, the deep cultural importance of the seal hunt, or information about seal ecology to educate the viewer on the sustainability of seal hunting.

I’ll clarify here that my focus is on Inuit hunting rather than the large industrial hunts many people associate with images of seal hunting. Unfortunately, groups with political agendas and the media often fall into one of two traps: they either conflate Inuit seal hunting with the southern-based east coast commercial hunt and present the issue as some kind of monolithic and homogenous seal hunt; or, they create somewhat of a false dichotomy between an idealized “subsistence hunt” and a demonized “commercial seal slaughter”. In reality, Inuit seal hunting is at once a subsistence and a commercial hunt and efforts to present the Inuit hunt as purely distinct from the commercial market for seal fur has been at the very least an oversimplification and at most a deliberate political agenda. I’m also cautious to not paint all in the “anti-sealing” camp with the same brush, as not all animal welfare organizations (as distinct from animal rights organizations) condemn all forms of seal hunting.

I mentioned the cultural importance of the seal hunt. My priority in these discussions is always centered around wildlife conservation. However, one of the things I enjoy most about my work is that it’s located at the intersection of human sociocultural systems and wildlife ecology, so I’d be leaving out an important aspect of this discussion if I didn’t mention the right of Inuit communities to hunt seals. On one hand, it’s not my place to try to represent the place of seal hunting in Inuit culture. By the same token, it’s not anyone else’s place – as southern, non-Inuit governments, media, and organizations – to judge this practice. My time in the North has given me the opportunity to hear about the importance of seals in Inuit culture and food systems. Seal hunting has been an important part of culture for thousands of years, and seals are one of the most important country/wild game foods in the North. Traditional harvest activities are also a legal right for Inuit, established and protected by land claims and the wildlife management frameworks governing Northern wildlife. In addition, seal hunting is an important part of local economy in the Arctic, generating an estimated $40 million annually. This is a large part of the discussion and one I want to respect and address, and I’m proud that as a country, we have finally recognized these rights.

As I said, my priority is wildlife conservation and sustainable management, and I think this aspect of the conversation provides just as compelling an argument in support of seal hunting as supporting the harvesting rights of Inuit communities. I’m not as familiar with the southern commercial seal hunt, so there may be valid arguments about unsustainable or unethical methods that may have been used at one point; however, the efforts of the commercial fishing industry to cull seals as a protective measure to prevent seal predation on populations of commercially valuable fish species notwithstanding, the laws that regulate seal hunting are designed just like any other hunting law, with the purpose of ensuring the long-term sustainability of the species. Unfortunately, these realities and facts of the status of the species and the regulation of the hunt are obscured by political agendas.

One of the primary political tools of anti-seal hunting campaigns has been images of whitecoat seals being killed. When seals are born, their newborn fur is white. In harp seals in particular, this fur is almost snow white. In ringed seals, it may be white or yellowish in colour.

Harp seal nursing a pup. It's important to remember that these are wild animals who exist on a landscape. Credit: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Harp seal nursing a pup. It’s important to remember that these are wild animals who exist on a landscape. Credit: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Eventually, this fur is exchanged for an adult coat that is more effective at thermoregulation as seals go in and out of the cold water. For animal rights organizations (as distinct from animal welfare organizations), you can see how it would be easy to equate the pure white seals with other anthropomorphic understandings of purity, presenting them as somehow more “innocent”. This type of visual representation brings a good amount of social and political currency in the world of antihunting propaganda.

From a purely ethical perspective, the question really becomes, what difference does the colour of an animal’s fur make in determining whether hunting it should be legal or morally defensible? If our priority is ensuring responsibly regulated hunts that minimize the suffering of the animal, the colour of its fur really has no bearing. Anti-seal hunting organizations point to the fact that whitecoats are at a stage in their lives where they are still nursing and sometimes actually unable to enter the water, creating the idea of the seals as “helpless”.

From an ecological perspective, there is nothing inherently unsustainable about hunting young seals. This just happens to be one relatively short stage in a seal’s life history, so we need to ask ourselves, do we want wildlife management decisions to be determined by our own anthropomorphized ideas about how predation works in nature? This also happens to be a time when the seals are most vulnerable to predation by polar bears, and I doubt anyone would suggest we persecute polar bears. Biologically speaking, species have generally developed reproductive cycles that compensate for these types of mortality and prevent the species from going extinct.

The fact is that the discussion about seal hunting has been decontextualized and exploited by organizations with a political axe to grind. Regardless of your personal opinion on this matter, hunting whitecoats has been illegal in the United States since 1972, and in Canada since 1987. So there’s really no reason for this overly specific aspect of seal hunting to continue to dominate the discussion.

Puijila darwini, a species that lived during the Miocene, was discovered in Nunavut in 2007, and is the missing link in understanding seal evolution. Credit: Katherine Harman / Scientific American

Puijila darwini, a species that lived during the Miocene, was discovered in Nunavut in 2007, and is the missing link in understanding seal evolution. Credit: Katherine Harman / Scientific American

Perhaps someone might ask about the notorious “seal clubbing” phenomena? In Canada, all marine mammal harvests are governed by the Marine Mammal Regulations (MMR) of 1993. As with all hunting regulations, the MMR specifies the types of implements that are permitted in seal hunting. First off, most seals are killed with a rifle or a harpoon. The most common rifle calibers that I’ve heard of being used are .22 Magnum in the summers when they’re hunted from boats or high power rifles (e.g. .270 or .303) when they’re shot through breathing holes from the ice after being harpooned. It is legal to use clubs or hakapiks to kill seals less than 1 year old, and research has found that clubs and hakapiks are effective methods to kill seals that cause “rapid, if not immediate, death”. Just to be sure, the MMR also state that anyone using a club or hakapik must “immediately palpate” the skull to ensure the seal has been killed quickly. Some people may not like the mental image of this, but that doesn’t change the facts. Similar to misrepresentations of whitecoat hunting, so too are perceptions of hunting methods shaped and obscured by visually shocking images presented in media. In both cases, we must take care to understand the ecology and biology of seals in order to make informed decisions.

So if seal hunting is an important part of culture, on the one hand, and a carefully regulated, ecologically sustainable practice, on the other, perhaps it’s time to rethink how we view and talk about seal hunting. In fact, there are organizations and movements that have taken this on and are doing a wonderful job, and I encourage you to look into and support them. For instance, after Ellen DeGeneres spoke out against seal hunting with a celebrity selfie, social media lit up with a #Sealfie campaign, where people took selfies wearing seal products.

Photo: Kit M. Kovacs / Norwegian Polar Institute

Photo: Kit M. Kovacs / Norwegian Polar Institute

What I find particularly fascinating and insightful about this campaign was that the images were focused on putting a respectful and proud human face on the issue, while emphasizing the varied uses for seal products. Other organizations, such as Inuit Tapitiit Kanatami and the National Inuit Youth Council, have promoted social media campaigns centered around slogans like #HuntSealEatSealWearSeal and t-shirts that say “Seal Is The New Black”. Our national political leaders also promote the use of seal product clothing. These campaigns take a respectfully prideful approach to the idea of being unapologetic with hunting, while also not entrenching themselves in the “us vs. them” attitude that all too often defines hunting advocacy campaigns.

In another particularly telling example, the very organization that DeGeneres intended to promote with her anti-seal hunting campaign actually spoke out against a broad sweep condemnation of seal hunting. The Humane Society, the organization that received the $1.5 million that DeGeneres raised, issued a statement clarifying that they make a clear distinction between the Inuit and commercial seal hunts, and do not oppose the “socially accepted Inuit subsistence hunt”. Even the International Fund for Animal Welfare distinguishes between local and commercial hunts, stating that, “So long as it is conducted on a sustainable basis, and that reasonable precautions are taken to minimize unnecessary suffering, IFAW does not oppose the killing of seals for food, clothing and other products for local use by indigenous peoples. Nor do we oppose the sale and local distribution of seal products from subsistence hunts within indigenous communities”. So the issue isn’t as cut and dry as some organizations and individuals would have us believe.

Now, it may appear straightforward to make an intellectual distinction between the commercial and subsistence hunts, but the reality is that it’s difficult to generate policy that just as carefully distinguishes between these hunts. The reason for this is that sustaining a worldwide market for furs depends to at least some degree on the availability of commercially produced furs. In 2009, the European Union (EU) banned the trade and import of all seal products to oppose what was perceived as unsustainable commercial sealing. Then in 2015, the EU granted an exemption to Indigenous seal harvests, recognizing that these hunts are different from the commercial hunts the ban was meant to target, and are in fact an essential part of the local economy in the North. However, even with the 2015 exemption, the EU ban had repercussions for the economic livelihoods of Inuit hunters by reducing the overall availability of, and therefore market for, seal furs. The 2009 ban led to a roughly tenfold reduction in fur prices, from around $100 per seal skin prior to the ban, to roughly $10 after the ban.

I understand that it’s hard to think about a commercial seal hunt without reminiscences of the turn of the century market hunting and trapping legacies that contributed to such widespread decline of wildlife populations in North America. I’ll admit, I still have a knee jerk reaction to commercial hunting; however, it’s important to remember that the wildlife population collapses in the early 20th century occurred long before the modern system of regulated hunting and wildlife management we have today. Since this system was instituted, beginning in the 1930s, hunting has not put a single wildlife population on the endangered species list (in fact, it’s contributed to bringing a number of species back from regional extirpation and even the brink of extinction). So we need to remember that current seal hunting practices are regulated by the same long-term, science-based wildlife management policies that govern any other hunting practice.

It seems like it’s getting redundant for me to say this, but these are complex issues; these are populations of wild animals who don’t conform to our own sociocultural prejudices. We’re dealing with ecological systems that have had long-standing relationships with human sociocultural systems. As always, our perceptions and responses to these issues need to embrace the same level of complexity. We need to engage in the conversations, admit when we don’t know the facts, and spend more time listening than talking. Seals are wonderful carnivores with beautiful, warm fur and nutritious, delicious meat. In the end, I support the seal hunt, and I encourage you to support it too. I’d also be interested in other people’s thoughts on this particular topic – whichever way you think about it.

Science and Politics in Wildlife Management: Ontario Expands the Spring Bear Hunt

On October 30, the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) announced that the province of Ontario would be expanding the spring bear hunt pilot project for another 5 years.

Like most issues related to hunting, the factors and considerations involved in decisions about the Ontario spring bear hunt are numerous and complex. The history of debate over the spring bear hunt is in many ways the perfect example of the challenge in balancing science and politics. There are economic interests involved; scientific studies; landowners who have safety and livelihood considerations; anti-hunting voices who advance certain public perceptions of the hunt; and of course hunters who have a vested interest in both the hunt and the species. I won’t pretend to know the nuances of the opinions of every voice at the table, but I find the science-politics part of this discussion interesting, and one that will likely continue to define hunting and wildlife management in North America.

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It is estimated that there are somewhere in the neighbourhood of 105,000 black bears (Ursus americanus) in Ontario. The provincial population is healthy and is at no risk of being threatened. The Ontario spring bear hunt was originally cancelled in 1999, largely due to pressure from animal-rights organizations who claimed that the hunt left cubs orphaned when sows (female bears) were killed by hunters. Killing sows is illegal in the spring hunt, so this claim seems to rest on one of the following two assumptions: 1) hunters were accidentally killing large numbers of sows, or 2) hunters are willfully breaking the law and engaging in unethical hunting practices. I take great exception to the latter; convincing data has yet to be provided on the former. In fact, reports of an estimated 274 cubs orphaned in 1999 alone have been refuted by bear biologists. Many of the arguments by these organizations use emotionally-charged language, telling voters that bear hunting in the spring is done “when they are most vulnerable”, and that the hunt depends on baiting, a practice where hunters do little more than “sit behind blinds and shoot the bears“. These statements are a dramatic reduction of a much more complicated biology and hunting practice.

On the other end of the spectrum are groups like the OFAH who advocated for the return of the spring hunt. Representing hunters, these organizations worked to present evidence that supported the hunt as an effective management tool. Concerns over human-bear conflicts is one of the main issues presented by hunting organizations to advocate for a return of the hunt. These groups suggested that the former Bear Wise program, Ontario’s trap and relocation program intended to respond to human-bear conflicts, was largely ineffective at reducing conflict. They contend that harvest is a more effective management tool to control bear populations and reduce the incidence of conflict. The economic benefits of the hunt are also cited as an important vote in favour of its full return. Hunting contributes a great deal of money to local economies through the sale of licenses and income from tourism. A report published in August 2015, states that prior to its cancellation, the combined spring and fall bear hunts generated an estimated $30.3 million per year. Current estimates put the value of the spring hunt closer to $100 million.

Here’s where an interesting part of the science comes into the discussion. Were 274 cubs orphaned every year by spring bear hunters? No, according to Ontario’s leading bear biologist, Dr. Martyn Obbard. One needs to understand the reproductive cycle of black bears and appreciate the laws surrounding the spring hunt to realize that this claim is scientifically unsubstantiated. However, in a paper published in 2014, Dr. Obbard explains that human-bear conflict is not negatively correlated with harvest rates. This means that the data does not support the claim that increasing harvests will decrease conflict and problem bears. On the other hand, data from a study published in 2015 suggests that problem bear activity did increase significantly following the closure of the spring hunt, but says that food availability is a significant factor in human-bear conflicts. Dr. Obbard’s study also indicates that food availability is a major factor in human-bear conflict. So now what?

On the topic of dealing with “problem bears” (a term I dislike in itself), my opinion is somewhat self-contradictory. Our pattern of population expansion has in many ways been ecologically irresponsible, and if that has led to an increase in human-bear conflict, then that is the bed we’ve made. I’m not saying we should deliberately put people at risk simply because we may have brought the problem on ourselves; however, I don’t think it’s singular justification for a hunt. Having said that, the other side of that coin is that if we wish to continue to grow human settlements and expand industrial development, then like it or not, animal populations need to be controlled. In that regard, we’re all going to have to accept hunting as a management tool that is an important and successful component of our system of wildlife management in North America.

My own support for the bear hunt has generally little to do with the singular debate over its efficacy at reducing human-bear conflicts. We need to make informed decisions about hunts based on current and reliable data. But data is not enough; decisions need to be based on a critical, honest, and thorough consideration of all the factors involved. In the case of bears, both the studies I discussed above identify food availability as a main limiting factor for bears. This suggests that habitat needs to be protected. So if we want to make decisions about bear management, we should be honest about the realities of issues like climate change and the impacts of industrial activities, regardless of our political leanings. My main priority, always, is conservation – of habitat, of species. If the spring bear hunt is not putting the species at risk (and it is not, let’s be very clear about that), then I support the decision to extend it as part of a larger picture of supporting hunting. However, this does not absolve us of the responsibility to take strong action in other areas to ensure wildlife has healthy and abundant habitat.

As an aside, lest anyone think I’m just giving blind support for more hunting opportunities, I’ve used the same criteria for the opposite position with regard to the moose hunt in Ontario. It’s generally accepted at this point that moose are in some sort of decline throughout much of their North American range, and as a result, Ontario has seen a reduction in moose tags. In my opinion, some organizations have argued irresponsibly against this decision in order to protect hunting opportunities: a political move. My position is that the moose come first. Every time. I’ll gladly give up moose hunting for a time to ensure the stability and longevity of the population in the future. Again, we need to learn to accept the necessity of difficult decisions that we may not like in order to keep our most important priorities at the forefront.

So there it is, all that to say that I support the spring bear hunt for a range of more complex reasons than those to which the media on both sides have reduced this debate.

Well, as I’ve said many times in conversations with friends, one of the things I love so much about hunting is the way it challenges me both physically and intellectually. What all of this tells me is that this debate is reminiscent of so many others in our lives: we are pulled in many directions. We might have emotion pulling us one way, politics another, science another, and somewhere amidst all the confusion is the realization that we need to consider and embrace the complexity of the situation. It’s not a simple matter with a simple answer. We are dealing with a wild animal with its own biology and behaviours that don’t synchronize with human debate and political tides.

The full announcement can be watched here:

Cecil: Part 3: Making the case to understand and embrace complexity

When the whole story about Cecil the lion (Panthera leo) broke out in July, I didn’t expect it to continue “trending” for very long, and I’ll admit that I was surprised this post still had some relevance. In any case, I still planned to post it, because I think the conversations that have been generated by this story have ongoing relevance for hunters and the field of conservation. This particular story might have been the catalyst, and likely it will soon fade from the world of hashtags, but the broader social and political landscape of which this case is a part is important for hunters and conservationists to engage thoughtfully.

I’ve discussed my own personal hunting ethics in a previous post, so this one is concerned more with the technical aspects of this issue and focuses on some of the facts of wildlife conservation and how lion hunting fits in that narrative.

Let’s start with some ideas that I take as truisms for the purpose of this discussion:

  1. Wildlife management/conservation is a complicated task that varies by context. There isn’t a one size fits all approach.
  2. Wildlife management/conservation is more than a scientific matter: it involves interactive and complex social, ecological, and political considerations.
  3. Decisions about wildlife management/conservation cost a great deal of money.
  4. The overall goal of any management/conservation plan is the maintenance of healthy, sustainable wildlife populations.

As someone involved in the field of wildlife research for the purpose of contributing knowledge towards wildlife management, I can say with confidence that it is a very complicated field. At the end of the day, wildlife management is a political issue, and it changes depending on the particular political and economic system, and social opinions of the place. It relies on scientific information, yes, but it is politicians who make decisions about the policies that will be used to manage wildlife, and actions resulting from these decisions require substantial financial investment into ongoing research, enforcement, and administrative costs. In North America, money for wildlife management is generated primarily through hunting fees.

Lion hunting in Africa is not my area of expertise. I’ll put that out there now; but I can speak about it to a degree, because I think my experience with the North American context helps me know where to look for information and gives me a degree of insight into how to make sense of that information.

In order to appropriately assess the effects of the lion hunt on lions, and therefore its merits as a management tool, it is important to understand some basic principles of lion behavioural and population ecology. The status of lion populations is assessed at a subpopulation level. The entire population of lions in Africa can be divided into localized groups of individuals that are considered somewhat geographically distinct, in the sense that they do not move around throughout the entire range inhabited by lions. This means that what is happening with lions in one area of the world cannot be considered indicative of lions everywhere. For example, we can talk about the worldwide population of lions declining on the whole, but look at subpopulations and find that some are increasing.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the largest international wildlife conservation organization and the one that ascribes status to wildlife all over the world, even the effects of lion hunting can vary according to geographic context. In Zimbabwe, for example, the IUCN explains that hunting has a net positive impact on population in some areas, but may have contributed to declines in other areas. Globally, the IUCN classifies lions as “Vulnerable”, but at more local scales, certain subpopulations are classified as “Critically Endangered”, while it has been suggested that others be downgraded to “Least Concern”.  Therefore, once again, it’s complicated and it’s not necessarily productive to just talk about lions in a general sense, but rather we need to be precise about our assertions and discuss the matter in geographically specific ways.

Days after the incident exploded in the media, David Macdonald, one of the researchers who studied Cecil for over 20 years was interviewed by the journal Nature. He gives a straight-forward explanation of some of the considerations involved in lion ecology and hunting. One of these considerations is the need to understand the social organization and group dynamics of lions. For instance, Macdonald explained how the death of one male lion will affect the social organization of that lion’s group and in turn the local population. Male lions are part of coalitions of other males that defend a territory, and when a male lion dies (whether hunted or from any number of factors), a “larger, stronger coalition comes in and usurps them, often leading to the death of the surviving brothers. The incoming males will generally kill the cubs of the incumbents”. This means that the death of one male lion may lead to the death of others, and the protection of one male lion may impact the population more broadly. Macdonald also explained that the hunt can certainly be conducted sustainably.

To put this in perspective, this analysis is nothing new to wildlife managers; it’s the backbone of harvest management policies all over the world. This is why harvests of any species are monitored and controlled, because a study of ecology tells us how the rest of a population will be affected by the death of individuals of each sex. For example, in Ontario, the whitetail deer population in the province is managed by controlling the number of females (does) that are killed each fall in the hunt. Killing male deer (bucks) generally does not have long-term effects on the overall deer population. Therefore, like any harvest management system, the sustainability of lion hunting requires an understanding of the biology and ecology of lions and effective enforcement.

A number of media stories have used the kind of generalizing and value-laden language to tell this story that casts it in a particular ethical light right out of the gate. One of the things these stories have focused on is that the hunter, Walter Palmer, allegedly paid upwards of $50 000 for this hunt. This introduces the social and economic complexity of this issue, and illustrates that there’s so much going on here that it really is difficult to categorize it as simply right or wrong (and in fact, anyone who tries to make that simple categorization has clearly not done enough research). The high costs of wildlife conservation in Zimbabwe is paid for through managed hunting opportunities, including lion hunting.

I’ve mentioned the costs involved in wildlife management, including years of research to understand the necessary parameters needed to make informed decisions about the species in question, through to the administration of the policies that are eventually enacted. In the case of lion hunting in Zimbabwe (and other regions), the money generated from hunting is absolutely crucial for conservation policies. In fact, many wildlife and habitat conservation activities simply would not be possible without this money.

It’s important to remember that there are local human communities involved in this story, and they cannot be separated from a realistic discussion of options for effective wildlife management. Many of these local communities rely on livestock and other forms of agriculture, and lions present a very real threat to their livelihood through risks of predation (a concern for farmers all over the world). This means that local communities are going to need to kill lions to protect livestock and prevent loss of income, and these kills are not controlled by a harvest management program; in other words, communities can kill as many lions as they need for their safety.

Given the combination of these factors, one of the most effective, available, and economically feasible ways to protect wildlife in regions like Zimbabwe (like it or not) is to attribute value animals through hunting. If a single lion is given a specific monetary value, and local communities know they can count on benefitting from this money, it makes the risk of living with lions acceptable and financially viable. This is just the way our global economy works: if we want to protect something, it is assigned value. I won’t say I agree with it in all cases, but it’s what we’ve got to work with right now, and unfortunately it’s just the reality that arguing for the inherent value of the life of an animal doesn’t protect the income of local communities directly threatened by them.

With this in mind, does it really make it somehow worse that Walter Palmer paid over $50 000 to kill a lion? In this context, it really isn’t the amount of money that he paid that people have a problem with; it’s coming to terms with the fact that there is essentially a price tag on a lion. We just need to deal with that fact. I would personally rather see increased benefit to local communities and lion management programs through these kinds of high costs. It also limits the number of people who can afford go lion hunting, which effectively helps control the hunt. The price tag on lion hunting needs to make the protection of lions economically viable and socially acceptable. It is what it is.

The alternative to this method was played out in Botswana in 2000. In this TEDx talk, Mikkel Legarth explains how the implementation of a ban on lion hunting resulted in more lions being killed in defense of property and life, and led to a reduction in the lion subpopulation. These same population declines were also observed in Tanzania, Kenya, and Zambia following bans on lion hunting. Recently, researchers in Zambia suggested a continuation of the 2013 ban on lion hunting until 2016, which they believe will help in the recovery of lion populations. Again, wildlife management policies need to be designed based on the specific geographic context and informed by rigorous research.

So you see that this is an ecologically, socially, politically, and economically complex situation, and no amount of wishing it was a simple matter of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong will change that. I’ve only scratched the surface here of the full picture of the historical context that has contributed to the current circumstances around the lion hunt in Zimbabwe. There is a long history of global politics and economics relevant to this story that I didn’t get into here. I think the point is that we can all have our own opinions and feelings about hunting, lions, lion hunting, different methods or approaches to hunting, and all the other particular issues that arise through this story. At the end of the day, though, we work within the reality in which we live, and the tools available for wildlife management are constrained by that same reality.

So the real task before us is not to reach agreement on all of our personal opinions and ethics. Instead, we need to agree on an action that will allow us to move forward in making a decision to help us achieve our shared goals, hunters and non-hunters alike: the long-term sustainability of wildlife and the habitat on which they depend.

Cecil: Part 2: Are we all in it together?

You don’t have to look very far these days to find evidence of a tendency towards a polarized and often homogenizing representation of hunting. In the last few days, there have been blanket statements throughout various media that present assumptions, generalizations, and stereotypes as truth about hunting in general. I’ve also seen hunters come forward with proclamations about the enduring honour of hunting as a tradition that is defined and given meaning by its most respectable proponents. Let me say at the outset to those who are engaged in these oversimplifications of hunting: it is wrong to do this. There are a host of social, cultural, and political reasons for this tendency to generalization about hunting, but for many of us, I think there’s an important question surrounding how we handle it when we find ourselves in a situation where we feel as though we need to proudly protect a tradition that we believe in while at the same time needing to consider how our own personal ethics position us in relation to a particular set of events that directly involve hunting.

I think a question faced at some point by most hunters comes down to this: do we need to stand together as a community to protect hunting regardless of our individual approaches, or do we take an ethical stance on particular issues and risk the potential political consequences to hunting of the internal division that may result?

When Cecil the lion (Panthera leo) was killed in Zimbabwe last month, hunters found themselves in this predicament once again. Lions are killed all the time, and many hunters out there probably felt like there was no need for intense discussion about this. I think this story highlights an ongoing important discussion to be had. The details of this particular case created strong reactions in the media and among various social groups, and hunters found themselves in positions where they needed to respond. Canadian hunters The Beasley Brothers, hosts of the show Canada in the Rough, commented that “there is turmoil in the hunting world!” Other well-known hunting personalities, such as Donnie Vincent and Cameron Hanes released responses to the story, indicating that among hunters, there is a perception that when an individual hunter does something legally or ethically questionable, hunting in general is at risk of attack – we talk about the world of hunting being in turmoil, rather than strictly the world of one individual. My own anecdotal experience tells me this too: hunters I know became immediately concerned about how anti-hunters would use the example of Cecil to further their cases, and how this story would reflect on all hunters and on the inherent morality of hunting.

I was expressing this concern to a non-hunting friend of mine, and he was surprised to hear that hunters feel this way, that there was a perception among us that we would all be painted with the same brush. His perspective was that as someone who is not anti-hunting, but who does have certain ethical positions on hunting, he has no problem separating the actions of one from the actions of the many. Further, he saw this as a positive opportunity for other hunters to strengthen their social image through self-reflection and a thoughtful critical analysis of the story. This surprised me and left me questioning whether the world really is applying the actions of individual hunters to all of us or whether we are unnecessarily on the defensive.

On the other hand, anti-hunting advocacy and media is strong, and there are ongoing efforts to limit hunting opportunities and propagate a negative image of hunting. Politically, this takes the form of tightened firearms legislation and efforts to change land policies to prevent hunting. Socially, we see hunters presented on an ideological binary with environmentalists, animal rights activists, and other identity politics groups, and the reinforcement of broad stereotypes and assumptions about hunters.

This situation makes it difficult to predict whether we will strengthen our social and political position by presenting a united front against these forces, or whether we are better off claiming particular ethical niches and taking the risk that we will end up engaged in debates amongst ourselves, taking energy away from advocating for the activity in principle and protecting our legal ability to pursue it. In the first option, there is political strength in numbers, without a doubt. On the other hand, I think it`s important that we all develop our own hunting ethics, and stand firm on these – difficult at times as it may be – because it gives us a sense of certainty that no matter what else happens, we have been honourable, responsible, and respectful hunters.

Some people talk about “ethical hunting” as though it is a universally agreed upon set of prescriptive actions, and people are divided along a clearly identifiable line, defined as either an ethical hunter or an unethical hunter. In reality, your hunting ethics are determined by a combination of considerations that eventually lead to a set of principles guiding how you think about hunting and the strategies and actions you are willing and unwilling to do while in the field. For some, the law is their ethical yardstick, meaning that if something is legal, is it ethical. Others focus more on individually developed standards of what they think is acceptable.  As such, we need to remember that hunting ethics change, however slightly, from person to person and are influenced by various criteria and experiences.

Having said this, there is no shortage of the promotion of this thing called ethical hunting. There are a number of organizations dedicated to promoting ethical hunting, and they have developed some general definitions and guidelines. The Boone and Crockett Club’s Fair Chase Statement outlines six principles for ethical hunting that highlight the importance of a personal code of conduct and behaviour that upholds the honour of the animal being hunted, the environment in which it lives, and maintains the relationship between the hunter and the animal. Orion, The Hunter’s Institute points to the need for hunters to “recognize that education, debate, and thoughtful examination are critical components of developing one’s understanding of his or her hunting ethic”. So hunters are having these deeper discussions on emotional and intellectual levels, and it’s nothing new. The Ontario Hunter Education Program, the official course that all new hunters are required to attend in Ontario, which entails a 70 question test, includes a whole unit on ethical hunting. The Boone and Crockett Club has been having these conversations since it was founded in 1887.

One thing that these types of guidelines perhaps don’t fully account for are the wide-ranging social and economic realities of certain hunting situations (although the Boone and Crockett Club’s statement does reinforce the need to respect local customs). For example, the current circumstances around lion hunting and environmental conservation in a number of African countries have been shaped by global political and economic institutions. It is a complex matter that I discuss more in Part 3 of these discussions on Cecil, but it is important to remember that our personal hunting ethics are (and should be) compounded by complex and changing circumstances that are global in nature.

Again, I think it’s important to be clear about the lens through which I examine the story involving Cecil the lion and the personal biases I bring to the table. For me, this comes back to what I mentioned in my previous post about the need to embrace paradox. Ethical hunting, in my world, means upholding a sense of gratitude and respect in the relationship between the hunter and the animal, and understanding both of their places in the landscape. Vague, yes. Generally speaking, for me, ethical hunting put in practice means eating the animal you’ve killed and conducting your hunt to contribute to conservation. I believe that there are ethical hunts that do not involve eating the animal, because in these cases, there is a distinct ecological role that hunting fulfills. For example, it’s probably very rare that a hunter eats a coyote, but I think the hunt can serve a specific ecological purpose. I also believe that the lion hunt (as an industry) can be ethical practice because it can contribute to conservation. I think the nature of personal ethics is such that an issue can`t always fit neatly into categories of right and wrong, but rather requires constant evaluation and practice.

I like to use examples provided by other people to illustrate my points. It takes some of the onus off me to make sense. In this talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Steven Rinella discusses the important relationship between hunting and conservation and touches on the difficulty in categorizing the concept of “trophy hunting” on the spectrum of ethics, but he still takes a clear position on the essence of the issue. Take a look at about the 6:05 mark in this video to hear his thoughts.

The example of lion hunting, and other analogous cases, present complex circumstances and require equally complex consideration and reflection. I think much of the public reaction has been to a set of ideas which are symbolized by “Cecil the lion”, rather than the specific details of the story. Firstly, particular animals have specific meanings in different cultures, and this impacts the nature of our relationships with them. In this case, I think responses have been emotionally charged because it was not just a lion that was killed, but a social and cultural icon; this individual lion was never going to be presented in a strictly biological way. Secondly, I think a lot of the media and public are reacting to the idea of trophy hunting and its connotations, rather than the complex social and political realities of the lion hunting industry. As such, the various ethical responses and condemnations that have emerged are partially a result of the meaning given to this story by cultural norms.

Our responses to these sorts of issues require rigorous and nuanced ethical reflections with careful attention to the specificities of the stories, and we need to engage in these discussions so we can sort out our individual and collective understandings. Some might say that this is too tall of an order for the average person, particularly the average hunter who just wants to hunt, not deconstruct everything about what they do; however, I don’t think this gives hunters due credit. I think there is a large and growing contingent of hunters who want to engage with complex intellectual discussions about what we do, and I take great pride in being part of that community. For a great example of one of these discussions, check out this podcast.

The stereotype of the idiot, bubba hunter is a fading concept. To those hunters out there clinging to an idea of themselves as impervious to the need for critical reflection, it’s time to catch up. But to be honest, I know very few people who I might classify in this group, and I think it’s time we begin to associate hunters with thoughtful intellectuals just as much as we associate them with strong sportsmen and women. Interestingly, I have yet to hear any hunters I know or follow unequivocally defend the actions of Walter Palmer and his hunting guides. I’ve heard both complete dismissal of these three individuals as representatives of hunters at large, and I’ve heard more gentle comments about particular actions they took, but in all cases, hunters are thinking deeply about these issues.

Where does this leave me? My response to where I position myself in relation to the three individuals involved in this case is fairly simple. In the question about whether we are all in it together, I think the answer is no.

While I have not spoken to Walter Palmer or his guides and therefore cannot know with absolute certainty their intentions or what they knew about the circumstances (and no matter what anyone thinks, if you aren’t them, you can’t know), I have an ethical problem with the way that it appears this hunt was conducted. Now, if it had turned out that everything was legal, although my own personal ethics diverge from this type of hunting, I accept it; however, given what we think we know, if even one law was broken here, I cannot accept it as hunting. Hunting is a tradition and a way of life that is defined by honour and respect, and I don’t see those values upheld in this story (as the details have so far been presented). I see wasted meat, dishonesty, and disrespect to the individual animal, the species, and the landscape of which it is a part. So I don’t stand with individuals like that, and I don’t support them.

Instead, I take pride in embracing the opportunity for honest, critical self-reflection about my own ethical code. I’m happy to take the risk of making a statement and taking a stand on an issue, because I believe it will strengthen hunting as a way of life. If I change my mind in the future based on new knowledge and experiences, then I will be open about that and embrace it. I believe we need to act thoughtfully on the knowledge we have and understand how we reconcile it with our own ethics and what we want to build for the future of hunting, and I’m in it with others who want to do this.

I’ll leave off with a note to non-hunters out there who are giving their opinions about hunters and hunting: please take the time to have these conversations with us; don’t jump to conclusions; don’t act on assumptions; be honest in your dialogue with hunters and in your knowledge about hunting; if you don’t know from personal experience, take the time to learn; this is your responsibility too.

Cecil: Part 1: Let’s talk about what we’re talking about

One of my hesitations with social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, even blogging) is the inherent difficulty in using these tools to discuss issues that are located in a large and complex grey area of social opinion and politics. However, increasingly, news websites seem to be showing Twitter responses as part of their coverage, so there’s no denying that these are important platforms for engaging with current issues. This does not mean that we need to simplify our discussions to a watered down understanding of an issue to make it more readable. Given that, my approach to this topic takes place in a number of parts, each focusing on a different facet of the story.

By now, most people have probably heard about the hunter who killed a lion in Zimbabwe named Cecil, resulting in extensive news coverage and an outpouring of social media attention. One of the problems I see happening with this story is that many people are approaching it from different angles and experiences, but they’re all trying to have the same conversation. This is very difficult to do, because when we think we’re talking about the same thing, but aren’t, or are talking about the same thing, but don’t think we are, it leads to misunderstanding and conflict.

We need to know what we’re talking about.

I want to be upfront about how my personal baggage informs my mental organization of this issue. To do this, I’ll outline the range of more nuanced issues that I think are at play here so that I can discuss them individually and with specificity. For me, here are the things I’m thinking about in relation to this story:

  1. The effect of media representation and language on public perceptions;
  2. The decision about whether, as hunters, to defend or ostracize;
  3. The concern among hunters that stories like this puts all hunters in the same category;
  4. The importance of knowing the scientific facts about the animal and its ecology;
  5. The need to understand the politics and economics of conservation.

So these five sub-topics are really the ones that are the most important for me in this issue, and indeed in many other stories in the media involving hunting. I think it’s hard for me to talk about this without partially compartmentalizing each of these considerations and focusing on them somewhat individually. This is not to say that there aren’t other important issues, or even that these points are arranged in a hierarchy of importance. My opinion on this story is also informed by a combination of each of these more specific issues; this is just how I organize my thoughts.

One of the most important things for me in discussing an issue like this one is having the willingness and ability to embrace what people might perceive as paradox: to be able to say that I think what Walter Palmer and his hunting guides did was wrong, but that I still defend hunting; that I really have no personal interest in hunting a lion, but that I do not disagree with lion hunting; that killing this individual lion might have been wrong for sociocultural reasons, but that I understand the ecology of the species enough to know that it wasn’t necessarily wrong on a biological level; and that even if I disagree with the way certain people hunts, I am ok with it as long as it is legal. In other words, it’s possible to have multiple opinions about different aspects of an issue.

I’ll discuss this issue in three parts: Part 1 will focus on the first point; Part 2 will address points 2 & 3; and Part 3 will address points 4 & 5.

Part 1:
The way media and language frame this issue has a profound effect on how people perceive and talk about it.

Subconscious perceptions informed by value-laden language ultimately have tremendous consequences for how meaningfully I can have discussions with people about my other four points.

I’ll say that so far, I have mixed feelings about the way media has covered the story. I’m not a media analyst; I have no professional training in this, only my own perceptions and reactions to the language used in the media. This is also not a systematic selection of media, just a couple examples to illustrate my point.

The first coverage I saw about this was a CBC article that covered Jimmy Kimmel’s reaction to the killing of ‘Cecil the lion’. Now,  right up front, we need to recognize that the very fact that this lion had a name imbues the whole story with a sociocultural importance that would likely not be present if the lion were presented as a nameless, wild, apex predator, living in a wild habitat, doing wild things. A discussion of the effects of anthropomorphizing animals is out of my scope here, but these analyses exist, and suffice to say that giving the lion a name changes its significance for the general public. I’m not commenting on whether this is right or wrong; I’m only recognizing that it changes the nature of the issue. Would we still care about lions as a species? Yes. Would we feel the same personal attachment to the individual lion? Probably not.

Framing of Hunters as People:
Right from the outset, CBC describes the hunter as someone “who hunts big game for sport”. This is a loaded statement. I hunt big game, and consider myself engaged in athletic endeavours when doing so. The use of the term “trophy hunter” has also been prevalent. Describing any hunter in this way leaves out a whole range of important points about, for example, what the person does with the meat, their financial contribution and dedication to conservation (granted, we know what Palmer did with the meat, but I’m speaking generally about the use of this language), and the ecological effects of removing certain individuals from wildlife populations. Both Jimmy Kimmel and Johnny Rodrigues, chairmen of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, make comments about hunters being sexually inadequate or simply as people “who’ve got an ego. They’re bored with their lives“. I can tell you, with complete certainty, that neither of these two things are issues for me. In any case, this kind of language presents such a strong value judgment on the motivations of hunters as a whole, not only Walter Palmer, that is simply not true or encompassing of the activity.

Perceptions of Hunting Ethics:
There also seems to be a large focus on the fact that Palmer used a crossbow to shoot the lion, as if that somehow makes it inherently unethical. Let’s remember that bows are capable of delivery tremendous amounts of energy to kill animals by hemorrhaging. This does not make them less effective than guns. Perhaps the particular shot that Palmer took was unsafe, unethical, and ineffective, but the language focusing on the fact that he used a crossbow is dangerous and misrepresentative of the effectiveness of bowhunting.

Simplifications of the Conservation Issue:
Multiple articles also highlight the fact that Palmer paid around $54 000 to kill the lion. This particular issue is more related to my fifth point above about the politics of conservation, and I’ll address this more comprehensively in another post; however, noting only the amount of money Palmer paid does not appropriately represent the full issue of paying large amounts of money for hunting opportunities. It’s an important point and has much more relevance than simply showing that he is an arrogant rich man, but this kind of language evokes emotional responses from people that are inevitably antagonistic to the idea of paying for killing, rather than the actual long-term effects of this system.

The Use of Euphemisms:
On the other side of the discussion, Kimmel tells Palmer to “Stop saying you took the Lion. You take Aspirin. You killed the lion”. I agree. He killed the lion. I always use the word kill, because I think we need to give things a name, not a euphemism. I also don’t think that what we do when we kill an animal is wrong, so I don’t mind using the word kill. I would rather honestly embrace the emotional response from the reality of what we do than try to shield others from it. I tend to agree with Kimmel here that if Palmer is attempting to soften the language he is using, it isn’t working. However, I would also caution against the association of killing with wrong that can sometimes be implied with statements like this.

Now, I’m not disputing the facts presented by these articles, and this particular post is not about my personal opinion on the story (I’ll get to that in the other posts about this). I only want to draw attention to the point that our choice of language has dramatic implications for how people react to and think about issues. When we discuss issues as controversial and far-reaching as this, and share strong opinions about them, we need to remember what we’re talking about and choose our words carefully. I think we need to be careful to speak only about the particular case we want to be talking about, and not imply truths about the broader issues involved.  If we’re not talking about hunters or hunting or lion conservation in general, then let’s not use language that conveys value judgments about those topics. Let’s present facts unencumbered by personal feelings about them and at the same time be aware of how our feelings and perceptions are informed by the language used to discuss an issue.