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.

Castor canadensis: Keystone Species, Canadian National Symbol, and Awesome

The beaver (Castor canadensis) is one of North America’s most fascinating, beautiful, and industrious species (and super tasty). Many of my posts relate directly to hunting, but the goal is to discuss a range of issues and topics relevant to conservation. This one is an endorsement for giving the beaver our full respect and appreciation as an integral component of the ecosystems we cherish and as an honourable national animal for Canada. Seriously, I think the beaver is one of the most incredible animals in North America.

The North American beaver

The North American beaver

Currently, there are only two species of beaver in the world, the North American beaver that most of us are familiar with, and the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber). However, during the Pleistocene, there was a genus of giant beavers (Castoroides) that lived in North America, from Florida to the Yukon. Giant beavers were not actually related to modern beavers, but shared a close physical resemblance, with larger, sharper front teeth. They were much larger than modern beavers, measuring upwards of six feet long and weighing over 200 pounds. The giant beaver went extinct sometime during the megafaunal collapse at the end of the Pleistocene, the period from roughly 2.5 million years ago to 12,000 years ago, which marked the end of the last ice age.

Skeleton of a giant beaver

Skeleton of a giant beaver

One thing I hear a lot from landowners and outdoors people is that beavers are nuisances, flooding or drying up land without regard for how inconvenient this may be for humans. My first, admittedly callous reaction, is that’s what beavers do, and they’ve been doing it for a lot longer than you’ve been feeling personally affronted by it. On a more engaging level, I also suggest to those people that it’s not exactly without regard for human needs. In fact, the resulting ecological changes from beaver activity provide important services that benefit humans.

Beavers are considered a keystone species for their roles in altering and creating habitat. What this means is that if we remove beavers from an ecosystem, it changes the entire structure and function of that ecosystem. Numerous other species lose habitat, food and water sources, and with those changes there is a reduction in local biodiversity. Beaver activity creates critical habitat for fish, birds, turtles, frogs, ducks, and some of these are in turn important food sources for many other species, including otters, foxes, and birds of prey. The ecological interactions that are created by beavers are literally too numerous to fully describe here.

Beaver lodge

Beaver lodge

In addition, the wetland habitats created from beaver flooding provide ecosystem services that are crucial to maintaining healthy environments and provide direct benefits to humans. Wetlands filter and purify water, refill aquifers, mitigate erosion, prevent droughts, and control floods (seems counterintuitive perhaps since beavers flood land, but this actually provides a form of flood control for other areas). Wetlands are one of the world’s most critical and productive habitats, and they are being destroyed at alarming rates.

But the beaver hasn’t always enjoyed the gratitude and platitudes it deserves. In 2011, Canadian Senator Nicole Eaton offered her opinion that Canada should trade in a “19th-century has-been for a 21st-century hero”, suggesting that the beaver is not worthy of being Canada’s national animal. Instead, Senator Eaton proposed the polar bear replace the beaver. It’s not that I don’t have tremendous respect for the polar bear (in fact, my graduate work is focused on Arctic marine species, including polar bears). What troubles me is Ms. Eaton’s clear lack of knowledge about beaver ecology and biology, yet her belief that she is suitably positioned to make such strong statements about the value of the beaver and whether it possesses the qualities with which Canadians should be proud to be associated (she literally reduced the animal to a “dentally defective rat”).

In addition to the deliberate work to create and continuously maintain critical habitat, scientists have discovered some unintended benefits of beaver activity. Beaver ponds (the area of land flooded by the creation of dams) may be the answer to our nitrogen problems.

The massive expansion of agriculture in North America over the last century created a demand for increased productivity and yields. Nitrogen is a key nutrient for plant growth and agricultural processes eventually lead to nitrogen depletion in soils. In 1888, two scientists discovered that leguminous plants remove nitrogen from the air and add it to soils, a process known as nitrogen fixation. In 1909, two German chemists created a process through which nitrogen could be artificially produced for addition to soils, eventually leading to the invention of soil fertilizers.

Although fertilizers lead to substantially increased crop yield, the addition of massive amounts of nitrogen to soils has created problems for marine ecosystems. Rain water washes fertilizers containing nitrogen from agricultural fields into nearby streams and rivers. When nitrogen eventually flows into estuaries it stimulates algal blooms. The decomposition that results from increased algal growth eventually de-oxygenates marine ecosystems (a state known as hypoxia) and creates massive dead zones. One of the more famous dead zones is in the Gulf of Mexico.

Don’t worry. Beavers are here to save the day. Researchers from the University of Rhode Island have discovered that the ecology of beaver ponds makes them quite effective at removing nitrogen. In a paper published this past September, Julia G. Lazar and co-authors explain that bacteria found in the organic material and soil of beaver ponds  transform nitrate into nitrogen gas which then bubbles to the surface and mixes with the air. In their experiments, the researchers found that beaver ponds were able to remove up to 45% of the nitrogen from the system.

I hope that discoveries like this encourage more appreciation for the important ecological functions of beavers. We already knew that the habitat created by beavers performs valuable ecosystem services benefitting humans, but now we can add a service that benefits environmental health many miles downstream of beaver habitat. Beavers are complex animals, quietly and diligently going about their work. People may not think they are the most charismatic species, but I think they possess all the qualities that we should value and measure ourselves against.

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.

01_Schwarzbär (1)

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: