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.

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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.

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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.

Hunting as land ethic; or, why hunting is one method of active conservation

As a hunter, I am simultaneously a conservationist. My understanding of this role includes everything one associates with the word: naturalist, animal lover, environmentalist, manager, activist.

There are many reasons that I hunt. Here, I want to articulate how I conceptualize the relationship between my bow and arrow and my role in conservation. In other words, how can hunting be enacted as land ethic? Before I get into it though, a point of order to set the tone of the conversation.

I hear many conversations around hunting begin and progress the same way, generally depending on whether the conversation involves hunters or some combination of hunters and non-hunters (I differentiate non-hunter from anti-hunter). Depending on the scenario and people involved, I have repeatedly seen one of two problems develop. When the conversation is between two hunters, it often involves both of them reinforcing why their motivations to hunt are ethically and ecologically sound, reasons they’ve both given and heard hundreds of times and that, while factually true and ethically defensible, are nothing new by this point and long ago ceased challenging them intellectually. Both people eventually leave the conversation with their preconceived beliefs reinforced and secured. The problem here is that we sometimes resist the opportunity to truly challenge ourselves and explore new ideas, simply because we don’t need to.

Conversations involving hunters and non-hunters too often take the following course: the hunter presents a series of reasons why hunting is ethically and ecologically superior to purchasing meat from the store and why he/she is doing more for conservation than the non-hunter. For their part, I often hear non-hunters rely on cultural or media stereotypes, such as claims around animal rights or welfare. I think reliance on preconceived stereotypes can sometimes be a strategy to mask their own uncertain feelings about hunting and avoidance in having to honestly engage with these feelings. The problem with this scenario is that one person is discussing apples while the other is discussing oranges, and neither is really looking for the opportunity to try a new fruit, but rather just to prove that their choice is better.

The issue that I see in these exchanges – and one that I think derails many conversations that involve issues as complex as hunting – is people talking at one another, rather than listening to one another. There’s a great conversation to be had about the merits and joys of hunting, if only we could discuss these on a personal level and cater the conversation to the person with whom we are speaking. Don’t confuse adjusting our approach with pandering; it’s not the same thing. In addition, as hunters, we have great insight to offer about the very legitimate unease people feel about killing animals. Throwing elaborate scientific facts at someone who has an ethical block to the idea of killing animals will not help them understand; conversely, trying to convince someone of our moral superiority in gathering our own food when they are concerned about the effect of hunting on wildlife populations won’t move our case forward.

I believe that hunting is an important tool in the conservation of nature and maintenance of healthy wildlife populations. In fact, perhaps few people realize that when modern wildlife management began in North American, hunting was the central focus of this work and the primary tool used by managers. This, at the same time, is the basis for my ethical position on hunting. I believe it is ethical because of the positive benefits it contributes to conservation. In my case, my ethics are developed based on the science of hunting. I understand that this isn’t the case for everyone, but if we can agree on some basic facts, I believe that we can at least respect the direction we each take in developing our own personal ethics. At the end of the day, conservation is about making decisions, and even if we feel uneasy about the particular methods, understanding the facts will help us determine an effective course of action to address shared priorities.

A point that often comes up is that hunters contribute piles of money each year to wildlife management and habitat conservation efforts. This is true. In fact, the majority of money that is used for wildlife management efforts is generated through the sale of hunting licenses and tags (the pieces of paper that allow a hunter to kill an individual animal, such as a deer or a bear). Many of the conservation organizations out there are funded by a membership composed largely of hunters and anglers, meaning that, for example, most of the wetland conservation activities in Canada are funded by hunters. Wetlands, for their part, are absolutely integral to water filtration and are critical habitat for an abundance of wildlife. So the financial contribution of hunters is true, and it’s a valid case. The problem is that this point can be extended beyond its reach, with some hunters then presuming to claim without exception that hunters do more than non-hunters for conservation and that the work hunters do is inherently more valuable. Period, end of discussion.

If someone tells me they don’t hunt, but that they are dedicated to conservation, I ask them what they do. When they tell me that they volunteer for a local organization in their community, or donate to an environmental NGO, or do everything they can to conserve water in their own home, or compost, or anything else, I say great. I love it. Good for you, and thank you. It does no good for me to value what I do more than what someone else does. When they ask what I do? I tell them I hunt. One of these activities isn’t more important than the other. Sure, we can put a monetary value on our contributions, but why? For most people who are acting because of a sense of moral or emotional motivation, that won’t convince them that what I do is more valuable. (Having said this, the economic argument is actually a legitimate and established strategy to convince people of the value of conservation. For example, ecologists have attempted to put a monetary value on certain ecosystem services, such as wetlands, to convince people of the importance in their protection, but I’m not talking about that.)

Here’s how I think about it. When I pick up my bow and step outside to go on a hunt, I’m simultaneously thinking about the entire species of the animal I’m hunting, the local population of that species, the family group on the property I’m hunting, and the individual animal that I hope to kill. I understand how the removal of one deer might affect population and reproductive dynamics, and the habitat and the other animals in the area. As a result, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that my actions are having positive benefits for the overall health of the species I’m hunting and the other species that interact with it.

As an example, let’s consider the most popular big game animal hunted in North America, the whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Whitetail deer populations exploded in North America as a result of the reorganization and modification of land for modern agriculture, which creates perfect habitat for deer. Many people would say this is great; it is great, but those deer also have to continue to eat and find suitable habitat.

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For the purposes of space, let’s focus on two points: every year, a certain number of deer are born, and given the finite space and food available in any area of habitat, a certain number of deer will die. They will die in great numbers from vehicle collisions, and they will die throughout the winter as a result of starvation and predation by other animals. Whenever a population of wildlife outgrows the ability of its habitat to support it (a term referred to by ecologists as “carrying capacity”), some individuals of that population will die, but not before many other members of the population suffer some form of malnutrition and stress due to competition for resources.

So the overall point here is that in order for all deer to be healthy, the population must remain at or below a certain number of individuals, a number that is determined by habitat characteristics. All things being equal, the rate at which the population reaches this upper limit is a function of the sex ratio (number of males and females) and age structure (the number of individuals at breeding age) of the population. That’s just how biology works. Each spring-summer, a doe (female deer) can give birth to 1-2 fawns, depending on her own health. If environmental or nutritional conditions are difficult (poor food sources or quality, a winter with heavy snowfall, etc.), reproductive capacity suffers. If there are too many females in the population, the population may increase too quickly.

So you can see that nothing happens in isolation: we need to maintain healthy deer to produce healthy deer. Hunting season for whitetail deer is in the fall during their annual breeding season, and the number of individuals of each sex that hunters are allowed to kill is strictly regulated to maintain healthy deer and healthy deer populations. The goal is to continue to ensure that the resources available in a given habitat can support the number of deer in that area throughout the winter, thus ensuring that does can give birth to healthy fawns in the spring, and so on and so forth.

Therefore, by removing 1-2 deer of a specific sex from an area of habitat through managed hunting, hunters are part of a larger effort and directly contributing to maintaining healthy deer populations and healthy habitats. I help to ensure that the remaining deer that are not killed by hunters can access enough food and habitat throughout the winter; I’m reducing the likelihood that either the deer I killed or others in the area will be hit by a car because they’re forced to search farther for resources; and I’m helping to ensure that individual deer will not be forced into such strong competition for resources with one another that they will die from malnutrition or exhaustion.

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So whatever our thoughts on the act of killing, I recognize that I need to accept that removing certain individual animals from a population is necessary. Our own feelings and ethics around this are certainly individual. For me, knowing that I am thoughtfully engaged in carefully planned and effective conservation activities gives me a strong belief that what I am doing is morally right (for me). I like the knowledge that I am contributing to maintaining healthy wildlife populations. Does this diminish the emotions that I face in killing animals? No. Those are real. Does it mean I haphazardly choose the equipment (gun or bow) that I use to hunt? No. I put a great deal of thought into how those decisions change the nature of the hunt. Is hunting easy? No. It takes a great deal of preparation, practice, and dedication to be successful, an outcome that is in great measure determined by the guarantee that the animal dies quickly and with as little stress as possible.

For now, I’m motivated by the knowledge that there are a diversity of ways to engage in conservation, that many people out there are doing their own thing, that the combination of all of our actions is what will make a difference, and that supporting everyone’s conservation choices and capitalizing on opportunities for agreement will make this important task successful.

For me, I’ll keep picking up my bow and hunting.

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Perfect July evening for some practice

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A little outdoor shooting in the summer. Perfect weather tonight to let some arrows fly and stretch it out to 60 yards. We have just over one month until our black bear hunt, and we’ve been preparing all year, so now it’s just time to keep things tight.

Maybe I’ll put a post up about bears and bear hunting leading up to our September 1 hunt. Bear ecology and management is some interesting stuff.

Setting the Stage: My Position as a Hunter-Conservationist

The idea of this blog is to explore a topic that is controversial to many, and perhaps for the most profound reasons that a topic can be controversial. Eliciting a wide and diverse spectrum of opinions and feelings, hunting is a topic that involves complex ecological, political, cultural, and ethical dimensions. Considered this way, it’s hard to deny that it’s worth earnest and sincere discussion.

My intention is not to win anyone over to any side in an issue; it is not to lobby for anything or to prove a political point; and it’s not to use moralist and rhetorical arguments that are beyond critical reflection. Having said that, I suppose my purpose is simply to request that people consider that there is a rationality and honesty in the following statement: hunting is my way of taking an active role in conservation.

I’ve had people say to me that they could not hunt because they are animal lovers. My response is always the same: “So am I; that’s why I hunt.” Often, this is followed by a somewhat understandable sense of confusion about how someone can love animals and be ok with killing them.

As hunters, we often take this seemingly paradoxical feeling for granted. We know that many other hunters understand this feeling, and that many non-hunters will have great difficulty understanding it.

Sometimes, I will try to explain the way that hunters embrace the emotional complexity that comes with hunting; how we learn to understand the paradoxes that define the natural world; how the most intensely personal experiences with nature and wildlife come from hunting; how our relationship with animals takes place on a level that defies simplistic emotional categorization; how we take pride in procuring our own healthy food; how it enables us to develop an enhanced understanding of our own biology, evolution, and role in the landscapes we are part of; how hunting gives us the ability to observe the natural world on a level that can only be experienced by engaging with it on a species-to-species level; and how hunting is a critical component of environmental management and conservation.

Other times, the sentiment that we can simultaneously love the animals we seek to kill is best expressed by Steven Rinella in his book American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon,

“For now, I rely on a response that is admittedly glib: I just do, and I always will.”