A Comment on Endangered Species

 

This post was sparked by a recent piece written by Steven Rinella, who discussed the terminology and legalities of endangered species in the United States. While the U.S. and Canadian contexts have many similarities, I thought it might be interesting to offer some information on the ecological and legal meanings of the various species at risk classifications in Canada. I’ve also encountered more than one comment that a particular hunted species is endangered, so there is at least some degree of misunderstanding about how the species at risk system works both in Canada and internationally and what these classifications mean.

Above the 49th parallel, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is responsible for assessing individual wildlife species and recommending species that should be protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). COSEWIC was established in 1977, as a national independent committee of experts, to identify, assess, and classify species at risk in Canada. In 2003, the Canadian government passed SARA to provide legal protections and determine recovery strategies for species at risk. COSEWIC now acts as an advisory board, submitting its assessments to Environment and Climate Change Canada for final decision about whether to list a species under SARA.

Under COSEWIC’s assessment process, there are seven status categories: not at risk (NAR), data deficient (DD), special concern (SC), threatened (T), endangered (E), extirpated (XT), and extinct (X).

Status_COSEWIC.svg

Some quick definitions: extinct means that the species no longer exists anywhere. This differs from extirpated, which refers to a species that still exists but has disappeared from a part of its range (such as wild turkeys in Ontario in the 19th century).  Endangered means that a species is facing extirpation or extinction. Threatened refers to a species that is not yet endangered but is likely to become endangered if no action is taken. Special concern means that a species may become threatened or endangered due to a combination of threats. So it’s important to remember that just because there are concerns about a species, this doesn’t mean it is endangered.

Internationally, the IUCN, established in 1964, is an inventory of species classified along similar criteria. The IUCN system includes 9 categories: not evaluated and data deficient; least concern and near threatened; vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered; extinct in the wild and extinct.

categories_chart_global_v3

COSEWIC assessments consider a combination of criteria, including a species’ population and habitat status, trends, and threats. As an example of how an assessment would recommend a particular status, a species would be considered endangered if the number of mature individuals shows a decline of 70% of more over 3 generations (or 10 years, whichever is longer). This decline can be a result of observed reduction in actual numbers, deterioration of habitat quality, a reduction in extent of area occupied by the species, exploitation/over harvesting, or factors such as diseases and pollutants. Species may also be considered endangered when they have small ranges, drastic fluctuations in population, or fragmented populations. COSEWIC assessments specifically exclude consideration of the socioeconomic costs or benefits to listing a species.

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Atlantic salmon. Photo: Tom Moffatt/Atlantic Salmon Federation

Part of the intent (and benefit) of having separate bodies responsible for assessing a species and its actual listing under species at risk legislation is to maintain a separation between the science (COSEWIC) and politics (SARA) of endangered species. In other words, science makes recommendations for a species’ status, but the decision to list a species is made by elected officials who are accountable to a voting public.

The problem with this system is also the separation of science and politics.

The multistep process between submission of a COSEWIC report to the Minister (of Environment and Climate Change Canada) and a final decision on whether or not to list a species under SARA includes a 90 day window during which the Minister publishes “Response Statements” indicating how he/she intends to respond to the COSEWIC assessment, followed by a review by the Governor in Council (GIC), who (on the advice of the Minister) will make a final decision to either list the species, not list the species, or send the assessment back to COSEWIC to request more information. The decision about whether to list a species is therefore a political decision that does take into account the socioeconomic costs of the decision. Only after a species is listed under SARA is it afforded legal protections. At this point, the species’ critical habitat must be identified and management plans and recovery strategies must be designed.

A note about how the Canadian system compares to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the United States. A 2013 study published in the journal Bioscience compared the Canadian and American systems and recommended that they could each benefit from adopting some of the strengths of the other. In particular, this study suggested that the American system could benefit from an overarching national scientific body responsible for all species assessments. On the other hand, the ESA has stricter timelines, and listing decisions in the U.S. are not permitted to consider socioeconomic costs.

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Allegheny mountain dusky salamander. Photo: Phil Myers/Ontario Nature

I personally agree that socioeconomic factors should be kept out of decisions on whether to afford legal protections to species at risk. These decisions should also not be determined by the priorities of the political party of the day. Perhaps I am taking an overly narrow or romanticized position here, but if a species is in any way at risk of extirpation or extinction, we should be doing everything in our power to protect the species and its habitat.

In fact, there is some basis for my disdain of political involvement in species at risk legislation. Multiple studies have found that harvested species and northern species are less likely to be listed under SARA. For example, a 2007 report profiled 8 northern and marine species that were not listed despite COSEWIC recommendations. For instance, beginning in 1991, multiple COSEWIC assessments have recommended that polar bears be listed as special concern, but they were only listed under SARA in 2011. This particular species example is somewhat of a political storm that is not the topic of this post, but it does illustrate the complications that politics introduce into this issue (though I will say that part of the decision not to list a number of northern species is due to the need to consult with wildlife co-management organizations that protect Inuit rights to wildlife, an issue I strongly support).

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Beluga whale. Photo: Greg Hume

Regardless of my personal opinion, the real meat and potatoes question is whether or not species at risk legislation works. Does it do what it is supposed to do – lead to recovery of endangered species and protection of habitat? In the U.S., there is a notable example of species at risk legislation working in the case of grizzly bears. On our side of the border, a 2014 study examined cases of species that have been assessed more than once by COSEWIC, indicating that at least some time had passed for recovery strategies to work. This study found that out of 369 species that fit this criteria, 47% of species initially classified as special concern deteriorated in status (later being classified as threatened or worse). Only 20 species out of 369 received a “not at risk assessment” after initially being assessed as one of the at risk categories (special concern, threatened, etc.). The number of species that deteriorated in status outnumbered those that recovered by approximately 2 to 1. In addition, there is a general gap in identifying species’ critical habitat, meaning that fully effective implementation of recovery plans is impossible.

So the problem is that our species at risk legislation is not working well enough. Might it be doing everything it can? Perhaps. Am I satisfied with the results when even 1 species shows a deterioration in status? No.

What all of this points to is the urgent need to protect habitat. We can do everything we want to try to protect individual species, but without healthy habitat, it won’t be enough. We also need to follow the precautionary principle in every case of a species at risk to ensure we minimize the chances we take with its future survival. We need to make habitat and species protection a management priority in Canada (and of course beyond). This means that species at risk legislation needs to be timely in developing recovery strategies and strict in their implementation. Further, COSEWIC assessments, and therefore SARA listings, only consider the Canadian range of a species, even though its full range and ecological role may extend across borders. I would argue that we need to be taking action at the scale of a species’ historic range and ecology, not merely on a national scale limited by political borders. This will take internationally coordinated effort, and it’s worth the work.

Having said all this, I should also note that I’m not demonizing the system. I’ve said it before, but I have an immense pride in the North American model of wildlife conservation. There have been tremendous successes in the record of species that have come precipitously close to extinction and been recovered. But pride should not preclude critical reflection and a drive to improve. We also need to be accurate in our conversations. The next time someone comments about how hunters kill endangered species, take the opportunity to explain that this is not true. Though there is room for improvement in their management, there is no hunting season for any endangered species. Remember also that many of the biggest successes in actions on endangered species have been thanks to hunter dollars and efforts.

Hope Springs Eternal in the Turkey Woods

I have a enormous sense of affection for wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo). I cringe every time I hear someone say that wild turkeys are ugly, unintelligent, or otherwise unworthy of our admiration. More than likely, if someone thinks a wild turkey is ugly, that person has probably never been up close to one. The colour of their feathers is almost impossible to pinpoint and when examined up close on a sunny day, has a shimmer that is hard to overstate. I’ll concede, their head looks like something that might have been drawn by someone with a complete disdain for colouring inside the lines (then again, so are many of the most celebrated art masterpieces); however, wild turkeys are big, beautiful birds whose ability to gobble a spring predawn forest to life is unparalleled.

Source: CWTF

Source: CWTF

In Ontario, we also have a lot to be thankful for with regard to the eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris), and they deserve our respect. Wild turkeys were extirpated from Ontario by 1909, as a result of unregulated hunting and changing land organization, in particular habitat loss due to the clearing of land for agricultural expansion.  In 1984, efforts began to reintroduce wild turkeys to Ontario, and in 1987, trap and transfer programs expanded the range of birds to additional areas of the province. From an estimated 4, 400 birds initially released throughout Ontario, the 2007 estimated population of wild turkeys stood at more than 70, 000. Thanks to hunting and conservation organizations like the OFAH and CWTF, the population is now believed to be even higher and the status of wild turkeys in Ontario is stable and healthy. The first regulated wild turkey hunt in Ontario took place in 1987, and there has since been an expansion to new management units, an additional season implemented, and an increase in limits.

I absolutely love turkey hunting. Wild turkeys were the first species I hunted, and I live in what I think is one of the most beautiful areas of Ontario (the Kawartha Lakes region), so to a certain extent, I credit them with bringing me into the world of hunting. The spring turkey hunt holds just as much excitement for me as the opening day of the deer hunt. I suppose part of this is because my experience hunting turkeys has been defined by a collage of wonderful juxtapositions. I’ve actively hunted these birds for 5 spring seasons; I’ve yet to be successful. As days grow longer in the spring, we get increasingly more time to hunt; this of course also means the alarm is set earlier each day. As the days warm, there are few things in life better than spending an afternoon basking in the sun under a tree; then, the mosquitos can be unbearable by mid-season and make sitting still next to impossible. The sound of toms (male turkeys) gobbling just before the sun comes up is both haunting and adrenaline-inducing; the sight or sound of them flying down from the roost in the opposite direction from you can be agonizing.

Wild turkeys are somewhat of a perfect combination of the characteristics that define other hunts: you can hunt them with gun or bow; you call them, and they call back; they require patience and discipline; you hunt them while they are fired right up and focused on breeding; they have a fascinating natural and cultural history; they have their own set of sensory advantages over us, adding a big challenge to their pursuit. Yet, unlike virtually any other big game species, you might as well give up all hope of any kind of spot and stalk strategy to hunt them. This means that a very familiar situation for a turkey hunter is hearing a bird screaming at you just out of sight – over a hill, across a fence row, behind some trees – and being completely unable to pursue the source of the call.

In other words, wild turkey hunting is both wildly addictive and intensely frustrating. It’s probably the combination of these that makes this species such a perfect representation of what hunting means to me, what keeps me coming back for more, and will have me out in the turkey woods every spring.

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Guest Blog: Tracking, the Eyes of the Hunter

This post was written by a good friend of mine, Caleb Musgrave. Caleb and I have hunted together, spent time working in the woods, and discussed a range of topics related to hunting and wildlife. Caleb runs Canadian Bushcraft and he has a depth of knowledge about being in the outdoors. One of his skills is tracking, and he wanted to give an introduction to some of the things we should understand to become a good tracker. Thanks, Caleb.

So, you want to hunt big game. You got your hunting license, your tags, and your weapon of choice. You got all the right gear, and you spent the time at the range making your aim as lethally accurate as you can. Deer Shed But now you’re in the field, and you have no idea where to go from here. Yeah, you may see the occasional footprint from an animal, but how do you know it is from your quarry?  And how do you know it is recent enough to make it worth following? On several occasions annually, Search-and-Rescue are called in to find lost hunters who were following elk, moose or mule deer tracks that were over a month old. So this is not some unlikely scenario. And even if you are plumb lucky and see a deer or moose, then shoot it. Now what? Where did it go? Are you sure?

Tracking is a vital component to any hunter’s mental toolkit. It helps you find game, before and after dispatching. It helps you understand what predators may be pressuring the animals in your area. It helps you understand what foods are being eaten by your quarry. It identifies so much more than simply seeing a deer, rabbit or turkey ever could.

Raccoon Tracks

The truth is, tracking is the oldest science our species has ever developed. Many animals track by scent, and through that system, they can discern species, gender, age of activity, and even the age and health of the animal they are tracking. However, we – as humans – do not have the olfactory system made for such an endeavour. We do however have sight on our side, and the ability to discern differences in the environment. Being able to identify a track, trail or other sign left over by animals, our ancestors were able to read all of the details needed to find, kill and bring home meat for their families. The Saan People of Namibia and Botswana, the Lipan Apache of Texas and Mexico, and many other Indigenous peoples still carry the knowledge of reading the ground like a newspaper. Biologists, naturalists and professional guides have also learned the science of tracking for their daily living as well -though from a more western perspective.

For us, as hunters, or supporters of wildlife conservation, there is a lot to take in if we wish to learn how to track. One of the first things I want to emphasize is humility. This article, and no amount of time spent tracking will ever make you perfect at it. I’ve seen some of the best trackers in Canada and the States get stumped. Tracking is not easy. But it is vital if we wish to be good, effective hunters. So learn to take your mistakes openly, and when you don’t know? Just say so. Admit it, and move forward.

So before we go too far into how to track an animal, let’s discuss how to find tracks. When you come into an environment (field, swamp, forest, dirt trail, etc), stop, breathe deeply and slow the hell down. You are going to miss details, and those details will be the ones you need. Expand your vision beyond your own set of feet, and examine your surroundings. Look at the dirt. Now really look at it. Study it until you’ve picked out every individual stone. What you are looking for is the baseline symphony of life. This sounds confusing, doesn’t it? Okay, how about we delve deeper.

The Baseline Symphony of the forest is what everything looks like normal. Rain, wind and other variables of the elements have all impacted the land around us. Dirt has been buffeted by breezes, and pounded smooth by rain. When a deer trots through that dirt, it will leave dents and scuffs in that smooth ground. Deer Rub These are tracks, and when they are made, they disrupt the baseline symphony of the dirt. They stand out for a reason, as if they are yelling at you. But only if you slow the hell down.
This becomes even clearer if you are tracking a running deer through a hardwood forest, full of leaf litter. The normal shape of the leaves are all flat, like tiles on a floor. But when the deer charges through, the leaves are kicked up and end up looking like miniature Sydney Opera Houses. The deer has disrupted the Baseline Symphony.

This Baseline Symphony concept can be extrapolated beyond dirt and the forest floor. Scratches and scuffs on trees. Scat (poo) on rocks or logs. Hair clinging to a branch. This all will begin to stand out to you, if you only would just slow the hell down, and look around you.

The problem I see most people falling into with tracking, is they are looking for clear, obvious prints, like the ones in the pictures of a field manual. The truth is, most animals are moving for a reason, and rarely does that reason involve how their tracks look. They’re just not as egotistical or narcissistic as us. This means a coyote track could look like a deer track, unless we carefully examine more than just the individual track.

So, what are we looking for exactly? Anytime an animal come in contact with the ground, branches, or other parts of the environment, they leave behind something. Let’s list some stuff:

Tracks: Imprints of the animal’s feet on soil, clay, sand, leaf litter, snow, etc.
Lion Track

Scrapes/Drags: Where an animal has scuffed the ground. This could be from looking for food, making a wallow, or dragging something along (like a fox dragging a grouse through snow).

Feeding Spots: This could be a muskrat’s feeding raft, or a kill site from a wolf pack.
Lion Kill

 

 

 


Bedding Spots:
Where the animal lays down to rest for a time. Often on hillsides, and in the daytime, usually facing south. In the evenings, usually on the eastern side of the hill (to avoid wind and to greet a warming sun). This could also include dens.

Fox Den

Scat: The fecal matter and/or urine of an animal. Elk Scat

 

Fisher Scat and urine

Trails: Where an animal walked through grass, cattails, sphagnum moss, or other plant life. These trails may be occasional, or they may be daily used trails. A snowshoe hare will make trails through the snow and these will become their main paths for the winter. The path of least resistance is the most attractive to the majority of wildlife. A trapline can become very productive after a heavy snowfall, because the animals will want to follow the trails made by the trapper rather than make their own.

Now, begin to examine your surroundings, using this information. Don’t try to make any of it appear, or you’ll begin to follow an imaginary trail. Just look around. At some point, an animal will have walked through where you are, and chances are you can find their signs, without any formal training.

But that brings us to the last part of this article. It is really difficult to self-teach yourself how to track. Remember the Lipan Apache and Saan People? Well they have countless generations of knowledge on the subject, passed down from parent to child. Those big game guides and field biologists? Well they got training from either their employers or from a school. For almost every province, territory and state in Canada and the USA, there’s someone teaching tracking. There are even tracking clubs! So don’t think you have to do this on your own. Jump on a search engine (you’re already reading this online for crying out loud, so don’t give me any excuses), and look for tracking schools, tracking courses, or tracking clubs. Trust me, they’re out there.

And if you can’t, well do not worry, I will have a few more articles in the near future to help you out.

Caleb Musgrave is the owner and head instructor at Canadian Bushcraft; a wilderness living skills school, located on the north shores of Rice Lake. He has been featured on the CBC, CTVnews, the Globe and Mail, and several survival magazines. His articles can be found on WildWoodSurvival.com, Survival Quarterly Magazine, and Self-Reliance Illustrated. Caleb has traveled to many parts of North America, to learn the skills of the land, but where he finds home is where his ancestors -the Anishinaabeg- have always been: Peterborough, Ontario.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words; sometimes that isn’t enough.

One of the things I frequently discuss with other hunters is the importance of public perceptions of hunting. I would imagine that most non-hunters never personally witness or participate in a hunt, meaning that their perception of hunting is developed through their perception of hunters. This means that the way we portray ourselves and represent hunting has impacts on the future of the activity (since hunting is affected by laws that are determined by a largely non-hunting voting public). As hunters, what do we do when one of our primary ways of representing hunting contributes to the very misunderstandings about the intentions and character of hunters that we work so hard to change?

I’ve seen many heated debates and angry comments on social media sites begin around a picture of a hunter and an animal he/she has killed (take a look at any of Cameron Hanes’s pictures for examples). This is one of the most common ways that hunters represent the story of the hunt. I think the use of photos from a hunt can be a great opportunity to engage with non-hunters and express ourselves, but perhaps an opportunity that is sometimes difficult to capture, especially when taking place in the impersonal space of social media.

I have been reluctant to post pictures of myself with animals I’ve killed. I’ve often felt like it’s just a ticking time bomb for misperception. I can even understand the issue that non-hunters (i.e. those who do not hunt and don’t necessarily understand the experiences and emotions involved in hunting, but not necessarily anti-hunters) have with pictures of smiling hunters holding a dead animal. Put yourself in their heads for a moment: the knee-jerk reaction is to see an expression of a bragging right over killing an animal. It’s difficult to convey the preparation, training, practice, time, effort, and emotions spent leading up to that moment. It’s perhaps easy to confuse elated pride with arrogance.

One of the things I’d like to do here is try to offer any non-hunting readers a glimpse into the mindset and intention of hunters when we post these sorts of pictures. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and like any group of people, we’re not all the same. But I can at least speak to my experience of the people I hunt with and most hunters I know. For hunters, I think there are some things we can do to better represent ourselves through these pictures. Most people probably already do these things, but in the interest of a well-rounded discussion, I’ll speak to hunters, too.

First, let’s try to diffuse some preconceptions for non-hunters reading this, which I hope there are (you’ll have to honestly be open to reconsidering some ideas). Here’s how I assume it looks to you: hunting pictures are probably reminiscent of colonizers standing over a conquered land, or images of a defeated army, or iconic representations of a hero having triumphed over a weaker foe. In other words, it probably evokes associations of blood thirst, anger, and superiority. Perhaps something similar to this?

Christopher Columbus, painting by John Vanderlyn

Christopher Columbus, painting by John Vanderlyn.

My experience is that when someone takes a photo with an animal he/she has killed, it is never done with a sense of the triumph of the powerful over the inferior; there’s no celebration of anything conquered. Rather, it’s the expression of a relationship developed through intense preparation and commitment. Here’s how things look for a hunter in the year(s) leading up to a hunt: there is research into the ecology of the animal to learn its patterns and how it changes throughout its life; there is some kind of training, usually a combination of physical preparation and practice with whatever tool is going to be used (gun or bow); there is fairly substantial financial investment into the hunt, which benefits the entire economy and especially the research and habitat management for a range of wildlife species (for example, a typical deer hunting season will cost me $50 for the individual hunting tag, probably about $200 throughout the year in fees to practice with my bow or ammunition costs, at least $75 in memberships to hunting insurance/conservation organizations, incidental costs throughout the season related to general supplies, and then there might be benefits to the tourism industry with costs for food and accommodations); and then hours spent in the actual hunt, probably at least some of this time in physically demanding and uncomfortable situations.

In summary, the moment when the animal walks out and an arrow or bullet is released is only one step in the process. It’s the culmination of immeasurable effort and commitment (and other than my attempt in the previous paragraph, we don’t really try to measure it, because it’s the process that’s important, and the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts). By this time, every hunter I know will have developed a deep affection and fascination with the species, and maybe even individual animal, being hunted.

When a hunter takes a photo with the animal, there’s no feeling of callous detachment from the life of that animal; there’s only admiration for the wildlife, and excitement over the nutritious food that the animal will provide. I can assure you that any photo I’ve taken with any animal I’ve killed has not done justice to the emotions I’m feeling in the moment. I would encourage non-hunters to remember that when you see one of these photos and feel a strong emotional response, know that we do too, whenever we look back on them. Although it can look like arrogance, it’s not. What you’re seeing is probably best summarized by gratitude, humility, and happiness.

It might be better represented by this photo.

Donnie Vincent with caribou

Christopher Columbus, painting by John Vanderlyn.

For other great examples, check out Remi Warren or Donnie Vincent.

Now, to hunters reading this, I offer some ideas for how we can try to address this conundrum. In every hunt, there is a story. Like all good stories, these usually involve struggle, some success, laughs, disappointment, excitement, and a host of minute experiences that you really “had to be there” to understand. Tell of these moments with the pictures. In the captions to the photos, tell the story articulately, sensitively, and in a way that truly represents how you think about the hunt. Be honest about the emotions, even when those are ones of wild happiness. We shouldn’t be afraid to take pride in an accomplishment, but we can do so with modesty. I encourage other hunters not to think of this as pandering to anti-hunters; think of it as an opportunity to be an ambassador of our lifestyle; take pride in the opportunity to show how positive hunting is in your life and for the ecology and conservation of wildlife. As always, show the animal respectfully and think about how you can represent your relationship with that individual animal through the photograph. These pictures can give others the chance to reflect on their own emotional responses to hunting and explore a different form of wildlife photography, and we really want them to come out the other side with a more positive outlook than when they started.

We rarely have the time necessary for long conversations in which we can fully express our opinions and feelings about these topics. Often, it’s the photographs of our hunts that friends and family see and that make their way around social media sites. We might only have that 1 minute someone spends looking at our picture to tell the story and represent the complex relationship hunters have with wildlife and the natural world. We need to use each of these minutes.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes, even a thousand is not enough; but we can at least start with those thousand words and use them to their fullest potential.

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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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.”