Monday, October 29, 2007

Where Have All the Hunters Gone?

I’m not a hunter, although, I have been hunting and I do own firearms. I seldom fire my weapons. I seldom have ammunition on hand. I’ve been through formal training, but frankly, I’m a lousy shot. When I hit a target I’m aiming at, it’s a fluke. Consequently I’ve never shot an animal in my life. In fact, I don’t recall that I’ve ever even aimed at an animal.

But I have been on hunts where others have bagged their prey. I’ve participated in the work of gutting, skinning, and butchering wild animals that have been taken down by hunters. I’ve been involved in tanning animal hides. I’ve sampled my share of wild meat; some good, and some not so good. There’s nothing quite like a good elk steak, but I doubt I’ll ever be tempted to sample bear meat again as long as I live.

I’ve been surrounded by avid hunters throughout my life, but for some reason, it has never rubbed off on me. I enjoy hiking and camping in the back country. I enjoy seeing wildlife. But I harbor no yen for seriously stalking them or for killing them.

Hunting runs deep on my maternal side. My grandparents had a dozen children over a 20-year span. My mom was one of the youngest children, so I have cousins that are close to her age. After a horrific struggle with cancer, my grandfather died just a few months prior to my birth. Since we didn’t live close to extended family members, I didn’t hear about Grandpa from my cousins. I grew up knowing almost nothing about him.

A few years ago my mother’s extended family held a reunion. Some of my older cousins got up and talked about Grandpa and Grandma. And I’ve been reading a book a cousin recently published of letters between Grandma and Grandpa. It turns out that my grandpa was an extremely avid hunter. That explains the love my uncles and some of my cousins have for hunting. Apparently hunting was quite a ritual for Grandpa and his male descendants until he became incapacitated.

Although my dad grew up with access to firearms, his family apparently were not hunters. His father ran an electricity plant. When we got old enough, dad helped us obtain firearms and helped us learn how to shoot them. But dad never took us hunting. So, although Mom came from a hunting family, Dad did not. Three of my brothers were more serious about hunting than me, but as far as I know, none of us has been hunting for years. It seems that this is something that is passed from fathers to sons, and that didn’t happen for me. (I’m not saying that I regret it.)

Apparently this pattern is quite common in the US. November’s edition of National Geographic Magazine includes a very fine article about hunting. Its author, Robert M. Poole, is himself a lifelong hunter, so the article avoids some of the common environmentalist disgust for hunting in general.

Poole admits that there are plenty of irresponsible hunters out and about. (It chaps my hide whenever I see bullet holes in signs.) But one of the article’s main points is that hunters have become an essential part of maintaining wildlife populations. Besides the $1.86 billion they put into licenses and taxes annually, they contribute about $280 million through hunters’ organizations for wildlife rehabilitation and maintenance. On top of that, they put in many hours of volunteer time.

Hunters’ organizations “sponsor scientific research,” “maintain important habitat,” and work to expand wildlife habitat. They also sponsor public information campaigns about conservation. Poole quotes a man involved in these projects as saying, “It’s the hunters who keep most of these species going. They put in the money, and they put in the hours. Hunters really care about what happens.”

In his article, Poole explores the various reasons for the steady decline in the number of hunters to its current level of about 5% of the adult population. Land ownership patterns — and therefore land usage and accessibility patterns — have changed in recent decades. It’s harder to go hunting. Good hunting grounds are now often enclosed in private reserves, where it costs a chunk of change to hunt. An expanding population has people living where hunters roamed freely only a few years ago.

It’s also getting a lot more expensive to hunt, apart from the cost of accessing private property. For most people, the days are long past when a guy could leave work, drive a few minutes, and hop out of his truck with a rifle slung over his shoulder to go hunting. It costs a pretty penny to get properly outfitted with firearms, ammo, safety gear, and good outdoor wear.

Poole has anthropologist Wade Davis elevating hunting to a mystical religion that binds humans to wildlife. Indeed, he calls hunting “the basis of religion.” Reminiscent of the new age religion fad, Davis comes across as evangelizing for a return to this mysticism so that we can bond with and understand nature. I can understand Davis’ argument, but as an outdoorsman that doesn’t hunt, I don’t quite buy it.

Still, the declining number of hunters has a real impact. Wildlife managers know that many species rely upon hunters to survive. What happens to wildlife habitat and populations as the dollars and the work that sustain them dry up? The number of wildlife watchers is on the rise, but Poole notes that it is too soon to tell whether they will contribute enough to make up for the loss of hunting and fishing revenues.

I have no problem with people hunting responsibly and legally. Poole’s article reminds me of my lifelong sympathy for this avocation. He makes me want to do more to help sustain wildlife habitats and populations. But he does not make me want to get my rifle and go hunting. The passion for that seems to have been lost between my grandfather’s generation and mine.


rmwarnick said...

Clearly we need to radically re-think wildlife management. Most of it is of, by and for the hunters and fishers. The rest of us are outside the system.

Reach Upward said...

There is an interesting podcast and discussion about innovative free market methods of dealing with environmental factors here.

y-intercept said...

I think most hunters would disagree with RM Warnick. I've been involved in different environmental efforts and find a widespread respresentation of interests in our wildland. Here is a list of local environmental groups. If I added in the national groups active in Utah; The list would have several hundred more entries.

Hunters and fishers are way outgunned in the halls of power. The hunters and fishers generally have strong influence because they tend to invest their time and effort in actually doing things. Environmental groups tend to spend their time in shrill self-centered whines.

Hunters and fishers are also interesting in that they are traditionally keen on protecting everyone's access to public lands. If you actually want to rehabilitate land, there is no better ally than hunters and fisher, and none worse than an environmentalist.

Quite frankly, the environmental left is the one and only group that I've encountered that has actually tried to block others out of the process.

I am an avid conservationist. Hunters and fishers have earned my respect. The shrill environmental left has pretty much lost my respect.

As for why I started this comment...

One problem I see with hunting and fishing is that they are generally interested in hunting a select group of trophy species. I think it would be cool if the hunting community concentrated on hunting invasive or otherwise damaging species like the starling or the Asian Carp.

The hunting community might be able to draw in more enthusiasts if there were concerted efforts to hunt invasive species that do the wilderness harm.