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Are Hunters Still Leading Wildlife Conservation in America?
March 8, 2021
Are Hunters Still Leading Wildlife Conservation in America?
In MoJo's The Week That Is, Wilkinson and Sadler talk about how declines in hunter numbers nationwide are creating budget challenges for states
Every week in “The Week That Is,” journalist and Mountain Journal founder Todd Wilkinson and MoJo’s national Washington DC correspondent Tom Sadler discuss topical events relating to the nation’s capital city and the public land West.
Without wealthy Easterners who liked to hunt and who wanted to recover animals so there would still be some left to stalk, would the modern conservation movement as we know it today exist? Would bison have been saved, or elk, or other species? As hunter numbers decline, what does it mean for wildlife conservation and for the budgets of state wildlife agencies that rely upon the sale of licenses and taxes on outdoor gear to fund their operations?
In our polemical society, some topics are treated either as taboo or approached with the certainty that any discussion about them will erupt on social media into an uncivil exchange of name-calling. Hunting is one of those. We find dualism most unfortunate because it leaves little room to have a reasonable conversation about hunting as a tradition, its role in advancing wildlife conservation and examining such topics as predator control. By fostering a dialog about trophy hunting and hunting ethics, Mountain Journal is not staking out a position as being “anti-hunting,” nor when giving hunters a voice, is it failing to the recognize the valid positions of animal rights and holding reverence for non-human animals as sentient beings. The first of a two-part conversation.
TODD WILKINSON: People are products of families, friendships and community traditions they grow up in. You and I were both raised in rural hunting cultures. You’ve spent time on Capitol Hill and engaged the interests of hunters and anglers in a variety of positions framed around promoting conservation. Tell us about one of them.
TOM SADLER: I’ve worked for several groups that specialize in habitat protection and access. One of the organizations I headed for a while was the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation that exists as an advisory group functioning in support of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, which is comprised of members of Congress who identify as hunters and anglers.
TW: Let’s look at the history of hunting and its link to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation which, as a key tenet, asserts that wildlife belongs to the people—collectively, not individually—and that government agencies managing wildlife do so as part of a public trust responsibility, acting in the best interests of society now and future generations. It’s recognition that wildlife makes our own lives richer.
TS: The North American Model has several key tenets. While it was invented by Easterners, it has origins with wildlife conservation efforts that happened in your part of the country, the Greater Yellowstone, and larger American West. Readers who want to learn more about the North American Model can click here.
TW: Where we’re going with this, Tom, is pointing out that revenues raised by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and surtaxes assessed on the sale of outdoor gear, guns and ammo have been major funding source for state and federal wildlife agencies. It supports game wardens, biologists and professional managers.
TS: Yes, and there are discussions happening right now on Capitol Hill recognizing that with fewer hunters each year, revenues are falling creating difficult budgetary conditions for state wildlife management agencies. While the numbers of hunters may be holding their own in the interior West, in states like Montana and Idaho, that isn’t the case in most states.
TW: Let’s return to history. The earliest manifestation of what we would call the professional wildlife conservation movement really began with people—let’s be blunt, mostly white guys from the higher echelon of society in the late 19th century—who had plenty of leisure time on their hands. They enjoyed hunting and fishing. Some of them had hunted species that were dramatically on the wane, such as bison, elk, deer and other “trophy” predator species such as grizzlies and cougars that were turned into floor rugs.
TS: Yes, keep going….
TW: Do you think there would have been a conservation movement, as we know it today, had it not been for their self-interest, i.e. pushing to recover animals and rescue them from potential extinction so that they could be hunted again? There didn't seem to be much alarm raised when the Carolina parakeet winked out. The last-known Carolina parakeet was housed in the same place, the Cincinnati Zoo, where Martha the last passenger pigeon died.
TS: The simple answer is probably not, sad to say. We would’ve followed the same course as Europe, which lost a lot of species, and the only huntable game would have been on estates owned by the wealthy. The folks at Audubon Society might take issue given their push to curtail the market hunting of birds for fancy hats and meat. A major catalyst for the modern conservation movement was the decimation and near extinction of bison. Hunters and anglers in Theodore Roosevelt’s day, and for years after, were not only vocal in their support for wildlife conservation, but they took action and made it a political issue. They lobbied administrations and Congress, started groups over time like the Izaak Walton League of America, Trout Unlimited and the Outdoor Writers Association of America. They raised hell.
TW: The Boone & Crockett Club, headquartered in Missoula, was born by Roosevelt and others including George Bird Grinnell who started Audubon. They promoted rules for how wildlife should be ethically engaged when hunted, and that wildlife shouldn't be killed to supply commercial meat markets. And they promoted something that was initially rejected by locals who were anti-government, namely fish and game regulations. Why was that needed? I ask because there are a number of controversial bills moving through state legislatures in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho that seem to run counter to the ethics spelled out in the North American Model.
TS: Game regulations, fair chase principles, and treating wildlife with respect was needed in the early days and it’s still needed because some people are jerks. It’s that “tragedy of the commons” and lack of personal responsibility again. Left to their own devices, enough people get greedy, misbehave and ruin it for others.
Since the mid 1930s, the sale of federal duck stamps have generated nearly $1 billion for wetlands conservation, including the protection of six million acres of land that benefits many hundreds of species. It's one of the most successful conservation fundraisers on the planet. But as waterfowl hunter numbers decline, what kinds of alternative funding sources will there be to keep the benefits going?
TW: Can you be a little more specific?
TS: When personal ethics and responsibility are insufficient to insure a perceived “natural resource” is managed professionally, government must step in with laws and regulations. Yellowstone might have lost the bison if the military weren’t called in to defend the park against poachers. Sometimes the federal government has to do that with threatened and endangered species because state management in protecting species failed. In the late 19thand early 20th centuries, there was wanton killing of animals for commercial markets, sport and extermination. Roosevelt, Grinnell and others saw the writing on the wall and organized a movement to manage game so there would be some around for future generations. Then and now Boone & Crockett’s Fair Chase statement has been the gold standard for hunting ethics and a hunter’s role in conservation. And while it is focused on hunters, it is applicable to anglers and anyone spending time outdoors.
TW: Hunter numbers are in decline nationally, as you note, and have been for years. Few people, especially in the Lower 48, actually hunt for subsistence anymore. It's really about having an outdoor recreational experience. Meat from game animals is brought home to the table but food could actually be purchased at grocery stores more cheaply given time and financial investment in going afield. What do you see as the paramount issues facing the hunting community today?
TS: There’s a money issue, a how-to-fund professional wildlife management issue and there’s a PR issue with how hunting is perceived by a larger segment of the public that doesn’t hunt. The latter is a fact. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service only 4.5 percent of the adult population hunted in 2016. That is the lowest rate in the 1955–2016 study period. Inadequate funding for state wildlife agencies is a big deal. A lot of state agency funding comes from hunting and fishing via the Wildlife and Sportfish Restoration program at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—often referred to as the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson funds. Without those dollars state agencies would be in dire straits. I know first-hand, I’m on the board of the Department of Wildlife Resources here in Virginia. We are looking hard at way to diversify that funding stream.
TW: If the relationship between generating sufficient revenue from hunting tags, fishing licenses and sales taxes on gear in order to fund wildlife management is broken, are there changes afoot in identifying alternative revenue sources? Do you think, for example, the attitude of the hunting community has kept pace with shifting values of society, with citizens ever increasingly placing value on the ability to watch animals live and that they're willing to pay good money to do it? People who come from all over the world, for instance, and generate millions of dollars for the local economy in Jackson Hole and nearby communities just to catch a glimpse of Grizzly 399 and her cubs, live.
TS: This is going to p--s off some of my hunting friends, but no I don’t think some in the hunting community have. I think they are whistling past the graveyard. There are elements in the hunting world won’t embrace the “others”—the non-hunters who appreciate wildlife—so they want to blame them. Sound familiar? The hunting community and industry need to take a hard look at what image they are putting out there. I know good folks are working on changing that, but the focus has to be beyond their own parochial interests.
Grizzly bears, like mother bruin 399 and her cubs, are worth exponentially more alive for the regional economy than any license revenue generated by hunting tags to kill them them as trophies. Every year millions of people head to Greater Yellowstone's national parks hoping to catch a glimpse of live grizzlies, generating untold millions of dollars in expenditures getting there, staying in motels, eating at restaurants, hiring safari guides, frequenting shops and buying gas. Photo courtesy Syler Peralta-Ramos and Wyoming Wildlife Advocates. To see more of Peralta-Ramos' work go to sylerpr.com
TW: How can that growing wildlife constituency of non-hunters be brought into the discussion to help address the fiscal problems facing state wildlife management agencies?
TS: It’s going to take a cultural shift to do that. Everyone should be welcome at the table. We need proactive conservation. Here is a maxim to consider: access to healthy habitat creates recreational opportunity. Having that healthy habitat is an expensive proposition. If hunters and anglers want opportunity, then they need to be willing to invite other people to the table who can help fund the conservation that supports the healthy habitat.
TW: I’m not trying to grandstand here but let’s be clear. Wildlife doesn’t only hold value if it can be monetized by humans. Equally important is recognizing the intrinsic non-economic value of species, their existence value as products of creation and their important role in healthy ecosystems. The thrill of hearing a wild wolf howl and what it adds to the feeling of a place is priceless and age old.
TS: I agree.
TW: Is there any legislation on the horizon that could raise money for funding state and federal wildlife agencies?
TS: There is federal legislation, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, that should be reintroduced soon. Known as RAWA, it authorizes more than a billion dollars for state fish and game agencies and an additional $97 million to tribal agencies. What makes this attractive to the other members of the wildlife constituency is the state agencies must spend 15 percent of the funds to help recover state or federally listed species. There is a two-fold benefit.
TW: Outdoor gear manufacturers have steadfastly rejected having an excise tax imposed on the sale of all outdoor gear beyond hunting gear. Similarly, talking about spending money on non-game species in big hunting states has been a third rail in the hunting community.
TS: It was on both fronts and to a certain degree it still is. That is part of the cultural shift I’m talking about. Science and common sense tell us that good habitat for threatened and endangered species is good habitat for game species and good habitat for game species benefits all wildlife. They are not mutually exclusive. It’s a “rising tide lifts all boats proposition.” And we are seeing a shift in the right direction by the hunting community. You can see it in who is supporting RAWA. We’ll see if outdoor gear manufacturers, whose customers recreate on public lands and enjoy seeing wildlife, are more amenable to funding mechanisms that could be extended to a tax on all outdoor gear—be downhill skis, backpacks or outdoor clothing.
TW: The outdoor gear industry says that companies already pay plenty, through tariffs imposed on products made offshore and through personal contribution to conservation.
TS: If you recreate in the outdoors, you are a user no different from hunters and anglers. One benefit of having a special tax on outdoor gear that gets appropriated to conservation is that it makes more outdoor recreationists stakeholders in conservation and would give them a greater voice with state fish and game departments. Right now, there may be employees in state fish and game departments who feel like the only way they can guarantee their employment is by selling more hunting and fishing licenses.
TW: Does that mean arguing that more predators should be killed to make sure there are more game animals?
TS: I am uncomfortable equating hunting with the killing of predators. I understand the need to manage wildlife and the need to manage predators but it has to be done thoughtfully, ethically and humanely.
TW: As mentioned, there are some controversial wildlife bills moving through the Montana legislature pertaining to wolves, grizzlies and bison that we’ll talk about next week. Meantime, keep prowling the nation’s capital and let us know what you turn up.
TS: I will.
Next time: A chat about controversial anti-predator bills moving through legislatures in Northern Rockies states.