Sport hunting and wildlife management. Sport hunting and wildlife conservation. Unlikely partners, yes. Mutually exclusive? Well, no. Before approaching this divisive and apparently inconvenient truth, perhaps we should think about the definition of ‘conservation.’ Really, what is conservation? Think about it for a minute before continuing.
Merriam Webster defines conservation as “(1) The protection of animals, plants, and natural resources; (2) The careful use of natural resources (such as trees, oil, etc.) to prevent them from being lost or wasted.” Further, a third definition mentions the conservation of works of art – like when you visit a museum and find paintings missing because they are being worked on by conservationists, or an old Renaissance-era church with scaffolding covering half the inside. These efforts, according to Merriam Webster, are to keep the artwork in “good condition.” dictionary.com relates ‘conservation’ to the “prevention of injury, decay, waste, or loss; official supervision of … natural resources in order to preserve and protect them through prudent management.” Digging deeper, particularly for the matter at hand, conservation biology “addresses the biology of species, communities, and ecosystems that are perturbed, either directly or indirectly, by human activities or other agents…conservation biologist[s] may have to make decisions or recommendations about design and management.” (Soulé 1985) Finally, “A conservationist is someone who advocates or practices the sensible and careful use of natural resources” (Hunter and Gibbs 2007). The underlying theme present in these definitions of conservation is an element of management of natural resources. Contrarily, a “preservationist advocates allowing some places and some creatures to exist without significant interference” (Hunter and Gibbs 2007); think Wilderness (capital W Wilderness) areas.
I believe that conservation in the general public purview has become intertwined with preservation to the point that the two are indistinguishable. And that is a major barrier one might have to understanding how organized hunting is a piece of the wildlife management and conservation puzzle. Please see the November 2007 issue of National Geographic for an in-depth perspective on this topic, but to summarize: in the United States, the roughly 12.5 million hunters pay millions of dollars annually for licenses, tags, and permits; this money helps to fund state game agencies. New public game lands (which contribute to the management and conservation of animal habitat and ecosystems) are funded largely from the more than 1.8 billion dollars collected annually for hunting and fishing licenses and excise taxes on equipment – this total accounts for roughly 75% of state wildlife agencies’ revenue. 280 million dollars annually (and these are 2007 numbers) is contributed to organizations such as Pheasants Forever, the Ruffed Grouse Society, Quail Unlimited, and other non-profit organizations that support scientific research of animal populations and maintain important habitat. Suffice to say, hunters care about wildlife, about habitat, and about ecosystems. From my personal experiences with them, I have come to know hunters that are intimately aware of the the forest in which or the mountains in which they hunt. They know the habits of the deer, the sheep, the fowl; how quickly that one was pacing, or how far away those ones we just flushed were.
So now we come to the issue at hand. Are animals natural resources, and is hunting them an acceptable form of management? And before we go any further, I am not an expert on this topic nor have firmly come down on a position as the issue is quite complex. However, I believe that this is a very important angle from which we need to consider approaching wildlife management and conservation. Let’s look at it this way: Merriam Webster defines resource as “something that a country has and can use to increase its wealth.” We consider timber, water, and soil resources because they are used to increase wealth, or at least to facilitate industrial processes, energy production, and food production. Wild animals are used to generate wealth through hunting permits, licenses, taxes, use fees, etc. etc. Indeed many hunters seek a winter’s nourishment in taking a deer, elk, moose, or bison, among others, and thus wild animals are a vital resource for these people. Wild animals are resources for eco-tourism operators that market their fleeting appearances and the opportunity to shoot (with a camera) African lions or elephants. They are used as resources when national parks entice visitors with roadside signs and descriptions of an abundance of wildlife. Thus as resources, we must conserve them, like we must conserve all resources available to us to maintain sustainable levels of use. And in conserving wildlife species and habitat, an element of management is necessary; enter conservation biologists.
Because we humans have impacted ecosystems, wildlife habitat, and wild animal species far and wide, certain populations are thriving beyond the carrying capacities of the regions they inhabit. Conversely, species in these very regions face extirpation from dwindling resources due to the competition from those thriving. In the United States, in the absence of keystone predators throughout much of the country, whitetail deer numbers have soared and impacted ecosystems severely. In Botswana and southern Africa, elephant numbers are soaring. Because these giant pachyderms consume hundreds of pounds of vegetation every day, animals that inhabit the same ecosystems are suffering. Soaring elephant populations are a result of management practices put in place during the 20th and 21st centuries geared toward protecting the charismatic species. We might say, well why not just re-introduce those keystone predators, those top of the food chain animals that will keep the deer and elephant numbers in check? And that introduces a host of further issues with stakeholders that may be negatively impacted by the presence of keystone predators, such as grey wolves in the American West, in their backyards. The reintroduction of wolves to the west in the northern Rockies and the southwest has been successful relative to the species themselves, but in the larger context, has caused myriad issues as well with these animals causing serious problems for ranchers, this being a whole other complex topic that I won’t go further into right now. The point is, while it’s not so cut and dry to manage wildlife through hunting, it is also not so cut and dry to do it by re-introducing top predators. And in the larger context, the point is that hunting is a form of wildlife management and it does encourage the conservation of wild animals and wildlife habitat.