Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Over at The Thinking Hunter, Galen Greer writes "Recently I was in a discussion with a non-hunter (as opposed to anti-hunter) and this simple question was put to me: 'if hunting is not necessary to obtain food then why is hunting allowed?' My answer was that 'hunting has, for many people, a psychological value that is important to their well-being. Also, the protection of the right to hunt, more specifically the choice about whether to participate in hunting or not to participate, is often equally important to the non-hunter as a guarantee of the recognition of fundamental rights which therefore provides them with a sense of well-being.'"
That sounds like a pretty good answer to me. I'll offer (unsolicited) another one and expand a bit upon a contention from my last post about this sort of thing.

In a world where "sustainable" seems to be a powerful buzz-word, the sport hunting of game and fish is a useful means of preserving habitat and ecosystems. Unlike other use classified as consumptive, sport hunting generally has little impact on land or wildlife populations, besides generating funds and advocacy for their preservation and maintenance.

"Why allow hunting?" is a corollary to "Why is hunting dying?". After all, why indulge the whims of a shrinking, aging minority engaged in an arcane practice? We hunters are concerned about numbers because we worry about our opportunity to hunt in the future and seek allies, hoping to be seen as a "vibrant subculture" rather than marginalized throwbacks to an (allegedly) less enlightened time. In looking for allies, the "environmental" ("environmentalist", "radical environmentalist", "conservationist" all loaded terms) movement at large hasn't been a likely source of allies(here's a view from the other side) and the "shooting community" (scare quotes because I'm not certain of the extent to which it is a community) certainly isn't necessarily congruent with hunter's interests. After all, "hunting" doesn't necessarily equate with "guns". Accordingly, our best bet, perhaps, is to convince the vast non-hunting majority that our sport is also good work.

Economic arguments have been a powerful political tool for sportsman. One of the most compelling examples I can think of was the CCA (then the GCCA) campaign to stop the commercial fishing of redfish in Texas. The heart of their argument were economic analyses showing that while a fish caught commercially by net or trot-line resulted in only a few dollars brought to the state and local economies, that same fish was worth several times that if caught by a sport fisherman. With a limited and public resource, the highest, best, use of that resource was the one that brought the most dollars, argued the conservationists. The argument, while far from applicable to every situation, worked and similar arguments can make our case for us many times.

But see Aldo Leopold-
"When one considers the prodigious achievements of the profit motive in wrecking land, one hesitates to reject it as a vehicle for restoring land. I incline to believe we have overestimated the scope of the profit motive. Is it profitable for the individual to build a beautiful home? To give his children a higher education? No, it is seldom profitable, yet we do both. These are, in fact, ethical and aesthetic premises which underlie the economic system. Once accepted, economic forces tend to align the smaller details of social organization into harmony with them.
No such ethical and aesthetic premise yet exists for the condition of the land these children must live in. Our children are our signature to the roster of history; our land is merely the place our money was made. There is as yet no social stigma in the possession of a gullied farm, a wrecked forest, or a polluted stream, provided the dividends suffice to send the youngsters to college. Whatever ails the land, the government will fix it." Round River, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993, pp. 156-157.

Which gets us back to why hunting is important and should be allowed. Unfortunately, to the extent that there is an ethical or aesthetic premise for the condition of the land, it seems to be frequently based upon bad information and it isn't applied broadly enough. "Pretty" and "healthy ecosystem" aren't always the same thing. However, hunting can be a valuable means of developing that practical and aesthetic ideal for land of which Leopold wrote. Hunters require good prey populations and enough room to pursue that prey. In other words, decent and plentiful habitat. Much as I appreciate the contributions of time, money and voice by "non-consumptive" users of land and wildlife, I fear that for many of them any little remnant is adequate. They can be content to travel to Matagorda Island to see the whooping cranes, or to see a bit of preserved native prairie and the birds it hosts. If there are some parks, a suburban hiking trail or three that will accommodate mountain bikes and hikers that offers a pleasant view and nothing charismatic going extinct at the moment they're pretty happy, it seems to me. However, to hunt we require more. More space. Healthy populations of game- which themselves require diverse and healthy ecosystems to exist for any length of time. Token patches of habitat, or a few parks, don't meet our (or animals', or ecosystems') needs.

Noted by Reid Farmer on Querencia, here is an excerpt from an Annie Proulx interview illustrating a bit of what I'm talking about: "Proulx liked the people she worked with, but she is not a fan of what she calls "sanctimonious environmentalists." She seems angry at their failure to save this place. 'We never, on all our trips to the Red Desert,' she says, 'ran into any of those people out there. How come the rest of us didn't know what was happening? There's a lot of talk and very little action. I don't like all the speeches and the glossy pamphlets.'"

I firmly believe (and generally find nonhunters somewhat surprised to discover) that hunting is important because it changes the way you look at things. You become invested in a piece of country as you hunt it. You appreciate it more. It is one thing to say "Gee, this area is really beautiful, it's my favorite hike/bike/ski trail" but if that spot is posted or subdivided, folks will just move on. They may mourn it, but it lacks the immediacy of loss that you feel when you have spent time learning how land is used by its other occupants, plant and animal, and see the change. Absent hunting to inspire the focus on land, most people just move through it without really seeing all that much.

As you hunt an area year after year you notice the changes for better and worse. Those changes are more noticeable because of your history with the place, the memories tying you to spots. This is the sort of thing that results in real ties and passionate advocacy for land. As the number of hunters shrink, so, too, will the number of people who really appreciate any given stretch of woods, prairie, or desert. For that matter, hunters are more likely to be in the ranks of those advocating for preservation of "useless" land like river bottom swamp, sagebrush flats, or desert.

So, anyway, there's another long-winded answer about "why allow hunting".

P.S. Lots of dividing going on in this post, what with references "hunters" "shooting community" "non-consumptive users" "environmentalists". Of course, in the real world most of us fall into many or all of those categories to different degrees at different times. The most promising group of hunting friendly (non hunting) folks I perceive right now are the cooks and chefs focusing on the source of their food, folks who read and talk about Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma". Bob del Grosso has been working on a farm this last year and, with fall and slaughter, doing a lot of thinking and writing about the consequences of eating meat. Pieces like this strike me as the writing of a person who groks how important hunting and the myriad connections it promotes can be. No surprise how often the subject of Michael Pollan and his books come up in various posts by the folks I read and have on my blogroll.


Langdon Cook said...

I have to disagree with the idea that enviros are not allies with hunters. Obviously we can point to plenty of examples where that's the case, but we can also point to examples of hunters and greens coming together.

More important to me, though, is the perception that hunters and enviros are not natural allies. I think this stretches back to stale notions about red and blue America and the damaging effect of "Don Young Republicanism." Conservatives were once conservationists--and it wasn't a dirty word. Somehow the resource extractors and developers were able to convince much of the the hook 'n' bullet community (as based on yearly polls that back this up) that conserving our natural resources was bad, un-American even--this flies in the face of Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, and the rest, but there you go.

If sportsmen and women joined with environmentalists you would have a very strong political bloc that could make real progress on the conservation issues of the day. The idea that sportsmen should be against wilderness designation, for example, is laughable.

Thanks for raising this very important topic!

mdmnm said...


Yeah, that is one of my big beefs with the NRA- opposing roadless designations and wilderness areas as "closing access to hunting". Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Defenders of Wildlife and hunters will probably never find much in the way of common cause, but it would be nice if every DU member also joined the Audobon Society (and vice versa) and we were a more united presence. On the other hand, the struggles for the board of the Sierra Club show that a lot of enviro folks are really uncomfortable with hunting (and cite Muir to back up their position).

Unknown said...

A very thoughtful post. Thanks!

My view is that humans have been "gifted" (via natural selection or the grace of G-d) the ability to hunt and to pursue other means of procuring food (e.g. farming and shopping). We also have "free will" that enables and validates our decisions about how we choose to behave. So if someone chooses to hunt their food rather than grow it or buy it at a store or farmers market it's all ends up in the same place: a personal and historially valid right.

mdmnm said...

Thanks, Bob!

Anonymous said...

The problem with the idea of natural allies is that people are nearly always more than one thing, politically, and they often have very different philosophical bases.

A person who is an "environmentalist" because they view humans as an unnatural scourge upon the planet, and the solution being as minimal human interference with "nature" as possible, is a person for whom it is completely ideologically consistent to both support wilderness areas and habitat protection and oppose hunting.

Likewise, I've encountered hunters who seem to really and sincerely believe that handwringing over habitat and sustainable take is panty-waisted scare-mongering BS put out by the above type, and it is their God-given right to kill basically anything they can.

I'm not saying either type is common, but they're very definitely natural enemies, and there's a strain of their kind of philosophy, if not the full-blown form, on both sides of "hunters" and "environmentalists". There's just as many who are both for the reasons that seem entirely obvious to those of us here, but there are also more than enough ideological tensions for it to be much more than a matter of simple red versus blue tribalism.

Matt Mullenix said...

Great post. But I think sometimes that the question "why hunt?" cannot be answered to the satisfaction of the non-hunter any more than the question "what's green?" can be explained to the born blind.

This morning I caught 2 swamp rabbits with my hawk. One rabbit was an old, tough animal with a prominent tumor or healed injury on his left leg. The other was recently weaned.

I fed parts of both bunnies to the hawk and butchered the rest (the scarred portion I discarded) and will put them in a gumbo next week.

The field we caught them in is owned by longtime friends who let me hunt their property free of charge and with such hospitality they regularly ask what can they do to help my hunting? Amazing, what a pleasure that is...

The two-hour hunt was both a culmination of a season's work in training and husbandry and field craft, and a continuation of a lifetime's effort to be closer to wild things---To BE a wild thing, so far as I'm able.

How does one explain moving through such a field, waist deep in briar and brittle dry goldenrod, with hawk and dog alert and electric, all of us waiting for something to flush with same excitement and hunger? How do I justify my pained back and knees, or the dog's raw chest and nose, without conveying the motivation that makes us both push on happily as far as it takes? How do you explain what a hawk does, eagerly using its whole body as a weapon and risking death repeatedly every day of its life?

Hunting, now that I do it, is like hearing or seeing: it's a sense of my environment that is impossible to experience without the necessary organ. It is the difference between viewing a photo of a house and living inside one. Or the difference between a piece of sheet music and a night at the opera.

Most people who do not hunt do not have any experience closely approximating this. I realize we have to explain ourselves, sometimes, to them. But I don't have much faith the message gets through very often.

mdmnm said...


Thanks for the comment! I agree that for some folks hunting is really important, central to their lives, and explaining it to anyone who doesn't hunt is likely impossible. Then, too, there are those folks who hunt but can take or leave it. I wonder what makes the difference?

Given the difficulty of explaining all the aspects of hunting that make it important to me (Greer's "psychological value ...important to their well-being") I frequently end up falling back on economic, environmental, and ethical (looking my food in the face) arguments.

2 big rabbits- great morning for you, Rina, and Ernie!

Andrew Campbell said...

Mike: another great post for those of us who still wonder why we feel so compelled to go out in the woods (or fields) and wander in search of game -- and perhaps especially those of us who do so with our canine or avian companions.


mdmnm said...

Thanks, Andrew!

Labrat- agreed, there are folks in either camp ("enviro" vs. "hunter") that will never see eye to eye for exactly the reason you give.

Matt Mullenix said...


I think your approach is probably smarter in the real world. Absent any shared frame of reference, we've got to make arguments that have a chance of being understood. Economics, land conservation and wildlife management all find real-world benefits from hunting.

But to me, utilitarian arguments in support of hunting are like utilitarian arguments in support of religious belief. They can be right, as far as they go. But considering the distances involved, they don't go very far.

If we take an empirical approach to the value of hunting, we necessarily reduce it. And by doing so we leave it vulnerable to counter-arguments that provide the same or comparable benefits (to local economies, wildlife, land protection, etc) that do NOT rely on hunting.

But for the hunter, there is no substitute for hunting.

We must at some point be willing to claim its value is intangible, even unknowable to those who don't share it. In this, hunters are like other communities of faith, having to rely on protections afforded us by political principles and constitutional rights.

Or, if it comes to it, by taking significant personal risks to continue the pursuits we've come to value and believe in, even if they offend the general sensibility.

I don't think it will come to that. But I think keeping it at bay will require we keep ALL our arguments (utilitarian and values-based) well practiced and ready.

mdmnm said...

Hey Matt,

Thanks for the thoughtful comments and discussion.
In your first comment you note "Hunting, now that I do it, is like hearing or seeing: it's a sense of my environment that is impossible to experience without the necessary organ."
A while back I tried to express what I see as basically the same thought: "Further, there is no time when I feel so comfortable, so in a given moment or place, as when I'm hunting."

As you note
"If we take an empirical approach to the value of hunting....we leave it vulnerable to counter-arguments that provide the same or comparable benefits (to local economies, wildlife, land protection, etc) that do NOT rely on hunting."

However, because hunting cannot be reduced from its intangibles for many of us, we make better (as seen by our economic and political commitments and, especially, the results on the ground) advocates for wildlife and habitat. No one else provides those same benefits, although they might some day. Of course, this also creates a call to action for all hunters. If you love it, if it is really important to you, you better do more than buy a license. At a minimum, pick two or three hunting organizations like DU or the Elk Foundation and join them. I'd say join a specifically hunter-based group rather than a more general one (such as the Nature Conservancy) because you'll be doing a couple of bits of good at once.

Continuing to pick little pieces of what you wrote, I quote from your last comment: "In this, hunters are like other communities of faith, having to rely on protections afforded us by political principles and constitutional rights."
Aye, and there's the rub. As someone who's read a bit of Constitutional stuff and observed with interest the Heller decision and legal battles over the Second Amendment, I doubt even the inclusion of a right to hunt in the Bill of Rights would provide much protection. Political principles might be better, but I think that protection of the folkways of a small minority stand little chance, especially given another committed minority (thinking of animal rights types) who make a fervent case that we do harm and a center majority who have no real feeling for what we're doing, whether speaking of the feeling we get from hunting or the fact of killing an animal, right there in your hand. Hence mustering every argument and, for me, focusing a bit more on economics or history of conservation efforts.

I think we're pretty simpatico on the subject and really appreciate you taking the time to write about it, as I appreciate all the other commentors' thoughts.