I have a home on Chincoteague Island on the eastern shore of Virginia. The house sits on the east side of the island and faces the Atlantic Ocean, Assateague Bay and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. To the north, the completely undeveloped shores of the island and refuge stretch as far as the eye can see and provide critical habitat for hundreds of wildlife species, including deer, eagles, swan, geese, shellfish, amphibians and a number of endangered species. At one time of the year or another, the refuge provides critical habitat for 320 species of birds.
I spend as much time as I can on and near the refuge boating, fishing, hunting, birding, hiking, collecting and releasing marine life, and walking the wildlife loop and pedestrian-only fire road. The refuge is one of the most popular in the country, attracting people worldwide who love wildlife with nearly 1.5 million people visiting the refuge each year.
On a hike one late summer day, I was watching a large migrating flock of semipalmated and least sandpipers crowding the mudflats, busily resting and eating, gaining much needed energy for the next leg of their migration. A young woman approached me as I was observing the birds through my binoculars. “What are they?” she asked. “Identifying shorebirds drives me crazy as so many of them look similar. Where did they come from?” she added. “I was here a couple of days ago and did not see this many.”
Migration is a fascinating subject when observed firsthand. We talked, and when she learned I had a home on Chincoteague, she asked even more questions. As she scanned the bay she asked what the handful of wooden structures were in the marsh between Assateague Island and Chincoteague Island. I said they were duck blinds. “Duck blinds? Like places where hunters hide and shoot ducks?” “Yeah,” I said. She responded, “They allow people to hunt in a refuge? Well that’s bullshit!” she said. “What’s the point of a refuge anyway if they allow people to hunt here and shoot up all the wildlife?”
I said that the only reason this beautiful place we were standing on was preserved, undeveloped (unlike most of the other barrier islands up and down the east coast), and providing vital habitat for species like these migrating sandpipers was because of hunters. Her face became perplexed. “Huh?” she said. She clearly wanted to hear more.
I said that the very place in which we were standing, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, was purchased in 1943 entirely through funds generated through the sale of Federal Duck Stamps purchased by hunters. I said the funds through the sale of Duck Stamps are used to actively manage all of the wildlife on the island—both game and non-game species—and for managing a number of wildlife-related recreational activities, including hunting. She was fascinated, looked back at the sandpipers, and asked why she’d never heard of this.
I said I wasn’t sure why most people don’t know much about hunters’ role in conservation or the national wildlife refuges. Further, I said, when it is discussed, many people become skeptical or say it’s self-serving while some hunting proponents become defensive. Plus, I added, talking about how hunting is good for wildlife is counter-intuitive for many non-hunters. “I mean, how do you let people know that killing animals is good for them?” I said. “It can be a tricky concept for people to grasp.” And yet, the numbers don’t lie. Hunters contribute $8 million to overall wildlife conservation every day, which adds up to $2.9 billion per year.1
How Hunters Brought Species Back from the Brink From a historical perspective, in the years leading up to the early 1900s, many wildlife species were driven to or near extinction from unchecked commercial hunting pressure, poaching and degradation of natural habitat from human activity. Sightings of species that we take for granted today, like deer or turkey, were so rare that they would make the local newspapers. In reaction to this dire situation, a groundswell of sportsmen—hunters and shooters—supported a tax on themselves through the recreational equipment they purchase to fund conservation. This effort led to the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 (commonly referred to as the Pittman-Robertson Act), which dedicated an excise tax on firearms and ammunition to fund conservation and species’ recovery efforts. Since the implementation of this program, more than $10 billion has been distributed to state fish and wildlife agencies, making hunters and shooters the largest direct contributors to wildlife conservation in our nation’s history.2
Likewise, as the original conservationists, hunters have long been partners of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Let’s consider the hunting of waterfowl. Starting in 1934, Federal Duck Stamps have been required for hunting waterfowl anywhere in the country, with proceeds from the sales legally required to go toward the preservation of wetlands and associated habitats. Since the beginning of the Duck Stamp program, more than $800 million has been raised to purchase more than 6 million acres of wildlife habitat3—making it tough to imagine even the most ardent animal welfare activists arguing with this result.
"Since the implementation of the Pittman-Robertson Act, more than $10 billion has been distributed to state fish and wildlife agencies, making hunters and shooters the largest direct contributors to wildlife conservation in our nation's history."In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt established the first National Wildlife Refuge on Pelican Island along Florida’s central Atlantic coast. Today there are over 560 National Wildlife Refuges, with at least one in all 50 states as well as the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands.4 California has the most National Wildlife Refuges with 39, whereas Alaska hasroughly half of the National Wildlife Refuge Systems’s total 150 million acreage.5 A refuge is located within an hour’s drive of most major U.S. cities, thereby providing millions of Americans with the opportunity to enjoy hunting, fishing, hiking, canoeing/kayaking, wildlife watching and many other outdoor recreational activities in pristine, natural environments featuring healthy fish, wildlife and plant populations. These refuges provide habitat for nearly every wildlife species found on the continent, and they safeguard nesting, feeding and wintering areas for migratory birds. Our country’s National Wildlife Refuges attract more than 48 million visitors each year, generating in excess of $2.4 billion for local economies and creating nearly 35,000 U.S. jobs annually.6
As of 2015, National Wildlife Refuges were home to over 380 of the nation’s 1,311 endangered or threatened species. At that time, 11 of those species were removed from the list due to their recovery, and another 17 were reclassified from being endangered to being threatened due to their improved status. In all, 59 of the National Wildlife Refuges were created specifically to save jeopardized species, and more than 500 listed species are now considered stable or improving in their designation.7
How Hunting is the Refuge System's Key Wildlife Management Tool Over 330 National Wildlife Refuges offer hunting. The scientific management of wildlife practiced at these locations all but assures a quality hunt for participants. The term “refuge” suggests a safe haven for wildlife, and as this woman to whom I was talking indicated, hunting seems to contradict this terminology. However, as carefully regulated and practiced on refuges, hunting does not pose a threat to wildlife species but is actually necessary for sound wildlife management. For example, deer populations often grow too large for the refuge habitat to support. Without any harvest they would destroy the habitat for themselves and other animals and die off from starvation or disease. This is illustrative of the biological contributions of hunters to the National Wildlife Refuge System, along with the financial contributions already discussed. The decision to allow hunting on a National Wildlife Refuge is made on a case-by-case basis by wildlife biologists under careful scientific consideration.
The National Wildlife Refuges that do offer hunting are active participants in National Hunting and Fishing Day, which occurs on the fourth Saturday of each September. Several refuges also offer supervised youth hunts and universally accessible hunts; many former junior hunters enjoy returning to refuges as mentors to their own children, yet there is little hunting pressure. Only an estimated 2.5 million hunters access National Wildlife Refuge System lands annually,8 in part by design, as some locations use a lottery system to limit the number of hunters in certain areas, and in part by a general lack of knowledge regarding the hunting opportunities at Refuges.
How Anti-Hunters Hijack Hunters' Conservation Anti-hunting organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) have long claimed the mantle of “animal rights.” Yet, in a very real sense, hunters are the true pillar of “animal rights,” and it’s too bad this isn’t recognized more widely. Because of hunting, animals have the right to exist in natural habitats that are protected from development, pollution and other harmful effects of human activity. Because of hunting, animals have the right to have their populations maintained at levels that do not overwhelm habitat sustainability. Finally, because of hunting, animals have the right to avoid extinction and flourish as healthy populations for generations to come. The phrase “animal rights” has been hijacked by animal extremists, but it is really hunters who have supported wildlife conservation for so long, particularly by doing something about it like purchasing Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, financially supporting wildlife biologists and game wardens/officers, and supporting strict hunting laws and regulations.
How Showcasing the Hunters' Role Corrects Misconception The flock of sandpipers finished feeding and resting on this refuge—a piece of land preserved for them, and for us, for all time. Our conversation grinded to a halt, me probably giving her way more information than she could absorb. After taking a deep breath, she said she had brought her kayak down and later was going to get out into the marsh and shores of the refuge in the hope of seeing even more migrating shorebirds.
I looked down and said, “Well you know, when I boat here, I pay a motorboat fuel tax that goes toward aquatic conservation efforts. When I fish here, the money from my fishing license goes to conservation. The fishing poles and other fishing equipment I use have the excise tax that goes directly to aquatic resource conservation. And when I hunt here, the hunting license I buy as well as the duck stamp I purchase goes to conservation. The shotgun and shells I buy have that excise tax, the proceeds going directly to wildlife conservation. However, when kayakers float along the preserved shores of the refuge, they are contributing nothing to conservation because there is no similar program in place for kayaks and canoes. In fact, I said, when such a parallel program has been put forth to tax canoes and kayaks, it has quickly been opposed—over and over again. So I said with a smile, “They allow kayaking here? Well that’s bullshit!”
She understood I was saying this in fun, but she understood my point. I made a new friend that day, and hopefully a convert to supporting refuges and an understanding of hunters’ role in conservation and in the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Editor's Note: On Mar. 14, the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) celebrated 114 years. Founded by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, the NWRS now includes more than 560 national wildlife refuges nationwide. Today there is at least one national wildlife refuge in every state and a refuge within an hour’s drive of most major cities.