by Jim Heffelfinger - Monday, January 8, 2024
The attack on hunting as a conservation tool by anti-hunting academics and their friends in the media is heating up.
A recent Newsweek article titled, “Scientists Warn American ‘Promotion of Hunting’ Is Ruining the Environment,” levied a complaint that state wildlife agencies are not working hard enough to preserve biodiversity because they spend too much effort promoting hunting instead.
The article starts out, “Scientists have warned that a strong focus on hunting—instead of rewilding key species—is ‘reinforcing’ biodiversity loss.” If this opening sentence has you confused, you are not alone. Right from the start the author, and the scientists she relies on, illustrate just how little they know about what state wildlife agencies do and how wildlife populations are restored. It was the funds from well-managed sustainable use of wildlife that funded the restoration of wildlife species and their habitat. Conservation of all species is delivered on the ground in most states with funding directly or indirectly generated from the act of hunting. Despite hollow and unfounded accusations to the contrary, the very act of hunting continues to provide the funding and advocacy mechanisms that make wildlife restoration and conservation of wildlife possible.
The scientists referred to in Newsweek authored a journal article in BioScience attempting to argue that hunting is now somehow contributing to a loss in wildlife diversity (biodiversity). They failed in that attempt because they did not make a logical connection between the management of hunted species with any loss in biodiversity. In fact, their argument was a stretch—to the point of ridiculousness. Many of the authors of this journal article represent the usual cast of characters who have been publishing anti-hunting papers in scientific journals for years. As in this case, they speak in vague language, innuendos, unsupported accusations and a one-sided reporting of the literature to wrap their personal dislike of hunting in a robe of scientific smoke and mirrors. Through it all, they present no evidence that biodiversity anywhere is being negatively impacted by hunting or by wildlife agencies’ focus on funding conservation through sustainable use.
Those opposed to hunting—mostly large carnivore hunting—are trying to build momentum in a campaign to discount the role of hunting in conservation. This campaign is built on differing personal values, not on a failure of wildlife managers or a lack of science. In the meantime, state agencies continue their long history of conserving all wildlife with the funding model that is in place, and with management methods that are solidly based on scientifically and socially guided input.
If we are interested in the truth—and many are not—we must recognize that agencies have been busy conserving biodiversity without all the media attention their detractors generate. State wildlife agencies work tirelessly conserving wild things and the wild places they need, but do a very poor job of highlighting that work. For example, no one knows that 24 Western state and provincial fish and wildlife agencies are working together on a Western Monarch & Native Insect Pollinator working group to implement a Western Monarch Conservation Plan they developed, or that the Arizona Game and Fish Department recently celebrated 30-plus years of its very successful Nongame Branch. While activists were busy writing articles about the over-emphasis on hunting, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has been administering the Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative that has invested $348 million to restore 2.6 million acres of wildlife habitat and 2,269 stream miles. Newsweek would like you to believe that only hunted species live in those 2.6 million acres of habitat. Examples like this are endless, but agencies are too busy delivering conservation to spend time crowing about it. That vacuum of information gives detractors plenty of playing field to make up their own narrative.
The article and referenced journal paper ignored the fundamental fact that a vested interest in harvestable species supports a user pay, public benefit through sustainable use. Sustainable use of a small percentage of the population of a small percentage of species has long been the driver of conservation. Strangely enough, the Newsweek article uses white-tailed deer as an example of agencies only managing species to supply hunters with abundant targets. The problem with this logic is that hunters harvest more female white-tailed deer each year than males in an effort to control their incredible growth rate. Without hunting, deer would destroy most of their habitat and cause other unacceptable impacts on today’s human-dominated landscape.
Dr. John Vucetich, a co-author of the journal article, told Newsweek that the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks has no webpages devoted to endangered species. An electronic search of its website using “endangered species” turns up four pages of links, which is a lot considering state agencies are not the lead agency responsible for endangered species. Dr. Vucetich claims the absence of endangered species on state agencies’ websites is typical, which only illustrates an honest ignorance or willful misinformation.
The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is merely a description of how part of conservation works. It was never meant to be an all-encompassing umbrella that represented all conservation. We do need to spend more time and money conserving all species, but there is no evidence that hunting is distracting agencies from that despite the unsupported statements of a handful of scientists and their like-minded friends in the media. The truth is, state fish and wildlife agencies have been working very hard for decades to secure reliable funding and build the capacity to do so much more, especially for those un-hunted species.
Assuring that the hunted species are properly managed in order to fund the rest of the agencies’ conservation work is not a diversion of effort away from conserving un-hunted and endangered species. On the contrary, it is actually the vehicle by which critical conservation actions for all species are made possible. Funds from sport shooting, hunting and angling fund law enforcement to protect wildlife, habitat acquisition protection and enhancement, wildlife research, population and disease monitoring, threatened and endangered species recovery, population restoration and agency infrastructure.
With all the challenges to the conservation of wild things, this is exactly the wrong time to cut the legs from beneath the funding and advocacy support that has served us better than any other nation on the planet. Recognizing that many of the conservation challenges today lack adequate funding and public engagement, state fish and wildlife agencies are on a constant quest to secure reliable funding for today’s needs and to adapt to societal changes that will ultimately determine what conservation looks like in the future. State agency discussions in recent years at the highest organizational levels have focused on keeping common species common and off the endangered species list. This means ramping up dedicated efforts to focus conservation on all species.
None of the recent criticisms mention the State Wildlife Action Plans (SWAPs) written and implemented by state wildlife agencies. These SWAPs focus conservation efforts on a list of Species of Greatest Conservation Need in each state and those species are usually not the ones you will find in the hunting regulations. When complaining about state fish and wildlife agencies catering disproportionately to hunters, critics always fail to mention SWAPs—either because they lack a basic understanding of how state fish and wildlife agencies conserve biodiversity or they don’t want you to know about them.
The purpose of the Newsweek article was to cast a dark shadow on hunting, and the author did that by reporting on a journal article written by scientists with the same goal. The only real data in that article came from a survey of 3,589 people in nine states that asked what they thought were the most important things for state agencies to focus on. The survey found that respondents prioritized restoring extirpated or imperiled species higher than increasing opportunities to hunt and trap (trapping was obviously added to drive down support in the responses, but only hunting is mentioned in the results). Anytime you ask people about their preference for saving imperiled animals vs. providing more hunting and trapping opportunity the results should not be surprising. Even those survey respondents who identified “strongly” or “very strongly” as hunters preferred that agencies focus on saving imperiled species. None of this is newsworthy, but the scientists twisted these simple results into a convoluted conclusion that agencies are focusing too much on hunting when they should be focusing on restoring imperiled species.
Even though only about 5 percent of us hunt, professionally conducted surveys show 77-81 percent of Americans support legal and ethical hunting because they understand that it is a positive force for the conservation of biodiversity. The campaign by some to paint a false picture of state wildlife conservation is less about the restoration of biodiversity and more about some scientists’ dislike that hunting is the most effective foundation to make that happen. Agencies continue to prioritize the restoration of biodiversity and do so through the most successful conservation funding mechanism yet devised.
Those who want to stop some or all forms of hunting as the foundation of conservation have yet to explain what income will replace hunting to restore biodiversity. In typical idyllic fashion, there is vague talk about eliminating hunting, but very little explanation of how agencies will protect and conserve many more species and ecosystems with such a significant loss of funding.
Hunted species will always require much more intensive monitoring because a portion of the population is being removed annually, and we can all agree that harvest needs to be sustainable unless we are intentionally reducing the population as part of a management program. Just because wildlife species don't have an elaborate annual survey monitoring program doesn't mean they’re being neglected. They just may not need the level of monitoring as a harvested species.
The things stressing wildlife populations and causing extinction in North America are not regulated hunting nor state agencies’ focus on the proper management of hunted species. Long-term changes in habitat, climate and weather patterns, as well as invasive species, urban encroachment, habitat fragmentation and the sheer crush of human population growth are not issues that would be easier to solve if we stop hunting.
Given that, I'm not sure what some critics think state wildlife agencies can do to dramatically increase biodiversity if they stop focusing on generating conservation funding through sustainable harvest of a few species. The focus on proper management of sustainable use of a few hunted species is not interfering with the restoration of biodiversity. On the contrary, it is actually providing the financial base and infrastructure that allow state agencies to deliver the conservation of biodiversity that is everyone’s goal.
About the Author
A wildlife biologist with degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Jim Heffelfinger has worked for state and federal wildlife agencies and universities and in the private sector. He is the author of Deer of the Southwest and the author or co-author of more than 200 magazine articles, 50 scientific papers, 20 book chapters and numerous outdoor TV scripts. Chairman of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Mule Deer Working Group, representing 24 Western states and Canadian provinces, he also is the recipient of the Wallmo Award, presented to the leading mule deer biologist in North America, and was named the Mule Deer Foundation’s 2009 Professional of the Year. A member of the International Defensive Pistol Association and the U.S. Practical Shooting Association, Heffelfinger enjoys weekly competitions with his 1911. The opinions expressed here are his own and reflect his personal point of view.
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