Conservationists should make friends with hunters

hunter with dog

People who spend time in nature, whether to hunt with guns or binoculars, are more likely to take action to protect it, a new study concludes.

Renee V/Flickr (CC-BY 2.0)

For the sake of wildlife conservation everywhere, birdwatchers and other animal lovers should join forces with hunters.

Fans of wildlife are going to read that and think I’m crazy. But if we want more allies in efforts to protect wildlife, we should look to hunters.

Responsible hunters, on the other hand, will read this and think, “well of course we want to protect wildlife.” If all the animals and the wild spaces in which they live are gone, there will be nothing and nowhere to hunt. And hunters have a long history of conservation. Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, was an avid big-game hunter with a great appreciation for all the wonders of the outdoors and came to be known as the “conservation president.”

Such sentiments among hunters continue today, a recent survey of rural New York residents finds. Hunters participated in conservation activities, such as donating money and enhancing public and private lands, about as much as birdwatchers did. And people who were both hunters and birders were even more likely to carry out such actions, Caren Cooper and colleagues from Cornell University report March 5 in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

 The survey queried birdwatchers, hunters and people who didn’t do much outdoor recreation. (Responses from hikers and anglers were excluded from the study; too few responded to the survey to make meaningful conclusions.) The researchers asked about environmental beliefs and behaviors. All the groups — hunters, birdwatchers, hunter–birdwatchers and non-recreationists — reported high levels of environmental behaviors like recycling and energy conservation. But conservation behaviors were a different story. Compared with non-recreationists:

  • Hunters were 1.9 times as likely, birdwatchers 2.1 times as likely and hunter–birdwatchers 2.7 times as likely to donate money to conservation causes.
  • Hunters were 2.9 times as likely, birders 3.5 times as likely and hunter–birdwatchers 4.7 times as likely to carry out habitat enhancement.
  • The three groups were more likely to engage in advocacy of wildlife recreation.

“Our data … suggest that the environmental beliefs and conservation behaviors of birdwatchers and hunters might be more similar than many recognize,” the researchers write.

As humans have spread across the globe, wild lands have disappeared and so have an alarming variety of plants, animals and other species. The World Wildlife Fund estimated last year, for instance, that the population sizes of vertebrates dropped by 52 percent in the last 40 years. Some have argued that Earth is now experiencing its sixth mass extinction. Even if the current die-off doesn’t qualify as a mass extinction, wildlife and their habitats need all the supporters they can get. And those groups of supporters would be a lot more effective if they worked together toward a common goal of protecting the outdoors.

What that means is compromise. Animal lovers are going to have to be OK with the loss of some of their fuzzy friends. Hikers and birdwatchers may have to stay out of certain places during hunting season. And they should be careful to not let their presence do harm to the outdoors they enjoy.

Hunters also need to do their part. They should probably stop using lead-based bullets — it’s not healthy for them or the environment. And because their actions inherently harm wildlife, they need to be responsible in how they pursue and kill their prey, and they should let scientists determine what and how much they can kill so that a population can easily recover from their activities. That is actually one of the fundamental tenets of the North American Wildlife Conservation Model, which has guided many conservation efforts for decades.

Such compromises mean no one group will get everything they want. But such a path will let everyone enjoy the outdoors and leave enough wild space and wildlife for future generations — and we will have to be satisfied with that.

Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is managing editor of Science News for Students. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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