Hunting, Land Conservation, and Blood Lust

» February 6th, 2013

Writing in The Gainesville Sun last week, Brian Block, an almost twenty-year vegan, advocated opening land held under the Alachua Conservation Trust to hunting. His argument, as it were, was not an explicit endorsement of hunting so much as a roundabout utilitarian claim that hunting would leverage greater support for conservation efforts. Get enough people who like to blow away animals on board and you can prevent undeveloped land from becoming a Walmart. This land preservation defense of hunting is a common one. It’s so common in here in Texas, in fact, that one can, as I did yesterday, hear a defense of it over breakfast at a vegan macrobiotic restaurant in the center of liberal Austin.

As a general point, I think anyone who knows the first thing about ecology understands that ecosystems are healthiest when left “unmanaged.” If it is the long-term health of ecosystems that we have in mind, our best bet is simply to leave them well enough alone. Of course, humans are short-term thinkers. We’re also environmentally meddlesome to the point of destruction. And arrogant. Thus we have convinced ourselves that we can, by allowing a bunch of men and women with an arsenal of weaponry play Rambo amidst our fields and forests, improve these inherently robust ecosystems through federal and state run programs. We are—again as a long-term prospect—almost always wrong about this. We don’t even fully know how these ecosystems work. What makes us think we can accomplish something as complex as micromanaging their species profile?

Theoretically, I suppose, it’s possible that a team of experienced hunters could cherry pick a minimal population of doe in order to moderate deer numbers, minimize subsequent starvation, and approximate the appearance of effective land management in the short term. But it never works this way. In reality, when bounties are placed on animals in the name of conservation, hordes of weekend warriors trying to compensate for something (perhaps a loss of power in some other area of life) dress up in cammo, buy a case of Bud, and firebomb the weakest members of a species, thereby selecting for the strongest. Advanced riflemen then seek out the biggest buck, reserving their fire for specimen that might serve as an impressive wall trophy. Together, the end result of these approaches is ecologically counterproductive, if not disastrous. Populations that are perceived to be too high are, in their violent reduction, rendered so weak they may never recover, thus creating room for another, perhaps more invasive species to proliferate that could be, alas, hunted.

“Conservation” thus becomes yet another example of a euphemism obscuring our blood lust. The vast majority of conservation-driven hunting policies are designed not to improve the quality of a particular ecosystem but to improve the quality of the hunt. As with so many activities humans pursue, we’d be so much better off letting go of the mythical associations of hunting and reflecting on what it is within us that makes us want to kill.

 

 

29 Responses to Hunting, Land Conservation, and Blood Lust

  1. Mary Finelli says:

    Excellent commentary, James. I hope you submitted a version of it to The Sun.

  2. Karen Orr says:

    Excellent. I second Mary’s view that this be submitted to The Sun. Bryan Block’s piece ran as a “Speaking Out” column so responses to it could be submitted as “Talking Back” columns.

    New Sun editorial page editor Nathan Crabbe’s e-mail is nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com. The general address for letter submission is gainesvillesunletters@gmail.com.

    Y’all might recall that Paul Watson resigned from the National Sierra Club board over Sierra Club hunting policy and promotions.

    Here’s one of Captain Watsons articles on the subject shortly after his resignation.

    The Sierra Club Chooses Killers over Advocates for Life and Nature
    http://www.leapnonprofit.org/Phil%20article%20Sierra%20Club%20chooses%20killers.htm

    The National Sierra Club’s hunting promotion has toned down considerably from those days but it’s till there. Here’s their page for “Sierra Sportskids”

    “Sierra Sportsmen’s Sportskids campaign is about giving kids the opportunity to fish and hunt”
    http://www.sierraclub.org/sierrasportsmen/

    Karen
    Gainesville, Florida

  3. Rhys Southan says:

    “His argument, as it were, was not an explicit endorsement of hunting so much as a roundabout utilitarian claim that hunting would leverage greater support for conservation efforts. Get enough people who like to blow away animals on board and you can prevent undeveloped land from becoming a Walmart.”

    This is an interesting argument, but it’s not one that you address with the rest of your column. Instead you argue that undeveloped land is better without hunting than with hunting, and that people who claim to be hunting for conservation purposes aren’t being honest.

    But that’s irrelevant to the argument you brought up, which was a choice between human development of the land vs. leaving it undeveloped but allowing hunting. Humans have an incentive to transform animal habitat into human civilization, and they also have an incentive to leave the habitat relatively untouched if they can use it for food and the enjoyment some people get from hunting. The incentive for keeping the land undeveloped and without “human management” can also exist for people who like to wander around nature — or who like the land existing that way for environmental or ethical reasons — but that incentive isn’t as strong as using the land for something humans directly benefit from.

    Realistically, then, there will be choices between keeping land undeveloped (with hunting allowed), or turning it into superstores. Since many vegans have less of a problem with human development than with hunting, a possible vegan solution would be to pave over the animal habitat to make room for more human businesses and homes. The counterpoint to this is that undeveloped land that is hunted could at least serve as a home for animals, even if it’s a home where someone might come in and shoot them. In contrast, the roads and concrete structures of development are unlikely to be much of a home for animals at all (unless they are animals adapted for human civilization), and the animals who do live there are in just as much danger as the animals who might be hunted in the undeveloped scenario — from cars, poisons and unreliable shelter. There would be no hunting with the megastore option, but in part that’s because there’s nothing left to hunt once the land is developed, because most of the animals would have died off, unless they adapt or find somewhere else to scramble to.

    So assuming that megastore vs. undeveloped land with hunting is the choice, how would you decide?

    • John T. Maher says:

      This comment starts off with some interesting and big ideas which are not really developed. I hope Rhys will post more in the future

    • Lori says:

      It seems to me you give false options and make incorrect assumptions that very much weaken your argument.

      Firstly, you assume that we humans only care about leaving land wild if we (or at least some of us) can somehow use it. While that is true of some, maybe even many humans, it’s not true for many others. Leaving land wild for wild’s sake is primary to many environmentalists and animal rights advocates alike.

      Secondly, you state “…many vegans have less of a problem with human development than with hunting…” Not sure where you get this. Yes, most vegans are against hunting, but that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that we prefer human development.

      • John T. Maher says:

        Lori’s comment is exactly the sort of critical and collegial discourse which challenges assumptions and which makes this a great blog. As a result I almost always pick up on something in the comments that I had not considered and that keeps me coming back. I hope everyone will post about the ideas in play, and not the personalities, and avoid happy talk like “that’s great!”

      • Rhys Southan says:

        “Firstly, you assume that we humans only care about leaving land wild if we (or at least some of us) can somehow use it. While that is true of some, maybe even many humans, it’s not true for many others. Leaving land wild for wild’s sake is primary to many environmentalists and animal rights advocates alike.”

        I don’t assume that, and in fact, we seem to agree. I wrote:

        “The incentive for keeping the land undeveloped and without ‘human management’ can also exist for people who like to wander around nature — or who like the land existing that way for environmental or ethical reasons — but that incentive isn’t as strong as using the land for something humans directly benefit from.”

        Maybe instead of saying “that incentive isn’t as strong,” I should have said, “that incentive isn’t as prevalent.” In other words, it is true that some humans would prefer for all potentially usable wild land not to be used in ways that benefit humans, but this probably is not the most common position. And at the very least, it’s certainly not the most common position of those with the power to decide. Which is why Brian Block wrote that article to advocate opening the land up for hunting, since that would appease some human selfishness while also benefitting animals more than not conserving wild land at all.

        Some environmentalists and some vegans might prefer to leave all currently wild land free of human development and hunting, but since the majority of humans will want to get *something* out of potentially useful land, a question for vegans to consider will sometimes be which option out of two possible compromises is the best for animals — turning land into a (hunting-free) human development, or leaving it undeveloped and allowing hunting? James opened this essay with that intriguing question, but then never answered it.

        “Secondly, you state ‘…many vegans have less of a problem with human development than with hunting…’ Not sure where you get this. Yes, most vegans are against hunting, but that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that we prefer human development.”

        I get this from the fact that veganism prohibits the exploitation of animals and the intentional killing of animals for food when there are plant foods available. Hunting, therefore, is almost never vegan except in desperate survival situations. However, since land development does not exploit animals and it does not kill animals for the purposes of human consumption of them, human development is vegan, according to most current articulations of the philosophy. Therefore it makes sense to assume that many vegans have less of a problem with human development (which is vegan) than hunting (which is not).

        But do you disagree? Do you think leaving land wild but allowing hunting is better for animals than banning hunting but then turning the land into human development?

        • ingrid says:

          Rhys, you write, “However, since land development does not exploit animals and it does not kill animals for the purposes of human consumption of them, human development is vegan, according to most current articulations of the philosophy.”

          That’s a pretty limited view of “land development” and how it affects wildlife. If there are vegans who feel this way, then they probably don’t have an accurate understanding of the relationship between development and wild animals.

          The initial assault, displacement and carnage notwithstanding, land development does, indeed, exploit wildlife for human consumption. It’s obviously consumption that drives development in the first place which then pushes the surviving wildlife into dangerous urban conflicts, or into remaining wild tracts of habitat which are often hunted.

          After the fact, the remaining members of those eradicated species do return to their traditional nesting or breeding grounds, or new wild animals learn to exploit those developed niches. They, in turn, are poisoned, shot, or otherwise “controlled” in an effort to keep the parcels “developed” for the sake, again, of our ravenous material consumption. I don’t quite see how this fits an ethic of least harm.

          • Rhys Southan says:

            “The initial assault, displacement and carnage notwithstanding, land development does, indeed, exploit wildlife for human consumption. It’s obviously consumption that drives development in the first place which then pushes the surviving wildlife into dangerous urban conflicts, or into remaining wild tracts of habitat which are often hunted.”

            I think this misinterprets what I was saying. I know it’s human consumption that drives land development. What I meant was that land development did not necessarily lead to the consumption of the animals who were inhabiting that land. For instance, paving over undeveloped land to build a Walmart does not usually entail eating all the animals who will be killed because of this, and it’s that consumption that would make it non-vegan. Therefore, land development in itself is not non-vegan, though it can be if the development is for animal agriculture, slaughterhouses, circuses, zoos, rodeos or science labs that test on animals.

            However, if you were to build a factory that processes vegetable proteins, building that factory would be vegan even if it were built on previously wild land and killed a lot of animals as a consequence. Or would you say that’s not vegan?

        • Lori says:

          “The incentive for keeping the land undeveloped and without ‘human management’ can also exist for people who like to wander around nature — or who like the land existing that way for environmental or ethical reasons — but that incentive isn’t as strong as using the land for something humans directly benefit from.”

          This was not what I was saying, exactly. I’m not talking about keeping it wild for those of us who like to wander around nature. You’re closer when you say “for environmental or ethical reasons,” but you are still assuming that humans must have or want to use land for some human purpose, even if that human purpose is the desire to have wild lands. I’m saying, wild just for the sake of wild. In other words, wild not for any human purposes. I know it’s a slight distinction and I realize you are coming from a perspective of “realism” or “practicality,” which, btw, I’m not opposed to and have even advocated on some occasions. But we only change that practicality and realism through ideas and through truth, and I still say that this is a false choice.

          “However, since land development does not exploit animals and it does not kill animals for the purposes of human consumption of them, human development is vegan, according to most current articulations of the philosophy.”

          Actually, no again. We vegans know quite well how development hurts animals (i.e. Ingrid’s response). And again, you give a false choice. It’s not an either/or proposition.

          • Rhys Southan says:

            “Actually, no again. We vegans know quite well how development hurts animals (i.e. Ingrid’s response). And again, you give a false choice. It’s not an either/or proposition.”

            So then you oppose all land development, and thus human civilization? Or is land development a past wrong that vegans can accept as long as it doesn’t expand into currently wild lands?

        • Lori says:

          “So then you oppose all land development, and thus human civilization? Or is land development a past wrong that vegans can accept as long as it doesn’t expand into currently wild lands?”

          When given this choice (although, again, seems to me to be another false choice), I choose the latter.

  4. Lori says:

    I’m in agreement with you here James. Almost every hunter I’ve ever encountered uses land conservation and overpopulation of animals as their excuse to hunt. It’s simple not supported by science most of the time (or it may be from a depletion of natural predators), but it allows them to feel good about killing.

  5. John T. Maher says:

    Teasing out one point you make: “As a general point, I think anyone who knows the first thing about ecology understands that ecosystems are healthiest when left “unmanaged.”" The terms “umanaged” you rightly use in quotes and should mean the elimination of externalities such as human pollution or supplements to the ecosystem. These can take the form of wildlife access to garbage, pollution, removal of trophic predators, GMO contamination, warming, etc. all of which will act to “manage” and ecosytem in an unintended manner. Many such comments cite to Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain” as a point of departure. Human “hunting” might have a regulatory effect if small numbers of humans hunted without technology.

    The problem is there has never been in the last several million years an ecosytem unregulated by humans or their ancestors in some way. The patriarchal psychology of hunting is creepy and used as a heuristic for ecosystem management. I personally feel that the only hunting allowed should be for human bareknuckle challenges to adult male Grizzly and Polar bears.

  6. ingrid says:

    James, this is an issue of deep concern to me and to my fellow non-hunting conservationists — wildlife photographers, birders, and other ‘non-extractive’ supporters of public lands who see the systematic bias toward hunting interests. Block’s argument is familiar and tired. And yet, as you write, to those who aren’t invested in the complexity of the issue, his solution can seem viable — perhaps exclusively so.

    The crux of the problem lies in Block’s own statement: “we have to remember how these programs got funded and what the money is supposed to do.” In our country, the public funding mechanism, now entrenched, favors hunting interests on so many levels, it can appear from the outside to be immovable and incontrovertible. But it’s not.

    I took on one facet of this issue last year in my blog, bringing attention to how skewed the priorities tend to be on National Wildlife Refuges precisely because of the advantage given to consumptive users. That blog post, in turn, inspired debate at other blogs, even within the ranks of like-minded wildlife advocates, some of whom agree with me, and others who fiercely defend the status quo. I broke down the parts in this piece: http://www.thewildbeat.com/2011/11/hunting-on-national-wildlife-refuge/

    In the case of Refuges, the Federal Duck Stamp funds about 3 percent of land acquisition, with a good chunk of land acquired through public monies. But, through current times, the Duck Stamp revenue is used consistently to leverage priority-use for hunters, often to the exclusion of non-hunting users. (Some refuges are closed or restricted for all but hunters for those 100 days of the year). There are 13+ million hunters in the U.S., and 77+ million wildlife watchers, to put it in perspective. But, it’s because fees are levied on hunting equipment through acts of Congress like Pittman-Robertson, that public agencies are reticent to use any other model and thus alienate their historical funding base. In an era where austerity measures threaten the future of public lands, and where no comparable stream of income exists to supplement or even surpass hunter funding, it’s understandable why debate is heated on this issue.

    Right now, I’m working with like-minded wildlife conservationists to improve upon one facet of this system. We are advocating for an alternative income stream on our National Wildlife Refuges, proposing a revenue generating-stamp (like the Duck Stamp) that would bring some parity to the existing model of funding, and show what is possible when this revenue stream is tapped. There are hunters among us who also feel strongly that such an effort is long overdue. It’s but one piece in a larger, byzantine landscape of land-use management. Currently, there is no accurate accounting of the funds generated by non-consumptive users in the same way that hunting revenue is clearly delineated by law or mandated stamp purchase. So, the status quo is perpetuated by the erroneous idea that we others don’t contribute to our public trust in the same way hunters do. (The project is in its infancy but you can see the building blocks here: http://www.wildlifeconservationstamp.org)

    It’s true that habitat destruction is one of the greatest threats to wildlife on the planet. When you factor in all other anthropogenic causes of wildlife mortality (window collisions, electrocution, poisoning, hunting and trapping, automobiles, extermination efforts, entanglements and plastics mortality, etc.) it’s impossible not to have visceral antipathy toward human development and overpopulation — at all costs. If faced with the stark either/or proposition that Rhys suggests (hunted land or paved land), yes, some (perhaps many) wildlife advocates will opt to preserve land with the provision of hunting. But, I don’t see the situation through as bleak or monochromatic a lens.

    In Block’s final paragraph, he writes, “opening some (not all) of these lands to this use may garner additional support for public conservation land programs and cut through some of the historical culture clash between the conservation community and recreational hunters, the best of whom are also ardent conservationists.”

    As one immersed in habitat and wildlife issues from a non-consumptive perspective, I disagree. I see growing awareness for how the current model is not keeping pace with a changing demographic … or with the interests of those who see wildlife and wild lands from a different philosophical vantage point, not just a utilitarian one. There is obviously strong precedent for Block’s analysis of the situation. But for me, precedent doesn’t suggest acquiescence to an outdated way of viewing our public trust and our wild animals, who are valuable for their own sake, and whose inherent value is consistently under-valued in a system that commodifies them.

    • Rhys Southan says:

      Nice comment. I’m not doubting your numbers, but where can we find the source for “13+ million hunters in the U.S., and 77+ million wildlife watchers”?

      • ingrid says:

        The 77+ should be 71+ million (just saw the typo). The figures are in the USFWS 2006 and 2012 reports: http://digitalmedia.fws.gov/cdm/ref/collection/document/id/311

        • Rhys Southan says:

          Thanks for this. I haven’t looked over the documents yet, but I can see how the numbers make sense, given that animal agriculture exists, and so hunting is not the only or the easiest way to get meat.

          It seems to me that the reason so many people would pick option C (no human development or hunting) for wild land is that having enough agricultural land to feed us gives us the luxury to keep some wild lands free for exploring and enjoying, rather than for food. Therefore, the Walmart vs. hunting conundrum shouldn’t have to come up so often, except perhaps in communities where hunters may outnumber the wildlife watchers.

          A question that arguably remains for vegans, however, is vegetable agriculture vs. wild land that is used for food (including meat). Since vegetable agriculture takes land that was previously home to animals, and turns it to a human development where a lot of animals become unwelcome “pests,” do you think it would sometimes be better for animals to leave land wild and allow hunting (and thus make it possible for humans to get more nutrition out of it than just from foraging alone) than to turn it to vegetable agriculture where many animals become trespassers who need to be kept out or killed?

          Or does vegan permaculture provide the solution here?

          • CQ says:

            Your last sentence takes the words right out of my mouth. :-)

            Answer: YES! (Hope you were asking not just Ingrid, but anyone.)

    • CQ says:

      Nathan Crabbe at The Gainesville Sun deserves to read this rational rebuttal!

      When given a choice between two tried-and-true answers, I invariably think, “But are these really the only options? What about the wealth of creative ideas out there just waiting to be discovered?”

      Ingrid, your proposal of an alternative revenue-producing stamp is just such a creative idea. I would buy it in a heartbeat, even if I never used it.

      Bird-watcher/rehabber/illustrator Julie Zickefoose, whose book “The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds” I just finished reading, poses these questions to other non-consumptive wildlife watchers:

      “Ducks Unlimited, a private organization, has raised $162 million, 80 percent of that going to the protection of 82 million acres in three countries. Where does that leave bird watchers, notorious for our quest for free entertainment, other than in the dust? Well, I’m not sure. How many of us join Ducks Unlimited? Or is that organization just for hunters? And how many of us buy Duck Stamps each year and proudly paste them right on our binoculars? [She and her husband Bill do.] Or is that just for hunters, too? Is habitat acquisition just too much for us to bother with, because we know that somebody else will worry about it? Isn’t it time we stepped up to the plate, too? Whether we admit it or not, birders benefit greatly from the conservation dollars contributed by hunters. We watch the birds they’ve saved, standing on habitat they’ve bought.” [As Ingrid points out, the purchases are also made with public monies.]

      There simply has to be a way — or any number of ways — to meld the interests of individual humans, individual animals, and our shared environment without depriving any of those entities of life, liberty, health, harmony, happiness.

      Scaring the living daylights out of innocent creatures who are minding their own business in their own homes, not to mention wounding them, killing them, and breaking up families and friendships, doesn’t fit into a nonspeciesist vision of “live and let live.”

      • ingrid says:

        Thanks very much, CQ … for the comments and for the excerpt from Julie Zickafoose. I love Julie’s art and her commitment to wildlife, including her hands-on rehabilitation work. She does a lot for the nonhumans among us.

        I remember reading that excerpt. There’s one piece missing from her assessment. As far as I know, there’s no consolidated accounting of non-consumptive contributions to habitat restoration and wildlife conservation (if someone knows, I would really love that figure, in fact). It’s easy to tally revenue from Duck Stamps and Congressional Acts which is at the heart of why we want to adopt a streamlined accounting through other tangible means.

        But, when you take into account various land conservancies and trusts, contributions and volunteer hours to wildlife organizations and facilities, individual bequeathments, boots-on-the-ground preservation efforts like Save the Bay, Sea Shepard, Defenders of Wildlife … and then add to that number the birders who do, in fact, buy Duck Stamps, the figure is undoubtedly much higher than what is generally granted. As one example, in my home of the SF Bay Area, all of the regional parks and Peninsula Land Trust lands are non-hunting areas, preserved through the finance and toil of interests outside of state and federal lands model.

        I personally don’t place culpability on non-hunters for not buying Duck Stamps or joining Ducks Unlimited. I used to buy Duck Stamps, but found my values conflicted with what I learned was priority allocation toward game endeavors. Like others who share this perspective, I’ve put my time and money into other wildlife and habitat organizations that lean toward non-violent and rehabilitative efforts. But, as so often happens, these contributions aren’t tallied in a national ledger.

        • CQ says:

          Excellent points. Thanks for the continuing education and enlightenment, Ingrid!

          I admire Julie for the same reasons you do, and, like you, don’t take her word as the be-all-and-end-all. The views she espouses in her book don’t always jibe with mine, by any means.

  7. [...] hunting—or so they would have us believe. As James McWilliams blogged in a timely post entitled Hunting, Land Conservation, and Blood Lust, “This land preservation defense of hunting is a common one. Get enough people who like to blow [...]

  8. CQ says:

    A TEDx talk just arrived in my inbox, and though the speaker, Megan (“Megan the Vegan”) Pincus Kajitani, doesn’t comment on human development vs. hunting, her topic, “Every Living Being Matters,” fits with this post somehow.

    Megan’s 16-minute talk is especially suitable for parents and their children, teachers and their students, and even grandparents and their grandkids:

  9. Rudy says:

    Cut to the real problem—that humans, an unregulated and violent species, are the ones who get to choose what happens to the land.

  10. David Wise says:

    Hi James, I can see you are against hunting and also appear to be a quite intelligent individual. So I was wondering if you could answer a question for me. Why has it in today’s day and age become socially acceptable to disregard the realities of nature? Forget the fact that humans have been hunting for there food for thousands of years, forget that hunters donate billions of dollars towards the preservation of wildlife and their habitat, much more than other so called “conservationists”. But what you can’t forget is this, opposed to what you may believe, hunters are far more in tune with nature than you or any non hunter could ever hope to be

    • Lori says:

      “But what you can’t forget is this, opposed to what you may believe, hunters are far more in tune with nature than you or any non hunter could ever hope to be”

      David, you must know that this is an incredible specious claim that is is impossible to defend. You’re discounting the numerous conservationists, naturalists, writers, hikers, campers, photographers, scientists and homesteaders who don’t feel the need to kill what they see. Those who understand that taking a life in the woods doesn’t make them “in tune” with nature, but only a killer. If you spend a great deal of time observing nature, as I and many others here do, you’ll see a great many instances of empathy and altruism. You’ll see that “nature” varies from place to place and species to species and time to time. You’ll see that “nature” can exist anywhere and does exist everywhere. Nature is a very subjective and expansive word and concept. I urge you to reconsider your construct of what being in tune with nature may really entail.

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