Hard truths about Hunting, Activism, and Wildlife Conservation

The North American Model of Wildlife Management has set the standard for maintaining healthy wildlife populations upon the landscape by providing public access to public resources, and providing engaging recreational opportunities to connect folks with the landscape. A few years ago I was asked how I thought we could get more people interested in conserving land and water, and my answer was simple. 

Teach them to hunt, fish, and trap. Give people an activity which intimately connects them to these resources, and then give them a place to do it.

Hiking, bird-watching, and photography are great, and I enjoy them all, but hunting is immersive to a degree which simply cannot be replicated by less demanding interactions. This very fact has driven the success of the North American Model. Hunters, trappers, and anglers, have worked hand-in-hand with state and federal wildlife agencies to restore and maintain healthy wildlife populations for over a century.

The river otter is an example of a conservation success story. With the assistance of licensed trappers and traps, the otter was reintroduced by wildlife managers to once extirpated areas of the animal’s traditional home range. (Photo | Andreas Schantl)

Since 2015, there has been an aggressive, vitriolic effort throughout the Northeast to reduce opportunities for hunting and trapping by some misguided folks who refuse to acknowledge the benefits of having this engaged and interpersonal relationship with our wild resources. The same few folks keep writing about the need to ban hunting and trapping and upend the North American Model by populating regulatory boards with people who are opposed to the very act they propose to regulate.

The very notion is a ridiculous concept. Most public boards have enough to work through in their quest for appropriate solutions to issues without throwing agenda-driven obstructionists into the mix. How can someone be expected to objectively weigh something - for example, like the value of trapping to biologists, individuals, and communities - when that same someone simply wants to see the activity banned outright?

More often than not, a claim to support "ethical hunting" or "sustenance hunting" is thrown into the activism debate. Don't let these broad vagaries fool you. Ask specifics:

"Do you support bow hunting? If so, what will you do to help promote it?"

"Do you support youth seasons? If so, what will you do to help promote them?"

"Do you support science-based bear management? If so, what will you do to help promote it?"

I avoid lists and bullet points as they're impersonal, but in the interest of brevity I will succumb to their use. The following is a list of recent anti-hunting narratives and the facts which dispense with them.

Fiction: Wildlife belongs to all of us, and animals harvested are "stolen" from the public.

Fact: Wildlife belongs to all of us, and that includes hunters, trappers, and anglers. With healthy populations on the landscape there is room for everyone to enjoy our wildlife as they see fit. That includes lawful harvest for those of us who engage in it.

Fiction: Hunters/trappers/houndsmen are minority segments of society and therefore their lifestyle and activities are irrelevant.

Fact: I'm going to editorialize here a bit. After over four years of hearing this diatribe in various forms it continues to disgust me. If you insert any other ethnic, social, or cultural group into that sentence, how does it read? We don't accept that type of derogatory dismissal directed at our immigrant communities, our LGBT community, or our developmentally disabled community; we must not accept it when directed at the sporting community. If anti-hunting activists want to have a discussion, that's fine; but let's expect better of their leadership than this.

Fiction: Fish and Wildlife Boards/Departments only care about catering to the sporting community.

Fact: Fish and Wildlife Boards/Departments are usually guided by established science and best management practices. When public sentiment becomes a driver for wildlife management and science takes a back seat, not only does the public lose, the resource loses. Especially as this generally happens in the presence of false narratives or misrepresentation of facts by those opposed to all pursuit of game. Simply put, when these activists question the integrity of the entire Fish and Wildlife Department simply because the Department doesn't capitulate to their whims, we really need to question the activists.

There is no carte blanche rubber stamping of changes, but rather an involved process with many opportunities for input from the whole of the public as well as a trip to the legislature along the way. For example, some recent trapping changes in Vermont took almost two years to complete. The process involved written public input as well as multiple board discussions, public hearings, and legislative hearings.

Fiction: Coyote hunting needs to be reduced.

Fact: All parties agree that the current management practices for coyotes are not a negative population driver. It appears this debate is less about helping coyotes, and more about removing opportunity. Without getting too far into the weeds on this one, availability of food is the limiting factor for coyotes. All the current management protocols do is provide a metering effect. Additionally, when Connecticut instated a closed season they found a steep increase in coyote/human conflicts.

Fiction: Fish and Wildlife Boards need anti-hunting representation.

Fact: It would be inappropriate. In Vermont’s case, The Board has no authority to determine IF we may hunt, trap, or fish. It may only determine HOW we may hunt, trap, and fish. Whatever your passion, ask yourself this, "Should people with a false view of a practice, an agenda against it, and no practical knowledge of it be placed in a regulatory capacity?" For me the answer is a resounding “no”. Neighboring New Hampshire requires potential board members to have a hunting, fishing, or trapping license - food for thought. 

Fiction: Your tax money pays to support the killing of wildlife.

Fact: In the case of Vermont, about a quarter of the Fish and Wildlife Department budget comes from the general fund, about 1/3 comes from sporting license sales, another 1/3 comes from excise taxes on sporting equipment (taxes supported and paid by hunters, trappers, anglers, and recreational shooters), and the remainder comes from smaller sources such as the habitat stamp (most often purchased at the same time as a sporting license). I suspect these numbers are similar in many states.

Keeping in mind that this budget funds all of the Department's operating expenses, vehicles, infrastructure repairs and improvements, game wardens, non-game and endangered species work, habitat work, and land acquisition; the sporting community is clearly paying it's fair share.

The sporting community has demonstrably been the single-payer system for the health care of our nation’s wildlife for well over a century at this point. The trapping community alone has spent over $41M in the last three decades to test the traps they use for the sake of ensuring the welfare of captured animals. Rather than disparaging those who are rolling up their sleeves and doing real work to benefit wildlife, perhaps these anti-hunting groups could stop spending money on smear campaigns, start raising some funds to support some of the Department's initiatives, and let go of the outright bigotry they so desperately cling to.

Mike Covey stands as the current executive director of the Vermont Traditions Coalition. Being interested in wildlife at a very young age, he studied wildlife management at UNH and has volunteered in numerous positions with various sporting organizations - including five years as Conservation Director of the Vermont Trapper’s Association, and three years as long range management plan analyst for the Vermont Traditions Coalition.