A Caretaker and a Killer: How Hunters Can Save the Wilderness

Stereotypes of gun-toting brutes and tree-hugging hippies miss the basic facts about who is protecting nature—and why.
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Fourteen years ago, I stood in the snow, struggling to digest what I had heard. A group of us, gathered to learn about monitoring and protecting wildlife habitat, had just discovered that our instructor—Sue Morse, founder of Keeping Track—was a deer hunter. I found the news disturbing. How could she work to safeguard the homes of animals she described as “neighbors” and then turn around and shoot one of them? I found it inconceivable that someone could be both an environmentalist and a hunter, a caretaker and a killer.

Today, I, too, am both. I understand that caring for animals and their ecosystems is not incompatible with participating in those systems as a predator. I recall how extreme the contradiction once seemed, but I now see how vital it is to bridge the gap.

Wildlife conservation faces serious challenges these days. Among other things, the climate is changing, development continues to fragment habitat, and many state wildlife agencies depend on antiquated funding models. The best way to meet these challenges is for hunter conservationists and non-hunter environmentalists to join forces—overcoming the mutual stereotypes and suspicions that obscure their common ground.

For many environmentalists, the word “hunter” suggests a mindless brute, an enemy of nature who loves guns, kills for fun, and cares nothing for biodiversity or ecological integrity. For many hunters, the word “environmentalist” suggests a self-righteous tree-hugger, an enemy of freedom who hates guns, has no respect for hunting, and imagines nature as a Disney-like fantasyland where humans should not tread.

Though these stereotypes contain grains of truth, hunters and environmentalists aren’t as separate as many imagine. The Nature Conservancy counts many hunters among its members and staff and works closely with hunting-conservation organizations. Likewise, Pheasants Forever has thousands of non-hunting members who appreciate the organization’s work on behalf of native prairie habitats, wetlands, butterflies, and clean water.

The most avid hunters I know—including ecologists, educators, and birdwatchers—are committed to environmental causes. The most passionate environmentalists I know—whether they hunt or not—respect the roles played by all predators, including humans.

Stereotypes notwithstanding, American hunters and environmentalists have never been distinct groups. In the late 1800s, a coalition of hunters and non-hunters sounded the alarm over the excesses of market hunting and the dangers of habitat destruction. Out of those shared efforts came wildlife-advocacy organizations including the National Audubon Society and the Boone & Crockett Club, and crucial legislation such as the Lacey Act of 1900, which prohibited interstate traffic in game taken in violation of state law.

When such organizations collaborate, their combined force is powerful. In 1936, the National Wildlife Federation emerged out of Ding Darling’s vision of a diverse-yet-unified conservation movement. The joint efforts of hunter conservationists and non-hunter environmentalists were vital to passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, as they have been to the modern-day designation of wilderness areas such as Idaho’s Owyhee Canyonlands.

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