An Admirable Identity: Helping the Hunters’ Legacy Resonate in an Era of Change

The following article appeared in the Winter 2014 Issue of the Ruffed Grouse Society magazine.

By BHA Member, Karl Malcolm

bird camp31 2013 258Visualize a map of the North American continent. Mentally focus on a special, natural place that comes to mind. Maybe it’s a favorite stretch of trout water where the mayfly hatches are like clockwork. Maybe it’s a rugged ridge where a bull elk bugled so close you could feel it in your chest and the hair on the back of your neck stood on end. Maybe it’s a family camping spot you visited during your summer vacations as a kid, or perhaps it’s a favorite birding spot. Maybe it’s a 15-year-old, clear-cut in aspen country on an October afternoon.



Can you point to a special spot on the map where you were personally inspired by the beauty of nature – be it as a hunter, an angler, a wildlife viewer or otherwise? If so take a moment and recall some details. Think about how you interacted with that particular piece of ground. Recall the details of the landscape, its vegetation, its wildlife, your favorite season there, the look of the sky and how your place made you feel. Perhaps you shared the experience of that place with someone else - your parents, your child or a memorable friend? Consider for a moment how that spot has impacted your views on conservation, your views on what is important, what really matters to you personally. 

It might be easy to fool yourself into believing that your ability to pick a special natural place is normal. Hopefully you’re like me, and you have more than one wild spot competing in your mind as the most cherished and impactful. That doesn’t make you or me normal. It makes us outliers when we are considered in the context of our broader humanity today. Even within the boundaries of your state or the confines of your hometown there are many who would struggle to identify their own special, natural place on the map, let alone multiple places. I view the lack of such a place in one’s life as the most basic indicator of environmental illiteracy. 

Consider the response we might get if we polled a random sample of people in Shanghai or Mumbai. I met a surprising number of people while studying wildlife in China who hadn’t left the bounds of the massive cities where they were born. The world is crowded and getting more so by the minute. So bear in mind that legions of our species are now living their entire lives without knowing the kind of beauty or connection that you just visualized. How would your life be different without it? 

We are among the luckiest people on this planet. You are one of the luckiest people on Earth, due in part to that spot of yours.

But the simple fact that we currently have this ecological wealth and wildness is no guarantee that our grandchildren or theirs will enjoy the same. The only guarantee is change, and continued relevance in the face of change rests in the ability to adapt. A persisting fortune of natural beauty hinges on a persisting critical mass of people, like you, who care deeply and make the conscious decision to continue stewarding our wild resources in the future. Simply stated, we need more of us. 

The solution to conserving these resources is not to keep people off the land, but rather to help people experience the land and learn to love it. The land needs more of us. Wildness needs more of us. I mean hunters or otherwise. We need more people who care.

How we broaden our ranks and our own thinking to welcome and embrace an increasingly diverse, increasingly urban, or as it might be called, “less traditional” segment of American culture into our conservation community is of critical importance. It’s a topic that should matter to every single person who has a natural spot to love. We all have skin in this game. It matters, because America is in a constant state of flux, and if the changing face of this nation is ultimately apathetic or dismissive of our natural inheritance, those treasures will be squandered. Special places like yours, if it still exists today, will not be spared tomorrow in a country of voters, thinkers and landowners who have not had the chance to experience and cherish their own spots on the map.

The successes of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation in stemming the desecration of wildness and beauty are inspiring and numerous. And yet, in spite of the countless success stories and tangible evidence you and I have personally witnessed, I and others perceive that we, as hunters, are missing the mark in terms of telling our own story to the masses. Few beyond our ranks have any familiarity with the words “North American Model” or the 170 plus years of devoted and concerted action those words should evoke. What is equally damaging is the warped image of hunting and hunters that has been established and perpetuated in the public eye. I’m not blaming Walt Disney entirely, but since about the time of Bambi and Elmer Fudd, things could have been better.

Many non-hunters today fail to see the connection between hunting and conservation.  Many in the “non-consumptive” conservation community view their hook-and-bullet counterparts with varying degrees of apprehension and disdain. We, the hunters, deserve a share of the blame for this. It seems to me that our public image has been hijacked as we’ve stood by and watched. As a result we suffer from a vocal minority that doesn’t always do a great job for the rest of us. When was the election that gave us our current outspoken spokespeople? I don’t remember casting my ballot in that vote.

Imagine for a moment that you knew nothing more about hunters and hunting than what you are exposed to through the popular media and casual observation. What conclusions would you draw from the magazine racks, the bumper stickers, the T-shirts or the TV shows? Would it have much to do with our legacy as conservationists? Is it an image of respect and reverence for the wildlife we pursue or the land we all claim to cherish? Does it adequately reflect your attitudes about this activity?

My answer is, “generally, no”. It is not a reflection of who most of us are. I know that. Hopefully you know that. But it is all too often the image that is communicated to the non-hunting public.

The perceived emphasis on hunting for trophies, apparent disregard or disrespect for land and wildlife, and the in-your-face, “whack-‘em-and-stack-‘em” garbage has served only to alienate and stereotype our community of dedicated conservationists as something far less than admirable. When I see and hear this sort of messaging it comes off to me as short-sighted, ignorant, inconsiderate, and, above all, self-defeating. On the hunting forums and in our hunting media I read and hear fear-mongering about hardcore anti-hunters conspiring to put an end to hunting as we know it. A poor or irrelevant public image seems to me a bigger threat than any anti-hunting movement. 

This sort of messaging is particularly damaging when it comes to engaging one of the most exciting cultural inroads we have with the changing face of America today. That group includes the ecologically minded adults who have an interest in hunting for food and who come to the activity with no prior experience. I like to call these folks “Green Hunters”. Green because of their pre-existing interest in environmental stewardship, and green because many of them are novices in the truest sense of the word. 

I have been a part of several programs designed to give green hunters their first taste of hunting. My interactions with program participants played a key role in shaping my thinking about our image problem as dyed-in-the-wool veteran hunters. It was striking to me that the newbies in our classes viewed themselves as being distinctly different from their experienced counterparts. They were after all, environmentalists turned hunters . . . not bloodthirsty rednecks!

During the classes I taught we spent time talking openly about these stereotypes. We would ask participants to sit in a circle and create a list of terms that captured their image of the average hunter, and we would contrast those words against a list of their own characteristics and motivations for being there. Words like rural, monster truck, right wing and rackoholic were contrasted against urban, ethnic, left-leaning and organic meat.

By design the structure of our training program included mentorship experiences between the experienced and the green hunters. Stereotypes raised in our circle were challenged, and increasing overlap among old and new hunters was inevitably discovered.  As it turns out many of the old school lifelong hunters are as green as they come. Who would have guessed that they also love to eat what they hunt and revere the land and wildlife as a matter of course?

As a community of hunting conservationists, we tend to splinter by specialty. We seem to strive for divisions. We have clubs focused on whether members hunt with a crossbow, a rifle, a shotgun or a bow. If you bowhunt, there are groups focused on whether you hunt with a stick bow or a wheel bow - the list goes on. We err at times by focusing on differences in minutia rather than huge collective overlaps. Yet we know that our collective voices, resources and energy can at times be more potent and effective than what we might otherwise accomplish individually.

Just as there is a tendency for the new green hunters to view their experienced counterparts as the “other” group, so too is there the potential for longtime hunters to view any new segment of the hunting community as a distinct and separate subgroup. They might even feel that their traditions are being threatened. I argue that highlighting such a division is a mistake. It is a mistake because our overlaps far outweigh our differences. It is a mistake because embracing any new ethical and ecologically aware hunter, regardless of their background, is a step in the right direction. And, perhaps most importantly, it is a mistake because green hunters shine much needed public attention on positive aspects of our community that I believe are nearly universal to all hunters. Aspects like our commitment to environmental stewardship, our desire to hunt for our food and our dedication to the land and animals we hunt. 

These are not new traits that were invented by green hunters during the past five years, but you might start to get that impression when you read about this growing trend. What does that say about how we have been portraying ourselves?

It tells me that these highly admirable traits, traits that resonate with our broader non-hunting culture today, have been largely overshadowed by a warped public image for decades.

As we welcome a new generation of green hunters we can nod at their motivations and enthusiasm and say, “Hey buddy, me too.”

            “You like to know where your food comes from?  Me too.”

            “You like beautiful, wild places?  Me too.”

            “You care about healthy land and enjoying time outdoors with your family and friends?  Me too.”

            “You are more interested in a wild and personal outdoor experience than you are in having a set of skull bones to show off to the world?  Me too.”

            “You have mixed and complex emotions when you kill a beautiful, sentient animal?  So do we.”

As more participants join our ranks from different backgrounds their stories and experiences will flow through their peer networks to their parents, their children and to the broader community of non-hunters. This is happening already in the form of vegetarian-turned-hunter books, tree-hugging hunter articles and urbanite-turned-hunter blogs. This is the kind of image evolution hunting needs in the 21st century. 

We could ask for no better cohort of ambassadors than the growing band of eco-centric green hunters with whom we all can find so much common ground and through whom we can tell our own stories. The evolution of our hunting image will also improve our chances of bridge building with our non-consumptive conservation allies. If we’re respectful of our differences and focused on our shared stewardship goals, we stand to do so much good together. 

This evolution of our hunting image is already underway, and every hunter, new or old, has a role to play in setting its course for the better. It means more than paying lip service to our leadership roles in conservation. It means being personally active as conservationists. It means weighing tough management decisions and lobbying based on what is best for the land and wildlife, game and non-game species alike. It means speaking up.

Peer pressure is a powerful thing and we can collectively challenge imaging, writing or other media that reflects on us poorly.  We can be the voice of the thoughtful majority, even if it’s through one-on-one conversations with our peers. We can all be mindful of how we are portraying our whole community of hunters. Choose your bumper stickers with some thought, empathy and care! Embrace those who are hungry for the chance to experience what you have. Work to conserve and steward the resources passed down to us.

Think back to that special place of yours. Do you have one or more inspiring wild place on public land? Think about the growing value of our public lands as our population grows.  Think about the access challenges faced by would-be conservationists from urban and suburban backgrounds. Safeguarding our remaining green spaces and ensuring access for all of our citizenry should be a priority that we can all buy into - Safari Club and Sierra Club alike. Most urbanites will not own their own rural hunting property in the years ahead. The lack of access and opportunity in this changing landscape is a far bigger threat to our future than any anti-hunters ever were.

My special places include a tiny trout stream in Michigan’s northwest Lower Peninsula. It was there, in part, where my brother and I learned as kids to love the land and were both inspired to pursue careers in the field of environmental conservation. But one need not be a child to fall in love with a natural place or a set of wild experiences. I’ve seen it happen to adults. The mandatory ingredient is personal immersion. A lack of experience will result in apathy and disconnection.

That’s why it’s so important for us to encourage people who may differ in some ways from us to join our ranks as vested conservationists - hunters or otherwise.  Recognize that one crucial step in enhancing our relevance as a community of hunters is to take full ownership of our authentic identity and show the broader public why it is an identity to be proud of. 

This new chapter is a refinement of the continuing story of the North American Model. It’s a story of getting back to our roots as conservationists first, and hunters second.  And it’s a story of measuring the accomplishments of a hunter not by the size of what is taken from the land, but by the magnitude and legacy of what is given back.

Karl Malcolm shared these thoughts in a speech given at the 79th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Denver, Colorado on March 12, 2014. He works as the U.S. Forest Service’s Southwestern Regional Wildlife Ecologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


Karl Malcolm works as the U.S. Forest Service’s Southwestern Regional Wildlife Ecologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he lives with his wife Shoshana, their brand new daughter Clara, and their two Large Munsterlanders, Jazzy and Luna. In their free time the Malcolm Pack is on the water or in the woods and mountains hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, and exploring vast expanses of public land. Karl can be reached at [email protected]

About Karl Malcolm

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