By Corey Ellis
One of the greatest impacts of the hunting conservation movement that is our history, all hunters’ history, did not only benefit the game species that hunters pursue. That sage flat that hunters protected not only saved pronghorns and sage grouse; it also saved long-billed curlews and gray flycatchers. A ponderosa glade that was purchased with sportsmen’s dollars and deposited in the bank of public lands not only protected wintering grounds for elk and mule deer; it also saved nesting habitat for pileated woodpeckers. A national park that acted as the only refuge for bison from market hunting and poachers when created now serves as the inspiration to budding natural scientists and makes advocates out of people who may have had no other opportunity to connect with the natural world. Hunters have much to be proud of, and all lovers of nature owe them an unpayable debt. But we cannot sit idly by and expect to ride the momentum of our history into a productive future that equals our past.
We, as hunters, have not always been perfect in our conservation aspirations. Perhaps too long were certain landscapes managed for the benefit of whitetail, and now those densely populated deer are changing the forest structure for the worse and at the expense of other species. In the La Sal mountains of southern Utah, mountain goats, introduced by sportsmen’s groups, supposedly for “sportsmen’s benefit,” are upsetting the delicate alpine biotic balance. Research is showing that archery hunting of elk is affecting the distribution and rut of elk with yet to be understood consequences. Anglers, too, have introduced species all over the country by dumping bait or playing “bucket biologist,” often displacing native fish and sometimes extirpating them completely. The desire and need of state agencies to sell licenses has led to regulations that can be too friendly to the whims of sportsmen at the expense of overall habitat health. We must be vigilant and not assume that because something is good for hunters and anglers that it is all good. As science and our understanding of the natural world evolves and matures, so must agencies, advocacy groups and sportsmen and women.
There is a change occurring and it is palpable in our community. Many sportsmen and women are getting active, organizing and showing up to policy meetings to support good policies and oppose bad ones. (And it is important that we show up for both!) Because sportsmen and women are voting with their dollars, they are influencing outdoor apparel and gear companies, and it seems those companies cannot survive today without a strong conservation ethos. Growing numbers of sportsmen and women are aware of their environmental impacts while taking to the woods. Rarely does one come across an empty sardine can carelessly tossed aside anymore. Shed hunters often return with far more pounds of litter than pounds of bone on their backs. There is growing interest in non-lead ammunition, and many hunters are voluntarily switching to non-lead shot and bullets so that non-target species are not inadvertently harmed by feeding on animal remains. Some bear baiters are moving to “natural baits” so that wildlife is less likely to be harmed by consuming food like chocolate and is less likely to develop conflict causing attractions to human foods. All of these steps are nods to our past, and they move us towards a future that builds on our conservation legacy.
Our actions, as hunters, often have far reaching consequences and ethical implications beyond the plainly obvious. Sometimes these ramifications are even intergenerational. Some actions happen at a large scale when our state and federal agencies make management decisions, and others may only have small, personal, yet still consequential impacts based on our individual decisions. If our conservation ethic and hunters’ heritage is to endure, we will want consider all the ramifications of our actions, both desirable and not.
Corey Ellis lives in western Montana where he spends his time avoiding work, exploring public lands and rivers, and advocating for wild places and wildlife. He serves on the board of directors for Orion-The Hunter’s Institute and is a life member of BHA.
This department is brought to you by Orion - The Hunter’s Institute, a nonprofit and BHA partner dedicated to advancing hunting ethics and wildlife conservation. To discuss this article and others, go to www.backcountryhunters.org/fair_chase