Eat Wild, Live Free and Conserve

Photo: Jack Lander, from our 2020 Public Lands and Waters Photo Contest


This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Backcountry Journal. Join BHA to get 4 issues a year right in your mailbox. 


Guiding Principles of the Wild Harvest Initiative


By Shane P. Mahoney

We, as backcountry hunters and anglers, know that recreational wild harvests in North America should be viewed as one of the most sustainable, healthy and environmentally friendly food procurement systems in existence. (See “Exploring the Modern Relevance of Natural Foraging” in last issue of Backcountry Journal.) In the past, however, there has been no serious scientific effort to assess the comprehensive value of wild harvest activities, especially recreational hunting and fishing, to modern society.

While we often hear reference to dollars spent and jobs created, when have we ever heard emphasis given to the contribution wild foods – and fish and wildlife in particular – make to food security, family and community cohesion and human health? Where can we go to find how much wild protein is harvested or what its economic value is or with how many people this wild food is shared? Yet, today, without such information, no effective advocacy effort and no truly successful public communications or outreach campaign in support of the wild harvest community is possible.

Most jurisdictional governments in the U.S. and Canada do collect off-take data on some or most of the species harvested within their boundaries. Harvest statistics are collected to inform quota allocations, set harvest regulations and track population trends and are critical to sound wildlife and fish management. Researchers and conservation groups also use this data to assess conservation policies and monitor wildlife populations and forecast harvesting opportunities. While these geographically discrete datasets are meaningful to each individual jurisdiction or organization, they have never been aggregated and thus fail to reflect the collective contribution of wild animal harvests on regional, national or continental bases. Furthermore, while this data may be used to inform the hunting and angling audiences, it is not mobilized for wider public consumption. Nor does it communicate fish and wildlife harvests in terms most relevant for securing public support. In the vast majority of cases, harvests are discussed as animal numbers, not food.

The Wild Harvest Initiative is designed to change all this. Launched by Conservation Visions Inc. in mid-2015 and having wild food assessment as its focus, the Wild Harvest Initiative is the first science-based program to enable a full assessment of the combined economic, conservation and social benefits of recreational wild animal harvests in American and Canadian societies. Its mission is to provide a meaningful evaluation of the biomass, or actual pounds, and economic value of wild food harvested annually by the 45 million or so recreational hunters and anglers in the U.S. and Canada, while simultaneously assessing the wider community of consumers who share in this harvest.

To achieve its mission the Initiative has established six strategic objectives:

1.To quantify the amount of wild meat and fish procured annually by recreational hunters and anglers in each U.S. state and each Canadian province and territory.

2. To determine the economic value of harvested wild game and fish for the U.S. and Canada.

3.To calculate a “sharing index” to estimate the numbers of citizens, both harvesters and non-harvesters, with whom this wild harvest is shared.

4. To estimate the actual costs of replacing the wild harvest of game and fish with domestic equivalents.

5.To provide new evidence as to why hunting and angling remain relevant to citizens’ livelihoods and food security, and to the conservation of wild lands and waters in both countries.

6. To design and implement an effective communications strategy to mobilize findings and advocate for the principles, lifestyles and communities involved.

Smoking salmon bellies and collars on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska. Photo by Israel Patterson, from our 2020 Public Lands and Waters Photo Contest.

How Does the Wild Harvest Initiative Work?

To accomplish its objectives, Conservation Visions has, with support from its partners – including BHA – put together a team of staff and contract specialists to conduct this research. A primary focus of the Wild Harvest Initiative is merging the most recent hunting and angling datasets from every reporting U.S. state and Canadian province or territory into one comprehensive database. Dealing with 63 government bureaucracies has been challenging but also highly rewarding. The Wild Harvest Initiative database now contains nearly five years of such records, making it one of the largest compilations of hunting harvest statistics in the temperate world; and we are now closing in on a full compilation for recreationally harvested fish as well.

At the same time, we are researching a vast reservoir of published and grey literature to provide weights and consumable proportions for all recreationally harvested wildlife and fish species. This is a daunting task. Combining this weight data with numbers of each species harvested, the initiative is developing the first assessment of food biomass for total Canada and U.S. recreational harvests. And it is undertaking assessments of the economic value of this biomass by making comparisons with the domestic equivalents’ (think beef or domestic turkey versus elk or wild turkey) retail prices. The next steps will be to work on cost valuations that reflect the unique quality and likely niche market value of wild meat and fish. Armed with these statistics we can move on to evaluate the environmental and economic costs of replacing recreationally harvested wild food through commercial agricultural, aquacultural and livestock processes.

Combining these data will enable a fuller evaluation of the economic benefits of hunting and angling, as well as harvest comparisons between different species, regions, and jurisdictions, and will serve as a benchmark for future evaluations of game and fish management quotas and land use strategies. Jurisdictional comparisons may also encourage further collaborative, or regional, monitoring of some species to ensure best management practices across political boundaries. This may be especially important for migratory species or those with large home ranges that span multiple jurisdictions.

While these contributions to wildlife economics and landscape management are valuable, we also know that recreational wild harvest plays a significant and positive societal role in terms of food security and the related concerns of human health, nutrition and general wellbeing. From a wild meat perspective, these benefits extend beyond harvesters and their households to many other citizens who, themselves, may or may not hunt or fish. This is because the wild harvest community has a proud tradition of food sharing that facilitates its consumption by family members, friends, neighbors and community groups, as well as individuals in need via donations to food banks/pantries and other charities concerned with social welfare.

The Wild Harvest Initiative has already begun to administer state-wide wild meat harvest and consumption surveys to assess this hunter sharing tradition, and the results of a first survey from Texas are now available at The results are incredibly encouraging, and fully support our predictions that recreational hunters share their harvests with a huge number of people, inside and outside their family circles. Additional surveys are now being designed for Arizona, Nevada and Alaska.

Knowledge , Mobilization and Communication

While research and analysis are clearly essential to the Wild Harvest Initiative’s success, disseminating these results is even more important. We will not produce new insights just to have them sit on a shelf. And we well understand that transforming scientific evidence into knowledge formats for public consumption is neither easy nor straightforward. To address these realities, the Wild Harvest Initiative has from the beginning been strategically focused on communications. Our guiding principle has been to make certain that our findings will not just be interesting and informative but will have immediate and apparent practical use.

The Wild Harvest Initiative is specifically designed to answer real questions that matter to real people. How many pounds of naturally produced, locally sourced meat do we get, on average, from a wild-harvested whitetail deer, elk or antelope? How many pounds come from a limit of mallards, a wild turkey, or a brace of quail? How many healthy meals can be procured from a day spent fishing for trout, bass or salmon? How much of this food is shared with family and friends and with people who do not themselves hunt or fish? Or with disadvantaged members of our society? What does this mean for our families’, communities’ and nations’ food security? What could this mean for our food insecurity? How much would it cost to replace this wild food through highly intensive agriculture and aquaculture? How much wildlife habitat would have to be destroyed and how much fuel, irrigation water, fertilizer and pesticide would have to be used? What would the harvesting, processing and transportation costs be? How much more harm would this likely bring to the environment?

To mobilize such information, we have designed an aggressive, ongoing and strategic communications and social-media outreach plan to disseminate program results. These results include publications, including a series of Fact Sheets, addressing major themes related to the use and value of wild meat and fish; peer-reviewed, scientific publications in academic journals; strategic communications and outreach efforts to increase public awareness of the importance of fish and wildlife habitat as food reservoirs; building a fully inclusive wild harvest community extending beyond hunters and anglers themselves; launching a series of ongoing, high-profile public events celebrating wild harvests and the wild harvest community; and the formation, maintenance and coordination of the Wild Harvest Initiative partnership alliance.

Indeed, the reach of the Wild Harvest Initiative is already reflected in its diverse and expanding partnership. Today this Wild Harvest Initiative alliance includes 36 supportive members, representing state governments, the outdoor industry, conservation-based NGOs and private individuals; and we continue to attract new partners.

Together, our partners form a uniquely diverse coalition of stakeholders and participants engaged in and supportive of the harvest of wild foods and products and advocating for the conservation of wildlife from wide-ranging perspectives. These include and emphasize human health, well-being, nutrition and food security perspectives – all of which are preoccupations of modern society and all of which were preoccupations of our historic past. It really does seem we are on the right track!

We believe, more than ever, that the Wild Harvest Initiative can catalyze real change for the future of our wildlife and our wild spaces.

The Road Ahead

The Wild Harvest Initiative was conceived as a unifying call to action for preserving a way of life and for conserving nature. It was based on a search for something foundational to our species that might lead us to practically decide to engage in the greatest debate of all: the future of wildlife on this planet. And a practical decision is necessary if it is to withstand the challenges and frustrations that inevitably lie before us. Intellectual commitments are wondrous; but practical realities that tie to our instinctual selves and the irrepressible tendencies of our species will prove essential to tempering our impacts on the natural world. We must find a reason to believe.

So, too, with our ways of life. They must also find resonance in a modern world and find longevity in meaningful expression. Because we love them is not sufficient. Because they matter just might be.

Looking back, the Wild Harvest Initiative is in some ways such an obvious idea: to harness wild food and conservation and thereby rediscover the power of lifestyles that reengage our evolutionary drives and experiences as foremost advocates for nature. And, yet, no one previously had integrated our efforts, hopes and perspectives in quite this way. The North American Model has always referenced the hunter and angler communities, of course; and it has always worked to recognize their efforts. But finding that one detail that might bridge discourse and alignment amongst a much wider community of nature gatherers and, at the same time, naturally appeal to the wider and disengaged public was missing, though right before our eyes.

Food – searching for it, harvesting it, growing it, touching it, delighting in it – is a medium we all understand, a necessity to which we can all relate.

Food is a metaphor and literal reality, all at the same time. Pollinating our thoughts and our lives with sustenance and pleasure, few will argue over food’s relevance in their lives.

After much effort, and with growing momentum and support, the Wild Harvest Initiative continues to build alliances for nature and continues to advocate for sustainable wild harvesting as an authentic way of life. Its profile continues to increase. There is every reason to be confident that the project’s outcomes will contribute meaningfully to conversations about the relevance of wild animal harvest in modern North American society. Our findings are pertinent to people everywhere who are concerned with safe, healthy food. They are significant in terms of wildlife management, cultural expression, traditional activities and human health and fitness; conservation and sustainable resource use; ranching and environmental agriculture; and for public and private land use policies.

We believe, more than ever, that the Wild Harvest Initiative can catalyze real change for the future of our wildlife and our wild spaces. There can be no doubt of its potential to contribute to a normalizing of wild harvest activities, to a renewed and escalated evaluation of wildlife’s value to modern society, to improved efforts for conservation and to encouraging greater participation in the outdoors.
Eat wild and live free.


Shane Mahoney is the president of Conservation Visions and founder of the Wild Harvest Initiative. He is an internationally recognized conservationist and wildlife advocate and a foremost expert on the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.


Editor’s Note: For more information on the Wild Harvest Initiative visit

About Shane Mahoney

An international authority on wildlife conservation. A rare combination of scientist, historian and philosopher.

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