In a contemporary world where the majority of the population is obsessed with modern convenience and superfluous technology, being a hunter sets you apart. Hunters choose to reinsert themselves into the natural cycles of the world as often as they can. For many of us, hunting is more than just a hobby—it is part of our very essence. We find our passion, our joy, and our spirit out among the wild animals and wild places of the world. Despite non-hunters’ views and beliefs, it is the hunting community’s love of wildlife and the land upon which it resides that keeps so much of the wilderness protected. Hunters stand at the forefront of conservation, protecting and preserving against the constant threat of man’s “progress.” But as hunter numbers continue to trend downward, the future of conservation hangs in the balance.
Hunting conservation history
Conservation and hunting have gone hand in hand since the late 1880s, when we stopped depending on hunting entirely for survival and instead began to hunt for sport and to reconnect with the natural world. Back then, agriculture and livestock had begun to take precedent over wild game as a primary food source for the masses. As the country became settled and the population grew, hunting evolved from a necessity into a sport. The “civilized” man sought entertainment and a way to prove himself in a relatively new and wild country. It was a time of slaughter, when hunters—without hunting seasons or bag limits—would simply kill as many animals as they wanted, leaving much of what they killed behind to rot in the field. There were hunting contests and entire crews of professional hunters were paid to wipe out animal populations to open the land for incoming cattle. The sudden popularity of sport hunting led to the extinction and near-extinction of many wild game species, and the need for the land they once occupied led to the destruction and loss of thousands of acres of habitat. It was only when the animals began to vanish that people began to realize the effect this unfettered bloodlust had upon the country. And unsurprisingly, it was hunters who began to do something about it.
Early influential big-game hunters such as Buffalo Bill Cody began to speak out against unregulated hunting. Hunters in government such as President Theodore Roosevelt began advocating for and ratifying regulations, designating lands as protected. Across the country, hunters rose up and came together to ensure the survival of big-game species and to preserve the tradition of hunting. They formed conservation groups, fought to restore and protect game species, and enabled hunting to become the honored tradition it is today. Hunters did this, not so they could simply have more animals to kill, but because of the love and respect they have for hunting. They have been on the front lines, battling for the protection of the wild places and wild animals in the world. However, despite years of success, it is a battle that hunters are slowly beginning to lose.
A terrifying reality
The popularity of hunting has fallen drastically in the past few years. Despite the fact that outdoor activities have spiked with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, society today largely views hunting as an antiquated practice. It’s gone from its peak in the 1980s—when about 17 million hunting licenses were sold in the United States every year—to around 11.5 million, according to a survey performed in 2016. That’s almost six million less hunters in the woods. Although many hunters actually enjoy this trend, thinking less hunters in the field means less chance of running into other people in favorite spots and more game for them, the truth is that this downward trend in hunting should be alarming: It’s having a negative effect on conservation.
The money from state hunting license sales go toward hunting and conservation management, state wildlife projects, and other Department of Natural Resources projects. Since the drop in sales, many states’ DNRs have become underfunded and forced to reduce their land- and game-management projects, such as invasive-species control, protecting bees, and keeping at-risk species from needing more costly emergency protection. Others have had to reduce the number of game wardens on their staff and cut the number of patrols, resulting in additional opportunities for poachers and game-law violators to wreak havoc.
Moreover, with less hunters in the woods, there are now less members of important conservation groups, such as Ducks Unlimited, the Wild Turkey Federation, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Less members for these groups means less membership fees and less sponsorship funding. It also means fewer people caring about what happens to wildlife, allowing big businesses and government projects—which these groups usually fight against—to go ahead with their destructive agendas unchecked. Rollbacks on pollution control for waterways, mining and clearcutting projects that had previously been blocked have been given new life, all under the watchful eyes of these groups who simply cannot do anything about it without more members and more funding.
The best defense is a good offense
It’s a scary thing to imagine, but the reality is, if the diminishing popularity of hunting continues, the sport we all love so much will eventually cease to be. Hunting traditions will vanish and the wild places in the world will vanish with them. That is, unless we do something about it.
As hunters, we hold the keys to the future in our hands. It’s our love for the sport and nature that keeps both alive. We need to do our best to recruit hunters. We need to do our best to pass on our traditions to the next generation—teach our children to hunt, teach other people’s children to hunt, help them discover the magic of the natural world. And we need to contribute; we need to give back. We need to join and donate to conservation groups, volunteer and promote diversity in hunting, and show the rest of the world that hunting itself is about so much more than simply killing an animal.
If we continue to stay silent and hoard the majesty of hunting by keeping it to ourselves, sitting idly by, then soon enough hunting will be gone. It will become a mere memory, remaining only as a story we can tell our grandchildren. And we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.