This is the third essay on the issue of how sport hunters, particularly in the U.S., rationalize their sport. These essays were designed to assist humanitarians, animal rights advocates, or anyone else concerned about hunting but faced with arguments from the hunters who fully understand that merely loving to kill animals is not likely to be seen by most people as justification for hunting. To my surprise, however, many hunters wrote to me, and while there were a few who simply name-called or made accusations without reference to what I actually wrote, let alone refutation, some of the responses were thoughtful and reasoned, and more or less concluded that hunting was something they did because they wanted to do it.
That levels the playing field. Without assuming that either the pro- or the anti-hunting faction have some unconditional knowledge of what is "right" or what is "wrong," I think it is in the best interest of public deliberation for me to argue, in these essays, only on actual merits of positions taken. But often hunters rely on a limited knowledge of wildlife and ecology possessed by their opponents (or themselves, since I think many believe the things they say in defense of hunting) and create mythologies that reflect commonly shared social values to justify the act of sport hunting.
In the first essay I challenged the contention that hunting is a humane means of procuring meat (without even addressing whether one "should" eat meat -- the fact is most people do eat meat, it is legal and in most places quite socially acceptable to do so.)
In the second essay I targeted the theme, as expressed by one of my detractors, that hunters are, by virtue of hunting, in some way in tune with and knowledgeable about nature and wildlife to a degree not possible without hunting.
And here I look at the contention that hunters are the first conservationists; that hunters pay for conservation. There is general agreement among society that we need conservation, thus if hunters contribute to conservation, hunting must be good.
The essay is longer than is popular in our current soundbite culture, when we are swamped with information overload, but that is because the issue is more complex than extremists on either end of the spectrum might want to admit and worthy of even greater examination that I can provide here.
Again my purpose is to give ammunition -- of an informational nature -- to those opposed to hunting and likely to have to defend their position. Once more, I welcome input from all sides.
Part One deals with some history, necessarily selective, but useful in understanding the oft-heard claim that hunters were the first conservationists. Part Two addresses the contemporary situation.
Childhood memories can be intense, and one that I cherish is my first visit, back when I was perhaps ten or eleven, to the great marshes of Long Point, Lake Erie, one early spring when the sun was warming the frozen land and the ice was breaking up. It was then I first saw great flocks of migrant tundra swans (we called them whistling swans, back then) and many other species of waterfowl that, hitherto, had only been known to me as pictures in books. The swans numbered two thousand in one huge flock, and the sound of their peculiarly discordant yodeling haunted my dreams for many nights. I discovered the canvasbacks -- low flying, with their lean, pointed profiles and crisp white backs -- and the sharply black and white scaup who floated in vast flocks, called rafts, that bobbed up and down with the waves, out beyond the edge of the shore-ice. Buffleheads, so droll of appearance and so perky, and their larger relatives, the goldeneyes, were engaged in energetic breeding displays.
For a young, eager, and very inexperienced naturalist, it was an intense and almost painfully pleasurable paradise. It was a place I visited year after year, building up memories -- a deer bounding over the ice, breaking through, swimming, emerging amid a spray of water; a mink on snow-covered ice circling a small patch of clear water as if trying to think how he could reach the beautiful male goldeneye who swam in the middle, well out of the predator's reach, as if teasing his adversary, no near, and yet so far. It was there that one spring I saw the first garter snake of the season, sunning on a patch of dry earth and crisply brown leaves, directly absorbing the sun's heat and turning it to energy, while symbolizing the interconnectedness of life and environment. I saw my first Wilson's snipe, at Long Point, viewed as red-winged blackbirds sang on all sides in what seemed to be joyous repudiation of the rapidly dissolving winter and an affirmation of the life and energy that flowed through this environment. It seemed a paradise for the animals, full of the life and death interactions of predators and prey, to be sure, but still a place where life abounded.
And it was all because of the good work of an earlier generation of duck hunters.
Dating back to the nineteenth century, at a time when waterfowl could be legally killed in any numbers, for profit, and when all natural resources were up for grabs while laissez faire capitalism ran unfettered over most modern concept of human or workers' rights -- let alone any concept of restraint in the interest of conserving rapidly dwindling numbers of wild animals -- a group of sportsmen formed a club that set out to buy, and more or less protect, these marshes near the foot of Long Point. The story is long and multifaceted, but put simply the members of the Long Point Company, as they came to call themselves, were able to hold at bay poachers and industrial and resort developers, and restrict their own hunting activities all in the interest of conservation in a world that had never heard the term "animal rights."
Whenever I hear a knee-jerk reaction to the accusation that "sure, hunters may protect some animals now, but only so they can kill them later," I think about the Long Point marshes, where waterfowl has congregated for thousands of years, since the retreat of the glaciers left us a the chain of lakes we call the Great Lakes, of which Lake Erie is the most shallow, thus blessed with a long stretch of ever changing sand dunes known as Long Point. And surely, as has happened to such a large percentage of North American wetlands through the last few hundred years, the ability of the marshes of Long Point to sustain the rich magnitude and diversity of life I saw as a child, and still see when I visit the place, would be impossible but for those businessmen who were also sporting hunters, and realized that one of the last major breeding areas for waterfowl in southern Ontario was being methodically destroyed by greed and debauchery (at the time the region was seen as a lawless frontier resort that encouraged a rough clientele, from greedy market-hunters to gamblers and prostitutes, with no view of protecting the environment from rapacious development of lodges, gambling dens, and brothels).
But Then ...
When all is said and done, I think that within the so-called animal rights movement, no argument made by hunters to defend killing animals is more compelling to the general public and more difficult to challenge than the argument that hunters were the first conservationists, and that hunters, through their licensing feels, special taxes, and other means, pay the bulk of conservation costs. Thus, they argue, they pay to provide habitat not only for the wildlife they "harvest," always leaving behind enough to replace, through reproduction, those that are killed, but for all species who require similar habitat. And on top of that, when faced with the fact that the vast majority of us enjoy wildlife without having to kill it, they argue that the wildlife that we enjoy or treasure is there because of them and their economic contribution to conservation costs.
While anti-hunters -- known to hunters as the dreaded "antis" -- are often characterized as "emotional," as a group I find hunters far more so, and one need not spend too much time glancing at hunting magazines or pro-hunting literature to find absurd levels of hyperbole, much of it essentially claiming that but for hunters there would be no conservation; they invented it and they pay for it all.
But do they?
Extremists on both sides of the pro/anti hunting debate will say yes or no according to their own rigid, respective agendas, but the truth lies somewhere between the extremes. Certainly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a good case can be made for hunters-turned-conservationists. Even John James Audubon, the famous bird painter who lived from 1785 to 1851, understood the loss of American wildlife, even while contributing to that loss. He was known to kill as many as 100 birds to use as a model for a single painting,1 and would indulge in blood-letting debaucheries of ghastly magnitude. To get a flavor of the carnage of wildlife that characterized the nineteenth century, consider Audubon's oft-quoted description of a "hunt" for the most numerous bird species in America at the time, the passenger pigeon:
The last passenger pigeon died in 1914, in a zoo. The species is extinct.
Nothing escaped Audubon's gun. In describing a visit to Florida, he wrote, "I waded to the shore under cover of the rushes along it, saw the pelicans fast asleep, examined their countenances and deportment well and leisurely, and after all, leveled, fired my piece, and dropped two of the finest specimens I ever saw. I really believe I would have shot one hundred of there [sic] reverend sirs, had not a mistake taken place in the reloading of my gun." When birds were scarce, during that Florida trip, he amused himself shooting alligators, for no apparent reason other than the pleasure of the kill.
I suspect many can understand, particularly within the context of the times, the need for specimens for study and to paint from and the need to hunt to put food on the table, but not the need to shoot one hundred birds a day, a bottom limit that Audubon seemed to find quite reasonable.
In 1842, nearing the end of his own life, John James Audubon was witness to part of the great slaughter of the buffalo, a species that once roamed the prairies in the millions. He used the tail of the first buffalo he shot as a hat ornament, and watched his colleagues eat the animal's brain, raw and still warm from life. But as the slaughter unfolded he began to have misgivings. "What a terrible destruction of life," he wrote, "as it were nothing, or next to it, as the tongues only were brought in, and the flesh of these fine animals was left to beasts and birds of prey, or to rot on the spots where they fell." He predicted that the herds would not last, and thought that "... surely this should not be permitted ..." even though he, himself, did not hesitate to fire upon the great animals.
Audubon, by virtue of his fame, talent and extraordinary character, stands out among the hunters of his day as an experienced woodsman, friend of Daniel Boone (who, like Audubon, was an excellent marksman and taught the younger man how to shoot the bark out from under a squirrel, the shock killing the animal without damaging meat or pelt) and a naturalist with firsthand knowledge of wildlife. But beyond a few musings about the inevitable demise of so many species, he really did nothing for conservation, beyond unknowingly lending his name, posthumously, to an organization devoted (to debatable degrees) to wildlife conservation and nature appreciation, and leaving behind a magnificent suite of paintings and writings which, I would argue, did much to increase the pace by which Americans came to cherish their wild, natural heritage.
Of course the man lived at a time when people were enslaved, women had no rights of suffrage or property, children worked in dangerous jobs for absurdly low wages, anyone might be hanged for minor causes, native Americans were killed for daring to defend their own vital interests, and the relationship between humans and animals or the role animals (and plants) play in maintaining a healthy and productive environment was simply and literally unheard of.
Humans were special and apart, semi-divine, and the rest of creation had no other purpose than to be used however one wished to. The world was resource, nothing more. Great fortunes were to be made by utilizing anything that could be turned into profit, and all else was seen to be without value. Indeed, nature was seen to be a hostile entity, a primeval wilderness that blocked the God-sanctioned path to civilization and culture.
The first human citizens of North America were deemed savages, and if removal of bison and other wildlife caused them to starve and become dependent on those who, by virtue of their European origins and their guns and bibles, believed themselves superior, it was seen as all quite good and proper. Near extermination of the buffalo eliminated native people as an impediment to the interests of the European-derived invaders and paved the way for profiteering English beef barons, safely ensconced far from the dangers of the lawless wildlands their representatives were profitably subduing.
Speaking very generally, hunters existed in two major, and one minor, groups. The majority were hunters for food and/or profit. In the absence of any regulations wildlife was slaughtered in the millions, not just to directly put meat on their own tables, but to be sold for profit -- meat, hides, oil, furs, feathers, ivory -- if it could be sold there were people willing to kill indiscriminately to earn their living. Many of the "alternative" products we now take for granted did not exist. Before electric light bulbs proliferated, before they were even invented, lamps were the source of light in the nights, and before oil wells sucked fossil fuels from the ground, oil from whales, seals, and other marine life was the source of fuel that was burned in those lamps. Someone had to kill the whales.
The greatest of the old growth white pines of my part of North America were cut, almost to a tree, to provide masts for the British Navy, which, at the time, was the dominate imperialistic force on the planet, protecting British economic interests worldwide so that the resources of the world could be converted into English wealth.
And with great wealth came leisure, and a second class of hunters, the sport hunters. They were men (and, as always, only a very few women) who had no need to kill either to put meat on the table or to earn a living but, rather, killed for the pleasure of it. They would refer to the hunt as "the chase" and, indeed, some had to go to great risk and expense far from the comforts of the drawing room and private club in order to secure certain types of victims, seeing their ability to do so as a mark of their success as individuals, valuing material wealth as proof of their own consequence in the social scheme of things.
However, in times and places of numbers of game we will never again see, the old accounts and venerable photographs of these mutton-chopped, stiff-necked gentlemen posing with their vast arrays of dead animals demonstrate how little real contest was involved, once the hunter and his gun was properly placed in relation to his intended victims. Shooting bison out the window of a moving train, leaving the cripples to suffer and bodies to rot, is hardly a contest involving any skill or woodcraft. The unfortunate concept that the ability to kill difficult-to-reach wildlife places merit on the killer very much lingers within the membership of such organizations as Safari Club International or the Boone and Crockett Club, where the size of the trophy room or the number of records achieved is a function of wealth and privilege, not to mention the heartless disregard for life Audubon noted in his diary.
The third set of hunters could be characterized as the naturalist-hunter, for whom hunting was a means of learning more about the animals at a time when knowledge about ecology and taxonomy were embryonic at best, and so much of what we now know about wildlife biology and behavior had yet to be learned. They might be commercial collectors, searching for animals to preserve and ship either to scientists or to curio-collectors, of if the price was right, others who might want some bright feathers or butterflies for fashion goods or saleable art objects and ornaments. Hummingbird skins, with their metallic-iridescent feathers, made charming brooches.
Or they might be wilderness explorers themselves, "collecting" specimens not with the bloody and excessive randomness and excesses of Audubon, but selectively, going to the effort of preserving what they killed for future study in the museums and universities back home, with a view of contributing to the growth curve of knowledge of wild fauna and flora, often secured in remote corners of the world, and sometimes destined soon to become extinct, regardless of the collectors who at least assured these animals became known before they forever vanished. The explosive insights of Darwin and Wallace into the nature of evolution derived from their ability to collect, preserve, and compare various forms of beings collected on their travels.
But the distinctions among different motivations for hunting were, and remain, many and complex and blurred.
Teddy Roosevelt and Other Nineteenth Century Gentlemen of Note
Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt (1858-1919) was the 26th President of the United States, and was an ardent hunter and naturalist. Born sickly, he engaged in a rigorous life of tough, physical exertion in the out-of-doors, gaining in the process vigorous good health and endurance and seemingly boundless enthusiasm for life -- his own, if not necessarily the lives of the individual animals he killed. Hardly "typical" of any hunter, or any politician or president for that matter, he probably could be most fairly judged as standing squarely between the sport hunter who sought the rigors and challenges of a chase for whom a trophy at the end was the prize, and the naturalist-hunter after all or any manner of animal, in the name of science, seeking to expand knowledge of a natural world he cherished.
George Bird Grinnel, who, like Theodore Roosevelt, was very much both the "naturalist" type of hunter and the gentleman sportsman, joined with Roosevelt to form the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887. Membership reflected the leisure class of gentleman hunter much removed from the avaricious market hunters of the time. To be a member of this august group at the time, one had to kill an adult male of at least three difference species of "big game" animals native to North America. And soon such notables as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, General William Tecumseh Sherman, General Philip Sheridan, Judge J.D. Caton, and other of their esteemed peers were on board, no doubt trading stories of difficult kills over the finest cigars and brandy after club meetings. The club founded the New York Zoological Park (aka the Bronx Zoo), which, while now boasting a viable conservation program, at the time was arguably only a prison for wild animals snatched from their homes in distant corners of the globe and incarcerated for life as punishment for their bad luck at being caught. Thus could the masses see for themselves that which otherwise would require the kind of travel to far places few could afford.
While there has earlier been seen a need, shared by many, to protect natural areas in a system of federally-funded and administered parks, the national parks system was in disarray, with profiteers seeing the first such park, the magnificent Yellowstone, as their private preserve for vulgar get-rich schemes that not only derived from, but were destroying, the very wilderness values that caused the region to be set aside. Fortunately Roosevelt and the Boone and Crockett Club supported the Park Protection Act to bring protection to Yellowstone. And that bode well for subsequent regions added to the national parks system, just after 1900.
All that said, though, the truth is that while no one can deny that hunters were at times drawn to wilderness and sought to protect that which they valued -- the wild areas with the animals in them -- the latter motivation was, even then, not exclusive to hunters. And at that time before the highly mechanized means of food production and distribution we now take for granted were in place, it was necessary for anyone who was drawn to wilderness to eat what could be obtained, directly or indirectly, at least in part through hunting.
But it is a stretch to call all who ate meat obtained through hunting, hunters, and among the nineteenth century American defenders of the great wilderness areas were such luminaries as George Catlin, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russel Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Horace Greeley, who urged young men to go west, waxed lyrical about Yosemite Valley, in the California Sierras, and Frederick Law Olmsted, founder of New York City's Central Park, took up the cause of protecting Yosemite. President Lincoln signed the bill that allowed Olmstead to receive a federal grant for Yosemite and for Mariposa Grove.
But it was the great wilderness traveler, a Scot by the name of John Muir, who would perhaps be most remembered for his role in helping to protect western wilderness.
Iron tough, like so many of the wilderness travelers of the day, Muir had embraced the New World wilderness by traveling, on foot, for one thousand rough miles from Kentucky to the Florida Gulf coast. He convinced the great poet, Emerson, not a young man at the time, to make the arduous journey to see for himself the glorious Yosemite, and in 1903 he took Teddy Roosevelt on the tour. It was Muir who told Teddy Roosevelt that hunting was "childish" and that he should give it up. Roosevelt, who greatly respected Muir, his toughness and courage, and his firsthand knowledge of wilderness and wildlife, admitted he might at least be right (although, of course, Teddy continued to hunt).
Poets, artists, writers, explorers, philosophers, jurists, legislators, educators -- all had their respective roles to play in the early days of the conservation movement, whatever they may have thought of hunting. Roosevelt, and many of his pro-hunting colleagues, also had the power and influence to provide protection, but in a democratic society it took public support to make it happen. One did not have to kill animals to appreciate them, and while hunters may grandiosely claim to be the founders of conservation in America, they were, at best, among the founders of conservation endeavors.
Hunters and the Heath Hen
It is through the talented writing of historian Christopher Cokinos and his highly recommended book, Hope is the Thing With Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2000) that we can explore a very sorry failure in the annals of American conservation. It sheds harsh light on the myth of the hunter-as-conservationist as it contains so many elements of that myth.
"Heath hen" is the colloquial name given to a very distinctive subspecies of the greater prairie-chicken, a species of grouse endemic to North America. The heath hen may, in fact, have been a full species, as determined by contemporary methods and definitions that determine such things, but the point is moot because the heath hen is extinct.
Put simply the heath hen was once very abundant and occupied the eastern range of the greater prairie-chicken, thus was not really a "prairie" bird so much as a species inhabiting well-drained uplands, blueberry patches, open fields, scrub oak, and woodland clearings. It was found as far east at the Atlantic seaboard, from Maine south perhaps as far as the Carolinas, and west into Pennsylvania.
Ornithologist John Birchard May, after viewing the last of the heath hens wrote, "The story of the Heath Hen can be stated very briefly. Once it was extremely abundant throughout its limited breeding range. It was excellent eating and easily killed. It rapidly decreased in numbers with the coming of white man to America ..."
While the role hunters played in killing the birds is self-evident, we should also examine their role in the failed conservation of the heath hen.
Each spring the male greater prairie-chickens gather on the "lek," a stamped-down area where they would display intensely, competing among themselves for the right to mate with females.
Brush and grass fires, by burning off certain types of vegetation and creating openings where fresh food plants could grow, helped maintain habitat for heath hens and many other species, and, in turn, heath hens were so abundant that servants living in Boston at the time complained about how many they were served at meals. There is some suggestion that the abundance of heath hens was fundamental to the survival of the pilgrims, although deer and wild turkey, still being around, tend to get the credit.
"Spring mornings," wrote Cokinos, "especially suited these men whose interest was killing for sport or profit. On such mornings the Heath Hens gathered on their leks, making it easy to dispatch them by the dozens, even by the hundreds ..."
Alarm bells about the decline in heath hens began to ring as early as 1778, when some members of the New York State legislature sought a very limited degree of protection for the species on Long Island. Other regions followed that example, but hunters lobbied so effectively for exemptions as to render meaningless what little protection ultimately was enacted.
E. J. Lewis, himself a hunter, wrote in opposition to the greedy slaughter in 1851. There were many other concerns raised, but nothing very effective was done to protect the heath hen. Indeed, well into the twentieth century, up to 1930s, the species, although nearing extinction and finally protected from hunting, was still illegally poached. Hunters have always had this wonderful way to exculpate themselves from responsibility for any damage caused by hunting -- hunting that is illegal is by "poachers," or "game slobs," but not, of course, by them.
It must be said that fire-suppression, and simple habitat destruction by urban and industrial sprawl, also took its toll on heath hens, although that damage may well have been balanced, indeed perhaps more than compensated for, by the very clearing of forests for farmland that helped doom the passenger pigeon, itself also a victim of horrendous slaughter, as mentioned above.
Notwithstanding ineffectual voices raised in defense of the bird, it was systematically wiped out until it survived in only one place in the entire world -- Martha's Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. The problem is one now well understood by conservationists. When a population of a once abundant species becomes very small, and restricted, it also becomes exceptionally vulnerable. Indeed, a fire -- something necessary to production of prairie-chicken habitat maintenance -- so devastated the remnant heath hen population on Martha's Vineyard in 1906 that only 80 birds remained.
But with protection, that population was able to grow, and a 1916 census found 800 birds. A reservation had been set aside for their rigorous protection, and, as hoped for, they had spread across the island, although not to the mainland. Alas, that year another fire swept the refuge in the height of the nesting season, temporarily destroying not only food, cover, eggs, and chicks, but reportedly killing some of the hens who stayed on their eggs and were burned alive.
The following winter was harsh, and extra numbers of northern birds of prey descended on the island. These included a species of large hawk called the northern goshawk, which would not normally occur there, and which, to a degree greater than other raptors, would feed on birds as large as heath hens.
Such natural disasters as fire and hawks certainly would not have made the slightest visible dent in the heath hen population originally, but now they were a serious threat as there was only a small number of heath hens left.
Desperate, conservationists began a risky gambit, capturing some of the few surviving birds and trying to breed them in captivity. But the breeding process of the heath hen was complex, and none bred.
Hawks and cats alike were trapped or shot, rats poisoned in case they ate eggs or chicks.
And what was the role of hunters in all this? Well, since they couldn't shoot the critically endangered heath hens, far from being the early conservationists of myth in fact they lobbied to have pheasants released on the island. After all, they had to have something to shoot, didn't they? No matter to them that the very last thing the beleaguered heath hen needed was a non-native (the ring-necked pheasant is native to Asia) birds with similar habitat requirements dumped in their midst. And no matter to them that female pheasants superficially resembled heath hens, and any upland bird game hunting would increase risk for the heath hens. Even in this last refuge of the heath hen, hunters were frustrated by restrictions on what they always think of as their "right" to kill our shared legacy of wildlife, even if that wildlife has to be put there. "There can be little doubt," wrote Cokinos, "that poachers not only killed Heath Hens for food, they killed them to make room for other game." If "poachers" did that, they did it in the interest of "hunters."
By the 1920s, distinguished ornithologist Alfred Gross and the state of Massachusetts, along with various birder groups and conservation organizations, were fully engaged in trying to prevent the extinction of the heath hen.
Enter a hunter, Lloyd Taylor, who began a scathing attack on the efforts of both the government and Gross. Taylor wanted to bring in western greater prairie-chickens, to interbreed with the last of the heath hens. The problem was that while that might work in terms of providing a gamebird for hunters not caring about the finer details of taxonomy and nomenclature, it would spell certain end for the actual heath hen, as defined by the genes that determined what was, and what was not, a heath hen.
The Federation of New England Bird Clubs formed a committee to work on the conservation of the heath hen, and hired Edward F. McLeod to be warden of the newly established refuge for the species. But McLeod clashed with Gross by strongly identifying "vermin" as the major obstacle for the heath hen's recovery.
There is no real evidence that Gross objected to the concept of controlling predators, but he did not see them as the major threat, and certainly not worthy of the resources McLeod expanded in his efforts. Indeed, Gross found evidence of birds dying without any predator involved and thought maybe the role of predators in removing diseased birds (the ones most vulnerable to natural predation) might help the others to survive.
But McLeod's bloodlust found sympathy. Enter yet another sportsman, a "hunter-activist" by the name of Arthur Clark. Both Clark and McLeod wanted to kill more predators (cats, crows, hawks, even a pair screech-owls -- a small species that could not conceivably be a threat to heath hen survival) and both thought that Professor Gross's estimates of population size were wrong. A good dozen heath hens visited a local garden, and somehow that led McLeod and Clark to assume that the population was much larger than appeared to be the case as determined by the good professor's careful estimate based on actual counts.
Hostilities between the McLeod and Clark faction on one hand and the Gross and State faction on the other soon heated up. Clark continued to believe that the heath hen would recover, while Gross had become fatalistic, and was fatigued by his constant battling against Clark, who was soon to leave his influential post as chair of the Heath Hen Committee of the Federation of New England Bird Clubs. Ever the scientist, Gross was more convinced than ever that disease was taking its toll of the few remaining birds, and the most likely source of the disease was the island's burgeoning poultry industry. In 1927, in a last ditch effort to convince the hunter of the seriousness of the problem and show him just how few birds remained, Gross invited Clark to take part in that year's census. It turned up 13 heath hens. That led to an estimate of about 30 birds, no more, in total.
But Clark still saw things as hunters so often do to this day -- that hunting is a viable wildlife management tool, and that the primary means to save the heath hen was to continue to give McLeod free rein in slaughtering anything that could conceivably prey on a heath hen, and some things that could not. McLeod even shot a ruffed grouse, a species rare on the island, and a woodland bird that, unlike pheasants, could not conceivably have competed with the heath hens or caused them any problems.
Alas, even though the Federation of New England Bird Clubs had finally come around to understanding that the problem was far more complex than the hunters involved in the issue chose to believe, and had belatedly dropped McLeod from its payroll, enter yet more hunters. This time it was the Martha's Vineyard Rod and Gun Club, which had formed its own heath hen conservation committee and which hired McLeod.
Ironically (given its modern-day support for a refuge system that feeds millions of waterfowl; and for winter deer-feeding programs that artificially sustain large populations of deer, which, of course, then have to be reduced using hunting as a "wildlife management tool"; and given its penchant for non-native pheasants and other wildlife derived from captive stock, and for game farms) the committee decided that the state was to blame for the failures in heath hen conservation by "domesticating" the birds with feeding strategies, such as planting plants that heath hens liked to eat.
The July 1927 issue of Hunting and Fishing magazine touted the need for more shooting of vermin. You can always count on hunters, it seems, to find reasons to shoot animals. The magazine of course gave full marks to the Rod and Gun Club, and decided that the population of heath hens was just under 50, a significant over-estimate. Gross was never mentioned in the article. "But," writes Cokinos, "readers could obtain a color Heath Hen print for a modest donation." No doubt.
Ah, but hunters are supposed to pay for conservation and be the first conservationists, so back then, we learn, the Rod and Gun Club at Oak Bluffs stepped into the breech and doubled its dues, to raise money to help the heath hen.
Hunters pay. But, as Cokinos puts it, "Apart from shooting and fundraising, it's not clear just what the Club's Heath Hen Committee actually did." I suspect its members congratulated themselves on being such good conservationists, willing to put up the money needed to protect the environment, regardless, of course, of whatever was actually done with that money.
By 1928 the census showed even fewer birds, and still the hunters saw shooting hawks and owls as the solution, and believed that the number of heath hens left could still recover to a flock of several hundred birds. Meanwhile, the carefully and scientifically derived assessments of real numbers of heath hens were so low as to interfere with the hunters' ability to raise funds for, well, whatever they did with the money.
A year later a severe flu virus swept the island's human population, killing an average of one person a day. As for the heath hen, well, by then there was just a single bird left. Even then, the local rod club couldn't wait. It petitioned to take away the protected status of that last bird, so it could stock the island with ring-necked pheasants and get back to game bird hunting.
The final heath hen was last seen by a competent observer on April 6, 1932, although many unconfirmed reports were made after that date, even up to 1960, but these would be ring-necked pheasants, released on the island so that hunters could shoot them. If you go to Martha's Vineyard today, you will see ring-necked pheasants, but of the heath hen, nothing remains but faded photos, a few stuffed skins, and silent ghosts.
The Great American Hunting Industry
There is no doubt that hunting kills animals, and that hunting has reduced or eliminated entire species. Thus, to protect game animals from going the way of the heath hen or the passenger pigeon (although in the case of the latter, one must factor in disruption of roosting and nesting sites, not only by hunters but also deforestation), hunting must be tightly regulated, and such regulation provides need for the employment of those whose endeavors support sport hunting.
But sport hunting also supports their employment. Thus there is an endless cycle of symbiotic relationships whereby hunters need the wildlife managers, game biologists, and bureaucrats to assure that hunting is regulated to a degree that prevents loss of things to hunt, and the wildlife managers, game biologists, and bureaucrats need the hunters to justify, and pay for, their own careers.
Added to the mix are the non-governmental groups who assist and are assisted by all of the above, still in the promotion of hunting. And to them must finally and very importantly be added the various support industries that are dependent on the market that hunters provide. Hunting clothing, magazines, land developers, manufacturers of specialized clothing, boats and other gear, game farms and ranches, outfitters and guides, dog breeders and trainers -- everything from makers of moose calls or sellers of rubber duck decoys to exclusive hunt clubs and exotic safari organizers whose elegant services only the richest can afford -- all depend on hunters and hunting.
But in the U.S. there is a specific oddity, a manufacturing sector that cannot live without death -- death imposed prematurely, and that is the weapons and ammunition manufacturing industry.
Ah, but there is a problem for all of these people dependent on hunters, guns, and ammo. Statistic after poll indicates that the numbers of hunters, and the percentage of the population they represent, is in freefall decline. It is a hotly discussed topic of every hunting show or wildlife management seminar I or my colleagues and friends have attended, and it explains a belated effort by the above-defined hunting interests to attract children, women, and visible minorities to ranks that are dominated by decreasing numbers of venerable white protestant males (a demographic to which, I should inform you, I belong).
Above all, it explains why, understanding that growing numbers of us enjoy wildlife without feeling any need to kill anything, hunters are erecting socially agreeable arguments in defense of hunting. Blue-collar and minimally educated hunters rub shoulders with captains of industry, senior politicians, and university professors in common cause against the antis to convince the majority of non-hunters that hunting is a necessary "right" for all Americans, and a viable wildlife management tool serving the greater good.
The Death Dealers
It seemed a good idea at the time. The time was 1937. The idea was the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, which has become popularly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, as it was sponsored by Senator Key Pittman of Nevada, and Representative A. Willis Robertson, of Virginia. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law on September 2, 1937, four years after the extinction of the heath hen.
Already hunting regulations had been in place for many years. A fundamental (and perhaps, within the historical context, remarkable) realization had happened much earlier -- that the loss of wildlife was due to over-hunting, which, in turn, was largely a result of market demand.
The sport hunter, who did not need to hunt to survive, had broken ranks with the market hunter, who killed neither for personal culinary need, nor for sport, but for profit. A market hunter on Chesapeake Bay might utilize a punt gun. This device was a very large bore (8 gauge or larger), heavy shotgun (really little more than a long iron pipe with a firing mechanism attached) that produced too great a recoil to be comfortably fired from the shoulder. It was secured to the front of a shallow-draw boat, or punt, and the shooter would lie prone, with the gun pointed in front of the bow and parallel to the waterline. The gun was loaded with a large quantity of shot (bb or larger) and powder. Propulsion was by an oar attached to the back, for sculling, or a pole in shallower waters. One method of using a punt gun was simply to aim it at a flock of ducks, at dark, and let it drift upon them. A glowing torch might be hung from the bow as the ducks often, as though mesmerized, would tend to swim toward the light.
Only one shot would be fired, but it would be devastating, and might leave a hundred or more dead or dying ducks spread out over the water. Other market hunters might use nets or traps to kill similar numbers. Live ducks or geese might be used for decoys, far more effective than the artificial types, and requiring far less expertise. None of this in any way was "sport" or "hunting" in the sense of pursuing game. All of it fit the ideals of unfettered capitalism whereby ducks, a natural resource, were killed in the most economically efficient way to produce maximum profit, supplying a market demand.
Mind you, initial investment was low, thus so was return, and so this was not the means by which great, or even moderate, fortunes could be made. Some of those making such fortunes realized they had a problem; they wanted to hunt, but the things that they wished to hunt would not survive the unregulated take fueled by market demands. Had profits been big enough that might not have mattered; it certainly didn't matter to the owners of whaling fleets who could take their mighty profits and reinvest elsewhere. Also, good capitalists might actually act to protect a "resource" if it brought in enough money; however, apart from fisheries and the fur trade (which ultimately did become very well regulated in some parts of North America, a rare instance of market value providing incentive for moderation in the rates of killing), there just was not enough money to be made per animal killed.
Thus, with regard sport hunting, the sport trumped modest profiteering. There was incentive among the ruling elite to curb the excesses of market-driven hunting, and it was largely outlawed, although many a former market hunter could still find employment in service to his moneyed superiors, as guides.
"Game," which has always been rather erratically defined, could still be killed, but only under strict regulations, for sport. Put very simply, the federal government was given jurisdiction over the management of migratory wildlife (which meant waterfowl, but not upland game, or mammals) while the state or province (in Canada; wildlife management in North America has, for obvious reasons, traditionally been an internationally integrated effort, particularly with regard migratory species) was given jurisdiction over all else.
But two significant principles (not always followed to the letter) were to govern the licensing of hunters: 1, the meat of the animals killed must be for personal use, and must be consumed, not wasted; and, 2, the animals killed must be killed for sport, not profit.
A hunter may, if it is in season and he adheres to various laws and has the appropriate license, kill a deer, but he must use the meat himself, or provide it, without cost, to someone else. (Indeed, my only taste of venison, as a child, long before my switch to vegetarianism, came about as a result of a neighbor going up and down our quiet residential street looking for people to take off his hands some of the meat from a deer he had killed. Most folks did not like or want it. We tried it, but it was too gamey for most members of my family. Ironically, I was the sole exception.)
Of course there was profit aplenty to be had in support of the sport, as indicated above, but at least one of the most destructive motives for killing wildlife species, direct profit through sale of the bodies, or parts of them, became illegal.
In fact, it could be argued that it was the egalitarian instincts of the founders of the United States that curbed the natural tendency of the upper crust to see wildlife as their special domain, a reflection of special privileges granted British royalty and aristocracy by allowing them hunting rights denied the common rabble. In 1842 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that wildlife in America could not be owned, thus opening doors (that effectively were already wide open) for Americans to do with wildlife as they pleased. What too many pleased to do was to kill as much wildlife as possible, for profit, and if not profit, for amusement. And the results were disastrous, with market incentive correctly identified as the main problem (at a time where there was still plenty of viable habitat to accommodate native wildlife).
And so, the theory went, if market hunting had been removed as a threat to the enjoyment of sport hunters (whose ranks could still include those who shot game for personal use as an affordable source of food -- this was the 1930s and there was a Depression; for many food was scarce), the question was, what remained to threaten the fun of sportsman? The answer will be known to all hunters and hunt apologists: loss of viable habitat for "game" species.
And that brings us to the Pittman-Robertson Act. As explained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on its webpage ( http://southeast.fws.gov/federalaid/pittmanrobertson.html), "Federal Funding from P-R pays for up to 75 percent of [conservation] project costs, with the States putting up at least 25 percent. The assurance of a steady source of earmarked funds has enabled the program's administrators, both State and Federal, to plan projects that take years to compete, as short-term strategies seldom come up with lasting solutions where living creatures are concerned."
This windfall has bought up land, providing planting of food for "deer, woodcock, rabbits and ruffed grouse," funded research, and put literally billions of dollars (two billion from the feds, a quarter of that from the states) into conservation. And where does all this cash flow from? Well, according to the same website:
The next time a mugger jams a snub-nosed revolver in your ribs and demands your wallet or purse, remember that a percentage of the initial purchase price of both the firearm and the bullet that may soon be sending you to a slab at the morgue included a few pennies, maybe even a few bucks, flowing into conservation, as the term is defined by the hunting industry. Viewed that way, every drive-by shooting has its silver lining, conservation-wise. Every drug dealer seeking to add a Glock 9mm auto-loader to his business inventory is possibly helping a bluebird or a spotted salamander have a home to live in, somewhere in the wilds of America.
But there are problems, both within the context of what keeps the hunting conglomerate happy, and in terms of what that industry claims, in defense of killing animals.
In the former category is the fact that while the market for guns does seem to be endlessly robust in the U.S., there is still that worrisome decline in hunters. According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey, between 1996 and 2001 the number of hunters in the U.S. went from 14 million to 13 million, a 7 percent decrease in only a few years. And of those who do hunt, in 1991 about 61 percent of American hunters were 35 years of age, or older, while by 2001 the percentage of hunters above 35 had climbed to 67 percent.
One does not have to be a statistician to see where that trend is going.
That decline in hunters is vexing to the hunting industry, as it depends on hunters to survive. I can't say it bothers me. Quite apart from being grateful if fewer animals are shot, I am aware that the International Hunter Education Association claims that between 1987 and 1997 somewhere between 1,038 and 1,780 people were shot each year by hunters. Al Qaeda might wish to impose similar degrees of carnage, but such loss of human life, apart from millions of animals hurt or killed, does not appeal to growing numbers of ordinary citizens.
In Canada the Canadian Wildlife Service has produced statistics that show sales of migratory game bird hunting permits have declined by nearly two thirds, in the last quarter of a century.
How one "feels" about hunting is personal. But I believe such "feeling" should be based on fact, not myth, and one "fact" is that every gun and cartridge, bow and arrow sold, contributes to conservation ... or does it?
The Pittman-Robertson Act drove state wildlife agencies to pass whatever legislation was required to allow them to climb aboard the gravy train in order to acquire federal funding for their conservation needs. My friend and former API colleague, David Cantor, has identified various flaws in the Act, which, however well it did or did not serve conservation needs when first formulated nearly sixty years ago, fails to address the contemporary state of affairs, and I draw freely on his research and comments in making my own assessment of the Act. These assessments are also based on numerous conversations with many American conservationists and animal protectionists through the years, and various visits by me to different parts of the U.S. where wildlife habitat is protected or restored.
One of the major flaws of the Act, pointed to not only by David but by many other Americans I have talked to about it through the years, is that it does not address conservation needs overall so much as hunters' need to have animals of a limited range of species in sufficient quantity for them to shoot. That range of species is mostly restricted to "game" species, regardless of whether or not increasing numbers of certain species is good either for the conservation of other species or for society.
Of course the classic example is the white-tailed deer. Even in Canada, where there is no such thing as a Pittman-Robertson Act, hunting needs drive "wildlife management," and in both countries every effort is made to increase deer populations to the point where they become detrimental to other social interests. We hear of deer population "explosions" that are fueled by land management that enhances deer populations, regardless of the effects the deer may have on crops, for example, or as victims of automobile traffic. Indeed, here in Ontario we are at the northern end of the deer's range, and yet for years the government fed the deer in winter, thus assuring not only survival but increased fecundity, which in turn meant an artificially high population next summer, with the subsequent "need" to use hunting as a "wildlife management tool" to bring the deer numbers down to a socially acceptable level.
The general public is beginning to understand that the effects of catering to hunters are not always in the broader interests of the rest of society, or of wildlife. For years wildlife managers have, in their wisdom, promoted, through hunting license requirements, the killing of bucks and the protection of doe white-tailed deer. But, as reported in the New York Times, December 29, 2002, in an article by Andrew C. Revkin:
The article describes the reticence of the hunters, themselves, for whom the procurement of a buck -- and I shall resist the temptation to explore the psychological and gender-biased possibilities for all this -- being so much more important to hunters than killing does. But the real reason, as Shissler said, for the problems was that "single-species" management thought so long has dominated, and continues to dominate, wildlife management decisions, with "game" being the species. The whole idea was to make sure there were plenty of deer for plenty of hunters buying plenty of guns and ammo.
In fact, the Pittman-Robertson Act was never designed or intended to entrench indefinitely the idea that conservation be dependent on guns and ammo sales. At any rate, it could not anticipate changing societal interests or values. At the time the Act was passed, populations of many wildlife species were seriously depleted, the situation was urgent, and it was thought that if certain game-supporting habitat was set aside, one could, in effect, "stockpile" game animals who would then move out into non-protected areas to the benefit of hunters. Times were desperate, both for Americans hurt by the Great Depression of the dustbowl 1930s, and for wildlife under siege from relentless slaughter.
Compared to today, little was known about wildlife, ecology barely existed as a concept, and few if any anticipated that an environmental movement consisting of concerned citizens would come to greatly outnumber hunters, then seen as about the only people with a stake in protecting game-friendly habitat.
"Today," wrote Cantor, "a very small percentage of Americans hunt, and virtually no animal killed by hunters is genuinely needed for food or clothing; hunting is a far more costly and impractical method of obtaining food or clothing than other ways available to virtually all Americans today. Inasmuch as the Pittman-Robertson Act was based on a perceived need to perpetuate hunting and trapping, the Act is obsolete."
The "restoration," the goal of the Act, is arguably complete, at least in terms of many target species. But a number of endangered species, many of them requiring protection of a section of streambed, a series of caves or a specific watershed, failed to have necessary habitat protected or restored as a result of this Act. Neither hunters nor animal rights activists are likely to spend much time worrying about the protection of the Barton Springs salamander, the humpback chub, the desert pupfish, the Key Largo woodrat, the copperbelly watersnake, the black clubshell, or the Tooth Cave ground-beetle, nor are their dollars likely to contribute to the protection of these and so many other endangered species of wildlife that are not "game," are not cutely photogenic, and, being so very rare, are not slaughtered in large numbers. If, critics charge, such species receive protection through Pittman-Robertson funds, it is likely to be incidental to efforts aimed at "restoration" of "game" species.
Four Kinds of Wildlife
Hunters and wildlife managers seem to act as though there were four kinds of wildlife: game, endangered species, vermin (aka varmints), and everything else.
Wildlife management is primarily focused on protecting "game." While I suppose I could attempt a sophisticated definition of "game" that was nearly all-inclusive, I'll keep it short and sweet: For management purposes, "game" species are species that may legally be killed by hunters, under federal and/or state (or provincial) permit, with a bag limit determined through regulations, which depend on a continued monitoring of populations to assure that hunters don't kill too many but that there are enough for hunters to kill the following season.
Endangered species, especially those that are well-known, were once very common, or are large and photogenic, unknowingly carry a degree of political clout that makes them hard for tax-funded agencies to ignore, but for wildlife management purposes are defined legislatively. A species listed under state, provincial or federal legislation as endangered may not be endangered. A species not so listed may be critically endangered. A species endangered in one jurisdiction may be common in another. Population sizes may vary through time, so that endangered species may become more common, and common species can become endangered, without either change reflected in the legislation (which, at any rate, is always playing "catch-up" as inadequate resources are put to the task of evaluating ever more claims that this or that species is now endangered).
There is no one population size for any given species that could be said to indicate that the species is now endangered; it is ultimately a political decision. And it may be impossible to say, for sure, exactly when a population has reached such a low level (as happened with regard the heath hen) that even full protection from hunting and habitat loss will not restore it.
But in theory, once a species is listed as endangered, there is more or less a management obligation to protect its numbers from further reduction. As we saw with regard the heath hen, if that means using hunting as a "wildlife management tool," so much the better; indeed, that may be the primary, or only, option to a real or suspected "problem" caused by that nemesis of all wildlife managers, "population explosion."
Individual animals of many species are considered almost or totally expendable, and the animals themselves regarded by at least some people as a nuisance counterproductive to their view of how things should be. These animals are the "vermin" or "varmints" who can be killed for the sake of killing since they are rarely sporting targets (they become "varmints" by virtue of being common) and usually inedible (or at any rate, not eaten -- indeed, they are often left to rot where they fall or hung on rural fences to satisfy psychological needs perhaps best left unexplored).
What constitutes "vermin" varies from time to time -- at one time it was hawks and owls, deliberately left off the Migratory Birds Convention Act because it was not cared how many were killed. Now they are protected most places, and recognized both as being vulnerable to endangerment and important as top-of-the-food-chain predators with ecological roles to play. But a lot of hunters and fishers are lobbying to have cormorants added to the "varmint," or at least the "game" list, for daring to dine on fish.
In time we supposedly have learned that all species play a role in the ecological whole, and very often the species thought to be harmful to human interest on a simplistic level, can also assist human interests. Coyotes may kill one farmer's sheep (especially if the farmer had failed to take the precautions that exist, see API's fact sheet, Humane Ways to Live with Coyotes), but may also help reduce the spread of rabies in foxes while controlling the numbers of woodchucks, rabbits, and other consumers of cash crops.
Aside from that, we find that at least in some instances, all that varmint hunting does is hurt and kill large numbers of innocent animals, but does not significantly reduce whatever crimes against humanity they are deemed to have committed. There may be little or no scientific or objective merit to varmint hunting, but it does account for the sale of a lot of guns and ammo, important under the stipulations of the Robertson-Pittman Act.
And finally there is all else -- all the other animals -- from spadefoot toads to black swallowtail butterflies, from fox sparrows to meadow jumping-mice -- those animals that hunters may or may not be aware of, but which are usually outside their range of interest or concern. Such creatures are a backdrop to the sport of hunting, acting as props on the stage where the drama of the hunt unfolds, of no value but of no harm, and perhaps pretty or entertaining in their own right, or innocuous affirmations of wildness and the workings of the natural world, for those who care.
When I was a park naturalist for the Ministry of Natural Resources, I once spent some time in the company of a student who was studying wild waterfowl, in order to get a degree that would allow him to take his place in the ranks of waterfowl managers, where, indeed, he did wind up. He was a dedicated hunter, and took pride in his skills as a craftsman. He built his own long-barreled, black-powder guns. One day he told me that he had sighted in such a gun by firing it at a chickadee, which popped open in a puff of feathers when hit from a suitable distance. Bulls-eye!
I said nothing. He looked at me and, I guess, realized he had gone too far. "I guess," he said, "that bothers you?"
It was not merely an illegal act (but how can laws protecting chickadees be enforced deep in lonely forests or on private property) but to me a singular waste of one small, harmless life. Surely a small spruce cone, a knot in a tree trunk, would make a suitable target. A chickadee is one of the tamest, subjectively charming and apparent animals in the winter woods, and to think that one could be destroyed for so trivial a reason I find mind-boggling.
The story is, admittedly, an isolated incident (all stories of hunters breaking the law or killing needlessly are, invariably, dismissed by other hunters as "isolated incidents" proving nothing) but it does indicate a disconnect, I think, between the value systems of at least that one hunter and wildlife biologist and the rest of us.
A Guardian of Our Resources
It was in 1937 that the National Wildlife Federation, then called the General Wildlife Federation, was formed to act as a self-appointed guardian of the country's natural resources. The emphasis of resources as a means to fuel the country's economy was absolute. As noted conservationist/cartoonist J.N. "Ding" Darling put it at the time, "It is nice to ramble in the out-of-doors, but there is something of a deeper significance in this restoration movement. Wealth will continue to exist on this continent only so long as our resources of soil and water continue to yield up their riches. When these are gone, prosperity, standards of living and happiness among our people will vanish."
And thus was solidified the very bases of wildlife management in the U.S. (and Canada) to this day. The plaint by the animal rights "extremists" that hunters save it today to shoot it tomorrow turns out to be pretty well on the mark.
And the National Wildlife Federation, while presenting a very good front to the public of concern for all wildlife,2 actually became the first of a suite of quasi-non-governmental national and international organizations that worked in conjunction with both big business and big government (the distinctions between government and private becoming blurred) to assure the continuation of game for the sport hunter to kill in perpetuity. It must be emphasized that the National Wildlife Federation, and its Canadian counterpart, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, is widely supported not only by non-hunters but by anti-hunters who are fooled by images of baby fawns and bunny rabbits. The money they raise, however it is spent, is merely from "sportsmen," as seems so often to be implied. And both organizations do often seek to do good things, and to protect environments overall.
The formation of the National Wildlife Federation drove acceptance of the Pittman-Robertson Act and solidified the concept that "conservation" was virtually exclusive by and for the hunter. In this, as in virtually all human endeavors, he who pays sets policy, or, as "Deep Throat" told reporters Woodward and Bernstein as they sought to understand Watergate, follow the money!
By the 1950s World War II, and the Depression, had ended. With more income, more leisure time, and increasing education and research into the natural world, people (not without the help of the National Wildlife Federation, to be sure) were becoming increasingly interested in nature and natural history study. That was when, as a young child who hated school and school activities because they interfered with my love of the out-of-doors, I achieved the only "office" I ever held in school: president of my class's National Audubon Society. I believe, somewhere, I still have my pin.
But, as David Cantor put it,
Aldo Leopold was born in the American heartland, Burlington, Iowa, in 1887, and died in 1948. He is often credited with being the originator of "modern" concepts of ecology and the father of "modern" wildlife management, his influence all the greater for his skill as an evocative writer. Today wildlife managers talk of him with near reverence.
Some animal protectionists decry his emphasis on ecosystem and population with no regard for the welfare of individual animals, in contrast to their own concerns for the physical well-being of individual animals.
It is probably a conceit on my part, but I think both are missing the point. Placing him in historical context, Leopold's professional life came after the likes of Muir and Thoreau, but not by much, and when the seemingly limitless supply of North America's marketable, edible, wearable wildlife was in many areas running out, or gone; he was born when game hogging ran rampant in a general absence of regulations. His youth was spent when there were, doubtless, individuals who had insights into the workings of nature and how animals interact with their environments, and indeed are a part of them, but when by far the majority of people thought of nature as an enemy to be conquered, of value solely as a font of wealth to be exploited with divine sanction. He predates the truly modern environmental movement, and the burgeoning nature appreciation movement that brings far more Americans into the field to enjoy, view, and photograph, but not kill, wildlife, than those who go to kill. His greatest impact on public thinking overall came posthumously, with the publications of as series of his essays under the title, A Sand County Almanac (first published in 1949).
But he preceded the time when we were learning just how devastating the development of destructive technology could be. He predates the seminal writing of another great American, Rachel Carson, who critically and brilliantly examined what manner of monsters technology had managed to unleash. Leopold knew essentially nothing of massive oil spills, damage done to the environment by nuclear radiation from failed reactors, ozone depletion, successive levels of floral degradation from air pollution, the proliferation of toxic waste that could render whole communities unfit to live in, current excesses of urban sprawl, or global warming. He saw earlier stages of many of the problems that, since his time, have escalated to proportions I do not think he or his coevals could conceivably have anticipated. Factory farms, the spread of emerging viruses from wildlife to humans, chronic wasting disease and related illnesses, the collapse of major fisheries, and the accelerated extinction of non-target animal species whose loss was collateral to ever greater demands on the environment by ever larger numbers of people becoming ever more dependent on technology, all belong much more to our time than to his.
Aldo Leopold perceived, and conveyed to others, the fact that animal species were, in fact, interacting parts of the whole. He allowed us to view them within a broader context than immediate personal interest (or disinterest). He wrote, "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
It is hard for me to gainsay the wisdom of that statement, but some of my animal protectionist peers have certainly done so, since there is no indication of concern for the individual animal in it or in Leopold's other writing. Indeed, Leopold's 1933 book, Game Management, set the tone for "wildlife management" that continues to this day, and has been characterized as saying you can destroy animals as you please, so long as in doing so you don't damage the ecosystem in which they live, and so long as you do not do so to a degree that prevents them from existing.
What does that mean? Let us look at one species of animal that would, in Leopold's time, have been seen by him and others most directly involved with wildlife, hunters, fishers and trappers, as being "important." That is the muskrat.
The muskrat is common throughout most of North American, wherever there are viable wetlands. It is our largest vole, weighing in somewhere around two or three pounds at maturity. Apart from Florida, parts of Texas and California, and a few other locations in the southwest, if you live in continental North America, from the treeline south, and have never seen wild muskrats, clearly you are very much out of tune with nature and the natural world. To a kid in nineteenth and much of twentieth century America in desperate need of modest income, a batch of muskrat pelts could loom valuable indeed.
The muskrat's fur is thick and luxurious, and so these animals are trapped by the millions. Precisely because there are so many of them trapped, the laws of supply and demand dictate that any one pelt is not worth very much. Even my mother, back in the 1940s, had a muskrat coat "because I could not afford a mink." Nowadays, and indeed for many decades past, my mother would never, ever, buy or wear muskrat or any other fur. Having seen firsthand how trapped animals can suffer, she wants very much not to contribute to such suffering.
A muskrat is mostly vegetarian, but will also consume freshwater clams and mussels, crayfish, the odd frog or baby turtle, or maybe an occasional fish. Where I live, in the lower Great Lakes region, muskrats give birth to 4 to 8 babies, in the snowy months of March or April, following a gestation period of about a month or maybe a little less. The eyes of the dependent babies open about 15 days after birth. After four weeks the babies wean to solid food, and by then have left the nest and are swimming.
The adult muskrat has an average of about three litters per year. Thus if each pair produces 6 babies per litter, three times per year, that is 18 muskrats at the end of year, plus the original two adults, making 20. If, the following year, half those animals each does the same, we have 10 times 18, plus the original two adults. About 200 muskrats, and if half of them have babies the following year ...
Well, I'm not very good at math, but you get the point. Of course such exponential growth does not happen because most of the muskrats are killed off early in their lives. If they weren't, the world would rather quickly be covered with muskrats, except that long before that happened, all the food muskrats eat would be gone, to the detriment of a galaxy of other animal and plant species sharing the marshland, river, and pond environments that are home to muskrats.
Thus, with regard the muskrat, we find that not only will a certain number fail to survive, a certain number "should" fail to survive to maintain the integrity of the environment, without which there would be no muskrats, or many other species of animals. True, without animals there can be no suffering, but then we might look to the lifeless moon as a role model for earth's future, and instead of protecting animals, ignore all that happens to them the better to increase the rates by which they become extinct. That is not a scenario that appeals to me or to society overall.
Death happens to all creatures, great and small, and must happen for life to exist. And death involves suffering. The balance that must be struck, Leopold recognized, is to assure that the number taken in the interest of humans allows enough to remain to replace those that were removed. Obviously if there were no other factors, the number necessary to be left would be very small indeed, in the case of a species as prolific as the muskrat, but there are many other factors at play, most particularly including predation by other species, and such limiting factors as food supply, infectious disease, and even weather. Whatever the number needed to replicate the species, all other animals born are considered, by wildlife management theory, to be "surplus." They are going to die as a result of any of a broad spectrum of activities that can end their respective lives, so what difference if the agent of death is a microbe, a mink, or a man?
Indeed, as long as that number taken by trappers is "sustainable," as determined by a population that remains more or less stable, there is no cause for concern, provided the habitat in which the population occurs remains viable.
Without the marsh there can be neither muskrats, nor the things that muskrats eat, the animals who eat muskrats, or the animals or plants that are gastronomically independent of either, but need the same kind of habitat for their own survival. It is the habitat, not the trapper or hunter, that is important, conditional upon the trapper or hunter's removal of wildlife being regulated and not excessive.
The equation is, not surprisingly, often put in economic terms. We all know that we need capital to produce interest. The "core" capital is the number of muskrats needed to assure that there are muskrats in the marsh. The number above that is "interest," which can be cashed in, or "harvested," so long as the initial capital is left intact. Interest rates will accrue so long as the environment is secure.
Better yet, the argument goes, the presence of a valuable animal, like the muskrat, provides the best incentive to protect the marsh. And that's important because muskrats need the marsh, and so do mink, pan fish, ducks -- all of value to trappers, hunters and fishers. Therefore, because the parts of some of those animals can be sold for profit, those profits provide an assurance that there will be reason to protect the wetland. And that is to the benefit of all the other kinds of animals who live there, as well.
Or does it?
In fact, the problem is that when economic incentive is seen as the primary or sole motive for protecting a given "resource" or habitat, such as a wetland, it will guarantee the destruction of that habitat when such destruction generates significantly more money. It happens all the time. Why eke out a living at the bottom of the social structure when you can assure yourself relative riches by selling the habitat to a developer who stands to make far more money turning the marsh into a marina than could be obtained in centuries of selling muskrat pelts? No reason, if money is the only factor in determining what is done.
Even more so than in my own province of Ontario, Quebec contains vast stretches of wilderness very near to the cluster of population centers near its southern boundary. They are not uninhabited. This is the land of the Cree Indian, and the Inuit, to the north.
In the early 1970s the Quebec government decided to build a mega-power-generation product that would generate enough electrical energy to meet both the province's needs and provide sales to the U.S. and to other Canadian provinces. But it meant destruction through flooding of land important to the native community, who lived off the land, traditionally trapping and hunting.
On February 7, 2002, after three decades of often heated negotiations and political maneuvering, a deal was struck that would see many economic benefits flow into the pockets of the Cree, but at the loss of lands whose fur-bearing mammals could not conceivably produce similar amounts of money. So the animals lose.
Not all native people agreed with this turn of events; as is true of any other community, individual concerns and values varied, and some felt that the old way of life, unsafe and uncomfortable though it would appear to the urbanites whose numbers include most of the people reading this, was still somehow better, and more proper and healthy for them. It included trapping, fishing, and hunting.
But they did not prevail. And that, on a large scale, is the sort of thing we see happening everywhere on smaller scale as both wildlands and farmlands fail to produce as much income as can be had by virtue of their destruction.
There is also the problem that wealth generates influence at levels where decisions are made.
Remember the Superfund? It was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 around the end of approximately two decades that seemed to encompass so much concern about the environment, and so much good legislation in the U.S. to protect it. Put simply it was a tax on industries that caused environmental degradation. That tax produced the money to clean up the destructive messes those industries created. If you were to dump a load of sewage on your neighbor's lawn, it is fair to say you would be expected to clean it up. That would be only fair and just. So was the Superfund, although since it was known that the cleanup would have to happen, the industries were charged as they went along.
And it was not just "sewage" that was being dumped, but toxic waste, stuff that we know for a fact can hurt or kill you or your children (including those not yet conceived) by causing cancers or various neurological diseases, or seriously debilitating or fatal birth defects. In fact that is happening to people exposed to these very byproducts of industrial profiteering, all over the world. But America, to its credit, saw the wisdom of taking some of those profits to clean up the toxic waste, and by using the law to produce economic incentive (since morality and compassion seemed so often to be trumped by greed) not to dump the toxins into people's (and animals') environment in the first place.
I speak in the past tense, as though the Superfund was no more. It exists, but only on paper. In 1995 its ability to do its job was destroyed as part of Newt Gingrich's so-called "Contract with America," a contract that seemed to put profits above the health and lives of American citizens. When the Republicans killed the Superfund's ability to collect those taxes, there was $3.3 billion in the kitty, a huge amount of money to you or me, but a trifle when it comes to the cost citizens incur as a result of either cleaning up what others dump (and that would include the oil industry which, with all its wondrous political clout, was exempted from the taxes from the outset) or suffering the consequences of not doing so.
As I write these words, President George W. Bush has begun the campaign for his second term of office. It might worth remembering the words of Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose, in their book, Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America (Random House, 2003), as they discuss his first presidential campaign from the perspective of their knowledge of his stint as governor of Texas, where his answer to pollution was anything that did not annoy the interests who funded him, and that meant voluntary compliance to controls. Ivens and Dubose wrote:
Neither "voluntary" emissions control, nor the Superfund, nor recognition for any need for either, existed back when the Aldo Leopold was alive, and when the Pittman-Robertson Act was passed, or the National Wildlife Federation was founded. In the comfortable neocon world of big business, with government policy aimed ever more toward benefiting the tiniest number of us who are the most wealthy, thus influential, it seems quaint to consider the "conservation" initiatives I used to read on the material that organizations like the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society produced for the education of my generation when I was a very young child.
Oh, I gobbled it all up, and came to understand the importance of contour plowing. I learned that it was best for wildlife if crops were planted not quite to the edges of fields, leaving rooms for hedgerows, not fences, because wildlife, almost always portrayed as "game," loved those hedgerows. Wetlands were to be preserved, as they provided not only homes or resting places for ducks shot by hunters whose money would pay to protect those wetlands, but for red-winged blackbirds, painted turtles, and bullfrogs as well. There were lists of plants that "game" and songbirds and other valued wildlife would use for food or cover, that could be planted in our gardens. I would see flow charts that showed predator-prey relationships, and learned how "man" was part of that relationship, all in the name of conservation.
I learned how much hunters love bluebirds. It's true. It seems that almost any time you access the accounts of what hunters do in the name of conservation in temperate eastern North America, you see reference to bluebird boxes.
You see, the eastern bluebird has become distressingly rare, compared to the numbers there used to be, and usually another wildlife species, the European starling, was to blame. Brought here from Europe in the eighteenth century, the bigger starling simply usurped the kinds of nesting cavities needed by bluebirds. Killing starlings was one option, of course, and not surprisingly one favored by many hunters. I recall reading, in my childhood, hunting magazines trumpeting the virtues of starling shooting. It was a good way to hone marksmanship. There were even printed recipes for eating them.
But starlings more than held their own (now the tendency is to kill them en masse, with chemicals -- chemical warfare against wildlife being both legal and practiced in America) and so hunters started to build nest boxes for bluebirds.
This was really cool for several reasons. First of all, everyone loved bluebirds. They are really pretty, have charming little songs, just the cutest babies you can imagine, and best of all, they are our friends because they eat bad insects. In the simplistic world of so many hunters (like, I can't help but notice, so many neocons) things are black and white. The starlings, both literally and figuratively, are black, the bad guys. If you are for bluebirds (and who wouldn't be?) you have to be against starlings. And starlings can't fit through small holes the way a bluebird can, so by building a bluebird box with a hole small enough to exclude starlings but big enough to allow entry for bluebirds, you provide breeding opportunities for bluebirds.
And then you can talk about how you are not interested in just game, but that you are spending your money on all types of conservation. No one hunts bluebirds, but, by gosh, were it not for hunters, where would these pretty, rare little birds be?
In Ontario the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources once provided a conservation award to the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, for putting up all those bluebird boxes. Of course that is something naturalists have been doing for years, aided by everyone from Girl Guides to senior co-ops, without similar recognition. I guess we know whose interests is being served.
The same Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters has, as its logo, not the muskellunge, moose, or mallard that you might expect; oh no, it is a common loon, the same species chosen by the Federation of Ontario Naturalists. Just as what is good for General Motors has been deemed good for America, so is what is good for muskellunge, moose, and mallards must be good for bluebirds and loons.
And loons, like bluebirds, are conspicuous and innocuous. And hey, they are spaced out enough (in central and northern Ontario, a forested region characterized by a tapestry of countless small lakes, there tends to be one pair of loons for each of those lakes) that whatever competition for "game" fish they may present, is tolerable. That is in contrast to cormorants whose burgeoning numbers hunters would dearly love to "control," using hunting as the appropriate wildlife management tool, of course.
And that brings us full circle back to the argument made by hunters, that because they do pay for the upkeep of the land which animals depend upon, they, and they alone, are the one and true "stewards" of nature, paying for the protection of all of us laggards who ride on their economic coattails. It is not just the Pittman-Robertson Act that provides the money, but the money derived from the purchase of various hunting licenses and permits, and the cash donations made by hunters themselves. Without them, where would we, and the loons and the bluebirds, all be? If market hunting is destructive, if trapping returns fail to provide economic incentives for protection of all important habitat, is it not up to the hunter to heed the call and, like Mighty Mouse on a tear, save the day?
Meeting in Memphis
Near the sweltering end of July 2000, I found myself on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, attending the Joint Flyway Council Meetings being held in the famous Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Now the myth is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service are there for all wildlife, thus for all of us who are interested in wildlife. They will work with stakeholders, all stakeholders. Wasn't my presence proof? I worked for API, an animal protection group. My friend Susan Hagood, from the Humane Society of the United States, was there. We were stakeholders because we represent organizations dedicated to the protection of animals; and ducks, geese, and swans -- the birds that were the focus of this conference -- are animals.
But there is another myth (one which, I admit to my shame, I pretty well bought into, some twenty-plus years ago) and that concerns yet another huge conservation organization that had its origin back in the mid-1930s. On January 29, 1937, Ducks Unlimited, widely known as DU, was incorporated as a non-profit charity set up to restore (there's that word again) wetland habitat. By the end of the following year, some 6,720 supporters had managed to raise some $90,000, an immense sum in those days. But DU now raises and spends millions on habitat restoration and has branched out into Canada (recognizing from the beginning Canada as breeding grounds for most of the waterfowl American hunters kill, as explained below) and Mexico, with projects now funded in Australia and other parts of the world.
The myth that I sort of bought into in my youth was one promoted by hunting columnists at the time -- that DU is not a hunting organization, but rather, a conservation organization that just happens to be attractive to hunters because of its focus on restoring wetlands. Heck, DU couldn't care less whether you hunt ducks or not. All it wants to do is restore and protect those wetlands, wetlands of value not only to ducks, geese, and swans, but to both other game and non-game wildlife species.
Hey, I'm a naturalist. You don't have to convince me of the value of wetlands. I've seen their destruction firsthand. I know what lives in them, game and non-game. I understand both their pragmatic value to society, and the deep esthetic value that they have for me, personally, and for people like me.
And yet, something else, besides the destruction of wetlands, prevents ducks, geese, and swans from reproducing -- premature death. And a major factor in premature death is waterfowl hunting. It is not that I oppose what DU does, but rather what hunters do, and DU is a hunting organization no matter how much it denies it.
No one can deny the waterfowl hunting credentials of H. Albert (Al) Hochbaum. He was a friend and younger colleague of Aldo Leopold and he knew duck hunting, for many years the director of the Delta Waterfowl Research Station in Manitoba. He was also an artist and a man who knew and loved the wilderness, and the author of books about all these interests. I mention Hochbaum because I recall my surprise, quite a number of years ago, when he appeared on a CBC news show, and said that there was, at that time, more habitat than there were ducks to live in it. This was a break from the usual argument that hunting has no impact on waterfowl; it is habitat that is the issue.
I wish I had obtained a transcript of the news show, but it was one of those fleeting things I neglected to record. I recall phoning a few wildlife manager types who confirmed what I thought. Hochbaum had strayed from the usual hunting industry script, showing an unwelcome streak of candid independence of thought.
It was also at a time when I was, with fascination, watching the buildup of gadwalls in the city of Toronto.
The gadwall is a species of wild duck, small, gray, and native to most of North America, as well as much of Europe and temperate Asia. But unlike canvasbacks or mallards, pintails or scaups (almost invariably called bluebills by hunters and those who serve the hunting industry), the gadwall gets relatively little attention. It is not highly colored, not common enough to be thought a "nuisance," nor rare enough to arouse any concerns for its future. It was, in historic times, considered a prairie duck, nesting, like so many waterfowl species, in vast and variable networks of sloughs and potholes that lie mostly in Canada's three prairie provinces, and whose abundance DU seeks to restore. Indeed, from the beginning DU recognized that most ducks were hatched in the "duck factory" of the Canadian prairies, but most shot by hunters die in the U.S. So, quite reasonably, DU raises most of its money in the U.S., and spends most of it in Canada. Hey, as a good Canadian citizen on a U.S. payroll, I can relate to that!
Gadwalls fit that paradigm, nesting in the prairies, dutifully migrating south into the U.S., and being shot, a great many, by hunters peering over their blinds from California to Florida. But more and more they were to be seen in nearby Toronto, well to the east of the prairies, nesting not on sloughs but in parks and protected waterfront shoreline within the city.
There were lots of other ducks in the city, which is built on the edge of Lake Ontario, but the gadwalls were moving in, largely unnoticed even by those well-meaning people who would, at the waterfront's edge, throw breadcrumbs or corn to "feed the ducks," increasingly many of those ducks being the discreet, inconspicuous, gadwalls.
But more than that, they were in Toronto in the winter, too, sometimes in considerable numbers. Many simply did not migrate. And each winter as birders dutifully counted the birds in Toronto during the Christmas Bird Count (an annual event began by an ornithologist more than a century ago to provide an alternative to the then popular sport of seeing how many birds could be shot at Christmas time, but since grown into a massive undertaking that helps plot trends in population sizes and locations of birds in winter), we saw that the city's winter population of gadwalls was steadily increasing.
What the gadwalls were teaching me was that there was, indeed, habitat, even if it looked nothing like a prairie marsh; it just needed ducks to fill it. And since hunting was not allowed in the city, notwithstanding the city's healthy population of natural predators (raccoons, for example, eat duck eggs whenever possible; are frequently targeted by the wildlife management types as major threats to loons and other ground-nesting water birds because of their taste for eggs; and live in Toronto at densities far higher than are found in rural and wilderness areas), the gadwalls thrived. One can imagine that any who did migrate down "traditional" flyways would be far less likely to survive than those who made a go at wintering in the colder environs of Toronto, where they were safe from human hunters.
But even in more traditional waterfowl habitat than downtown Toronto I find that often there is something missing -- waterfowl. There are marshes and wetlands in which waterfowl could nest, but don't. There simply is not enough of them. That, of course, is a contention that begs the question of what is "enough," with the answer varying from interest group to interest group. Were the numbers of ducks, geese, and swans that existed in the days of Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, or John James Audubon, suddenly to reappear, each bird with a hunger for some grain, it would not make farmers too happy. Certainly many large carnivores, from sea mink (extinct) to grizzly bears, are gone from most places they used to inhabit. The grizzly bear is on the state flag of California, but not in living memory have grizzlies fished salmon in the sea-bound streams and rivers of the California coast, which, in turn, host ever fewer salmon (you can't blame the grizzlies, but that does not stop everything from sea lions to pelicans being targeted as guilty of killing off the salmon).
When we read the early accounts of waterfowl numbers they seem wrong, so many were there. In fact, when it serves their purpose to do so, wildlife managers ignore such accounts as being exaggerated (see Opinionatedly Yours #6, Snow Geese and the Final Solution School of Wildlife Management) or inaccurate. This is not to say that wetlands should not be protected, of course they should be, but there is still the overriding fact that millions of waterfowl are shot each year. If any other industry killed that much wildlife -- if we had oil spills that suddenly produced millions of dead seabirds -- would we complain?
Actually, the incremental effects of small, usually unreported deliberate and unintentional oil spills (including those that derive from cleaning ship bilges on the high seas, an illegal practice nearly impossible to detect and prosecute) do kill millions of sea birds each year, but they largely go unnoticed, thus unlamented. However, when there is a major disaster with large numbers of birds, dolphins, sea lions, or sea otters appearing on the nightly TV news, there is a strong public backlash. If all the vast numbers of animals killed by hunters each year could be seen at once, we'd realize just how destructive hunting is, and all the more so if the pathetic fates of the wounded creatures could be shown.
However, given that, as I said above, suffering does happen -- and in the minds of some that seems to exculpate us from having to be concerned about the suffering that we are directly responsible for imposing on animals in the name of sport -- traditional wildlife management thought is that the number that are shot is, or should be, "surplus" to the number there "should" be.
For most wildlife species -- that great number that are not vermin, not game, and not endangered -- there is no number that "should" or should not be. Few people count eastern chipmunks or painted turtles. But for waterfowl there is a very rigid numerical expectation. There is a limit below which they must not go, and above which they must not go.
For other, non-varmint-game-endangered species the range of numbers that marks the high and low of their respective population size is determined by natural factors, summarized by the term "habitat" or, to get a tad more fancy, "carrying capacity" of the habitat. Carrying capacity is the number of individual members of a given species that, theoretically, can be accommodated in a particular environment when all other factors -- food, shelter, breeding locations, predators, disease, climatic fluctuations, and so on -- are factored in.
But for waterfowl -- ducks, geese, and swans -- it has been determined by committee, by a group of mostly older white males. They have devised something called the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. It is not unlike similar management plans drawn up for furbearing mammals, some fish species, or just about any living thing that is "game." It is based on the theory that animals are simply a resource that produces a "surplus" to our benefit. By "restoring" wetlands we act as a farmer acts by clearing a field and planting grain. The "harvest" must leave enough grain, or mallards, moose, or mink, over to produce another "crop" the following year.
The "duck factory" of the Canadian prairies is not so much a factory as a farm, and ducks are the crop that is harvested. In a good year, as determined by weather, there is a good crop, and harvest rates can increase accordingly. How do we know? Well, that is a part of the hunting industry, an industry much more evident with regard to waterfowl than "upland game" for the simple reason that waterfowl are highly migratory. What happens to a spruce-fringed bog in northern Saskatchewan will impact the success of hunters hunched in a blind in western Illinois or a brackish backwater in Louisiana.
The North American Waterfowl Management Plan cannot control the weather, but it can control the harvest. However, to do so requires a massive, unending flow of information on just how many waterfowl there are, how many young are produced, and how many are harvested. Everything is done for management purposes with the single goal of maintaining the numbers needed to sustain the take. The pressure from the hunters, whose cash feeds the process, is to allow as a big a bag limit as is possible where possible is defined by what is "sustainable," the size of the harvest. No farmer would take so many seeds from his grain crop that he did not have enough left over to replant, and no good wildlife manager allows so many ducks to be harvested that there are areas left un-replanted, at least in theory. There are times of drought, to be sure, when there are more ducks on the prairies than there are wet sloughs and ponds suitable for nesting, but ducks, as the gadwalls of Toronto show us, are adaptable, and a larger population provides greater genetic and behavioral options that can lead to other environments being utilized.
Ducks are not domestic wheat seeds or kernels of corn. The concept of individual birds being "surplus" is, itself, a wildlife management tool and not a fact of science. The fact is that within an ecosystem, each individual organism plays a role, albeit not necessarily one that satisfies wildlife management needs.
If we go back to the muskrat, with its prolific capability to reproduce, we see that not only will the majority of young muskrats not survive, they must not live if the integrity of the ecosystem is to be maintained. It is the same with ducks. But those who do not survive, who are also not bagged by hunters, are not wasted, even those that die of disease.
First and foremost, the other animals, including duck predators, are also part of the environment. In primal America the peregrine was once called "duck hawk" because waterfowl were, indeed, a primary prey species. We look at northern harriers, a species of marsh-loving hawk (formerly called, in fact, the "marsh hawk") who loves to feed on such products of a healthy marsh as ducklings and baby muskrats, along with mice, frogs, snakes, various other birds, and whatever there is that can be caught and eaten, and wonder why they are a species at varying degrees of risk.
According to the New York State Department of Conservation's website, www.dec.state.ny.us/website/dfwmr/wildlife/endspec/nohafs.html:
It is worth rereading those last two sentences. The prey of the harrier is varied, true, but it does include ducks. Indeed, the late Allan Brooks, a fellow bird-artist from well before my time, and one whose art I greatly admire, was also an ardent hunter and an intractable foe of northern harriers. In 1928 he wrote that the harrier was "... the most destructive hawk in all America to our marsh loving waterfowl for at least three months in the year." Brooks mentions an adult duck being eaten alive by a harrier, something that seemed to disturb him more than a duck dying slowly of lead poisoning or wounds from shot pellets. One of the first times I ever saw a harrier with prey, the victim was a wood duck, a beautiful bird that had, in those days, been rendered rare by over-shooting.
In fact studies do show that rodents make up the bulk of the harrier's diet. That said, however, all parts of the diet of any wild species are essential. Predators like the harrier, mink, short-eared owl, red fox, river otter, snapping turtle -- the list is long -- are to varying degrees opportunistic feeders. In a marsh that is overfilled with, for example, waterfowl, everything from northern pike to great horned owls to coyotes to northern harriers may benefit from duck on the menu, and that can include scavengers. But conditions can change, and another time it might be meadow voles that are extraordinarily abundant, or leopard frogs. The interacting effects of all this wildlife, surviving not at some computer-derived minimum population, but as determined by the interactions among a vibrant wildlife community, the environment, and climate, changes constantly but produces maximum numbers.
That, emphatically, is not necessarily what wildlife managers want. In the name of conservation they want a steady, predictable supply of game, surplus only to the needs of the species to survive at levels high enough to produce the hunters' "harvest" the following hunting season.
Don't let anyone tell you that the hunter is taking the place of depleted natural predators; the difference between the two is profound. Put very simply, for truly natural predators, it is as stated above by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation: "... northern harrier populations and populations of their prey follow similar patterns of fluctuation." You can substitute, in that statement, "natural predators" for "northern harrier" and it is still true. The natural predator depends on its prey, thus cannot overwhelm it. The human hunter does not, and so can overwhelm it. Thus the need for regulations imposed not in the interest of the environment overall -- from harriers to herons -- but in the interest of the human hunters. What they kill they remove, unlike the harrier or the heron or any other predator or scavenger. The energy that drives the ecosystem stays in the ecosystem except when it is removed, as happens when a human kills, and removes, his victims.
It is not only the northern harrier that is among the marsh-loving wildlife whose numbers are less than robust. Among marsh-loving birds such species as the least bittern and black tern are species that have declined in many areas. In part this is a function of habitat loss, the same habitat that ducks may like. But there have been times when DU has managed for ducks at the expense of rarer birds, such as the black terns. Vast stands of emergent cattails are not necessarily the best breeding habitat for such common species as the mallard or blue-winged teal, for example, but can be excellent for the least bitterns or black terns.
A classic example of how the interests of the DU can conflict with what others of us may call "conservation" happened a few years ago near a place where I live. The Henslow's sparrow is a species that is on the Ontario endangered species list. This is a very inconspicuous little bird unknown to most people, but certainly known to those of us who cherish and are concerned about all wildlife, "game" or otherwise. The Henslow's sparrow requires "old" fields for nesting -- fields of green grass and various "weeds" that have gone fallow (unplanted) for many years. Some years ago DU took just such a field and planted it in corn, for ducks. The problem was that Henslow's sparrows had been using that field for nesting. Thus it appeared that an endangered species, the Henslow's sparrow, had been sacrificed on the altar of hunters' desire for more mallards or teal -- species that, compared to the Henslow's sparrow, are abundant.
There was a bit of a flap until DU determined that all was okay because, as they explained it, the Henslow's sparrows had not been found in that field the year before. Therefore, destruction of the Henslow's sparrow breeding habitat did not affect the survival potential of Henslow's sparrows. Yeah, right.
Apart from the fact that it is conceivable that the sparrows were undetected (they are notoriously hard to locate), the fact is that even if a year was missed, viable habitat was still worth saving for so rare a species even if it missed a single season of using it.
Just What I Need
It was hot outside, but air-conditioned cool in the Peabody Hotel, when I registered for the Joint Flyway Council Meetings in Memphis, in July 2000. I noticed that the receipt for my registration fee was a DU receipt. Along with the documents that were supplied was a strange object. Well, strange to me. Susan had one in her registration package, too. It was a chunk of lead designed to be fastened to the bottom of a decoy so that it would float properly and could be anchored. Just what, we joked with each other, we needed.
The objects were supplied by a local manufacturer, assuming, understandably, that most delegates, presenters, and attendees would want one and so perhaps he could drum up some business. I mean, this was a waterfowl symposium, so are we not all waterfowl hunters? Isn't it good business to put your product in front of its primary market?
At times it was hard to distinguish between DU biologists or other staff or volunteers and government waterfowl biologists. In meeting room after meeting room we heard lectures on how to assure a good harvest of waterfowl of this or that species, population, jurisdiction or flyway, usually delivered in the laconic tones that so seem to characterize the community of the hunting industry. It was if there were some law against ending a word with the letter "g" -- these men would go "huntin'" or "fishin'" but loved to talk about what their data was [sic] "showin'" them as they discussed how various populations in various flyways were "goin' up" or "fallin'" and sometimes admitting, with regard the latter, that "we just aren't too sure why that might be," always confident that the answer would come with the collection of "more data" and subsequent "number crunchin'" to resolve the mysteries and get things back on track.
Everyone seemed to know everyone, and there were endless discussions of the effects of "harvestin'," as though duck killing were as inevitable as rainfall in coastal Oregon or ice rimming a North Dakota marsh in late November.
This was, of course, a subculture, and if Susan and I felt any alienation, it was not significantly different than what one might expect if, for example, one were to show up at a medical conference or a symposium for mechanical engineers. The difference was that while medical conferences might discuss things of concern to most or all of the population, and mechanical engineers might discuss things of interest to all who use machinery, this event seemed entirely for the benefit of those whose interests in ducks, geese, and swans is lethal.
I recall attending a session on whether or not some "harvestin'" of trumpeter swans should be allowed. The species had been all but exterminated, but protection was bringing it back, more or less. Indeed, pretending that it is "conservation," many people are engaged in the dubious business of placing trumpeter swans in places they never bred (like the Atlantic coast) to establish them there. If they will migrate they will be a nifty game bird once again, and this time, with regulation, the "harvestin'" will be sustainable for future generations of waterfowl hunters, if, as seems ever less likely, those generations do appear.
But out west the problem was that hunters couldn't tell the larger, fully protected trumpeter swan from the smaller tundra swan, the latter being a "legal game bird" in parts of the U.S. (but not Canada, yet). Never mind that most folks can't imagine that anyone would want to shoot a swan, those who do must be accommodated, and for some reason I was not surprised when it was decided that yes, indeed, the trumpeter had made enough of a "comeback" to allow some to be "harvested" with the computer models clearly showing that it would not have a negative impact on the species.
We now have surplus trumpeter swans.
Social highlight of the event was a late afternoon barbecue laid on by DU at its headquarters outside town. There were draws for various objects, from air rifles to little sculptures of flying ducks, but the biggest item, the grand prize, was a large, flat-bottomed boat in which every object essential to a good day of duck hunting -- engine, gun cases, beer cooler, seats, float cushions, oars -- simply everything, was painted in the same style of camouflage patterning. Wow; if you couldn't outwit the walnut-sized brain of a duck with that outfit, ya just aren't tryin'.
DU is well-heeled, both its sponsors and its board of directors representing comfortably affluent corporate America. Wealth flows from boardroom to wetland to the benefit of both wetland-dependent wildlife and the contractors whose earth-moving machinery is so crucial to the building of dikes, spillways, dams, channels, levees, locks, and other such projects that are so essential to so many DU conservation initiatives. If one might question such a powerful lobby having the charitable status so important to such donors, one might also realize that "lobbying" is not really a fit term, since the special interest group and the regulators are of the same cut, interchangeable and committed to promotion of both waterfowl and waterfowl hunting. They are not so much "restoring" marshes, it sometimes seems, as creating open-air duck farms for wild waterfowl, other wildlife welcome so long as you are not going to eat too many ducks. (DU's policy on predators is to leave them alone except when they reach that subjective point when they are taking too many ducks. In a DU project near where I live, for example, the snapping turtles "had to be" killed, although why snapping turtles should give way to waterfowl is not clear to me -- both are wetland species who have successfully co-existed for millennia.)
But underneath all the camaraderie and good fellowship, with the blending of dog trainers, industrialists, scientists, wildlife managers, gun sellers, outfitters, and so on, there was an undercurrent of concern -- no matter how you cut it, no matter how prosperous DU was or how many good works DU could point to, the driving force behind it all, the duck hunter, was in freefall decline.
I attended talks given by earnest men discussing how they were "reachin' out" to the community, a community that now included women, children, and ethnic groups not very well represented there in the meeting rooms of the Peabody Hotel throughout the conference. The rise in that horrific villain of the neocon set, the single mom, was particularly irksome -- representing a decline in the family values that made America great. Without daddy to teach huntin' skills, junior was left adrift in an urban sea of drug-crazed crime.
Good science fiction fan that I was as a kid, I recognized a time warp when I bumbled into one, and that was what I was encountering: a hankerin' for the good ol' days when things were simpler, money solved problems, and the uncomplicated values to be found in the paintings of Norman Rockwell defined what was right, good, and successful about America. I know I sound horrifically condescending and sarcastic, but the fact is that the world these well-intended folks inhabited did not resemble the world I had come from, or would return to.
It is not a matter of "right" or "wrong," no matter how strongly both sides of the hunting debate want to see it in terms of their respective moralities, it is a matter of what is; the actual reality, given that the all-critical base upon which the North American hunting industry is based -- that noble, self-effacing, self-reliant figure, the American hunter -- is crumbling underfoot.
Once upon a time the gun was one of a naturalist's most necessary tools, but times really are a-changin'. Americans, those not struggling for simple survival as the current jobless economic recovery leaves ever more without those basic Rockwellesque trappings -- from home to health care -- have ever more ways of experiencing nature, and are doing so.
We take to "the field" these days, in our millions, to be part of a world that has room for compassion, and increasingly seems to have need for it, as well. When I was a kid I used Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds and a cheap pair of binoculars to help me to identify the birds I saw, but now there are numerous guides, and optics for birders and naturalists is a growth industry. The same bighorn sheep who serves a hunter's interest by dying from the effects of the bullet he fires through its lungs serves the interest of many more of us by staying alive awhile longer and standing proudly in silhouette against a cold, blue sky.
There are people "turned on" by dragonflies and damselflies, and can use books that never existed in Leopold's time to identify them. I turn on my computer each morning and see digital photographs of birds as they appeared only hours earlier on the far side of the planet. Daily I communicate with fellow naturalists I've never met who live in countries I've never visited. We are all driven by our increasing interest in nature and wildlife and the natural world. The fact is that nature study in all its forms generates far more expenditure, now, than does hunting.
To suggest that a decline in hunting equals a decline in interest in or knowledge of the out-of-doors is not only asinine, it is seriously delusional.
One cannot tax non-consumptive use of wildlife in the manner one can tax hunting; there is no way to enforce such usage. I may be stuck in a traffic jam and still be enjoying the sight of a red-tailed hawk perched on a lamppost beside the road, looking for meadow voles, and who is to know, let alone charge me for my non-lethal pleasure?
But the conceit that only hunters pay for wildlife protection is one that the hunters, themselves, should drop if they aim to be taken seriously. The fact is that I and every naturalist and environmentalist I know also puts money not only into the things we buy (books, cameras, film, binoculars, bird feeders and seed, telescopes, trips, etc.) to enhance our enjoyment of nature, but into various conservation initiatives directed not just at protecting "game" species, but all of our native wildlife. The provincial naturalist's club I belong to does buy up, and protect, land that may or may not be habitat for "game," does lobby the government to protect natural areas, and to bring into place regulations that will help to protect the environment. That is in sharp contrast to the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, a lobby group that has received funding from elements of corporate America whose unregulated excesses can be so destructive to the very environment whose integrity is essential to all animals, game and otherwise. Olin, the National Rife Association, American Cyanamid, Chevron, Dow Chemical, and the National Cattleman's Association seem to know their interests will be protected in the name of "conservation."
This mix of big business, hunters, and so-called conservation too often ignores the growing awareness of "ordinary" citizens of their own "rights" to a clean, safe environment. The genie is out of the bottle, gentlemen, and we know, now, that we are all dependent on the health of the environment for our own physical well-being, and our spiritual health, as well.
On the other hand, the very conservativeness of the hunting and fishing lobby, and its close and obvious association with the industrial powers that appear to run the U.S. and influence so much policy, came to the table in 2003, to hobnob with one of their own, President George W. Bush. Members of the National Wildlife Federation and its various affiliates, Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, the Isaak Walton League and Delta Waterfowl, met with the President, who subsequently halted plans that, if implemented, could have eliminated protection for up to 60 percent of the United States wetlands, under changes Bush had wanted for the Clean Water Act. Bush has done, or has tried to do, more damage to the environment than any president in living memory, and it is doubtful if more progressive organizations, with modern histories of challenging a conservation-archetype of creaking vintage, could have pulled that off.
Many of my animal protectionist colleagues are surprised that I don't simply lump all hunters as "the enemy." That is because there is a core of shared value. When some hunters talk about the out-of-doors, they do so in ways I understand. It is our respective reactions to the hurting and killing that brings us to our separate ways. And I know, whether they do or not, that it is the disproportionate representation they have, because of systems set up half a century or more ago that gives them clout that cannot last. Nature and the natural world belong to us all (although our "ownership" or "stewardship" are not what it needs, so much as to be left alone, protected only from us) and increasingly we are availing ourselves of it. And yet the laws that govern what we do are designed, still, primarily for the benefit of the ever-shrinking minority who hunt. Had binoculars and bird guides been taxed for government-funded conservation purposes, there would be more cash available, but who was to know that way back in the 1930s that circumstances would change far faster than the situation they created.
I don't decry good works done by DU or any other hunter-driven organization claiming to be conservationist, if the works do, indeed, help animals. But I suggest that the time has come to bring other interests to the collective table, and that includes not only naturalists and environmentalists who may or may not be hunters, but those of us whose value systems, whose belief systems, simply do not include the concept that hurting or killing animals in the name of sport is an attractive or even value-neutral option.
It may seem to both sides that such a proposal is unrealistic, and of course there are extremists in both camps, in all camps, who will not listen to any view but their own, but some years ago I had the experience of seeking areas of consensus among disparate groups of "stakeholders," in a series of seminars put on by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. The process, to the surprise of many of us, did generate areas of consensus as we were forced to sit cheek by jowl, get to know one another, and separate myth from facts. Areas of true conflict were isolated in ways that allowed for the possibility to examine what truly was the disagreement from where there were shared concerns.
As it now stands, to say that both hunters and anti-hunters support conservation is as meaningless as to say that neither do. What is lost is what is meant by conservation. To me teaching children to shoot has no direct relationship to conservation. The gun is no more a conduit to nature appreciation than is a pair of binoculars -- indeed, less so. And surely we are not inherently hurt, as a society, by exposure to the burgeoning body of literature and thought collectively known as the "animal rights movement," and the new ideas emerging from the writings and in the university study courses dedicated to the subject. It is all part of a reality that is now extant, now exerting its own level of influence.
Releasing "game" species in areas where they were depleted, extirpated, or never occurred, is hardly conservation. Cleaning up debris in a stream is all well and good, but not so important, to conservation, as assuring that the water in the stream does not carry toxic effluent. Planting rows of trees to enhance deer range may hurt field-nesting songbirds who may be far rarer than deer.
I understand, I think, the threatening feelings of those committed to a lifestyle whose funding base is shrinking -- the wildlife managers -- but that fate applies to a great many Americans, and the answer is not in pretending it does not exist or that it will go away, or by fighting it with myth. More and more the hypocrisy of trying to pretend that all that helps hunters will help the environment is becoming obvious. Even as I write these words we are awaiting a report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on what to do about the issue of releasing mallard ducks into eastern North America. While probably at a fraction of the numbers that once inhabited America, the mallard is still an abundant species, and yet they are still being released where, historically, they did not appear, to the detriment of the survival of the American black duck. Or at least so it is claimed. All such contentions must be contemplated not only for their scientific merit, but for their political merit in a system that favors hunter-interest. Thus is conflict fueled.
Just within the last few years the wildlife management agency of the state of Pennsylvania, as well as the province of Ontario, wanted to kill native predators to enhance survival of non-native pheasants, released solely, and at taxpayers' expense, for the benefit of hunters. That is not conservation, and outcries from the public ended or modified the plans, but they ought not to have been brought to the table in the first place. Sixty years ago, such ideas may have well been socially acceptable.
Hunter-funded, hunter-driven wildlife agencies still have advantages, for example, in convincing the courts of the wisdom of some of their decisions. But that will change in time, as recent decisions to protect mute swans in Chesapeake Bay have shown.
Those with the will and opportunity to be better educated with regard to conservation and environmental issues that concern them are increasing, and have more means to learn and form independent decisions than ever before in human history. Now is the time to include them, and not just those with a financial interest, as "stakeholders" in policy-making involving "game" and all other wildlife species. And now, too, is the time for all of us to insist upon being included. If we who are either non-hunters or anti-hunting feel ignored by the process by which decisions are being made involving wildlife, we must look to what our own actions have been to challenge that process.
Too often the wildlife management arms of various levels of government have put all their eggs in one basket, a basket that is now disintegrating. Yes, there will be hunters for generations into the future, but as an increasingly small and irrelevant part of the social whole. To the degree that they have disproportionate influence, so will they generate hostilities that, ironically, will (given the numbers) sink them all the more quickly.
Hunters sometimes argue that while the pro and anti hunting factions duke it out, the habitat is lost, and the animals who depend on it. The enemy that we face collectively is bigger than the enemy we see in each other. And both sides seem intransigent.
My own response has always been to cut away the disingenuous, and then let the democratic process unfold. There are people who don't care if their actions do cause suffering, and that's fine or not fine, depending on personal values, so long as they don't pretend that their actions support some other, more socially acceptable, value. We can argue the merits of lethal versus non-lethal control of some species causing some concern in some jurisdiction, but let us not be forced to think that blue-winged teal must be shot in order to survive as a species, or that a muskrat who dies without her skin being sold for fur is a waste. People simply know better.
Whether or not we can put our faith in people is beside the point; they -- we -- are the ones in power, the ones who play god to the world's vast community of non-human lives, and it is a community that we are failing.
1. As a professional bird artist and illustrator I, like others practicing this specialized art-form, often am asked if I am, in effect, emulating Audubon -- often the only bird artist whose name is known to the general public. In my youth I was adamant about indicating that my work was far more accurate, and eschewed the dramatic excesses that led to strange, almost grotesque poses in so many of Audubon's paintings. But I came to realize that so much of what we know about birds, and their appearance and manner, postdates Audubon's life. Yes, he was a consummate woodsman, and yes, he had abilities to make observations of things never before recorded, but he was also a romantic, and clearly part of the romantic movement in art. Like many contemporary hunters, he tended to see birds in anthropomorphic terms. Notwithstanding his own blood-lust, he imbued them with human-like personality. To me it is ironic that his passenger pigeon painting shows a Disney-like image of the two birds, male and female, gently, lovingly, exchanging food. His image of the Eskimo curlew, another species abundant in Audubon's time, but exterminated by market hunting (the last of the species probably died out in the 1960s) shows one bird seeming to be mourning his or her bloodstained fallen mate.
2. One of my most cherished possessions is a small book called Wildlife in Color, sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1951. It was given to me for Christmas in 1955, and years later it was signed by the author, "To Barry, With best wishes & my admiration for your fine work, Roger Tory Peterson." Arguably no American has had a more powerful influence on the North American public's interest in wildlife than the late Roger Tory Peterson, whose tireless efforts provided generations of us with an ability to identify living animals and plants in the field, and to learn about them. Through his paintings (he was a fellow bird-painter, which is why I knew him), his photographs, his writing, his lectures, his nature tours, and especially his field guides, which he wrote, illustrated and/or edited, he did so much. And the little book I so cherished was a compilation of images -- miniature paintings, of a preceding generation of wildlife or nature artists that were commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation. The National Wildlife Federation made those images so widely available, thus not only promoting the careers of the likes of Peterson, Walter A. Weber, Lynn Bogue Hunt, Francis Lee Jaques, and others, it provided means for overall enhancement of nature appreciation.