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The Fallacy of Sport Hunting

Every year, hunters kill more than 130 million animals in the United States. Except for a few aboriginal cultures that still hunt for food, most hunters in the U.S. hunt for "recreation" -- for the apparent pleasure of stalking and killing. Sport hunters kill animals for trophies in the form of pelts, heads, antlers, and other body parts. Commonly hunted species include deer, bears, mountain lions, wolves, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, badgers, skunks, boar, moose, pronghorn antelopes, bobcats, ducks, turkeys, woodcocks, mourning doves, geese, grouse, swans, rabbits, hares, and squirrels. Below are some of the myths and common arguments used to justify sport hunting.

Myth: Americans consider sport hunting to be an acceptable "use" of wildlife.

A growing number of Americans believe sport hunting is unethical, wasteful, and unnecessary. When the Press asked in a December 1985 poll, "Do you think there are circumstances where it is perfectly O.K. to hunt an animal for sport?", 51% responded that it was always wrong. In a 1994 statewide poll, 73% of Arizona voters said they disapproved of hunting animals for recreational reasons.

The success of recent hunting-related state ballot initiatives across the country also highlights the growing opposition to unethical hunting practices. Since 1990, voters in six states have banned bear-baiting; the use of hounds to hunt bears, cougars, and lynxes; hunting wolves from airplanes; and spring bear hunts. These successes demonstrate that Americans clearly and resoundingly oppose cruel and unethical hunting practices.

Myth: Hunting is an increasingly popular "sport."

Despite claims made by hunting proponents that sport hunting is a popular, widely accepted traditional American pastime, the number of hunters in the U.S. has declined over the past 20 years. In 1996, only 5.1% of Americans purchased hunting licenses, compared to 7.4% in 1991 and 9.9% in 1975, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In response to declining hunter numbers and growing opposition to sport hunting, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife agencies have joined with private pro-hunting organizations to try and boost hunter numbers. To improve the public image of hunting, wildlife managers refer to hunting as "regulated" as opposed to "sport," "trophy," or "recreational." Additionally, hunters downplay their desire for a big rack (antlers) and emphasize the "need" for meat to feed their families, and state wildlife agencies actively recruit women and children to increase hunter license sales.

Studies have shown that if a young person has not started hunting before age 18, it is unlikely they will ever hunt. With that in mind, the $21-billion-a-year hunting industry works with state wildlife agencies to recruit young men and women before they graduate from high school. A 1995 Fund for Animals survey revealed that three out of four states offered "hunter education" classes in public schools. These classes, which teach children how to kill animals in the name of so-called "sport," are often funded by the very state agencies mandated to conserve and protect our wildlife. Funding also comes from hunting groups such as the National Rifle Association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Safari Club International, and Ducks Unlimited. On the federal level, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has joined state wildlife agencies to sponsor regular Youth Hunts and "Becoming an Outdoors Woman" programs across the nation. Moreover, such programs work directly against efforts to decrease youth violence by desensitizing children to animal suffering, and by extolling killing as entertainment.

Myth: Hunting provides a primary source of food.

A popular argument made by sport hunting groups is that hunters "live by their wits" and put food on the table through hard work, skill, and intelligence. A very small percentage of indigenous and rural hunters do kill animals as their main source of food. However, the vast majority of hunters do not. Licensed hunters spend $1.8 billion on hunting-related equipment in the U.S. and it is estimated that after license fees, equipment, and travel expenses, it costs an average of $20 per pound for a deer hunter to put venison on the table.

Most hunting today is done for "recreational" purposes -- for the pure pleasure of pursuing and killing an animal. Hunters generally target trophy animals; i.e. those with the largest racks (antlers), the biggest horns, etc. Often the prized parts are removed, while the rest of the body is left to rot in the field.

Myth: Hunting involves fair chase.

Hunters often claim that hunting is a sport involving fair chase. However, a fair sport involves two individuals on equal grounds who have a mutual agreement to engage in the activity. It is hard to argue that an animal pursued by a hunter riding a snowmobile or off-road vehicle and equipped with high-powered firearms and electronic calling devices is on equal footing. Moreover, since hunting involves deliberate death, no mutual consent, and no outside judges, hunting can never be considered a "sport."

Here are just a few of the devices and particularly unethical practices employed by hunters today:

Predator Calling: Electronic calling devices, which emulate distress calls of predator young, are used by many hunters to lure foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and wolves into point-blank range. With such devices, hunters can literally wait for their prey to appear, and simply blast away when the distressed and confused animal comes into view.

Hounding: Radio-collared hounds are used to track and tree black bears, cougars, raccoons, foxes, lynx, bobcats, and other animals. Using a portable receiver, the hunter can determine when the pursued animal is trapped in a tree and ready to be shot at point-blank range. Hounded animals are sometimes maimed by the hounds during the pursuit.

Baiting: The practice of bear and deer "baiting" -- where hunters bait at specific sites and await their quarry with readied guns -- is considered to be one of the most unethical hunting practices allowed in the U.S. today. Although baiting is still allowed in many areas of the country, a number of states have banned this practice through legislation or citizen initiatives.

Bowhunting: Bowhunting (the use of bows and arrows) causes more injuries to wildlife than any other hunting practice. Scientific studies indicate that for every animal killed and retrieved by a bowhunter, another is left to die a slow and painful death from wounds.1

When educated about such unethical hunting practices, few Americans believe the claim that hunting involves "subsistence survival skills," "intelligence," and a "fair chase." The facts disprove such arguments.

Myth: Hunting is a necessary management tool that controls "surplus" animals and prevents overpopulation and starvation.

State wildlife agencies often argue that our cities and rural lands would be overrun with wild animals if hunting were disallowed. However, the biological truth is that animals regulate their own populations, based upon available food and habitat. In nature, unaltered by humans, there is no such thing as a "surplus" animal.

It is indisputable that humans have not only disrupted ecosystems across the globe, but have also altered the natural controls that maintain wildlife populations. Sometimes this disruption is a result of development or human encroachment into wildlife habitat. Other times, the alteration is more deliberate, as when state wildlife agencies kill predators in an attempt to boost the numbers of "game" species for hunters.

One example of mismanagement is the manipulation of white-tailed deer populations. Hunters most often seek out the largest buck (male deer) with the biggest rack, though many hunters shoot the first deer they see. This practice weakens the gene pool by removing the healthiest animals from the population and skewing the population's sex ratio, leaving more does (female deer) to reproduce. Natural predators are opportunistic hunters and usually take the youngest, weakest and/or sickest animals, keeping the deer population healthy and balanced. The practice of hunting more bucks than does increases the number of deer available to hunters. Our state and federal wildlife agencies purport they aim to maintain healthy deer populations and to reduce deer overpopulation. If this were true they would direct hunters to seek out and shoot the weakest does.

Myth: Sport hunting of predators is needed to protect the public.

Some state wildlife agencies promote trophy hunting of mountain lions and bears on the grounds that such culling is necessary to prevent overpopulation of these species and thereby minimize interactions with people. Yet sport hunting does not result in an overall population decrease, as demonstrated by an eight-year study of mountain lions in Canada. The mountain lion population recovered from hunting and stabilized at an optimum density for its habitat range. The researchers argued further population growth would likely be curtailed at a level regulated "by social interactions and/or prey densities," not by hunting.2 In another study, an area in Utah was closed to mountain lion hunting for 9 years while researchers monitored the mountain lion population. During the same period, despite heavy hunting, the deer population increased, yet the number of resident adult mountain lions "generally remained stable through this period." The increases in the deer herds did not appear to affect the number of adult mountain lions significantly.3

Myth: State wildlife agencies work to protect wildlife and their habitats.

Though our state wildlife agencies are mandated to protect wildlife and their habitats, their policies and regulations generally reflect a different agenda. The active promotion of sport hunting and the perpetuation of "game species" over the interests of non-hunters and "non-game species" clearly indicates whose interests these agencies serve. Most state wildlife agencies are monitored by a non-elected commission (or council or board) whose members are usually appointed by the state governor. These commissions, vested with ultimate authority over wildlife management, are often comprised of hunters and trappers eager to ensure the perpetuation of their "sports."

Instead of protecting wildlife and their habitats, these hunter-dominated commissions manage and manipulate wildlife populations to provide ample targets for hunters and trappers. Predators such as foxes, coyotes, and wolves are frequently killed so that more game animals, such as moose, deer, caribou, and birds, are available for hunters. The results of such mismanagement of wildlife can be disastrous, causing irreparable damage to the balance of local ecosystems.

As more and more people see through the "we have to shoot them or they'll overpopulate and starve to death" smokescreen perpetuated by many wildlife agencies, an increasingly vocal and informed public will challenge these policies at the ballot box, in the courtroom, and in the legislature.

Myth: Hunters pay for wildlife conservation through fees and taxes on guns, so it's their right to control wildlife management policies.

There is no refuting that wildlife management in our country is controlled primarily by "consumptive wildlife interests" -- those who view wildlife as a resource to be "stocked," "harvested," and "managed." "Non-consumptive wildlife users" -- those who enjoy viewing, photographing, and observing wildlife in nature -- have had very little say in policies and regulations concerning our nation's wildlife and their habitats.

One reason for this disparity is the source of funding for state wildlife agency budgets. In 1937, Congress passed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (formally called the Pittman-Robertson Act) to help finance state wildlife agencies by establishing an excise tax on guns, ammunition, and fishing gear. These funds are then distributed to state wildlife agencies based upon the state's land area and the number of hunters in the state. The more hunting licenses sold, the more funds a state receives from this act. States therefore have an incentive to cater to hunters over non-consumptive wildlife users because they will receive a larger slice of the federal funding pie.

The "we pay for wildlife conservation" argument made by hunters is refuted by the fact that the majority of gun purchasers do not hunt. Of the 60 million gun owners in the U.S., only a quarter of these are hunters, and yet every gun owner must pay the congressionally mandated excise tax when they purchase a gun that then goes to help fund state hunting education programs. Consequently, gun owners who do not hunt are unknowingly supporting and perpetuating hunting and the mismanagement of our nation's wildlife.

Hunters are not the only source of funding for state wildlife agency budgets. Many states receive funding from the Endangered Species Act, from state general funds, penalties paid by poachers, the sale of environmental license plates, and from voluntary contributions made by individuals through income tax check-offs and similar voluntary contribution programs. Moreover, while the funds generated from gun and ammunition taxes have purchased ~10 million acres of land, over 600 million acres have been funded by general tax dollars. Many of these taxpayer-funded lands, including our National Wildlife Refuges, are open to hunters, thereby subsidizing their activities.

Non-consumptive wildlife users do contribute to wildlife conservation, but have been given little opportunity to increase funding of non-game programs and have been essentially excluded from state wildlife management decision-making.


What to Do

Wildlife advocates must work to change the focus of our wildlife management agencies and their funding sources. Only then will the interests of non-game wildlife and non-consumptive users be equitably represented within state wildlife agencies.

Some inroads have been made, as evidenced by the recent passage of legislation and state initiatives banning unethical wildlife management practices. In November 1996, five states banned or maintained bans on bear baiting, bear and cougar hounding, hunting wolves from airplanes, and/or trapping of wildlife. Increased public participation and public outcry against the mismanagement of wildlife and misuse of public funds will lead to changes in the system and force wildlife agencies to carry out their mandate of humane stewardship and true wildlife protection.

For more information about hunting and wildlife management in the United States, please visit the Wildlife Page or contact API.


For additional reading on hunting, API recommends the following books:

Baker, Ron. The American Hunting Myth. New York: Vantage Press, 1985.

Cartmill, Matt. A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature Through History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Livingston, John A. The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation. Toronto: McClelland & Steward, 1981.

Mighetto, Lisa. Wild Animals and American Environmental Ethics. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1991.

Petersen, David. A Hunter's Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sports. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996.

Reisner, Marc P. Game Wars: The Undercover Pursuit of Wildlife Poachers. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

Count: The Death Toll in America's War on Wildlife. New York: The Fund for Animals, January 2000.

Numbers of Birds and Other Animals Killed by Hunters Each Season

Each year hunters kill more than 100 million animals. The following statistics are selected species from state wildlife agency reports from the 1996/97 hunting season (courtesy of the Fund for Animals). These figures do not include the hundreds of thousands animals killed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Wildlife Services" agency each year.
Bear 24,465
Cranes 12,628
Deer 6,084,531
Doves 35,000,000
Ducks 16,569,100
Geese 3,134,100
Grouse/Quail/Partridges 12,209,159
Pheasants 6,861,987
Rabbits 12,873,454
Raccoons 3,518,888
Squirrels 26,655,926
Swans 1,463
Turkeys 615,548

Notes:

1. Benke, Adrian. The Bowhunting Alternative. San Antonio: B. Todd Press, 1989.

2. P. Ian Ross & Martin G. Jalkotzy. "Characteristics of a Hunted Population of Mountain Lions in Southwestern Alberta." Journal of Wildlife Management, Volume 56 (1992), No. 3.

3. Frederick G. Lindzey, et al. "Mountain Lion Population Dynamics in Southern Utah." Journal of Wildlife Management, Volume 58 (1994), No. 4.

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