This coming October I will celebrate 40 years with Bowhunter magazine. What a great ride that has been. Indeed, the very first issue of Bowhunter was published in October 1971, and I had a Woods and Wildlife column in there that ran for several years. That was followed by my Know Hunting column that still appears.
In 1971, the ‘anti-hunting movement’ was just a speck in the sky. But it was an ominous speck. As I look back, I remember fellow wildlife biologists, folks who were interested in this anti-hunting movement, telling me that it wasn’t the antis that would bring hunting down. It was hunter behavior and/or the loss of places to hunt. Back then I agreed with the fact that poor hunter behavior would hurt hunting, and I knew that we’d continue to lose private hunting lands. Indeed both of these have been factors in the loss of hunting.
But I also felt that anti-hunters would find lots of money and cause real problems, and that has proven to be true. Look at all the money state and federal wildlife agencies have had to spend to thwart law suits against hunting. Hundreds of millions of dollars (if not billions) have gone to keep hunting seasons in place and get others started where needed (e.g. black bear management hunts in New Jersey and Maryland).
Then there are the funds now used to educate non hunters on issues that antis raise. Urban deer hunts come to mind as a prime example of the misinformation that antis feed the press. (And they happily gobble it up). Every time an urban bowhunt is needed, our state agencies have to spend money sending spokesman to public meetings to answer questions about non hunting options that just do not work. Trap and transplant, chemosterilants, and a myriad of other ‘solutions’ that antis believe are possible. Maybe they read it on an anti website. Maybe they heard it from other animal rightists. Regardless, they believe these things will solve urban deer problems without having to kill any deer. Even though they do not work, they make the news, and non hunters, for example, start to think it is possible to sterilize deer at no cost. This leads to huge delays, court battles, and the resource suffers.
Back in 1971 I’m not sure I’d even heard of animal rights. Who would have believed that so many citizens would be duped into believing that animals should have the same rights as humans? Who would have believed that so many millions of young people would become vegetarians because they believe that in so doing, they are not responsible for the death of animals? In 1971 we didn’t give all that much thought to what it meant for kids to grow up in an urban environment where there was literally no exposure to nature except what they see on television.
Back in 1971 how many of us saw the coming of an age when almost all children spend 4-6 hours a day either watching television, playing video games, or talking on cell phones? Be honest. What happened to those long walks in the woods? What happened to reading? They are almost gone. Not for everyone, but for most young people, the wilds and woods are scary places.
In 1976 I started teaching wildlife students at West Virginia University, the first course in the country on wildlife and fisheries policy and administration. We made it a requirement in 1978, and today it is required in every wildlife curriculum in the United States. I’m proud that we did that, but that isn’t my point.
My point is that the science of wildlife management has changed tremendously over the past 40 years. There were literally no attorneys working for state wildlife agencies 40 years ago. Today, you have to have them and wildlife biologists, managers, and conservation officers, need to know legal issues as much as they need to know biological issues. That speaks volumes about the impacts of antis and animal rightists on wildlife management and hunting. It speaks volumes about the new issues that wildlife agencies face. Sure, wildlife managers still age deer jaws, but they spend much more time working on strategic planning that makes sure they meet all the legal requirements of the Endangered Species Act, and a myriad of other laws related to wildlife and the environment. Simple question. Will wildlife employees have to do more or less of that in the future? Easy answer.
I think that animal rightists and antihunters have hurt hunting, habitat and wildlife more than many wildlife biologists and managers believe. For example. Early succession is extremely important wildlife habitat in forested areas. In fact, in forests of our country, from a wildlife perspective, early succession is the most important habitat. Old growth is important, but overall, it is not as important as early succession. Now, how do you get early successional areas? Fire creates some. Cutting timber creates the most. But, just ask any state or federal wildlife biologist how hard it is to cut timber on public lands today? And how hard is it to convince private landowners who want to see more wildlife to cut timber today? The term ‘timber cutting’ just scares the average citizen to death. Just mentioning cutting timber gives some folks the impression that we’re creating a moonscape. I’m not saying all proposed timber cuts are needed. I am saying that small clear cuts that benefit many species of mammals, birds, amphibians, etc., are being stopped because of people who oppose any cutting at all and this is an offshoot of the whole anti philosophy. It also happens because people live in big cities and have no exposure to wild nature.
What does the next forty years hold for hunting? That’s a good question and a scary one at that. First, if you bowhunt close to your home, there will still be places for you to hunt. It might be a bit harder to find them and get on that land, but via friends at work, in church, etc., you should be OK. For those who go out of state and hunt states where you have to draw permits, prices will not go down. Such permits will continue to increase as long as the demand is there. Guided hunts have dropped a bit in this economy, and such decreases may continue for a few years. But in the long haul, guided hunts out West will continue to increase. It’s called supply and demand.
Access to public lands will remain, but in the big deer states, pressure on those public lands will remain high. Yes, more and more hunters will lease private lands to deer hunt, and this is indicative of the plain and simple fact that hunting will cost more and more money.
Finally, hunter numbers will not increase. We’ve got lots of different programs to try and get more young people into hunting, and some are working. A good example is the National Archery in the Schools Program. In these last two years there is an indication that hunter numbers are stable so maybe these programs are the answer. However, over the long haul, it does appear that hunter numbers will continue to decrease. Part of this is because people live in big cities. Part of this is because state wildlife agencies have to spend money on educating the nonhunting public to offset the anti stuff that the news media love to print. Part of this is because we’ve lost the small game hunters. And part of this is because young people have so many other things grabbing their time.
I wish I could be more optimistic about our future, but that’s harder to do than it was 40 years ago. We’re not going to lose all of hunting, but it is changing. So bring some peace to your mind and soul. Get into a tree stand as often as possible and I promise to be more optimistic next month.