There’s a strange irony where, at a time when Americans are more aware than ever of the need to combat climate change and protect the environment, the number of hunters in the country has plummeted. To non-hunters that doesn’t sound like a problem—even if you have no moral objections to hunting, shooting fewer animals sounds like it must be good for the environment, right?
But money spent by hunters (and fishers) on license fees, gun taxes, and other essentials of the craft go into the country’s wildlife conservation system. In a typical state, wildlife agencies receive around 60% of their funding from the expenses of hunters and fishers. Other outdoor activities, like hiking and birdwatching, are great for spreading awareness, but there are no taxes on binoculars and goofy hats. Hunting is where the money is, and that money is used to provide educational services, study wildlife and climate, protect endangered species, and combat poaching, trafficking, and other crimes against animals. It’s a symbiotic relationship; hunters can’t hunt without a sustainable wildlife population, so they put money into a system dedicated to protecting America’s natural resources for generations to come.
No one hates the environment. According to a Pew study, three-quarters of Americans are concerned about the state of the environment and believe that the country should do “whatever it takes” to protect it. If there’s someone out there snarling about how we need fewer trees and less cute deer, they’re probably the villain in a bad movie. But indifference can be just as dangerous as the fictional CEO who wants to pave over a forest to build a pollution factory, and it’s a lot easier to say that you want to protect the environment than it is to change your lifestyle or agree to a new tax. The money has to come from somewhere, and hunting is a way for the people who get the most out of the environment to give the most back to it.
And the environment is something that needs to be given back to. We tend to think of the environment as something that just sort of magically hums along on its own. Surely all of the plants and animals will be fine if humanity steps back. But, historically, humanity has not stepped back. If you look at the days before hunting had government oversight, the passenger pigeon were driven to extinction while bison and other animals were pushed to severe endangerment. This was done by people who had zero interest in preservation, and who would infamously shoot bison from railcars and leave the carcases to rot. They weren’t being callous—they just didn’t know any better. The establishment of licenses and regulations meant that hunting would become tied to conservation by people who did know better, and to hunt meant to be seriously invested in the health of American wildlife. Responsible hunters stepped in to help build a sustainable system that persists today.
Now, times have changed enough that we don’t have to worry about hordes of people hitching a ride into the wilderness for some casual slaughter. But the environment is threatened by pollution, human encroachment, climate change, natural disasters, and even itself. Biodomes are complicated, sensitive things, and it’s hard to explain to a population of deer that if they have too many kids they’ll find themselves with a shortage of food in a few years. That’s an actual concern in certain parts of the country—deer only eat certain kinds of plants, and too many deer means those plant populations will drop. Then creatures that rely on those plants, like songbirds, will see their populations plummets, and the whole environment cascades into a series of potentially devastating changes. It’s like a Jenga tower—once the pieces are rearranged enough the whole system collapses. And there are a lot of pieces at play.
Hunters are people who volunteer their money and spare time to sit in the woods and mountains. They help collect information on animal populations, they spot trends in tree growth, they notice signs of illegal activity. And they’re not out there shooting animals all willy-nilly like in that ignored arcade game at your local bar—there are strict rules on when animals can be hunted, and how many can be harvested when they’re in season. Deer, for example, need to be carefully maintained at a population where they’re thriving but not overwhelming an entire forest.
Conservation efforts are at an important crossroads. With fewer people hunting, less money is entering the system, and governments have been forced to make cuts and explore alternate fundraising methods, like general sales taxes or monetising previously free outdoor activities. In some states, like Wisconsin, there’s overwhelming public support for government conservation funding, but other states are struggling to find the money that they need. A thriving, responsible hunting community can help bridge that gap.
There are some great success stories—once struggling elk populations have been revitalised in five states thanks to hunting-fuelled conservation efforts. In Michigan, the elk restoration effort began in 1918, and only by 1984 were elk populations stable enough to allow hunters to harvest elk in extremely limited quantities. That’s the kind of long-term thinking that hunting endorses. The goal isn’t just to keep animal populations sustainable from year to year, but from generation to generation. American wildlife deserves the right to be perpetually free from human interference and illegal activity, and whether you hunt, hike, or just like to sit at home and look at pretty wilderness pictures, we can agree that that’s a goal worth pursuing. Hunters are happy to do their part to support the system—and to help stop those who would abuse it.