Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In Defense of Hunting

At his good blog Sometimes Far Afield, Mike writes a post on the benefits of hunting, especially those we must articulate to others (in the vast majority) who do not hunt.

He opens by responding to another blogger, who takes a civil libertarian tack in his reasoning on the issue: ("...hunting has, for many people, a psychological value that is important to their well-being. Also, the protection of the right to hunt, more specifically the choice about whether to participate in hunting or not to participate, is often equally important to the non-hunter as a guarantee of the recognition of fundamental rights which therefore provides them with a sense of well-being.") I take this to mean, "Don't tread on me; I won't tread on you."

While in agreement, Mike suggests that we employ a more utilitarian approach that leans on economic considerations and benefits to wildlife populations and land conservation afforded by hunting as a legal activity.

Economic arguments have been a powerful political tool for sportsman. One of the most compelling examples I can think of was the CCA (then the GCCA) campaign to stop the commercial fishing of redfish in Texas. The heart of their argument were economic analyses showing that while a fish caught commercially by net or trot-line resulted in only a few dollars brought to the state and local economies, that same fish was worth several times that if caught by a sport fisherman. With a limited and public resource, the highest, best, use of that resource was the one that brought the most dollars, argued the conservationists. The argument, while far from applicable to every situation, worked and similar arguments can make our case for us many times.

And...later, after bringing in a good Leopold quote on the positive aspects of the profit motive in land restoration:

"Pretty" and "healthy ecosystem" aren't always the same thing. However, hunting can be a valuable means of developing that practical and aesthetic ideal for land of which Leopold wrote. Hunters require good prey populations and enough room to pursue that prey. In other words, decent and plentiful habitat. Much as I appreciate the contributions of time, money and voice by "non-consumptive" users of land and wildlife, I fear that for many of them any little remnant is adequate. They can be content to travel to Matagorda Island to see the whooping cranes, or to see a bit of preserved native prairie and the birds it hosts. If there some parks, a suburban hiking trail or three that will accommodate mountain bikes and hikers that offers a pleasant view, and nothing charismatic is going extinct they're pretty happy, it seems to me. However, to hunt we require more. More space. Healthy populations of game- which themselves require diverse and healthy ecosystems to exist for any length of time.
In comments I took my familiar, touchy-feely position that there is something magical about hunting.

Hunting, now that I do it, is like hearing or seeing: it's a sense of my environment that is impossible to experience without the necessary organ. It is the difference between viewing a photo of a house and living inside one. Or the difference between a piece of sheet music and a night at the opera.
While utilitarian arguments are good and probably necessary, there will always be a chasm of understanding between the hunter and non-hunter; essentially, if you don't hunt, you don't get it. Continuing my comments:

I think your approach is probably smarter in the real world. Absent any shared frame of reference, we've got to make arguments that have a chance of being understood. Economics, land conservation and wildlife management all find real-world benefits from hunting.

Yet I see utilitarian arguments in support of hunting as similar to utilitarian arguments in support of religious belief. They can be right, as far as they go. But considering the distances involved, they don't go very far.

If we take an empirical approach to the value of hunting, we necessarily reduce it. And by doing so we leave it vulnerable to counter-arguments that provide the same or comparable benefits (to local economies, wildlife, land protection, etc) that do NOT rely on hunting.

But for the hunter, there is no substitute for hunting.

We must at some point be willing to claim its value is intangible, even unknowable to those who don't share it. In this, hunters are like other communities of faith, having to rely on protections afforded us by political principles and constitutional rights.

Or, if it comes to it, by taking significant personal risks to continue the pursuits we've come to value and believe in, even if they offend the general sensibility.

I don't think it will come to that. But I think keeping it at bay will require we keep ALL our arguments (utilitarian and values-based) well practiced and ready.

The discussion reminds me of the exchange between some of us (Mike and myself included) and the writer Julie Zickefoose, which for those who can get it, became an article ("Love and Death Among the Cranes") in the latest issue of Birder Watcher's Digest. In her piece, Julie makes the case that while she regrets the fact of crane hunting, she concedes that bird watchers have little ethical ground to defend without putting up comparable dollars for conservation as are given by hunting permit fees.

That's the crux. With an argument in support of hunting reduced to dollar amounts, we risk being out competed by groups far larger than ourselves, the members of which, should they throw in a few pennies each, would quickly sweep our legs from under us.

Somehow, the defense of hunting must include the experience of hunting.


PBurns said...

Yes, we need to talk about hunting as hunting. Good point! It's hard to communicate emotional content to the non-hunting public however, which tends to be both flinty-economic and overly romantic and sentimental about life in the woods. Most folks have never thought about how animals die without hunting, which I really think needs to make its way into the "why we hunt" literature.

On economics ... Hunting has two economic engines and a litte-talked about benefit.

The obvious economic engine, of course, is the money spent by hunters on travel, magazines, guns, dogs, licenses, etc., but there is also the costs NOT spent on paying for the state to eradicate deer (and other nuisance wildlife such as geese) if there was no hunting. That cost here is NOT zero; it's about $200 a head (or more) for deer in places where sharpshooters are paid to reduce herd populations.

As for the third rarely talked about economic benefit of hunting, that can be found in the millions of acres of Pittman-Robertson land which has been paid for by taxes on hunting equipment under the Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937. Most folks in the U.S. live within an easy drive of Pittman-Robertson land, and that land is there for wildlife 320 days a year (it's there for hunters about 45 days a year).

Finally, there are the political beenfits TO LAND AND WILDLIFE from hunting.

The very best hunters do something VERY important that no one else does quite as well: they speak for open space and habitat preservation. Yes, it can be argued that granola-eating Sierra Clubbers do the same thing (I love them for showing up), but I have been in the trenches working on the largest public lands protection effort ever done in this country, and I can tell you that one backwoods bear hunter testifying for roadless forest or BLM lands protection is worth 2,000 kids in tie-dye T-shirts sending in postcards from college.

Where hunters fall down (and let's admit that, as a group, we do) is that we do not stand up for the forest, fields, and hedges enough. The NRA is NOT THERE in most land protection initiatives, and the hunting press is mostly pimping for equipment makers or filling their pages with stories suggesting the woods are full of dangerous creatures that will kill us if we are not careful. A case in point is the often-nonsense filled book entitled "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Hunting." See >> for my review of that one.

Excellent post. Querencia remains the "best of the best" in the blogosphere!

Matt Mullenix said...

Patrick thanks for your great input and nice compliment!

mdmnm said...


Thanks for the link and shout-out!

I'm going to be lazy and copy my last response to you from over at SFA-

Hey Matt,

Thanks for the thoughtful comments and discussion.
In your first comment you note "Hunting, now that I do it, is like hearing or seeing: it's a sense of my environment that is impossible to experience without the necessary organ."
A while back I tried to express what I see as basically the same thought: "Further, there is no time when I feel so comfortable, so in a given moment or place, as when I'm hunting."

As you note
"If we take an empirical approach to the value of hunting....we leave it vulnerable to counter-arguments that provide the same or comparable benefits (to local economies, wildlife, land protection, etc) that do NOT rely on hunting."

However, because hunting cannot be reduced from its intangibles for many of us, we make better (as seen by our economic and political commitments and, especially, the results on the ground) advocates for wildlife and habitat. No one else provides those same benefits, although they might some day. Of course, this also creates a call to action for all hunters. If you love it, if it is really important to you, you better do more than buy a license. At a minimum, pick two or three hunting organizations like DU or the Elk Foundation and join them. I'd say join a specifically hunter-based group rather than a more general one (such as the Nature Conservancy) because you'll be doing a couple of bits of good at once.

Continuing to pick little pieces of what you wrote, I quote from your last comment: "In this, hunters are like other communities of faith, having to rely on protections afforded us by political principles and constitutional rights."
Aye, and there's the rub. As someone who's read a bit of Constitutional stuff and observed with interest the Heller decision and legal battles over the Second Amendment, I doubt even the inclusion of a right to hunt in the Bill of Rights would provide much protection. Political principles might be better, but I think that protection of the folkways of a small minority stand little chance, especially given another committed minority (thinking of animal rights types) who make a fervent case that we do harm and a center majority who have no real feeling for what we're doing, whether speaking of the feeling we get from hunting or the fact of killing an animal, right there in your hand. Hence mustering every argument and, for me, focusing a bit more on economics or history of conservation efforts.

I think we're pretty simpatico on the subject and really appreciate you taking the time to write about it, as I appreciate all the other commentors' thoughts.

Matt Mullenix said...

HI Mike: I agree we aren't on opposing sides here. I just get frustrated by the whole notion of having to "justify" hunting to those who don't. I realize, living in society and discussing public resources, we need to be able to do so. It just grates.

mdmnm said...

Yeah, I understand the grating part.

The subject came up with me in part because of conversations I've been having with a new hunter who works in a field where the activity is a bit more unusual than it might be in others (starts with an "A", ends in "emia").

When we were talking about reactions to hunting, I explained that I just don't mention it much, outside of a few friends and family. Saying "I hunt" can be a pretty good conversation killer, anyway. Nonetheless, I try to keep my justifications in a row in the event of further discussion.

Mike Spies said...

Hunting as a civil right is an interesting tack. Certainly the NRA does not represent hunters - they represent gun owners - quite a different thing.

The hook and bullet press generally addresses the lowest common denominator and takes their cue from the semi-hysterical messages of the NRA.

I have found that most of the non-hunting population (especially people over 40) is more or less neutral on the subject, but can be swayed by stupid and thoughtless acts by hunters' or, conversely, by acts that can be viewed as positive.

The view of hunting - both pro and con - is influenced by the personal interests and world view of the individual. Are 'dog people' generally more pro or con? Are non-consumptive users of the resource more pro or con? Likely it is up to us.

I also find it interesting that France hunting is largely regarded as an acceptable 'right' and is also viewed as a component of the food culture. This idea has a lot of possibilities.

Perhaps there are hunters that do not conform to the popular media view of hunters as politically reactionary troglodytes. If we do not speak about this publicly, if we fail to express the positive aspects of hunting, if we thrice deny that we embrace blood sports, perhaps we do not deserve to hunt.

Perhaps we need a better PR firm. I recall Tom McGuane's piece, "The Heart of the Game", in the premier issue of Outside Magazine that rather eloquently dovetailed hunting into the Western rural world view. That magazine would never publish that piece today, would they?

Yes, I am a hunter. Ask me about it.

Matt Mullenix said...

Mike (NM): Saying "I hunt" here in Baton Rouge doesn't cause much of a stink. But I find that further explanation ("I'm a falconer") makes most folks scratch their heads: "That's hunting?"

But taking the issue a step further, into food, puts the conversation back on track. In Louisiana (I think uniquely for the South), men don't just grill, they also cook. There are a number of creole and cajun dishes, gumbo being one, that many men prepare regularly. Making part of my explanation of falconry a step in a rabbit gumbo brings nods of understanding.

One of the great things about Louisiana is that it still has a viable food culture. Miek Spies' comment about France rings a bell here, not only for the French cultural history of La., but for the possibility of making hunting "about food" more generally and elsewhere in the country. That was clearly Pollan's aim in Omnivore's Dilemma, and I think it's a rich vein.

When hunting is about food, you can plausibly include all the meat eaters into the conversation. Maybe the vegetarians, too, considering the land use angle. This brings to mind Steve's essays Private Reconcilliation Chile and Struck With Consequence, two of my favorites.

Anonymous said...


Your comments about Louisiana and masculine food culture are right on point.

Years ago there was a sitcom about a man who returned to Louisiana to run his families New Orleans neighborhood restaurant.

The cook (not chef) got into a dispute as to the ingredents with a cook in another restaurant.

To resolve the dispute they held a charity boxing match. In the course of beating the loser to a pulp, the winner shouted "I told you my roux was the best".

Macho chefs, only in Louisiana

Russ London

Matt Mullenix said...

Russ I met Chef Folse last night at Bowie Outfitters and bought his Encyclopedia of Cajun and Creole Cuisine. It's a TOME.

Folse was in cammo. :-)

Steve Bodio said...

His book I have, After the Hunt, features his collection of old double guns-- and Matt with a Harris (;-)

The chef is on the cover with a dead alligator. The book weighs about as much as Ataika.

Matt Mullenix said...

Steve you're right--the second book is as big as the first, and he is planning a third volume on local fishing and seafood recipes. When he's done, he will have almost singlehandedly documented the entire food culture of Louisiana...

Having a place in "After The Hunt" makes me tremendously proud, and I was happy for the chance to tell him so in person.