Ever wonder why hunters and environmentalists don’t break more bread, or even ribs, together? The two groups could be powerful allies given their overlapping interests in conserving the wildlife and wilderness that they both love for different reasons. But too often these groups distance their identities and desires from one another. They portray the other as ignorant and irrational, as either a tribe of blood-thirsty super-hicks or of glassy-eyed tree-huggers. Why don’t wee see more mutual political and ecological agreement? Seen through the lens of the other, either group appears a hardened sub-group of a liberal or conservative agenda. But these groups share more similarities than one might think. They blend at the margins.
In a recent piece in Earth Island Journal, author James Card traces the divergent history of hunters and environmentalists. Card describes how a once harmonious marriage, which oversaw the creation of our first National Parks and environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, fractured in the 1960s.
There isn’t any single reason why hunters and environmentalists diverged; several factors were at play. The movement of people into the cities, which led to a decline of hunters, was one. The rise of a distinct animal rights movement within the broader environmental movement was another. The specialization of environmentalism into sub-issues not immediately related to wilderness protection – urban ecology, anti-whaling campaigns, climate change mitigation – exacerbated the split.
At the same time, I think, hunting has changed, fractured into its own sub-causes. Although hunting technology hasn’t transformed to the same devastating effect as has commercial or sport fishing tech, the gear changes throughout the seventies and eighties made hunting a lot easier to parody as anti-environmental. ATVs and sniper rifles replaced long walks and bows. Some modern hunters argue that high-powered rifles are cleaner and less harmful than cross bows. This may be. But the way we have militarized and enabled the killing of majestic beasts cheapens what many authors have regarded as a reverential and spiritual act. Something seems wrong about an out-of-shape human being able to fell a two-ton animal from over a thousand yards while munching a snickers and without breaking a sweat. Not all hunters support this form of the sport. Different breeds of purists exist.
I am not a hunter. So I will probably never know the reverence or purity involved in a kill until I try it. Undoubtedly, there is some deep and prehistoric humanity involved in killing your own dinner. I believe those many manly authors who have written so passionately about it. More than these authors though, I believe in Michael Pollan’s depiction of the two-faced nature of hunting, as an experience that brings him both joy and shame. In a New York Times magazine piece, which also serves as a central chapter to Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan gets to the heart of the way “hunting is one of those experiences that appear utterly different from the inside than the outside.” Pollan admits his aversion to “hunter porn.” “I never could stomach,” he writes, “the straight-faced reveling in primitivism, the barely concealed bloodlust, the whole macho conceit that the most authentic encounter with nature is the one that comes through the sight of a gun and ends with a large mammal dead on the ground — a killing that we are given to believe constitutes a gesture of respect.” But, trying hunting for the first time, Pollan also swoons at the ways it heightens senses of both humanity and nature. Hunting blurs distinctions between beast and man. The whole ritual – killing, disemboweling, preparing, and eating – he concludes, “reminds us of the true cost of our food, and that, no matter what we eat, we eat by the grace not of industry but of nature.”
Other hunter-authors corroborate this idea. And it is here, in recognizing the true cost of what we eat, that environmentalists and hunters find some common ground for empathy and compromise, for protecting public land and biological diversity. In his article, Card highlights the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Act, also known as the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, as one that has clearly benefited both parties through the years. The law requires money generated from taxes on firearms, ammunition, and hunting licenses to be used for wildlife restoration and conservation projects. The law has helped raise over 12 billion dollars since its inception. Fishing licenses serve the same purpose. Paying for a privilege promotes stewardship, in attitude and in acres. Also, many environmental groups recognize that hunters serve as ecological allies when it comes to culling species, usually invasive or predator-less ones, whose unregulated growth can harm biological diversity.
Because of much of the above, Card argues that the division between hunters and environmentalists is “artificial.” He writes:
Despite the stereotypes, there is a quiet tolerance and respect for each other that bridges the tired biases and offers an opportunity to work together. Some groups that have been labeled as anti-hunting have always been neutral on the subject. Audubon has never been against hunting in general, though some local chapters oppose hunting certain types of birds. The Sierra Club created the Sierra Sportsmen Network to harness the passion of hunters and anglers. The Nature Conservancy, a powerhouse protector of wild lands, “does not take a formal position either for or against hunting or fishing” and allows hunting and fishing on some of its properties.
His point is a good one. There are many ecology-minded hunters and hunting-minded ecologists. Recognizing this on both sides could open more space for agreement, for hand-holding across the right and left of our current political divide.
Nevertheless, stark differences remain between these two groups. They are differences born of geography, culture, and politics. Mostly, though, the differences stem from a stubborn adherence to principles rather than conflicting opinion about what is good for public land and animals. Namely, some environmentalists cling to animal rights while a large chunk of hunters cling to the Second Amendment like a child to a favorite toy. Two powerful organizations – PETA and the NRA – stand as figureheads for these principles. They are emblematic of what may be a permanent and principled disconnect between some hunters and some environmentalists.
One of these groups is narrower in its political scope, and is currently doing more harm to our public and environmental health because of it. In fighting tooth and nail for second amendment rights, the NRA has a history of blocking any attempt by federal agencies or law to curb gun rights or hunting practices, even those attempts that serve in hunters’ best interests. This past summer, for example, the NRA tried to block a proposed regulation on lead used in ammunition and fishing tackle. The Center for Biologic Diversity (CBD) estimates that hunters shoot about 3,000 tons of the toxic metal into the environment every year. Shooting ranges dump another 80,000 tons onto lands while lost fishing lures sink 4,000 tons into lakes and streams. The CBD estimates that this toxic load kills up to 20 million birds and mammals every year in the U.S.. Recent studies have also shown that residual lead in hunted meat poses a greater threat to consumers than we once believed. What makes the NRA’s filibustering even more despicable is the fact that nontoxic alternatives exist to lead rifle bullets and shotgun pellets.
Many hunters and hunting groups recognize the NRA’s folly. But they need to be more vocal about their disagreement. They need to rattle the NRA’s cage and shake free those ecological hunters who can get over the false idea that any EPA regulation is bad for them or their hobby. Maybe some environmentalists can make similar concessions, as Card suggests, by leaning on science, rather than on emotion, to determine the appropriateness of hunting a particular species.
More powerful cross-group agreement would undoubtedly improve the environmental and public health of hunting practices. Finding issues to bond over erodes the stereotypes hunters and environmentalists have of one other. But how many of these stereotypes can fall away when an organization like the NRA remains one of the most prominent pro-hunting organizations in this country and lords over much of the sport’s conversation? Maybe I’m an ignorant non-hunter, but the NRA seems to influence hunting rhetoric and politics much more than PETA does environmentalist thought. Although hunters don’t stand as one stolid group with one voice, they are less politically spread-out than environmentalists; they have fewer wars to wage, and fewer voices to pay attention to. For hunters to move away from one of these voices, a shadowy one that argues for second amendment freedom above all else and regardless of collateral damage to environmental and public health, would do a lot to repair the split between two old friends.
– Cyrus Philbrick