As fall has fully fallen, Carolyn and my favorite season has arrived–hunting season. Right now, she is back where she grew up, hunting pheasants with her family. I’m here in Tyndall on call, patching up hunting dogs that forgot what a barbed wire fence was. One of us obviously drew the short straw.
A few in this audience may wonder why two people that spend so much time trying to keep animals healthy would find hunting animals to be a great pastime. Actually, by hunting animals for sport, we are keeping wildlife populations healthy. While this logic may seem counter-intuitive, let me explain how managed sport hunting has not only saved several species from extinction, but promoted thriving populations of these species.
When hunting is maligned in the history books, it is not sport hunting being referred to. Rather they refer to commercial hunting, where the animals are hunted to sell the meat, hides, antlers and other parts on the market. This is what was done to the Great Plains bison in the mid to late 1800s.
Sport hunting is hunting regulated by an entity that allows for the taking of a limited number of wildlife for personal use. For most big game species, this is one or two animals per person per year. For small game, fish and birds, there is a limit of a certain number that can be harvested per person. The emphasis for commercial hunting is quantity of animals, while with sport hunting the emphasis is quality of the animal. That’s why commercial hunting is banned for game species in North America, because we sport hunters don’t want some jerk coming along and killing all the good trophies out there.
This change from commercial hunting to sport hunting occurred when wildlife populations reached critical low numbers near the start of the 20th century. For example, Arkansas had only 500 deer left in the whole state in the 1920s. Lead by a number of dedicated hunters, organizations such as the Boone and Crockett Club pushed for changes such as regulated hunting and the national parks system. Management decisions were made through science-based decisions, not emotion.
A key part of the success of these initiatives were that hunters and landowners were given a stake in the decision making process. Hunters financed the changes through self-imposed taxes, such as the Pittman-Robertson tax, and licensing fees. Landowners, who own the vast majority of habitat for many game species, created situations that allowed for them to continue to utilize the land for agriculture while preserving wildlife habitat. The results were profound. Don’t believe me? Well Arkansas, that has went from the nearly non-existent 500 whitetail deer in the 20s to a population of over 1 million today!
These efforts continue. The taxes and permits still pay for wildlife research and habitat restoration. Farmers and ranchers continue to create habitat for new species of concern, such as the sage grouse and the lesser prairie chicken. The North American model for wildlife conservation has become the model for wildlife conservation around the world, and is showing success in Africa with species such as the Southern White Rhinoceros. And all these efforts affect more than game species, as the habitat restoration and research increased the populations of nongame species as well.
While there are other ways to protect wildlife, the North American model of sport hunting is the best. If you think that’s a bold statement, consider that the EPA has only a 2% success rate at delisting endangered species. If I had to choose between the two to rehabilitate my favorite animal species, it sounds like the choice is fairly obvious.