Do you know what scares an American outdoorsman more than a grizzly bear? Twitter.
In the late summer and early autumn, the hunting world had its eyes on the courts: The Trump administration had issued new guidance that would permit the hunting of brown bears (popularly known as grizzly bears), including in the areas around Yellowstone National Park. A lawsuit supported by animal-rights activists and anti-hunting ideologues was under way to prevent the planned hunt. As the proposed hunting season neared, it was unclear whether anybody would actually be permitted to shoot a brown bear, or whether a judge would put a stop to the hunt.
Sports Afield, the venerable outdoors magazine, went to press with the question unresolved, but issued a remarkable plea to its readers: If, by chance, one of them should have the chance to act on one of the handful of brown-bear licenses that had been issued, and if that hunter should be successful — then, for the sake of the hunting community, please don’t say anything about it on social media, and please, please don’t post any pictures.
Other similar warnings from other hunting advocates have become commonplace — not just in regard to the controversial prospect of grizzly hunting but for hunting in general. “We need to be very, very careful and intentional about what we post and what are in those posts,” Adam Janke, the editor of the Journal of Mountain Hunting, told CBC News’s Karen McColl. “The problem is the damage some hunting photos — particularly those featuring a dead animal front and center — can do to the public’s perception of hunting,” McColl wrote.
The problem with that line of argument is that dead animals are necessarily front-and-center when it comes to hunting. That is, ultimately, what hunting is about — and hunters should not apologize for that. Hunting is one of the most ancient of organized human undertakings: Hunting, and not that other thing, may very well be the world’s oldest profession. And whether one thinks of it as sport or ritual — or simply as gathering protein — it is part of an honorable tradition, and a pursuit that can be, at its best, profound.
We live in an antiseptic world, and there is no cure for that quite like gutting a Texas feral hog or roasting a pheasant you shot yourself. And there probably is no single activity that measures the width of the cultural chasm between coastal, urban, progressive America and interior, rural, traditional America. Hunting means guns and blood and non-ironically worn camouflage pants — often worn by the church-going, heterosexual white men who give the willies to the likes of Joan Walsh, author of What’s the Matter with White People?
(About that: Walsh hails from Wisconsin, one of the whitest states in the Union, where she attended school in an almost exclusively white suburb just north of Milwaukee, America’s most segregated city — none of which seems to have tamped down her squishy progressive sanctimony. Joan Walsh is what’s the matter with white people.)
Rural white guys are out of fashion just now. It’s hard to blame hunters for being concerned about the optics — not the kind made by Leupold, but the kind the politicians are always going on about. It’s easy to caricature hunters as bloody-minded Elmer Fudds, and there are those who want to drive them underground. Perhaps one day they’ll be forced to obliquely refer to one another as “Friends of Elmer” the way members of Alcoholics Anonymous call themselves “Friends of Bill” and gay men used to call themselves “Friends of Dorothy.” That lawsuit was after all successful and, for the moment, brown-bear hunting remains restricted to Alaska, with its abundant population of Ursus arctos.
The recovery of the brown-bear population in the lower 48 is a great conservation success story, but, as with the case of wolves in the West, it is not a success story without trade-offs. As the bear population has grown, so have confrontations between bears and people, as well as bear attacks on livestock. Several brown bears have been killed in self-defense by hunters and game wardens, and some problem animals have been hunted down after repeated attacks on livestock. In 2018, even grizzly bears are subject to the rules of etiquette, which they violate at their peril.
The Yellowstone brown-bear population is especially prone to aggressive interactions with humans, something toward which brown bears in general are not typically inclined. There are a couple of explanations for that: One is that because of the unique concentration of edible wildlife in the park, Yellowstone-area bears have a much more meat-intensive diet, which naturally brings them into contact with hunters (bears are happy to steal a kill) and ranchers. Another is that the local bears, unlike their cousins in less-traveled areas, simply spend more time around humans, and are less startled by them.
Both of those factors point to something that often is misunderstood about Yellowstone: Like many of our other national parks, it is a wonderful place to experience things that you won’t see in Chicago, but it is not the natural world. It probably is one of the most unnatural environments in the United States, an inevitable consequence of the very conservation efforts that make Yellowstone the splendid place it is. Those who take a romantic attitude toward Yellowstone and the surrounding area should give a little more thought to the actual history of the place. A pristine environment free of man’s interference? You might want to ask the Absaroka people whether they think that’s always been the case. Tradition — very likely a self-serving tradition — holds that the area that became the park itself was not inhabited because the Absaroka feared the evil spirit who lived among the geysers and hot springs. But the greater area was far from a pristine and inhabited wilderness — we made it that way, or at least made it a facsimile of that.
Parks such as Yellowstone and the wildlife areas around them require management, and the proposed hunt was to be carefully limited by the state authorities. A handful of bears would have been taken, with 13 hunters having been issued licenses: Wyoming would have permitted the harvest of a total of nine boars or one sow in the Yellowstone and Grand Teton areas along with twelve more bears in the rest of the state; Idaho would have permitted the taking of a single bear. There are about 1,500 brown bears in the United States outside of Alaska. The proposed very limited hunt was eminently reasonable.
Parts of our West are still pretty wild, and the people who live in and love those places are keenly aware of the duties of stewardship. We want those places to be full of wolves and bears, pronghorn, aoudad, mule deer, and the rest. The people of Moffat County, Colo., sometimes joke that their population is about 60,000 — 50,000 of which are elk. Colorado has about 280,000 of them. On the other side of the country, Maine issues 10,000 hunting permits for black bears every year, and the population continues to grow. (Three-fourths of the hunters going after black bears in Maine go home empty-handed; bear hunting isn’t easy.) Nevada’s desert bighorn sheep population continues to grow, with conservation efforts funded in part by the very expensive ($1,200) tags required to hunt them. Even the bison — our great tragedy of the commons — is making a comeback. Ted Turner may have some pretty dumb political views, but give the man credit for putting his money where his mouth is on that one.
The question about hunting is not whether we can responsibly integrate it into our stewardship of natural resources. People have been doing that for a very long time. The objections to hunting have very little to do with conservation, and, outside of a few animal-rights fanatics, the objections aren’t really moral, either: They’re aesthetic. It’s not so much that the busybodies don’t like hunting as that they don’t like hunters and the mode of life commonly (if not necessarily accurately) associated with them in the insular urban imagination. It is very much of a piece with the strange fact that practically all of the gun-control lobby’s efforts are directed at licensed firearms dealers and the people who do business with them — one of the least criminal demographics in the United States. It’s not about the what, but the who.
And if hunters are going to defend themselves in the theater of political ideas, then they will have to begin by developing the moral confidence to say plainly and directly — even on Twitter — that they have no reason to apologize for what they do or for who they are. In that, they are not alone.