Environmentalists, mainly of the weekend-hiker variety, assume that the only way to save declining species is to “protect” them: ban hunting, put them on endangered-species lists, and otherwise restrict contact between the animal world and the human. Sportsmen have long believed that the best way to save declining species is to kill them: Allowing wild animals to be harvested for food and sport imparts clear value to the species and incentivizes sportsmen to do the hard work of protecting them and their habitat.
The connection between hunting and conservation in the United States goes back at least to the early 20th century. The American Fisheries Society, for example, notes that sportsmen’s organizations such as the Izaak Walton League were instrumental in saving a declining black-bass population after a 1925 report warned that the species would vanish if no action were taken. Anglers partnered with legislators to impose federal restrictions on transporting bass across state lines (they used to be fished for food, believe it or not), and state wildlife agencies worked to conserve and stock the popular game species at the behest of sportsmen. Today, bass fisheries churn out millions of smallmouth, largemouth, and other types of bass each year.
This conservation model has a time-tested track record, but a new study published in Science offers significant evidence that game species stand a much better chance of survival than their non-game counterparts. The top-line results of the study don’t look promising: According to researchers at Cornell University, since the 1970s the North American bird population has declined by 3 billion birds, or 30 percent. Media reports (rightly) have focused on the “staggering” losses, as the study’s first author, Ken Rosenberg, described them in Science.
There is a silver lining, however. Even as species such as sparrows, blackbirds, larks, and finches have sharply declined, the populations of game species including turkeys, grouse, ducks, and geese have grown over the same time period. Conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited know that waterfowl populations are healthy. That’s not news. But the fact that these populations have remained stable while other species have taken catastrophic losses testifies to the work of hunters and hunting-related conservation organizations in the United States.
Rosenberg agrees. “Waterfowl are without question the biggest success story, and we highlight that in the paper, and I do in all my talks,” he tells me. “It was the hunters who noticed the declines in waterfowl population in the mid 20th century and did something about it. Policies were put in place and billions of dollars raised by Ducks Unlimited. There was a very targeted effort to manage and protect wetlands, restore wetlands, and restore waterfowl populations to have healthy populations for hunting.”
Mike Brasher, a waterfowl specialist for Ducks Unlimited, explained that the success of game species can be attributed, in part, to their vocal, persistent constituency. “Certainly, the fact that those species are hunted gives them a very involved constituency that has a strong connection to that resource,” he tells me. “When the waterfowl migration is less than the hunters would like to see, they ring the phone off the hook of their biologists and their legislators.”
The numbers testify to the effectiveness of such (nearly literal) grassroots lobbying. According to Rosenberg’s study, while sparrows, blackbirds, and finches have declined by between 30 and 50 percent, the turkey and grouse population is up over 20 percent and the ducks and geese have risen by over 50 percent.
‘Never That Simple’
As with anything in the natural world, the full truth is complicated. All the biologists and other scientists I spoke with riffed on this theme, and it’s important to note that myriad actors contribute to a species’ success.
“It’s never one factor that’s driving a decline or a rebound,” Brasher says. He points out, for example, that geese adapt readily to urban and agricultural environments, as anyone can testify who’s been chased off his neighborhood pond by a patrol of Canada geese. Much of the increase in the goose population has been driven by a few specific subspecies that thrive in corn and rice fields, according to Brasher.
Mark Hatfield, director of conservation services for the National Wild Turkey Federation, also noted that game species tend to be adaptive by definition — humans hunt the kinds of animals that exist reliably in large numbers. “Game species are typically fairly adaptive. They have a wide geographic range, and they thrive with disturbance and management of habitat,” Hatfield tells me. “One could argue that the reason they are game species is that they are very adaptable. So, we find those species, make them into game, and then figure out how to manage them.”
Still, it’s clear that the efforts of hunters have contributed directly to the health of many game species, and waterfowl are the foremost among them. “The populations of the most abundant species of waterfowl have remained very healthy despite the wetland drainage that continues to occur along with the conversion of native grasses,” Brasher says. “That’s where we start to see the value of all the conservation action through the sustained effort of conservation organizations and conservation supporters — and at the core of those supporters are hunters across the U.S. and Canada.”
Scientists often point to the northern bobwhite as an exception to hunters’ conservation success, but, in this case, it’s an exception that proves the rule. Commonly hunted in the eastern United States, the northern-bobwhite population experienced a massive, 85 percent decline between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The efforts of hunters haven’t been enough to slow the decline, and in many places there are no longer enough northern bobwhites to hunt.
Despite this failure, the northern-bobwhite decline counters the idea that game species are inherently adaptable. Without sufficient intervention from constituencies that love and respect the species, game animals can fall prey to the habitat loss that has decimated most of the bird species that Rosenberg and his colleagues studied.
A Recipe for Success
Rosenberg names several factors, including pesticides, that may have contributed to the overall decline in the North American bird population. Habitat loss is likely the biggest culprit. He notes that while bird loss is occurring on many different landscapes, those associated with agriculture appear to have been the hardest hit.
“It wasn’t too long ago that there were lots of grassy margins and hedgerows and messiness out there,” he says. “Agricultural areas were full of birds. In the last two decades that’s really changed with the horizon-to-horizon corn and other crops. This clean, intense agriculture has no room for wildlife.”
And hunters shouldn’t assume their favorite species are exempt. Hatfield identifies lack of habitat management in an increasingly urban society as the greatest threat to the wild-turkey populations in the U.S. “As we have become more urban, we have lost the connection to rural lands and a land ethic,” he says. “That lack of management will influence wild-turkey populations across the country.” Prescribed burning, for example, is an effective way to manage timber on large properties, but landowners are often reluctant to utilize it for fear of angering their suburban neighbors, more of whom are now much closer than in generations past.
Historically, this is where Ducks Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and a host of similar organizations have proven their worth. Working with state and federal wildlife agencies, these conservation groups use the millions of dollars they raise each year to preserve, manage, and reclaim habitat for wildlife populations from coast to coast.
When I asked for specific examples from Ducks Unlimited, organization reps sent dozens of email attachments highlighting individual projects. Last year, for example, the group partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to transform a 60-acre ditched and drained agricultural field into a “high-functioning habitat for birds.” The field is in Maryland’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, which provides 28,000 acres of critical habitat for migrating birds. Ducks Unlimited stepped in because, like many coastal wetlands, the refuge is at risk of being lost to rising sea levels.
Same story at the National Wild Turkey Federation. Through partnerships with hunters, as well as with state and national agencies, the NWTF has organized individual conservation projects to increase the turkey population from 1.3 million in the 1970s to 4.5 million in 2014. The NWTF has conserved 20 million acres of land for turkey habitat since tracking began in 1984. (Ducks Unlimited has conserved 14 million acres since 1937.)
None of the scientists I spoke with suggested that the solution to the dwindling non-game bird population is to declare open season on sparrows and blackbirds. Still, Rosenberg expressed interest in replicating the strategies of hunting-related organizations to help preserve non-game species.
That starts with the grassroots: individuals on the ground working to spend time and money to preserve and maintain habitat. Rosenberg’s team at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology published an article detailing seven simple actions people can take to help preserve the bird population, including making windows safer, keeping cats indoors, and buying coffee from bird-friendly farms.
“It seems trivial, but it’s not. If we can increase the market for these products, we can make a difference,” Rosenberg says.
On a policy level, Rosenberg hopes bird enthusiasts can follow the lead of hunters and encourage lawmakers to impose robust protections on the wildlife they love. “Just the same way the hunters fought for policies like the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, we need equivalent policies that can provide the resources for agencies to manage land,” he says.
While game species will suffer from the same habitat threats that are impacting the larger bird population, the winning recipe for hunters is simple: keep doing what you’re doing. Both Brasher and Hatfield agree that in the conservation eco-system, hunters are the primary producers. Between duck stamps, excise taxes on hunting equipment, private donations, and grassroots advocacy, hunters have fueled our nation’s most successful conservation efforts for nearly 100 years.
“Hunters are the base of the food chain, the most important part of what we do,” Brasher concludes. “They’re the fuel that runs the engine.”