Where I come from, in small-town Minnesota, sportsmanship isn’t just a casual pastime — it’s a way of life.
My family, and the others that make up our rural community, has a special affinity for the land that surrounds us. When we weren’t exploring national parks, we spent my childhood summers on the lake. As the summer months slipped into autumn, my sister and I bundled up to join our dad in his deer stand for the long-awaited hunting season.
Waking up before dawn, driving the hour or so out to my grandpa’s farm, and delicately walking into the woods with leaves crunching beneath our feet always felt special. Once in the stand, we sat and appreciated the life around us. Waiting for a shot took time. For hours, we watched as the woods came alive to the west, and the sun rose over the field to the east.
Many people have misconceptions about hunting. Hunters are oftentimes vilified, with the skewed perception that they want to take more than nature can give; that they don’t respect the land or the wildlife; and that they kill simply for the fun of it.
I know this to not be the case. The truth is that hunters are some of the best advocates for our natural world. Indeed, they consistently fund conservation efforts, keep animal populations healthy, and pass on traditions conducive to and necessary for a healthy ecosystem. What hunters take from nature is far outweighed by what they consistently give back.
Before I was ever allowed near the stand, my dad taught me everything I needed to know. Once I passed my firearms-safety class, my dad and I spent long days target practicing to prove I was up to the task of a clean shot. Over and over he stressed the importance of this — nothing I shot at should suffer. Hunting was never about killing for sport, it was about keeping wildlife in our area thriving. We held a deep respect for the woods and knew we were playing our part to conserve it.
In Minnesota and many other states, various species suffer from overpopulation. The problem is most acute among deer. In such instances, hunting is beneficial for population management. By adhering to hunting quotas, sportsmen help control populations which could otherwise harm their ecosystems if left unchecked. When overpopulation occurs, wildlife is faced with challenges such as starvation, disease, and territorial disputes. In the brutally cold Minnesota winters, an insufficient food supply means slow, inevitable death from starvation — a cruel fate.
In addition to herd management, though, hunters and other sportsmen pay licensing fees. These fees go directly into conservation programs that keep our nation’s natural places beautiful and healthy. Licensing fees, habitat stamps, and taxes on equipment all serve this purpose.
Hunting is an activity often passed down through generations, as it was with my dad and me. But recently, there has been a decline in sportsmanship around the country. In 2016, a U.S. Fishing and Wildlife survey showed that the percentage of Americans who hunt had dropped 3 percentage points from 1991 to 2016. This is not only bad news for the outdoor recreation industry, but also for conservation efforts. Without revenue from licensing and other fees, conservation funds dwindle. Small businesses that rely on equipment sales for hunting excursions fall into the red. In extreme cases, animal populations become too large for their habitats.
For too long, we’ve perpetuated a false narrative about hunters’ motives and contributions — a myth that has likely played a role in the decline of hunting. Moreover, it’s high time we push back on these faulty assumptions. Being a sportsman doesn’t mean taking all nature can give, but participating in the delicate balance needed for ecosystems to thrive. We need passionate hunters not only to continue funding conservation and local economies, but for their deep-rooted heritage of conservation.
Hunting cannot be an activity of the past. Now that deer season has begun in some parts of the country, we must stand up and advocate for this deeply American pastime. We must emphasize that hunters are a key component of our nation’s tradition of conservation, and combat harmful caricatures that paint sportsmen as an enemy of the environment. Sportsmen themselves have become a part of their ecosystems, and without them, our natural world loses its balance.