Conservatives who don’t hunt, especially those who live in urban America, often give me the same reaction when they find out that I not only hunt but have hunted all over the world and also write for hunting magazines. Their eyes search me for a moment before they smile and maybe nod. Just like that, they seem to have decided there’s a slight flaw in my character that they’re willing to pardon.
They might then tell me that their uncle or someone else they have vague memories of always enjoyed my particular transgression, so they understand. If I want to kill animals for fun, then that’s okay with them.
“You eat the meat, right?” they’ll often ask as they search for ethical common ground to justify my pastime — they eat meat, after all.
“Of course,” I’ll say, while thinking they don’t understand, not a damn bit.
I could tell them that hunters pay for much of the conservation that occurs in America, because hunters pay Pittman-Robertson taxes when they buy guns and ammunition. Congress passed the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act in 1937 to place a 10 percent tax on handguns, an 11 percent tax on other firearms and ammunition, and an 11 percent tax on bows and related equipment. The revenue raised from this tax is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which keeps around 1 percent for administrative fees. The rest is apportioned to the states according to a formula. The formula is based on the area of the state (50 percent) and the number of paid hunting-license holders there (50 percent). Also, no state may receive more than 5 percent, or less than one-half of 1 percent, of the total apportionment. Last year about $800 million was raised from these taxes and distributed to the states. Another $350 million was raised from similar taxes on fishing equipment.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for firearms manufacturers, estimates that, on a daily basis, about $3.5 million from these taxes and license fees goes to wildlife-conservation efforts. There are 15 to 20 million hunters and more than 100 million gun owners in the U.S., so hunters pay just a slice of the total. Regardless, this means that every time you hear a gunshot, it’s as if a cash register is ringing ka-ching for conservation.
Meanwhile, state game departments use hunters to control wildlife populations. Wildlife biologists do their part by setting seasons and bag limits. This keeps our roads safer. Right now, even with American hunters harvesting between 4 million and 6 million whitetail deer each year, an estimated 1.5 million car–deer collisions occur annually in the U.S., costing an estimated $1 billion and killing about 200 people.
By controlling deer populations, hunters are also making sure that habitats don’t get over-browsed. This benefits many other wildlife species, including non-game species.
Our unique system of game management, called the “North American Model of Wildlife Conservation,” has produced astounding benefits. For example, every big-game species in the U.S. has actually increased in number after a hunting season was placed on it. This has occurred because hunters are a constituency lobbying for the flourishing of each game animal. Just go to the public-comment session of any state wildlife agency, and you’ll see a lot of passionate people in orange hats and camo jackets advocating policies that preserve wildlife.
Some have criticized this system of game management by saying that hunters actually want too many deer and ducks and so on. At times, that has been the case, but not often. Aggressive doe-management policies, for example, were once resisted by hunters who were afraid they would destroy deer populations. Many of the deer hunters who felt that way had simply grown up at a time when whitetail-deer populations were coming back from near extinction. Today, the vast majority of deer hunters believe in utilizing doe tags when needed to control deer populations. (Tags are limited, and one tag equals the right to harvest one female deer or a male without antlers.) In any case, in the democratic process, agricultural and other interests keep a check on the possibility of overhunting. The process varies by state, but there are often boards representing various interests that advise on wildlife policy.
Typically, hunters don’t want wildlife populations to exceed the carrying capacity of the land. If there are too many deer, then the deer will eat away the vegetation. When this happens, bucks lack the nutrition required to grow large antlers. To make sure managed deer herds have enough to eat, many deer hunters now plant crops — “food plots” — for deer. They also fertilize trees such as oaks that produce heavy yields of deer-attracting fruits and nuts, and they put out mineral supplements for deer. Hunters have also created organizations such as the Quality Deer Management Association to study the science of wildlife management.
Now, although hunters are proud of these things, the financial and conservation side effects of hunting aren’t the primary reason that millions of Americans hunt. They’re also not the first or even second reason that conservatives who don’t hunt should support hunting.
Hunters often go into the woods after game to take part in a family ritual that brings generations together. They then enjoy the meat together at the table. People also hunt because it is a thrilling and challenging experience that allows them to be a part of the wild (as a predator is). People hunt for other reasons as well, such as the desire to obtain truly free-range, hormone-free meat.
One main reason conservatives should support hunting is that hunters and their associations act as a counterbalance to far-left environmentalism. Not all hunters vote Republican (many Democratic-voting union members hunt), but most hunters tend to be conservative on environmental issues. Hunters don’t share today’s preservationist belief that humans can only harm nature; those who hunt tend to understand that we are part of the ecosystems we live in, so forest and game management aren’t off-limits, though we must take a responsible and scientific approach to them. This is why the environmental Left fears and fights local sportsmen’s groups all the time. It’s why environmentalists don’t like to admit that hunters are some of wildlife’s greatest advocates.
Just look at the League of Conservation Voters’ “National Environmental Scorecard”: The “issue categories” by which the group ranks politicians include “climate change,” “clean energy,” “drilling,” and “wildlife . . . including the Endangered Species Act,” but “hunting” appears nowhere on the list. Moreover, the candidates who receive the organization’s highest grades are Democrats who often fail to support hunting.
In its reflexive opposition to hunting, the environmental Left is actually anti-environment.
Consider hunting leases to see how the hunting economy benefits wildlife and the environment. In the South and Midwest, it’s common for farmers and ranchers to lease land access to hunters. This creates a substantial economic incentive for farmers and ranchers to have healthy wildlife populations on their lands. Without this money, deer, elk, rabbits, quail, bears, and other species would be mainly a financial liability to farmers and ranchers. Because hunters pay to hunt this wildlife, farmers and ranchers are much less likely to clear-cut woodlots and other habitat that wild animals need to survive; they’re also less apt to overuse depredation permits to seriously reduce deer populations.
Another reason everyone should support regulated hunting is that farmers — and small organic farmers most of all — must control wildlife populations. If they don’t, before long they’ll just be raising crops to feed wildlife. People who are used to getting their vegetables from the produce aisle can find this reality hard to accept.
A few years back, I attended a dinner party at a restaurant and found myself seated across the table from a woman who amiably introduced herself as an attorney and asked what I did.
“I write about hunting and other issues,” I said.
As she speared a baby carrot with her fork, she looked me in the eye and said, “Well, I’m a vegan. I’m above all that killing.”
I thought, Well, she started it, and asked, “Do all of your vegetables come from no-animal-killing farms?”
“What are those?” she asked, with her fork hovering in front of her lips.
“You look for the label that says ‘No-Animal-Killing Farm Participant’ when you purchase vegetables, don’t you?”
“Um, no.” She put her fork down.
“You’d better ask the waiter if this restaurant’s vegetables come from a USDA-certified no-animal-killing farm.”
The waiter wandered by moments later and she asked, “Excuse me, I’d like to know if your produce comes from no-animal-killing farms.”
“Uh, I’ll have to check.”
He was back with a worried look. “I’m sorry, but the cooks haven’t heard of that designation. I’m sure the vegetables are safe. We get them from organic farms. They come in fresh every day.”
She looked morosely at her salad, but then saw me smirking.
“There’s no such thing,” I said.
She started to get up. I stopped her by saying, “I’ve hunted on farms all over America, and the farmers are always appreciative.”
“They all have produce to defend. I haven’t met a farmer yet who doesn’t kill geese, rabbits, or deer to preserve his livelihood.”
“And your point is?”
“Every cabbage or carrot you eat was raised by farmers who kill wildlife so you’ll have veggies to eat. It’s only natural. Defending a food source is part of living in this world.”
To her credit, she said, “Well, I suppose that’s true.”
Why people hunt can be a complicated thing. And no, the Second Amendment wasn’t written and ratified to protect hunting. The U.S. Bill of Rights is meant to prevent the government from infringing on the freedoms with which we’re born. Hunting is just one thing that millions of Americans use their Second Amendment freedom to enjoy. But what hunting does for us, for wildlife, and for the environment is indisputable. Being pro-environment means being pro-hunting.