Sunday, November 18, 2007

The hunter conundrum

When the number of hunters in a forest decreases, is it good or bad for the animals living therein? In the United States, the answer may not be what it seems. A recent drop in interest in recreational hunting is actually leading to concern in wildlife and conservation circles about its detrimental effect on wildlife.

Let us start from the beginning. Hunting has traditionally been a widely embraced recreational activity in the US; I quote from a report 'Economic Importance of Hunting in America':
Like baseball and apple pie, hunting is an American tradition shared by young and old, rich and poor, regardless of social or economic status. Hunting...knows no geographic or congressional boundaries. Its history and heritage crosses all racial and ethnic boundaries.
This report comes from the AFWA, a cheerleader for the hunting industry, which explains the gooey adulatory tone. There is, nevertheless, some truth in the claim about the popularity of hunting in the country. This popularity brings political reckoning - hunting is as much a poster-child for gun-friendly conservatism, as abortions are for pro-choice liberalism. The Economist noted in a recent article:
Hunters, who are mostly male and often from rural areas, have also been a potent and conservative political force, and the core of the National Rifle Association (NRA)...their status (is that of) one of the Republican Party's most dependable battalions...
Hunters are as much an economic force as a political one. According to one estimate, game seekers spent $75 billion over the past year, which is more than 1/2 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. This includes money spent on purchases of hunting hardware to fees paid for game licenses. Many hunters are associated with hunting clubs or associations which spend large sums of money directly on programs for conservation of habitat ('conservation' being the cheeky term they use for the activity of managing wildlife numbers plentiful enough to sustain continued hunting) or indirectly through political lobbying.

It is this political and economic clout of the hunting community that makes it an important player when it comes to conservation of wildlife and open spaces. All hunters pay for a hunting license from states, and this money is funneled back into upkeep of the states' forests and wildlife habitat. For instance, in the state of Wyoming, as in other states, licence fees comprise 90% of the Fish and Game Department's $50m budget, which pays for scores of wildlife biologists and game wardens. Hunting retailers also chip in - if you buy a hunting jacket or shoes at a big sports chain, there is some chance that a portion of the proceeds will go towards conservation programs.

Thus the concern for wildlife as hunters decline in number. Recent years have seen a drastic decrease in the size of the hunting community. There were 14.1 million hunters in 1991, 13 million in 2001, and 12.5 million in 2006. The National Geographic quips:
The great irony is that many species might not survive at all were it not for hunters trying to kill them.
Let me end with an personal anecdote to press home this irony:

One of the clients of the company I work for is a rich and powerful nationwide organization that promotes the interests of duck hunters. One day, I gave our office secretary a report to be mailed to this particular client. The front page of the report had the client's logo, a duck. The secretary, who happened to be a temp filling in for a regular employee, looked at the logo and crooned: "Aww, are we helping these people save the little duckies?". I didn't want to break her heart, but the truth had to be told. I cleared my throat: "No, actually we help them protect wetland habitats so they can kill more ducks". She stopped what she was doing and gave me a look that was somewhere between "WTF!" and "WTF!!!". Then she looked away and never spoke to me again (as if it was ME killing the little duckies). To this day, I don't know if she mailed my report or put it through the shredder.

Moral of the story: Never break your secretary's heart.

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