The elk, the wolf, and the hunter—Exploring the turbulent juncture between hunting and conservation

As far as we’re aware, no one’s ever been quoted saying conservation is an easy science. But in the United States balancing the needs of these ecosystem’s two top types of hunter—humans and freshly rehabilitated or reintroduced native predators—is an ethical minefield.

Alongside the usual uncertainties that arise when working with living things, are the cultural, moral, and ultimately philosophical considerations that help guide conservation. And though humans have only been actively managing species and natural spaces in the sake of their protection for the past few hundreds years or so, as we continue our dominance of the globe preconceived notions of how our species is meant to fit into the world around us are being questioned. And nowhere is this debate more advanced than in the U.S., a country long cited as a leader in conservation thanks to their extensive national parks system.

America’s amazing herd, pack, and solo-hunting species, many of which were once on the brink of extinction, are making a healthy comeback in much of their historic home ranges. But as they do, issues that haven’t been discussed in decades are again becoming relevant, like whether or not hunting of now stable populations should be allowed or quotas increased.

While these may sound like counterintuitive questions to some wildlife lovers, in a nation built around a sense of rugged independence, where hunters played an arguably major role in the foundation and maybe most importantly, continual funding, of the country’s parks and protected spaces, they take on much more complicated nuances. Love Nature caught up with authorities on both sides of the debate to get a deeper sense of the issue and the complications that come from trying to balance human needs and desires with conservation.

Pondering the role of the hunter in conservation

The breadth of wildlife and wild places Americans enjoy today only began being formally protected and managed a century or so ago. Revolutionary thinkers like John Muir (father of the National Parks System and co-founder of The Sierra Club), Theodore Roosevelt (who created five national parks, 18 national monuments, 51 federal bird sanctuaries and four game reserves) and Aldo Leopold, (nature philosopher, author, chief forester), saw the damage done by centuries of land alteration and hunting and set out to do something about it before it was too late.

‘They saw that if we didn’t set management plans in stone for wild species we stand to lose everything, largely at our own hands, and that was simply unacceptable.’

These men were an odd mix admittedly—from avid hunters to those who outright opposed to the act—but somehow this group managed to collaboratively found and propagate what has since been called America’s greatest idea. And given the range of conservation and animals rights groups operating today in the country, it’s clear the same range of conservation motivations are still more or less at play. Pro-hunting conservation societies and NGOs are abundant and well respected—think Ducks Unlimited and even The National Audubon Society. So too are anti-hunting wildlife and animal groups, most vocally The Humane Society.

David Allen, President and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a conservation group founded in 1984 by four hunters and still comprised almost entirely of such sportspersons with 500 chapters across the country, explains luckily for everyone involved these celebrated leaders recognised the sad state all wildlife, from the big game species to birds, plants, and insects, were in. More than this, he claims, they recognised this sorry affair was a result of human action.

‘They saw that if we didn’t set management plans in stone for wild species we stand to lose everything, largely at our own hands, and that was simply unacceptable,’ says Allen. ‘This is where the roots of the North American Model of Conservation began to form and it is by employing this method that today we arguably have the most conservation success of anywhere in the world.’

And there’s evidence to back up these victory claims…to an extent. Of course more species continue to be added to the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, thereby qualifying them for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Climate change and habitat destruction are threats that have only intensified in recent years.

But some 63 once critically imperiled species have actually been delisted, removed from the protective list by its federal gatekeepers—the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service—having met predetermined recovery goals. A 2012 assessment found 90 percent of ESA listed species were recovering as expected, some even bouncing back far quicker than anticipated.

And there’s a whole slew of game species that had already recovered before the ESA was ever dreamed up. The country’s many hunting-conservation groups were involved in forms of conservation as early as 1912, likely before, relocating elk to bolster and reintroduce herds in several states.

A wapiti bull male. Photo by Rostislav Stach / Shutterstock
A wapiti bull male. Photo by Rostislav Stach / Shutterstock

North American elk, or wapiti, may look like moose but they’re actually giant members of the red deer, family, Cervus elaphus. Though under the same pressures as other North American species, elk herds retreated into harsh terrain, retaining around a tenth of their traditional numbers. Once hunters, gamers, and eventually the federal government got involved in their recovery, the number of elk roaming the continent jumped from around 50,000 to today’s reported 1 million. Of the six historically documented elk species four are still intact, the Manitoban, Roosevelt, Tule and Rocky Mountain, the latter making up 90 percent of the total population.

According to Allen and groups like RMEF, which claim hunting is conservation, elk got this early special attention, and were very likely saved from the worst of population losses, because of the hunting community’s relationship with the species.

‘It’s not just elk the hunters and sportsmen and women of America wound up protecting, white tailed deer, wild turkeys, pronghorns, many species of duck—they were all nearly gone when groups in the spirit of RMEF stepped up to the plate,’ says Allen.

Most recovered critters are getting quite the homecoming in their native ranges, but there’s a few species that still, rather sadly, can’t quite find a place in the modern landscape. And it’s in this discrepancy that the underlining debate between pro and anti hunting opinions begins to rear its rather ugly ethical head.

While bears and big cats have begun to get a better reputation with the general public, the country’s grey wolf, Canis lupus, populations continue to suffer from a fairly high level of persecution. Hunters and animal rights advocates can’t seem to get on the same page, despite past agreements and compromises. And the legal tables keep turning, leaving grey wolves lingering in a protective grey-space that stands to ruin full recovery hopes.

The great wolf debate

Mexican, red, and grey wolves used to roam various parts of the country in the millions, but only the grey wolf used to call nearly the entire continent home in wolf-norm numbers, between 250,000 and 500,000 or so by historic speculation. In fact, the species used to be the widest ranging mammal in North America before settlers, farmers, and hunting enthusiasts drove the population down to just a few hundred animals, mostly hiding out deep in the woods of the Great Lakes’ region, in American terms, Michigan and Minnesota.

There’s traditionally been some confusion over how to classify regional populations of the species, but since the 1960s grey wolves have had some form of federal protection in a bulk of their American range. By the late 1970s recalculations, like new range and abundance definitions, began to show that the species was rebounding. In 1978 the North Rocky Mountain population of grey wolves was deemed ‘recovered’ and the Great Lakes population reclassified as Threatened.

While this is all good progress, grey wolves today have only returned to roughly five per cent of the historic range, with an estimated 3,700 or so in the Great Lakes habitat and a little fewer than 1,700 in the North Rockies. The total count in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem sits around 500 (albeit this is, or near to, the region’s carrying capacity).

These numbers don’t from the offset seem to warrant the risks that come from altering national protection plans and standards, yet in 2003 the US FWS began the process of delisting the grey wolf from federal protection in the full lower 48 states except Minnesota.

Very early views saw the environment as a type of machine, with each component in some way adding or subtracting to the efficiency of the human existence. Predators were deemed useless in this system—holding the same place in the food web as humans.

Still waiting for approval of their filing, in 2009 the US FWS set new hunting guidelines for northern Rocky Mountain and western Great Lakes populations, which was—bit by bit—initially overturned by advocacy groups. But US FWS fought back and in 2012 the management of Northern Rocky Mountain Distinct Population Segment—Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and north central Utah—was handed over entirely to individual states.

In 2014, two separate federal courts ruled in favour of wolf advocates, restoring ESA protection to western Great Lake and Wyoming populations. But soon after US FWS announced it would seek to revisit that ruling, and in the wake of years of back-and-forth, expensive legal battles, NGOs and national wildlife groups decided to try a new approach, petitioning for all grey wolf populations to be reclassified from their current status to Threatened in hopes of gaining middle ground between parties that stand to suffer in the wake of wolf reintroduction.

Grey wolf. Photo by atlon11111 / Shutterstock
Grey wolf. Photo by atlon11111 / Shutterstock

While it may sound like an odd move, stakeholders like livestock and landowners can carefully control Threatened species—unlike Endangered species. The thinking is that allowing small control measures will be less damaging to recovering populations than unrestricted hunting allotments—as have been imposed in places like Minnesota and Washington. And with a single status in the lower 48 states, a national recovery plan would need to be set and enforced, potentially protecting some populations from proposed and future outright ESA delisting.

But groups like RMEF have called for US FWS decisions to be upheld; claiming states should be allowed to set and enforce hunting quotas without interference once populations have met predetermined recovery quotas. And they, in combination with their peers, have had major influence. In the summer of 2015 the US FWS rejected the reclassification petition and currently efforts to overturn 2014 rulings in the Rockies and Great Lakes are written into the ‘Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act of 2016.’

Pondering how we ponder nature

Michael Nelson, co-founder and co-director of The Conservation Ethics Group explains that a lot has changed about how society, and culture, views nature, even in the last few decades. Mostly governments, and even big conservation groups, categorise a natural resource by the ecological services they provide, from clean drinking water to establishing the foundation of an entire ecosystem.

‘Then there’s a whole other realm of value we don’t much talk about—intrinsic value—recognising that the species around today have evolved to fit in perfectly with their ecosystem over in most cases humanly-inconceivable periods of time,’ says Nelson. ‘The Endangered and Species at Risk Acts respect and protect this idea, much in the way Native American cultures and traditions value the role of nature.’

Very early views saw the environment as a type of machine, with each component in some way adding or subtracting to the efficiency of the human existence. Predators, he explains, were deemed useless in this system—holding the same place in the food web as humans.

‘They got in our way, complicated our lives, so we determined them evil, wrote them into stories as dark figures, and ultimately condoned their eradication’ says Nelson.

This metaphor has become outdated, as researchers have begun to see that the world is more like a giant organism, Nelson explains. You can’t just take out or replace parts and hope everything will work out. Yet he says this is more or less the kind of logic groups that advocate for the increased hunting or further removal of protection for recovered or recovering species, particularly of the predator variety, draw on.

‘Taking out such a key part of the environment like a top predator has unpredictable, residual effects up and down the entire system,’ says Nelson. ‘You cannot cut and paste nature.’

Allen doesn’t think things are quite so clear-cut when it comes to ascribing a role to predators. He says species like wolves, left unchecked without hunting quotas create an imbalance in the herd — a scientific truth he feels people should try to accept. He says that humans have already drastically altered the landscape for the better or worse…and we’re here to stay. It’s only logical to add this reality into the mix when considering conservation.

‘This isn’t our way of rationalising hunting, it’s the responsibility we have as the self-imposed stewards of the natural world,’ says Allen. ‘I guess some really believe the best approach is to back-off entirely, but the only way to actually do this is for every human being to be rounded up on a spaceship and sent into outer space. We can’t undo what’s already be done.’

But when it comes to acting as environmental stewards, not everyone’s as convinced as Allen that us humans should, or must, have so much say in how nature goes about its business.

Pondering the natural role of hunters’ and the hunted

By now it should be clear that determining the extent and way in which humans should influence and interact with nature, let alone manage it, are seriously complicated tasks. Yet these fundamental questions ultimately define both sides of the debate when it comes to setting and challenging conservation guidelines.

Nelson and Allen both expressed that in order to move forward, those on both sides of the debate need to become better educated in one another’s principles, taking into account varying modern viewpoints and realities.

Allen claims hunters and sportspeople have done a good job safeguarding the species so far and should be allowed to continue to do so. Hunting guidelines are supported by science-based, rigorous wildlife management plans based on decades if not a century or more of data, determining how many and when members of wild populations can be harvested by incorporating the full gamut of factors that stand to threaten species from wildfires to roadway mortality rates. And hunters, Allen adds, are in no way the major outstanding threat for most wildlife. Climate change, human development and encroachment, pollution…these are all things that really stand to impede most native species’ full recovery.

Stats show hunting has been on the decline in the US as a whole for a while now, and this diminishing constituent base could encourage wildlife agencies to rebrand, Nelson claims, looking for new ways to foot the bill of conservation programs by speaking to a wider range of interests.

Is it OK to protect a species as a human commodity? And if so, how much can, and should we take without disturbing the natural balance?

While Allen agrees there’s been a decline in incoming hunters, he is clear that hunting isn’t a passion soon to be erased from the American, or even North American, mindset.

‘There’s a cultural gap between today and say 15 years ago for sure, but the numbers of hunters in America are certainly not crashing,’ says Nelson. Decreases have been offset by millennial and female interests, who have taken on hunting for different reasons, such as the desire to consume free-range meat. Elk, according to Allen, are delicious and nutritious, not to mention a food source with an environmental price tag far greener than factory farming.

A hunters hide in the morning's sunlight. Photo by sindlera / Shutterstock
A hunter’s hide in the morning’s sunlight. Photo by sindlera / Shutterstock

But is it OK to protect a species as a human commodity? And if so, how much can, and should we take without disturbing the natural balance?

At the end of the day, these are all questions that require more in-depth thought, and likely, real life mistakes, to answer. But for now, settling the status of grey wolves in the US will mean overcoming deep-seated mistrust and suspicion on both sides.

Nelson admits he’s never fully understood the motivation behind hunting and in turn, those who claim to hunt in pursuit of conservation. ‘The trouble is a hunter could be fighting to conserve an animal simply for its own right to exist or for their own right to exploit it in the future,’ says Nelson. And looking through the history books, they’re sure no certain way to decipher intent from result.

Allen says something he believes most battling species’ delisting efforts forget is that without hunters and sportspersons, currently many wildlife management services simply wouldn’t exist, let allow operate on the scale they do now.

‘The ultimate beauty of our system here in the US is that even in the worst economy, it’s a user-based pay system,’ says Allen. In many states hunting and fishing licenses fund nearly 100 percent of wildlife management across the board for all species.

‘In the end Walt Disney didn’t do us any favours, painting an image of nature as a calm, even fair force until humans entered into the picture,’ says Allen. ‘Things just aren’t like that, and I don’t feel like a hardened criminal for doing something very natural to me and many other Americans, something I was raised doing and that I know helped keep my little part of the world wilder.’


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