Is the sustainable use of wildlife sustainable? Conservationists at The Wildlife Society’s annual conference last week in Raleigh, NC agreed with a resounding yes. But how resilient is hunting to shifting demographics and negative public opinion? The take home message: as media reaction continues to undermine sustainable use management efforts and urbanization further threatens our traditional values, the hunting community urgently needs to adapt in order to survive.
Hunters and wildlife managers are comfortable with the common arguments to defend the benefits of sustainable use. Simply put, hunting is an economic and ecological tool for conservation, providing vital sources of funding, sustaining land for habitat and managing populations across functioning landscapes. This mechanistic view, however, is under serious attack. Hunters also have very powerful cultural messages that are not being adequately communicated.
Throughout history, hunting has driven the evolution of our species and the development of human culture. “Empathy for wildlife is not a new movement; it is buried within us all,” said Shane Mahoney at The Wildlife Society’s conference. The dichotomy of hunting, to witness and participate in the death of an animal for your own well-being or sustenance, is fundamental to what it means to be human. This nuanced understanding is difficult to talk about, but needs to be communicated to the general public.
Recent events have spurred a newly awakened sentimentality for wildlife that is often directly anti-hunting. Today, more than half of Americans live in urban environments. This massive urbanization has led to the loss of traditional sustainable use values and the “de-wilding” of wildlife as society becomes more detached from nature. Groups that do not accept this change and adapt to meet the challenge will become increasingly ineffective wildlife conservationists.
With these social changes come threats to the public trust doctrine of wildlife use inherent in the North American model of conservation. This sustainable-use based model has enabled many conservation successes over decades of changing societal values. The democratic framework that involves multiple recreational users and wildlife stakeholders in conservation is part of what makes the North American model so successful. The entire sustainable use community, from backwoods hunters to member organizations, has to find common ground with other groups and work together to conserve wildlife.
The biggest challenge facing sustainable use is our ability to keep pace with societal change and evolving values. Hunting is struggling to remain relevant to a growing population of urban youth. But understanding the cultural importance of the contribution of wildly harvested protein combined with conventional management arguments for hunting provides promising opportunities. Reenergized communication efforts from sportsmen reach more people with this message every day.
Hunters, conservationists and wildlife managers all know that the sustainable use of wildlife is sustainable. We now have to adapt, and come together as one united voice for hunting and wildlife.