Killing yet Saving: Hunting as Conservation, Community, and Culture
By Brielle Tobin
Envision a woman completely alone, waiting in a single position for hours, with only her thoughts and the deafening silence of the wilderness to keep her company. She is determined, unwavering, and as courageous as her father always knew she would be. She looks out from a deer stand up in the trees and watches time slowly march by, on the look-out for the perfect opportunity. She meticulously planned the steps leading up to this moment. For her, finally being able to reap the rewards of a hunt is a feeling that transcends going on a simple trip to the grocery store.
Hunting is a necessity for sustenance, a culturally significant practice, a bonding experience with family, and an expression of appreciation for our environment. As ecosystems are increasingly threatened, hunting, a human practice as old as our existence, is an opportunity to improve economic stability, conserve environments, and keep true the social values we hold so dear. This essay seeks to understand these intersections, and interviews of hunters from the Rocky Mountain region of Wyoming will supplement these research findings by providing distinctively personal outlooks on the hunting experience and supplying individual ideas about conservation and the maintenance of hunting ecosystems amid changing climates.
To support the threatened diversity of creatures within the environment, the variety of practices within human society, and issues intertwined between the two spheres, the academic discussion of keywords such as ecology, conservation, morality, and culture in the context of the environment and the practice of hunting, must be understood. Through this awareness will come the formulated solutions that can benefit human and nonhuman interaction.
The term ecology emerged through the influence of research by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the 19th century, which signified that engagements between both organisms and environments strongly impacts one another (Seidler). In the 1980s, amidst ever increasing human activity in the environment, the use of the term ecology shifted to focus on environmental repercussions. “The roots of conservation biology can be found in a variety of domains, the common denominator being an increased awareness of large-scale loss of biodiversity” (Seidler 74). In attempts to limit the disappearance of natural diversification, conservation practices such as resource management and sustainable development gained popularity. Conservation is defined as “use within certain biological limits, or within the annual growth increment of a particular resource” (Moseley 41), and is often contrasted with preservation. Conservation applications allow people to supply their needs, but doing so while acting within a fixed set of boundaries to sustain the environment and the resources it provides. Maintenance of biodiversity with the aid of conservation also heavily relies on supporting food webs. However, agriculture has changed the way in which humans interact with their food web, especially concerning the animals we consume. Currently, discourse surrounding the ethics of human interaction with animals tends to center on factory farming and biological experimentation. Philosopher Peter Singer argues through his paper The Animal Liberation Movement that moral concern should be extended to non-human animals. “To give any consideration at all to the interest of animals was a significant step beyond the idea that the boundary of our species is also the boundary of morality” (Singer 2). This viewpoint, when applied to hunting, means that people who partake in this activity are purely benefiting their own interests, and therefore are not acting morally. Through examining multiple theoretical perspectives on animal ethics, Robert W. Loftin, author of numerous peer-reviewed articles on philosophical, moral, and ethical theory concerning the environment, states in opposition to Singer, “I argue that sport hunting, unlike commercial hunting, benefits both game and non-game animals by helping to preserve the habitat of both, and that on these grounds it is morally permissible” (242). Hunting increases public interest in ecology and conservation and consequently creates the argument that hunting, whether it be sport hunting or subsistence hunting, is necessary to support regions of the biosphere.
Ultimately, this analysis begs the question: what role do human interests play in this configuration? Firstly, the foundation of all human interaction and behavior lies in the idea and practice of culture. Culture is defined as “the ongoing collective sense making of how we be in relation with each other, other living beings, and the living world” (Rocheleau 50). Applications of this theory suggest a nature-culture binary, in which human advances in understanding, such as science and technology, support the human domination of the natural world. Even so, the idea of a nature-culture dualism lies on a spectrum and varies widely among communities.
The theoretical underpinning for these environmental terms have wide-reaching implications on the topic of hunting. Supporting ecology and biodiversity is critical for the hunting industry because without a variety of organisms in an environment, populations of larger game animals cannot be sustained. In addition, conservation provides a framework for hunting practices by restricting hunting seasons and the number of animals that can be harvested to prevent overhunting. Furthermore, hunting can be seen through theoretical perspectives to be morally acceptable because of its ability to strengthen ecosystems. The connection of these factors show how human culture and communities of practice have been shaped by and continue to be shaped by the perpetuation of subsistence, sport, and trophy hunting.
Impacts of Hunting:
Economic and Conservation Benefits and Obstacles
Discussions surrounding the economic and wildlife conservation benefits of hunting are echoed in communities across the world, especially in places such as Ethiopia, the Canadian Arctic, and Zimbabwe, where an increased interest in trophy hunting from outside of the communities has led to a rise in hunting tourism and increased outsider investment in indigenous community development. In a survey of international trophy hunters’ interests in hunting in Ethiopia, on average, hunters were more willing to donate to programs where local communities received the funds rather than governmental bodies (Fischer). Growing populations and the growing large-scale agriculture business in Ethiopia are beginning to impact controlled hunting areas and national parks. However, it is possible that with the money hunting tourism brings to hunting programs, these areas will be less likely to turn into industrialized areas and will be sustained through conservation. However, this system is highly dependent on international interests, so emerging questions about Ethiopian government stability and the maintenance and oversight to prevent illegal hunting and overhunting may decrease financial support to an extent where these hunting areas can no longer be supported.
Similarly, Zimbabwe’s issues with trophy hunting and conservation concentrate on the effectiveness of governance and administrative policies. Illegal poaching has led to the loss of certain species in Zimbabwe and the money obtained from these activities typically fall into the hands of the few and do not benefit communities (Muposhi). This background, coupled with poor monitoring of hunting practices, has led to misconceptions about the differences between poaching and trophy hunting. Zimbabwe has a history of updating its policies to reflect local and international needs, so there is the possibility that if the image of trophy hunting can be rebranded and more emphasis is placed on its aid to wildlife conservation and community development, perhaps it could result in improved supervised hunting programs (Muposhi).
In the Canadian Arctic, sport hunting for polar bears became popular around the 1980s following the establishment of Native-guided sport hunts by the Canadian government (Freeman). The popularity of conservation hunting programs also emerged and their benefits are far reaching: “The advent of polar bear conservation hunting, by adding increased economic value to the continuing high cultural, social, and dietary value placed on polar bears by the resource users and community-based stewards, contributes to the protection of this valued resource and its critical habitat” (Freeman). These programs also provide the foundation for sustainable jobs in Arctic communities where outside influences, such as mining, constructing oil pipelines, and hydroelectric plant installations, have less financial power over the interests of the indigenous people. If properly managed, conservation hunting programs can bring economic funds to communities who would not otherwise have the financial capabilities to invest in environmental conservation.
Cultural Significance of Hunting
To craft a wider picture of the impacts of hunting, it is crucial to understand the cultural significance of hunting, how outsiders of a community impact hunting practices within a community, and how advancements in technology change the perception of hunting practices. The groups of people most impacted by these changes are often indigenous communities. Culturally important practices of indigenous people are often challenged by outside societies. An example is when the image of a polar bear alone on a small ice flow became an international symbol of climate change. There were multinational interests about the conservation and protection of polar bears. Standing up against the influence of large and powerful nations, indigenous Canadian Arctic communities made certain the Canadian federal government would fight for how the environment and practices such as hunting play a contingent role within their culture. As former Canadian diplomat and Inuk Mary May Simon stated, “It is far more than just hunting, processing, and eating an animal. We respect that which gives us life and that which gives its own life for our very own. Imagine trying to grasp the depth of this understanding and principle in a world of farmed animals, artificial materials, supermarkets, and fast food restaurants?”(Simon vii). Fortunately, Inuit communities retained the right to benefit from their wildlife resources amidst a global call from powerful countries such as the United States, Norway, and the Soviet Union, to decrease polar bear hunting, and they continue today to battle against outside ideas on how they should express their culture (Freeman).
In addition, a study in 2010 was conducted on a reservation in North Central Wisconsin to research North American Indians, their subsistence hunting practices, their traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), and if community development, resource conservation, and the introduction of modern technologies changed the morality of their hunting practices (Reo). The interview participants in this study explained that they began hunting at a young age for the purpose of getting local meat for their families and for their wider community, with the additional bonus that their locally caught venison is healthier than other commercially available meat. Alongside with the financial and health benefits of hunting their own meat, hunting also provided a vehicle for knowledge systems in the community. For example, older generations taught younger generations about how to practice hunting safety, how to respect the life that the animal gave by being mindful about butchering practices, and how to appreciate the time and effort that hunters spend to benefit their communities. These indigenous people typically use techniques such as doing drives and vehicle hunting to catch their kills (Reo). Outsiders of this community have critiqued the hunters’ use of technology, arguing that Indians that hunt with this technology are no longer demonstrating an accurate portrayal of Indian culture. “When Indians are only seen through the lens of technology and material-culture, any continuity or traditional aspects that are engrained in some of the more complex and nuanced aspects of tribal socio-ecological systems such as traditional ethics and morality or notions of sacredness and ceremony are ignored” (Reo 10). The importance and respect of knowledge systems in these communities is disregarded, and these outside opinions perpetuate the harmful idea that culture is static. As an example of changing practices, new technology such as televisions and trail cameras have been introduced on the reservation and older members of the community have expressed concern that these materials impact the previously held reverence for the deer they hunt. Leaders are concerned about the glorification of trophy hunting on television if its effects on younger community members are not conducive to traditional practices. The ever changing conditions of technology, culture, and the environment play strong parts in one’s culture, and hunting is an integral aspect of that culture for millions of individuals and communities across the world.
Individual Perspectives and Relationships with Hunting
To explore the personal significance and the individual perspectives of hunting in the community where I was born and raised, I conducted interviews with multiple female young-adult hunters from my hometown, Casper, Wyoming. The interviews began by establishing how the women became involved with hunting, where all of the women expressed that they were exposed to hunting as a family activity, typically by their fathers or other male family members, and that hunting was a source of bonding. For many of the hunters, the family tradition of hunting has given them increased strength, confidence, and pride in what they accomplish. Meagan Soehn, a first-year student at the University of Wyoming, said:
I have met many great mentors through hunting that have taught me so much. Personally, hunting is an experience about earning what you want. I am the one who is getting the meat my family will eat. I have to stalk the animal, kill it, gut it, and get it back to town. Hunting gives me a sense of pride that I am earning what I eat.
The respect for the practice of hunting is evident in all the women interviewed. Katie Stahl, a hunter and current nursing student who moved to Wyoming a couple of years ago, expressed how hunting plays a role in her family:
While all the preparation, target practice, and waiting finally pay off when you do get a buck, my family has made the comradery a significant part as well. Hunting, at least in Wisconsin, is a big deal for my family. We all get together, make large meals, share stories, have ice cream, and just are content with where life has led us.
This familial significance is a strong example of how hunting is as much a social experience as an environmental one. Ashton, a pre-physical therapy student at Chadron State University, talked about the power that her personal history has on how she hunts now:
It’s sort of a tradition, [it] keeps me close with my great grandpa, who we dove hunt with, and with my dad, especially after his death. I’m going to put in for a tag this year and go for the first time without him. It’s less about the meat and more about bonding for us. We give the meat to a family that mostly eats game.
In addition to personal development and increased connections with other people, the hunters also say that their relationships with nature have been affected by their hunting experiences. Katie expressed her account of how hunting impacts her connection with nature:
Another part of hunting for me, is the closeness with nature. Although this may seem ironic given the ‘goal’ of hunting, you are sitting in a tree stand from before sun up to after sun down. You have a chance to see nature up close and personal, and hopefully appreciate it a bit more. It is truly beautiful and peaceful being in the woods…We have to stay as silent as possible to allow for nature to continue uninterrupted, and by doing that, we get to see beautiful things.
Along with the appreciation of nature, the women agreed that carefully and thoughtfully administered environmental conservation is vital to the continuation of their activities, as Meagan stated:
I do think that conservation is very crucial to preserve hunting practices. As much as I, and many others, would like to shoot what we want every season, that mindset is not sustainable. Environmental factors such as drought, fire, or disease can all reduce animal population size. To keep species at a healthy level, yearly quotas of licenses should be changing to reflect the current health of the environment.
Meagan also offered her thoughts on the possible effects of climate change on hunting and perhaps what the future would hold for hunting:
I think that climate change could affect hunting if populations of sought after animals begin to decrease. This would require scientists and local wildlife managers to determine what preventative measures would be required. As far as hunting’s future I don’t think it is going anywhere so long as hunters remain responsible and respectful for the environment and the bounty it produces.
These interviews showed that perspectives of these women on hunting is a solid component of their identity. It reveals a powerful experience that connects them with their families, with nature, and with themselves.
The ability to have a connection with nature, with one’s culture, and with oneself is unparalleled. Hunting is important for helping communities economically, for increasing conservation efforts, and for preserving culture. It is a historic activity where techniques and wisdom are passed down through generations and continue to change as humans, our technologies, and our environments change.
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