Conservation is in crisis, and it’s not just because there is less and less of the natural world to conserve. Nor is it solely a result of the Trump administration’s unprecedented war on 40-plus years of hard-won environmental protections. No, in a strange irony born of the US’s high-powered history of rugged individualism, the already meager funding for conservation is drying up because American hunters are just not killing animals like they used to. It turns out that in the US’s counterintuitive conservation funding system, hunters have to kill animals to fund the programs and agencies that work to save them. But now American hunters are becoming an endangered species.
A nationwide survey conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016 found that only 5 percent of Americans, or about 11.5 million adults, still hunt. That’s down by half in just 50 years. The service, which touts hunters as some of the “most ardent conservationists around,” also predicted an acceleration of this precipitous decline in the coming decade.
Essentially, the US’s hunters are going the way of the dodo.
At first blush, that sounds like good news for wildlife conservationists who are understandably desperate to “conserve” what little is left of the Earth’s embattled fauna. However, the waning hunger to hunt also means many of the state-level agencies charged with “resource management” now face declining revenue from what has long been a main source of funding for their efforts—hunting permits.
And it’s not just hunting permits. As the (perhaps surprisingly) pro-hunting Sierra Club pointed out during the backlash to the Florida school shooting, the “lion’s share of funding for state wildlife conservation programs comes from the sale of guns, ammunition and other hunting supplies, thanks to an 80-year-old piece of legislation called the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act.”
The Sierra Club isn’t the only organization worried about the financial consequences stemming from the rapid decline of the “sport” of hunting. The State of Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources recently got a much-needed PR boost from the privately funded Aldo Leopold Foundation. It came in the form of a “get out the hunt” campaign promoting the upside of grabbing a .30-06, heading out to the great outdoors and communing with nature by killing animals with poisonous lead bullets.
As “Looming Crisis” also points out, funds from these stamps have “largely built the National Wildlife Refuge System,” which “hosted more than 50.2 million visitors in 2016.” But the report also notes that just a scant “2.43 million” of those visits “were for hunting.” That’s foreboding news when you consider that “Duck Stamp dollars” are, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, used to “purify water, aid in flood control, reduce soil erosion and sedimentation,” and maintain wetlands around the United States.
The report did, however, find that a small, but growing percentage (15-20 percent) of the stamps are now purchased for “non-hunting purposes.” The good news is that some stamp enthusiasts support conservation simply for conservation’s sake. Many of those non-hunters are flocking to the “hip” pastime of birdwatching. In fact, the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are 46 million “birders” in the US. That overshadows the 998,600 stamp-buying bird hunters identified by Delta Waterfowl.
Perhaps that’s why the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership recently issued a “Call to Action for Sportsmen” that promoted the “Recruitment, Retention, and Reactivation” of hunters, along with “smart policies that enhance hunters’ opportunities afield.” They, too, are desperate to keep hunters hunting and the conservation money flowing. But the far more pressing issue is whether it even makes sense to try to rescue an increasingly outdated model based on a century-old shotgun marriage of hunting with conservation.
Teddy’s Shotgun Wedding
Theodore Roosevelt’s name is understandably synonymous with conservation in the US. Yet the famed outdoorsman also epitomizes the paradox at the heart of hunting-linked conservation efforts. That’s because the “Rough Ridin’ Roosevelt” wasn’t just an avid hunter: He was a one-man army who often reveled in killing the animals he proposed to save.
One particularly grotesque episode was Roosevelt’s now-infamous “scientific expedition” to Kenya in 1909. As historian Sean Munger explained in detail, Roosevelt “blew away no less than 296 large animals, including 15 zebras, 13 rhinoceroses, 8 elephants, 9 lions, 8 warthogs, a crocodile, 5 wildebeests, 6 monkeys, 2 ostriches and 3 pythons.” Not to be outdone, his son Kermit, who’d later orchestrate a coup in Iran, “terminated 216 specimens, bagging 8 lions (one less than his dad), 3 leopards, 7 cheetahs, 3 elephants, 7 rhinoceroses, 3 sables, a lot of gazelles and 4 flamingos. “
As Vox pointed out, Roosevelt donated more than 11,000 specimens from that epic spree to the Smithsonian, and his ghoulish endowment “arguably helped improve knowledge about a continent and animals that remained mysterious to many Americans.” But one of the lions he donated was, according to Roosevelt, a “splendid old fellow … with a yellow-and-black mane.” In a scene all too familiar today, he posed with the lion after the fatal shot. Roosevelt admitted that killing animals like that “splendid old fellow” was something that “made our veins thrill.”
That “thrill” came three years after Roosevelt signed the landmark Antiquities Act in 1906. As the National Park Service explains, he bequeathed future presidents the power to “proclaim historic landmarks, historic or prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest in federal ownership as national monuments.” The legislation is why he’s rightly celebrated as “the conservation president.”
The Paradox of Conservation
However, Roosevelt’s other legacy was a century-long linkage of conservation with the belief in humans’ “inherent right to kill animals for pleasure” — and to be able to do so in perpetuity, for ducks to be “unlimited,” so to speak. To be fair, that link didn’t seem paradoxical at the time. The early-20th-century US mythologized the so-called “winning of the West” and reveled in tales of big game hunting in Africa. But that was then and this is now, when Americans’ views are evolving along with science as it builds the case for widespread sentience among the animals who populate the Earth’s threatened ecosystems.
Americans are also far less tolerant of animal abuse and, as we’ve seen, they’re far less fond of hunting … particularly of “charismatic” apex species. This socio-cultural shift is exposing a paradoxical system of pre-World War II funding laws that links “conservation” with an archaic “thrill-killing” culture that remains firmly rooted in the late 19th century.
This paradox was laid bare by yet another American “trophy hunter” who’d paid big bucks for the privilege of killing a rapidly disappearing species and, like Roosevelt before her, for the opportunity to pose with the animal’s body after its execution. Like the much-maligned dentist who killed Cecil the lion, Tess Thompson Talley experienced a meteoric rise to infamy after a little-known website spread photos showing her posing with the lifeless body of a rare black giraffe while triumphantly pointing to the sky. According to The Telegraph, she was thanking God for answering her “prayers” by helping her realize her “once in a lifetime dream” of killing a “rare black giraffe.”
Thompson Talley also claimed that the killing was beneficial to the future health of giraffes, which have suffered a 40 percent decline over the last 30 years. Oddly enough, she didn’t peddle the claim that her hunting license was crucial to funding conservation efforts. Instead, she told CBS News that “she killed the old bull giraffe to prevent it from attacking younger giraffes” and claimed the killing was “conservation through game management.”
Trophy hunters, on the other hand, are not filling a gap. They kill Africa’s dwindling species for puerile personal glory and, sadly, their license fees often line the pockets of corrupt government officials. Sadder still, the anachronistic argument that we must “kill the animals to save them” is the self-serving doctrine guiding the Trump administration’s newly formed International Wildlife Conservation Council.
According to the Federal Register, the Conservation Council is tasked with providing “advice and recommendations to the Secretary of the Interior … regarding the benefits that result from United States citizens traveling to foreign nations to engage in hunting.” However, as the Guardian reported, the Council believes “the sport, in which wealthy hunters pay tens of thousands of dollars to shoot endangered megafauna, is a laudable method of conservation abroad.” Not surprisingly, the Safari Club and the National Rifle Association are heavily represented on the 16-member council. No doubt, it contributed to President Trump’s notorious reversal on the “horror show” of trophy hunting endangered elephants.
Also not surprisingly, HuffPost found that since Trump took office, the Wildlife Service awarded rare trophy permits to top GOP donors longing to kill lions. Further, Safari Club-linked Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed an expansion of “hunting and fishing opportunities to 30 National Wildlife Refuges.” Zinke’s National Park Service even moved to open up “extreme hunting” in Alaska. Once finalized, the new rules will empower execution-minded “sportsmen” to “hunt black bears with dogs, kill wolves and pups in their dens, and use motor boats to shoot swimming caribou,” according to The Associated Press. It’s just part of a national push to dangle apex species to attract trophy-seeking hunters.
Therein lies the rub. At the very time the hunting-linked conservation model is failing, the Trump administration is doubling down on outdated policies fueled by a wealthy cadre of thrill-killing hunters and gun lobbyists. But they are not alone. Trump’s team is also influenced by a little-known, religiously tinged movement that seeks to “protect” the “God-given right” of humans to “harvest” the natural world.
Protect the Harvest is a small, agriculture-themed interest group whose self-appointed “mission” is to counter “extreme special interests in America [that] have evolved into a wealthy and successful attack industry determined to control our farmers, eliminate hunting, outlaw animal exhibitions (like rodeos and circuses), and restrict animal ownership.”
Founded by Lucas Oil founder Forrest Lucas, the group positions itself as the bête noire of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Humane Society and other animal rights groups by championing the unregulated use of animals. Moreover, despite spending a scant half-million bucks over the last two election cycles, it’s played an outsized role in developing the Trump administration’s “harvest-it-while-you-can” approach to agricultural and environmental policy.
During the administration’s the first months, Lucas found a willing ear in the oil-friendly, firearm-investing Zinke. By then, the organization’s Executive Director Brian Klippenstein had already made his mark as head of Trump’s Department of Agriculture “transition team” when the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service abruptly “purged” its online database of information detailing “the treatment of animals at thousands of research laboratories, zoos, dog breeding operations and other facilities.”
Of course, the “Harvesters” reflexively defend dog breeders and the move was a potential boon to the owners of puppy mills whose abuses exposed them to potential prosecution by local authorities. Although the Inspection Service finally relented under public pressure, the “refined” database it later published was deemed “useless” by critics because it effectively shields unscrupulous breeders.
The “Harvesters” scored another win when Zinke’s Bureau of Land Management reversed an Obama-era rule restricting the private sale of wild horses taken from herds roaming the West. The group advocates harvesting the wild mustangs, both for financial gain and to eliminate a competitor to privately owned cattle grazing on public lands. They even made a movie about it. They also made a horse ranching-themed flick starring Sharon Stone and yet another one about a “dog breeder that was targeted by an animal rights extremist group.”
These films promote a “ethos of the harvest” that evangelical policy makers like Interior Secretary Zinke and Agricultural Secretary Sonny Purdue apply to everything from land use policy to animal abuse regulations. As the evangelical former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt once explained to the Christian Broadcast Network, “the biblical world view” gives humans “a responsibility to manage and cultivate [and] harvest the natural resources that we’ve been blessed with to truly bless our fellow mankind.”
The word “harvest” is key. It not only evokes the “God-given right” of human beings to use natural world as we see fit, but it’s also a common euphemism for “kill” that state officials use when they refer to hunting. For instance, a March story on a bobcat hunting report by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources was titled, “West central Illinois has significant bobcat harvest,” and it detailed the 318 bobcats “harvested,” of which “159 were taken by trappers, 29 by archers and 130 by firearm.”
Given the shifting public opinion on animal welfare, trophy hunting and the decline in hunting generally, it makes sense that the organization adopted the language officials use to soften the blow of their hunting statistics. It may also make short-term political sense to market “the harvest” to evangelicals. But these harvesters are completely out of step with the majority of the US public. Look no further than the move to gut the largely successful Endangered Species Act at a time when an overwhelming 83 percent of Americans, and a robust 74 percent of conservatives, support for the law, according to a recent poll by the Ohio State University. Frankly, with American birdwatchers outnumbering bird hunters 46 to 1, and with organizations like the Aldo Leopold Foundation scrambling to convince Americans to get out and hunt, the hoary call to “protect the harvest” sounds more like a death rattle than pealing bell.
Instead, policy makers need to join the 21st century and catch up with the shift in US society and culture. Unfortunately, Washington will be fighting over the Endangered Species Act at the very time Congress could be moving toward a whole new model of conservation funding that puts the onus for funding where it should be — on the extractive industries that profit most off the “harvesting” of the resources that are, at least in theory, the “common” wealth of the nation.
It’s called the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (H.R.4647). Introduced in December 2017, it has yet to make it out of committee despite the fact that, as USA Today reported, it has “backing from energy giant Shell Oil, conservationists and hunting and fishing retailers” and, amazingly, “from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike.” The bill’s goal is to “keep animals off the endangered list by redirecting $1.3 billion a year in oil, gas and minerals royalties to a wildlife conservation fund that would be disbursed to all 50 states.”
However, while the bill is a long-overdue step toward solving the paradox of hunting-linked conservation, it creates a whole new paradox. No doubt the prospect of linking conservation funding to the ecosystem-endangering extraction of oil, gas and minerals will be cold comfort to corporate-wary conservationists who’d likely, and perhaps rightly, view it as little more than jumping out of the frying pan and into the climate-stoked fire.
There’s certainly plenty of upside for oil companies and members of Congress who could use potential funding of conservation programs as a “greenwashed” justification for opening up public lands to extractive industries. But there is a silver lining. The very fact of the bill and, interestingly enough, its support by hunting and fishing retailers is an acknowledgement that the current funding “partnership” between hunting and conservation is facing its own ironic extinction.
Like the reactionary, animal rights-averse responses of the “Harvesters,” it illustrates the extent to which the country is moving away from its double-barreled, Rough Ridin’ past. And as hunting wanes further, there will be more even political and cultural space to establish a “conservation-for-conservation’s sake” model that prioritizes science-based ecosystem restoration, preserves wetlands for birders and ends the sanctioned thrill-killing of animal beings for little more than a banal selfie.