Some Thoughts on Hunting, For What They’re Worth

Last weekend, several of my friends and colleagues visited my family prairie to do some pheasant hunting.  I grabbed my camera and tagged along.  As we walked through the prairie, I had time to reflect on my personal progression when it comes to hunting and my views on the topic.  Based on what I know about the readers of this blog, I’m pretty sure a number of you view hunting as I used to. Others are active and passionate hunters. Whether you’re reading this as a hunter or as someone who doesn’t understand why anyone thinks hunting is ok, I hope my story will be thought-provoking for you.

Hubbard Fellow Brandon Cobb (foreground) and TNC staffer Nic Salick (background) walk through a foxtail-dominated new grassland planting at our family prairie last weekend.

I didn’t grow up as a hunter.  My dad hunted now and then when I was very young, but stopped before I was old enough to go with him. As a result, I wasn’t exposed to hunting, or guns, as a kid.  Fishing, on the other hand, was a big part of my life from a young age through most of college – until I fell in love with photography and left my old passion behind. 

As a 3rd or 4th grader in Bridgeport, Nebraska, I would frequently ride my bike to a small pond across town and spend hours catching small bluegill with worms.  I also have some great memories of fishing with my family – especially my dad and grandpa.  As I got older, a big part of my infatuation with fishing was that I saw it as a kind of game, in which I was trying to understand and outsmart the fish.  The more I learned about fish, their habitats, and their natural history, the better fisherman I became. 

I especially loved fishing for largemouth bass from the shore or a canoe.  I would move around the edge of a lake, evaluating the habitat and guessing where the fish were hanging out.  Then I’d try to predict, based on water and light conditions, what might trigger a strike.  I’d see an old stump in the water, for example, and envision a big ole bass hiding beneath it.  Then I’d be immensely pleased when I made a perfect cast and felt the pull on my line that told me I’d guessed right.  

It’s important to mention here that I don’t like to eat fish.  I’d like to like to eat fish, since it’s apparently a very healthy food.  I just don’t like the taste, whether it’s smoked salmon, fried catfish, or any other supposed delicacy I’m told I’ll enjoy ‘if it’s just cooked right’.  As a result, I was always a catch-and-release angler.  I tried to make sure I released my fish with minimal injury, but I also know a fair number of them didn’t survive after I put them back in the water.

I say all this because fishing was a big part of why I fell in love with the outdoors.  Camping, hiking, and other activities were a lot of fun too, but it was often fishing that got me out the door.  A big reason I’m a prairie ecologist today is because I grew up going fishing.  I tried multiple times to get my own kids interested in the activity, but they weren’t ever that excited about it.  They still liked going camping and hiking with me, though, so I didn’t push fishing very hard.  They didn’t need that particular hook to engage them with nature.  And I won’t apologize for that pun.

Interestingly, while I was passionate about fishing as a kid, I was pretty staunchly anti-hunting by the time I got to high school.  I’m not really sure why – especially because I read a lot of books as a kid that included ‘wilderness adventure’ stories in which kids or adults survived in the wild by (among other things) killing and eating animals.  While attending junior and senior high school in Lincoln, Nebraska, though, I didn’t really have family or friends who hunted.  Because of that distance from the topic, it seemed obvious to me that hunting was just needlessly killing wild animals, and therefore clearly wrong. 

The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies preserve manager Cody Miller walking a fenceline at my family prairie.

When I got to college, I started interacting with peers in my wildlife biology major, most of whom were hunters.  Those interactions quickly changed my views, not only on hunting, but on hunters.  Until that point, I’d been mostly reading and hearing from people who represented either anti-hunting or non-hunting perspectives.  My mental picture of a hunter was of someone who enjoyed killing animals, mostly so they could brag about the size of that dead animal or its antlers.  Now I was meeting people who were conservation advocates and loved being outside, were very knowledgeable about natural history, and who used hunting as an excuse to explore nature.

In short, they sounded a lot like me, except they were hunting instead of fishing (though most of them enjoyed fishing as well).  Many of the hunters I met in college were certainly interested in shooting big deer with big antlers or other ‘trophies,’ but that was only part of what drew them to hunting.  Most of their enjoyment came from gaining an understanding of the species they were hunting, as well as the habitat those species used.  In large part, hunting was fun because they had to solve the puzzle of where those animals were and what they were doing.  Also, of course, hunting took them outside where they got to explore interesting places and discover much more than just the tracks of their quarry.  Again, it sounded a lot like why I enjoyed fishing.

Many hunters enjoy watching their dogs work as much as any other aspect of hunting. During our hunt, Cody’s and Nic’s dogs (Rock and Greta) coursed back and forth in front of us, eagerly finding, pointing and flushing pheasants.
Here’s Nic’s dog, Greta, during a brief pause in a patch of smartweed down by our pond. This was one of a very few (and still very brief) periods when she stood still long enough for me to get a photo.

Equally importantly, my hunter friends ate what they shot.  In fact, for many of them, wild game made up a big part of their diet and they felt good about both knowing where their food came from and feeling self-sufficient about their food supply.  That made sense to me.  The meat I bought at the grocery store came from animals that had been killed for my benefit.  My hunter friends were just killing their food themselves – and taking responsibility for doing it humanely.  As they pointed out, I was (probably naively) relying on others to raise and kill animals in a compassionate or moral way for my consumption.  It was a lot to think about.

After college, I took possession of my late grandpa’s old shotgun and was guided by a few friends on some pheasant hunts.  I shot a few pheasants, and even a quail or two, though I missed way more than I hit.  Rabbit hunting became briefly interesting to me as well.  I ate what I shot and enjoyed it well enough but found I didn’t really have a passion for hunting and most of my family didn’t really care to eat wild game.

Mostly, the activity that had pulled me away from fishing – photography – was also a bigger draw than hunting.  I didn’t have time for photography and those other activities, and it wasn’t a difficult decision to spend my time on photography.  I was grateful for the opportunity to learn about hunting, though, and to do enough of it to better understand why my friends and many other people enjoy it so much.  Like most things in the world, being able to see something through the eyes of others makes it much easier to understand those other perspectives.

Upland bird hunting is mostly walking. That provides a lot of time to see and appreciate a lot of things other than pheasants. Other types of hunting require sitting in a blind or stand, which also provides a lot of opportunities to observe nature. Those opportunities, for most hunters I know, are the best aspects of hunting.

Having said all that, there are some aspects of hunting that still bother me.  That’s mostly because not all hunters have the same approach that my friends in college and present day have.  Plenty of people are really ‘shooters’ instead of ‘hunters’ and I have a hard time with that. I don’t particularly care for what I consider to be ‘wildlife farming’, in which people plant food plots designed to grow bigger deer antlers or to make game easier to locate during hunting season.  

In addition, while I recognize the economic, and even conservation value of trophy hunting, especially in parts of Africa and other places outside the U.S., the attitude displayed by many high profile trophy hunters strikes me as pretty abhorrent.  However, I also am ok with people having different opinions on this topics and interacting with nature differently than I do. We can disagree and still work together – coming at conservation from multiple angles. Unfortunately, a lot of the loudest voices within the hunting community are the ones who come across least well to a public already skeptical of the practice.   

You may or may not know that our model of conservation funding in North America has been strongly tied to licenses and supplies sold to hunters and anglers.  As a result, hunters correctly state that they provide much of the money that helps conserve natural areas and manage habitat.  Of course, much of that habitat management – especially in the past – has been targeted specifically at the species people most like to hunt, and that doesn’t always jive with (or conflicts with) the needs of whole ecosystems. Some hunters also take a little too much credit for replacing large predators in ecosystems, especially those who solely pursue large bucks or other trophies, rather than choosing prey based on population control factors.

To be fair, in recent years, wildlife agencies that answer to hunters have dramatically improved the way they manage habitat, moving toward the facilitation of biodiversity and away from food plots and habitat strips for a few species.  I’ve seen a huge change in that approach (which is usually – eventually – mirrored by private landowners) just over the course of my career.  It’s a generational change and we still have a way to go, but it’s nice to see movement in a good direction.  Funding models are also becoming at least a little more diverse and less reliant on ‘consumptive uses’ of the outdoors, which is helpful.

I’m not here to convince anyone to change their stance on hunting. However, if you’re like I was in high school and see hunting primarily as senseless or obnoxious, I’d encourage you to investigate further, especially if you can find some hunters and listen to them talk about why they hunt.  It might not be your thing, but you might be surprised by what you hear from people who are conservation-minded hunters.  If you’re a hunter who feels defensive about your pastime and are afraid it’s disappearing, you might reflect on how you can tell your story more effectively to those whose support you need.  Like most things in the world, hunting is complicated, and so are the people with strong views (pro or con) about it.  A little listening and thoughtfulness can go a long way toward understanding and productive conversation.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

17 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Hunting, For What They’re Worth

  1. Brilliantly written, Chris. I don’t hunt, but I live in a state (Vermont) where many people depend on hunting for a large part of their food supply, and they tend to do it responsibly and as humanely as possible. Your piece is thoughtful, well researched, and, as always, thought provoking. Thanks for the nudge toward a broader perspective. Happy holidays to you and yours!

  2. Very well and thoughtfully said, Chris! As someone who is an ex-hunter but doesn’t look at those times with shame, I think you portrayed the issues involved very fairly, and I would agree with every point you made. Thank you!

  3. I enjoyed you thoughtful commentary on views of hunting. I am 74 and grew up on a small dairy farm in WI where hunting access was as simple as walking out the door. I always loved and admired the beauty of wildlife and for the longest time I couldn’t understand why I wanted to kill something that I loved and admired. About 10 years ago I figured it out. If I killed it, then it was mine. I took position of it and it no longer was a position of the state. It was selfish and greedy. I no longer hunt mostly because I see it in a different light now.

  4. Well said. Your journey is similar to mine: I came to love nature largely through fishing, and through learning to think like a fish. After moving to the prairie, friends invited me to hunt pheasants with them. And yes, there’s something wonderful about learning to think like a prairie, and like its inhabitants. And as Leopold says, there’s spiritual value in knowing where your food comes from. But in recent years I’ve mostly enjoyed shooting photos, stalking game with a camera. And especially the invertebrate game that I used to overlook and ignore. Thanks for everything here except the pun, Chris. :)

  5. Bravo, Chris. The rift among environmentalists who approach their reason to build habitat from different viewpoints is a large impediment to progress. I have been harassed by bird watchers launching my duck boat but make my entries of sightings on the hunt in eBird. These are complementary activities, not conflicting ones!

  6. Thanks for this. I’m a non-hunter who has gotten past the stereotype of guys getting drunk in the deer blind thanks to writing like yours. A comparable point of view is biologist Harry Greene’s beautifully written chapter, “Born Again Predator,” in his book Tracks and Shadows.

  7. Hello Chris! Long time reader, first time commenter.

    Thank you for lending your perspective and wisdom to a complicated issue. There can be a lot of emotion involved in these discussions and I believe many people passionate about the nature world struggle much in the same way you have. Hunting can easily be misunderstood but is a vital part of conservation. Thank you for sharing that with your audience!

  8. Pingback: Photos of the Week – December 16, 2022 | The Prairie Ecologist

  9. Thoughtful and balanced perspective. I followed a very similar trajectory in thinking – even down to the early interest in fishing (although I like to eat fish!).

    I liked the dichotomy you drew between “shooters” and “hunters”. I have made a distinction between “head hunters” and “game hunters” for a similar reason. From an ecological perspective, the ecosystem doesn’t care much about the rack on the head, but the mouth it has to feed. So I have been puzzled by the need to focus on the big rack if the goal is to put food on the table. That’s less of an issue with most game birds, although turkeys might be an exception!

    One of the challenges that hunting presents is a conflict of commitment and cost. It takes time and money that could be spent to provide more direct benefits to the ecosystem.

    In any consumptive form of recreation then, where the primary beneficiary is the individual, and not the ecosystem, the individual, in my opinion, has an obligation to balance that resource allocation so that they can clearly identify how the ecosystem they use for recreation is benefitted by their presence. This would be true for hikers, hunters, birders, or anyone else who uses the outdoors.

    Those ecosystems need our help…one can do their part to support them by spending some of that recreational time working directly in any of the many ways the landscape can be restored and managed…e.g. invasive species control, seed collecting, etc. In that way, one builds a more direct connection to the well-being of the landscape and a greater experience of reciprocity with the life that lives there (and may be taken from there).

  10. Though some differences in the journey, I also went through a similar learning process, though I tend to use the term “hunters” and “killers” of wildlife to distinguish between the different groups.

    I have also realized that though I have never taken a gun out into the woods since going out with my grandfather when when I was about 10, I too am a hunter. I hunt with a camera. I need to know my “prey’s” behavior (schedule, food sources, migration patterns, etc.) to get the “shot” that I want. I need to have (learn) patience as I need to wait for the right conditions to get my shot. I got down on my belly early one morning in the mud for about 10 minutes in a field to get a good backlit picture. I got the best shot that I had ever taken at that point of my life.

    I also support hunters as they realize better than anyone else what happens if good hunting rules and procedures are not established and followed.

    (Like many of your comments in your posts) I also find that when I am hunting I often find that my prey did not read the guide book about where and when it is supposed to appear as well as how it is supposed to behave. That is what makes photography a part of lifelong learning.

  11. Chris,

    I’ll add to the chorus of compliments on this thoughtful piece. Although I don’t hunt, much of what you’ve said here rings true with my growing up in Nebraska and my evolving views on hunting. I think anyone holding a simplistic anti-hunting stance should take seriously everything you’ve discussed here.

    That said, I think a more needs to be said on a couple of issues/considerations that I believe should be part of any thoughtful reflection on hunting and its relationship to this blog’s focus on prairie ecology/management.

    Is there a problem with some non-hunters, “environmentalists,” etc. stereotyping or writing off hunters in a non-productive way? Absolutely. But is there an equal if not greater problem (greater because consumptive users like hunters largely drive wildlife agency action, and thus their views are more influential/impactful) of hunters stereotyping/writing off non-hunters and non-consumptive users in a non-productive way? Absolutely. A recent example: conflating *non*-hunters with *anti*-hunters, and branding those who want to change parts of state wildlife management as “animal extremists” (Nov 2022 Wildlife Society conference in Spokane, WA: https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2022/nov/06/controversy-over-huntings-role-in-conservation-pro/). So the problem of stereotyping, straw man arguments, etc. is a two-sided one, and will require both sides to move past the one-dimensional views and tribalism for progress to be made.

    And while I agree that wildlife agencies and funding models have moved in a positive direction in recent decades, I think you’d be hard-pressed to demonstrate that these agencies still don’t disproportionately favor and cater to hunters and hunting-based values/interests, despite hunters being only about 5% of the population both here in Nebraska and nationwide.

    The “who pays?” question is often raised in response to this disproportionate favoritism, and you touch on it. But there are several problems with this kind of argument. First, the financial impact of hunting is often exaggerated. While hunters disproportionately fund state wildlife agencies, they don’t disproportionately fund conservation activities more broadly, particularly federal agencies and programs. And the state agency contribution isn’t as great as some might think; the 2020 NGPC Annual Report states that 18% of its calendar year revenue comes from hunting permits and stamps. Additionally, the fact that consumptive users disproportionately fund states agencies doesn’t mean that everything state agencies do with that funding is “conservation” that benefits ecosystems generally. Everyone should be grateful for the significant funding hunters and anglers have provided over many, many years. But the claim that hunters/anglers pay for most wildlife conservation is simply untrue. And yet it is routinely used as a cudgel to argue that the values/priorities of 5% of the population should outweigh the other 95% in terms of wildlife management priorities of wildlife agencies.

    Speaking of values and wildlife agencies, it’s worth checking out the America’s Wildlife Values project (https://sites.warnercnr.colostate.edu/wildlifevalues/). This research reveals a significant disconnect between most state agency wildlife values (overwhelmingly reflecting a domination perspective on wildlife, with hunting being the primary expression of this perspective) and the public-at-large’s values (a far greater percentage of people expressing mutualistic attitudes/values, with wildlife watching being the primary expression of this). This disconnect in wildlife values matters. Consider wildlife killing contests, particularly for species like coyotes What percentage of Nebraskans approve of these killing contests—including ethical Nebraska hunters? To my knowledge, Nebraska Game & Parks has refused to ban or even discourage these killing contests (at least not in any public way I’ve seen). Why not? Is its silence consistent with the views/values of a majority of Nebraskans? If not, can it really claim to be acting on behalf of the entire public rather the presumably small % of Nebraska hunters who enjoy/approve of “harvesting” piles of coyotes for fun/sport (https://www.facebook.com/northeastnebraskacoyotechallenge/)? Have the ethical hunters you’ve highlighted in this piece made any effort to use their considerable leverage as favored NGPC “customers” to put an end to these contests?

    More fundamentally, “who pays” shouldn’t be considered relevant in the first place, since it isn’t part of the statutory role and mission of state game agencies to begin with. “The mission of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is stewardship of the state’s fish, wildlife, park, and outdoor recreation resources in the best long-term interests of the people and those resources.” Like the role/mission of other state agencies, there is not one syllable supporting the claim that people who “pay” (to hunt or to fish or do anything else) should be given special/preferential treatment in carrying out the agency’s general “stewardship” mission on behalf of (all) “the people.”

    Perhaps the most revealing part of the “who pays” discussion is the *absence* of opportunities for *non*-consumptive users to “pay”—and thereby demand their “seat at the table” as the consumptive users have demanded and received for so many years. Why is this? Is it because there is any evidence that non-consumptive users aren’t willing to pay? Or because they’ve been given no opportunity to do so? Could it be that the absence of such opportunities is by design, perhaps because state agencies are comfortable with the status quo and have little interest in allowing others with different values/views of wildlife (America’s Wildlife Values research) to have that “seat at the table”?

    We increasingly hear that “hunting is conservation.” It is not (necessarily). Conservation is conservation. Specific types of hunting can be a *part* of conservation (as can many things besides hunting), but it’s hardly the same thing. Let’s not forget that what created the need for “conservation” of many species in the first place was too much hunting, not too little. It was overhunting—not tree-hugging, animal rights activism, etc.—that created the species conservation crisis that—thankfully–more contemporary approaches to hunting have helped correct. Fundamentally, it has been the *restriction* and regulation of hunting that has allowed many species to recover, not the opposite. So the accurate claim is “some hunting can be conservation,” but the same can be said of many activities (“playing the Nebraska Lottery can be conservation”).

    While–contrary to the stereotype–many non-hunters have no problem coexisting with many types of hunting and are not intent on somehow “banning” it, etc., some of us do have a problem with being marginalized/ignored by much of our current wildlife agency system, a system disproportionately driven by the hunting-centered values of the early-mid 20th century rather than the much more varied wildlife values landscape of the 21st. If state wildlife agencies and the consumptive users they largely cater to want to remain relevant into the future (which I certainly want them to), their priorities are going to need to better reflect everyone’s values, not just their own. And for hunters “who feels defensive about your pastime and are afraid it’s disappearing…”, please use your leverage/influence to insist that non-consumptive users are provided that “seat at the table” in a meaningful way. As this piece reveals, there’s a lot more areas of agreement and shared values/priorities than disagreement, and we need to work together to confront the challenges ahead.

    Respectfully, Colin Croft, Scotts Bluff County

  12. Whitetail Deer are the most hunted game animal in the US. They is no way that eliminating deer hunting for all it warts would be good for the ecosystem. In fact it would greatly harm the ecosystem.

    Wild pigs are hunted heavily and again eliminating hunting for them would be worse on the ecosystem.

    Both these animals are good examples on why we as humans broke the existing ecosystems and now have to do our part to manage them even tho what we are currently doing isn’t all that needs to be done.

    Most anti’s that I have converse with come from an unrealistic place that we should just lets them be and nature will correct herself. Not going to happen. Nature will adapt but the result will be worse than the current situation.

    Bad people on all sides.

  13. I grew up hunting and fishing in south-central Nebraska and I was passionate about both, especially hunting. I stopped harvesting game long ago, but I still hunt with my binoculars as birding has become my passion. I have nothing against hunting or fishing but let’s be honest as to why we do it. It’s fun. I’m sure there are those that love to kill things, but for me, it was the thrill of the hunt that was the attraction, not the kill. I would imagine this is the case for most people who hunt.

    Hunting is certainly a tool that is needed for managing certain species such as white-tailed deer, but is it necessary for ‘managing’ Wilson’s Snipe? Again, I don’t have a problem with hunting, but I do question the need for hunting seasons on certain species. Are Wilson’s Snipe in need of being managed or are they just a very challenging target to bag?

    As to providing funding for conservation, hunters are certainly contributing their fair share through the purchase of duck stamps and various habitat stamps and supporting organizations like Ducks Unlimited and other similar organizations. I do like the idea of coming up with a stamp, whether it be state or federal, for non-consumptive activities like bird watching, but there are lots of avenues to support wildlife and conservation through organizations like TNC, Audubon and others.

    • “there are lots of avenues to support wildlife and conservation through organizations like TNC, Audubon and others.” Very true, but this doesn’t address the problem/concern of state wildlife agencies purportedly acting as “stewards” of wildlife on behalf of everyone in a state, but in practice catering to the few based largely on an antiquated consumptive user-focused model that doesn’t reflect the diversity of values/views of wildlife today. These agencies hold monopoly power/control over wildlife species (except for federally-listed or controlled species), so contributing to groups like TNC, Audubon, etc., while otherwise worthwhile, does little in terms of actually changing how species are “managed” etc. by the agencies.

      Colin

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