"The trophy-recreationist has peculiarities which contribute in subtle ways to his own undoing. To enjoy he must possess, invade, appropriate. Hence the wilderness which he cannot personally see has no value to him. Hence the universal assumption that an unused hinterland is rendering no service to society. To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is useless waste: to other, the most valuable part. (Is my share in Alaska worthless to me because I shall never go there? Do I need a road to show me the arctic prairies, the goose pastures of the Yukon, the Kodiak bear, the sheep meadows behind McKinley?)" Aldo Leopold in the Conservation Esthetic.
By Bob Ferris
As I perused the news and Facebook feeds earlier this week I found myself reading a story about the American Farm Bureau Federation opposing regulation of fertilizers and other chemicals that would help prevent drinking water disasters like what we recently saw in Toledo, Ohio. Just after that I spied a post about a study that once again demonstrated that energy development and wildlife are not compatible.
The first piece threw me back 15 years—hence the initial déjà vu—to a time when I was part of a team that went head-to-head with the Farm Bureau. We engaged in a nearly two-year exercise in opposition research–catalyzed by the AFBF Yellowstone wolf lawsuit–that was purposely complicated by the Farm Bureau’s bizarre and contradictory for-profit and non-profit structure. The end result was an award-winning publication called Amber Waves of Gain that transmuted into a 60 Minutes expose—all followed closely by a change in presidents at AFBF.
The second piece is where the double déjà vu comes in. Because the energy and wildlife study brought to mind the fact that not all hunting and angling groups are alike nor do they all subscribe to this oft-proven notion of energy development harming habitat and displacing critters (1, 2,3,4) or to a number of other broadly endorsed scientific findings such as climate change and the harmful effects of grazing. These hunting and angling groups ignore science when it conflicts with their platforms in a very similar manner to what we observed with the Farm Bureau ergo déjà vu two.
But what about the secret part? The all-important secret part of all this comes from the Farm Bureau and this small collection of sporting groups publicly purporting to be the friends of family farmers and sportsmen, respectively, while their actions frequently harm the interests of the very folks they claim to represent. They want their projected images and carefully crafted tag lines to shower down upon the public, but would rather that a good number of their actions stay secret or unobserved.
In Amber Waves of Gain we busted apart the myth of the Farm Bureau being the friend of family farmers and correctly portrayed them as the voice of agribusiness. It strikes me that it is high time that someone took the time to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms hunting and angling groups as well. I have done a little of that in my past blogs, but more of it in more places is need.
Now before I continue, I want to make a few things clear. I personally come from a hunting and fishing culture. I grew up hunting and fishing and became a wildlife biologist because of my passion for these outdoor pursuits. My first attempt at dating was to ask a girl to go fishing with me (perhaps this is why I was in my 50s before getting married?). And I first walked alongside my father chasing pheasants with a friend's expensive, but notriously, gun-shy dog in the rice checks of my mother’s home town of Willows, California in the late 1950s.
I will add that much of who I am today and my ethical standards came from this well-developed culture reinforced by a nearly formalized curriculum taught by my father, uncles and other relatives or pseudo-relatives while tromping through fields, climbing mountains, standing in ice-cold streams and sitting quietly in stands or blinds. I may not participate in these pursuits as much now as I have in the past, but that does not diminish for me the value of this pathway or my sense of vesting in this hunter and angler ethos.
So this exercise I suggest now does not grow out of my need or desire to end hunting or angling, but rather from my concern that some groups are compromising and perverting a culture and tradition that I personally value. These groups have forgotten or never cared that hunting and angling, in this context, are about much more than just trigger pulls and hook setting.
And those who perceive an inherent conflict between actions to preserve biodiversity such as being in opposition to an additional spring bear hunt in the absence of information and rationale or concern over the fate of lead bullet fragments in raptor and scavenger territory might want to dial it back a few notches, because responsible hunting and fishing—as opposed to shooting and snagging—involves a complex ethical decision making process that should involve the near and far future ramifications of your actions.
Being from this culture and seeing life through this lens has caused me challenges throughout my career and has forced me to walk an often difficult tightrope. When I worked for Defenders of Wildlife in the 1990s I was continually educating people (internally and externally) and making sure that programs were scientifically sound but also not anti-hunter. And at the same time I was being characterized as an animal rights activist by those who did not know me or could not understand that there is huge difference between an animal rights organization and one that forwards biodiversity preservation. And I am sure my current staff and board have incurred a little psychological sunburn from me on this issue.
So what is the landscape out there and how does one tell one set of players from another? It is complicated but if you think of the entire range of the entities that currently operate in the realm of natural resources and wildlife policy as a spectrum with the left representing the protectionist view point and the more animal rights end of the spectrum and the right holding down the exploitation end of the range exemplified by the trophy-focused hunting and angling groups you are correct. The middle ground or the center of this construct is anchored by the hunting-neutral groups that tend to be driven mostly by issues of biodiversity (see below graphic). All are different and individual. Many of the characteristics of these organizations are as expected. The animal rights groups for instance are fueled a lot more by passion and emotion and less by science. They tend to oppose trapping across the board and are less inclined to see the distinctions between the ecological value of native species and those that were introduced. The animal welfare conservation folks tend to hold tighter to science, but be more automatic in their opposition of hunting.
The hunting neutral crowd embraces science even more tightly and is sensitive to the concerns of hunters and anglers. And while many of their supporters might have animal rights and anti-hunting leanings that reflect the views of the general population, the group’s scientific and field staff more than likely come from a hunting and angling culture or have that exposure. Cascadia Wildlands lands in this class of groups.
The pro-hunting and angling conservation groups are simply that—they are people who live and work to hunt and fish. They are largely science driven, but often see conservation biology as a newer and less proven discipline than traditional wildlife biology. These folks like most of the folks to the left of them are pretty much as advertised and their rhetoric, actions and public messaging are consistent. I may not always agree in the particulars of their positions from a biodiversity perspective but their actions can clearly be argued from the perspective of current and future hunters and anglers. (In point of fact, I would not have likely seen the energy development piece had I not seen it on the Backcountry Hunters and Angler’s Facebook feed)
Where the problem arises is with what I am calling the pro-hunting and angling exploitation groups (I have identified these previously as wedge groups) because they are defensively and self-righteously pro-hunting and angling, but their actions and inactions bespeak a different, darker purpose. And when someone catches them at their game these groups immediately characterize those in opposition or those who even question them as anti-hunters. If that fails or they need a larger attack posse they then ring the Second Amendment bell loudly, which is tantamount to throwing chunks of red meat to a guard dog you want absolutely focused on something other than vigilance.
There was a time when I would cut them some slack and think that perhaps they were just uninformed or programmatically clumsy, but the unwavering consistency of their actions paints a pattern of hardly ever lifting a finger or raising an eyebrow when ranching, timber and energy interests ride “a-whompin' and a-whumpin’” through the West. The unfortunate answer to the reason why this is happening and what really creates the dividing line between the pro-sporting factions of conservation and exploitation is really money. Now I will be the first to admit that running a non-profit is a tough game; it takes both guts and principles. And we all make compromises in our own way, but there is a huge difference between being accepting from and being beholding to.
“Nonetheless, they usually stick to conservation—"We like to stay back in the bushes, and make sure those bushes are healthy," he says—unless a key revenue stream depends on defending the companies that pay its bills. "We rely on the outdoor industry, because that's how we exist," Holyoak says. "Our funds do come from somewhere." Quote from RMEF Director of Public Relations in Hunters Have an NRA Problem by Lydia DePillis in New Republic February 2013
When considered in the light of this large monetary “tail” (or tails) wagging the organizational “dog,” a lot of the policy missteps and puzzling lack of action start to make perfect sense. One litmus test in this is climate change. Scientists and conservation groups who were watching recognized that climate change was going to have a devastating impact on wildlife even before Bill McKibben published his book The End of Nature in 1989. I participated in a number of talks with energy industry representatives in the early 1990s about projects that would simultaneously benefit wildlife and sequester carbon.
And while the environmental community has been geared up and vocal on this issue since before the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, broader and more public acceptance of this was slower in coming from many of the professional groups like The Wildlife Society that dedicated an entire publication to this issue in 2008 at about the same time an influential element of the hunting and angling community issued a collective statement called Seasons’ End: Global Warming’s Threat to Hunting and Fishing. Nearly everyone in the spectrum described above was on-board with doing something significant about climate change except a few organizations (see project description above from Safari Club from their consultant).
“As the oil and gas industry generously support sportsmen’s groups, they appear to be turning away from their constituencies in favor of the energy industry’s causes — specifically, mining, drilling, and logging in areas previously preserved for wildlife.” In NRA Abandons Hunters In Favor Of Oil And Gas Corporations by Lulu Chang in The National Memo April 2014
“The CAP report details show how oil and gas companies are leveraging three groups in particular—Safari Club International (SFI), Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation (CSF), and the National Rifle Association (NRA)—to attain "an increasingly active and vocal role in advancing energy industry priorities, even when those positions are in apparent conflict with the interests of hunters and anglers who are their rank-and-file members." In Public-Land Protests and Their Big-Energy Puppet Masters by Mary Catherine O’Connor in The Current May 2014
"Draw your own conclusions, but keep a few facts in mind: Before she went to work for the Safari Club International, [Melissa] Simpson worked for a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm. One of her clients was the oil and gas industry, and one of her assignments was to counter the concerns of sportsmen's groups, which had voiced concerns about oil and gas exploration running roughshod over America's hunting and fishing grounds." in Beware of Wolves Cloaked in "Access" by Ben Long in High Country News September 2011
When you looked at those organizations reluctant to embrace climate change an amazing thing came to light: Those who did not see climate change as a serious problem were also those who received significant finding from or were involved in partnerships with the oil industry. Groups like Safari Club International (SCI 1,2), Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF 1,2) the National Rifle Association (NRA 1,2) were doing well financially while casting doubt on the phenomenon, running interference for oil companies, or just turning a blind eye to whole thing.
“Here’s the core point I’d like to make: When we follow Bill’s lead and set aside the politics and the rhetoric, it’s obvious that sportsmen and scientists are on the same page. It’s almost impossible to be a hunter or an angler here in the Rockies and not see the empirical evidence that Bill [Geer], who is a respected biologist, documents in his presentation.” Todd Tanner in Field and Stream’s The Conservationist March 2011
Perhaps they just didn’t get the climate change memo? Maybe, but my sense is that it relates to the above root of a myriad of problems (i.e., money makes the world go around). Part of my feeling—at least where RMEF is concerned—is reinforced by their casual and immediate rejection of the Olaus Murie legacy from their culture. Moreover, when I look at the very credible and needed work done by Bill Geer in the climate change realm at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and later with Climate Hawks, I really have to question why he was summarily ejected from RMEF during their massive personnel massacre around 2000. Now all personnel issues are admittedly tricky, but when I compare Mr. Geer’s accomplishments, academic grounding and reputation in the wildlife arena to the current crop of senior managers at RMEF working on the conservation end of things, he stands head and shoulders above this lot.
Now if this were just about climate change, I would probably just shake my head, take a chill pill and walk calmly away, but it is not. The NRA, Safari Club and RMEF also took an uninformed and anti-wildlife position on the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, H. R. 1581 in 2011 Please see image of Wyoming Senator John Barrasso—above, at right—co-author of this road bill and also the bill to extend the length of grazing leases. He is pictured at a RMEF banquet where the image of a cowboy on the range overshadows the elk. Is it possible to have too much irony in a single photograph?.
RMEF later withdrew their support for this legislation citing member feedback and a closer examination of the science as rationales for the reversal. OK, but if there is one constant maxim in deer biology it is that elk and roads do not mix well. How could an elk organization miss that?
Conservation is and should be a passionate field, because the stakes are so high for so many. So where is the outrage from these groups over legislative proposals to double the length of grazing leases given that cattle displace and compete with deer and elk? Where are the prudent questions from these organizations challenging the efficacy of extending these already too long leases that have broadly degraded lands—particularly during a time of climatic uncertainty? Where are they on wildlife diseases like Chronic Wasting Disease, Hair Loss Syndrome and this whole issue of elk hoof rot in southwestern Washington (1,2)? And do not even get me started on supplemental feeding, Brucellosis management and bison on public lands.
And now with public land ownership once again under serious attack (thank you again extractive industries), where are their campaigns to protect these lands from privatization at a time when our growing population base and fluctuating climate demand that we expand the public estate and create a little margin for ourselves and wildlife? Even as I ask the above questions an image of the three monkeys that cannot see, speak or hear evil come to mind as these groups have sold indulgences to the extractive industries and left the hard task of fighting for our public lands to those of us willing to stand up for wildlife diversity and healthy fisheries.
"Our community has never felt comfortable wading in there," says an executive with a conservation-oriented hunting group who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly about the NRA. "They are so ruthless, and carry such a big hammer, that very few in our community are willing to get in there and risk their wrath." In Hunters Have an NRA Problem by Lydia DePillis in New Republic February 2013
But there is more. Their moneyed presence on the landscape and their tendency to tar those that question their stances as anti-hunter stifles those groups that want to raise these issues and should in the cause of legitimate public policy examination and debate. In addition while they stifle the responsible, their actions also empower the fringes and create even more harmful mimics like Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, Big Game Forever and a host of smaller, self-styled voices of the hunter and angler.
This brings me back full-circle to the value of an ethics-based hunting and angling culture, which seems to have evaporated in the above exploitive conglomeration. Some of my friends and colleagues will argue that I am describing an oxymoron and smile at me knowingly, but many will also nod in agreement. For they too learned their code of behavior and sense of fair-play hanging with the gruff and grizzled visages they trod behind, listened to and emulated on frosty fall days. Looking back on those lessons—while they were certainly about outdoor skills, bullets and hooks—they also acted to instill a respect for our fellow travelers on this planet (human and not), built a behavior pattern of making no sounds and leaving no traces and created a near compulsion to obey our country’s laws whether someone was watching or not.
It was here in this crucible that we also got exposed to moralistic writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Zane Grey moving on eventually to the likes of Aldo Leopold and Olaus Murie. Here too were our heroes and models handed to us from Theodore Roosevelt (1,2) and Ernest Thompson Seton to Joseph Bird Grinnell and John Muir.
Now many on all sides of the hunting and angling debates—both pro and con—can point to examples of bad behaviors associated with sportsmen and gun owners. (I will stipulate here that there are also bad behaviors on the other extreme, but that is for another day.) These range from outrageously disrespectful and near criminal comments on Facebook to the actions of the participants in the still-unfolding Affair Bundy in the Southwest and other similar events. I would hope by now that there is a seed of understanding that these obviously do not come from this outdoor culture that I have repeatedly described and also that the hunting and angling community—just like the environmental community—is not monolithic.
I would hope also that those in the hunting and angling realm as well as those in the broader environmental community will take time to look at both the rhetoric and actions of organizations to know more selectively which groups to support and which they should chastise. I look forward to the day when people grasp that their best conservation partner might not be the person who looks, dresses, talks, votes and even smells like them, but the person who values wildlife, clean water, wilderness and more public lands for all to enjoy as much as they do.