I am in an odd place politically. I suppose one of the worst things about living in America now is that we have decided what tribes we belong to, and the two tribes have gone to war.
Don’t get me wrong. I know which tribe I belong to. It was somewhat preordained because I was raised in the one the last FDR-style liberal family still left in the backwoods of West Virginia. No one in my immediate family voted for Trump, and I didn’t either.
I am also approaching my 35th birthday, which means my political views were largely set during the George W. Bush administration. Let’s just say I wasn’t a fan.
But at the same time, I like to hunt and fish. There is an assumption in the new tribal landscape of this country that if one calls himself a progressive Democrat that this political identity means that I side with the radical animal rights movement.
I don’t. Indeed, I oppose them as much as I do the right wing, but in this new era, it is really hard to explain to people that I am not a Republican.
I am well aware that the Republican Party and conservatism as construed now are entities that have a pretty bad demographic problem. As time goes on, it will have harder and harder times winning elections.
And the sad thing is, hunting and, to a lesser extent, fishing have hitched their political wagons to that party. Virtually all the celebrity hunters on TV are Republican. If they aren’t, they are either Canadian or are very quiet about not being Republican.
The problem here is obvious. In a few decades, the Republican Party is going to have a hard time winning elections, and the Democratic Party is full of people who have very negative notions about what hunting is.
I see so many hunters talk up Donald Trump Jr. as someone we should celebrate as a hunter. I don’t know how he is as a hunter, but for me and for a whole host of people my age and younger, he is not an admirable figure at all. To me, he’s that guy who meets with people who work for the Russian government to get opposition research on his father’s opponent. To others, he’s that blowhard who thinks socialism is about taking candy away from children on Halloween.
I don’t care that he spent much of his youth learning to hunt with his grandfather, a gamekeeper for the state in Czechoslovakia, and I say this as someone who has more than a passing interest in Central European hunting and wildlife management systems.
If people like the Trumps and Ted Nugent are the representatives for what hunting is, then the whole enterprise is doomed to fail. It will fall apart as the Republican Party stops being able to win elections.
Who could save hunting?
Well, we’ve got to find someone like a 21st Century Aldo Leopold. I have no idea what Aldo Leopold’s politics were, but he wrote about hunting and ecology in truly poignant ways.
And he never once came across in his prose as some kind of yahoo. He was a lifelong hunter, but he was troubled by some the axioms of the culture in which he lived.
Leopold would have real problems with a president who denies climate change and allows fossil fuel companies to operate with impunity. He would have taken great issue with current moves to dump off public lands into the hands of the states or private interests.
To save hunting, we must find away of connecting the act with affirmative conservation. Most people live in urban areas. Their understanding of the wild is mostly from digital content now.
They cannot see or fully understand that hunting plays a major role on our North American model of conservation. In our system, wildlife is managed as a public trust, but most the fees that go to support research and conservation come from the sale of ammunition and hunting licenses. As those fees dwindle, it will become harder and harder to fund research and conservation projects.
And that will ultimately be bad for wildlife.
Further, hunting itself plays a management role in the ecosystem. Ever since the first people came down into this continent from Siberia, humans have been managing wildlife. When Europeans arrived here, they found many different nations of people who actively engaging in managing wildlife and maintaining habitat. It is well-known that fire was used to maintain good grazing for deer in open parts of the Northeastern forests, and they were actively working on creating conditions on the land the produced enough wild animals on which they could survive.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Americans began to realize that we’d wrecked our wildlife heritage, and hunters were among those who led the movement to preserve species.
The white-tailed deer, for example, was quite rare by the early part of the twentieth century, and so state after state began to set up wildlife management programs for them. In a world in which wolves and cougars had been mostly killed off, the deer recovered very well. Indeed, when I was in my adolescence, the deer were so numerous in parts of West Virginia that there were very real concerns that they would eat the forest down around them.
Liberalizing hunting on the deer has helped cut those numbers back. In most of northern and central West Virginia, the doe season has been lengthened out. In some counties, one must kill a doe during rifle season in order to use a second buck tag. This provision has resulted in higher doe kills. If one kills a mature doe, then you’re removing three deer from the population: the doe and the two fawns she will have the next spring. Thus, the numbers can be reduced fairly quickly if the does can be targeted in this fashion.
Some anti-hunters might say that we should just bring back wolves and cougars, but the North American continent as it exists now will never tolerate wolves and cougars on the land at the same levels were around at the time of European settlement. Suburbanites raise hell when coyotes set up shop, and they certainly would lose it if they saw a pack of wolves chasing a deer through a golf course.
So we’re going to need hunting to preserve what wild remains. When humans hunt, we assume the role of the predatory beasts we’ve extirpated, but we also assume the role in the ecosystem that we’ve held for the past 300,000 years.
You would never get such a discussion from the current avatars of hunting in America.
A few weeks ago, I decided to watch one of these hunting shows on television. It was primarily a white-tailed deer hunting program, and it had a hokey little intro.
And it went downhill from there. In the first minute and half, Al Gore was mocked for believing in climate change.
I didn’t watch another second. I changed the channel and began to wonder what these people are thinking.
Yes, they are pandering to an audience, but that audience is becoming a smaller and smaller part of the country.
And in this accident of the electoral college and gerrymandering, we are watching a minority of the country’s wishes being imposed upon the majority.
A backlash is certainly brewing, and hunters could very well be collateral damage.
I suppose I can see it because I am part of an even odder minority in the American political system, but I can see what is coming very clearly.
And hunters better do a better job reaching out to constituencies that aren’t on the right, or we’re toast.