Hunting and conservation – do the two really go hand in hand? To many of those that do not hunt, the obvious answer seems so clearly No, they’re polar opposites! One is taking a life and the other is preserving a life. But to those who hunt or are in the “know”, the answer isn’t so simple. Yes, hunting does involve the killing of an animal. But what would our wildlife look like without hunters? This article aims to look at the relationship between hunting and conservation and answer what hunters do for conservation efforts.

Hunting has been a part of human existence since our earliest days. Because of this, hunting is deeply engrained in our DNA. But for the majority of people, the method for hunting has drastically changed in the modern era. Most people no longer hunt deep in the woods or in a faraway place, tracking a herd for days or even weeks on end. No, now most of hunting is done in aisle 7 of the local grocery store or at the local butcher shop. Regardless, for all the meat eaters out there, we’re hunters in one way or another and the end result is the same: there is a dead animal due to our need to eat. (Vegetarians need not apply)

So why is it that hunters catch slack for hunting and providing their own meat? Not only do hunters have a much deeper relationship with their food source (a topic that requires a whole other article in and of itself), but they also play a vital role in conservation efforts.

From the looks of it, hunters have been given an unfair shake here and many people are simply uninformed. Because when done appropriately, hunters actually help wildlife conservation efforts! Yes, that’s right, hunters are possibly some of the most avid conservationists out there.

From Mass Near Extinction To Thriving Conservation

Hunters help conserve wildlife in a handful of ways, of which we will get to. But to start, some historical context is needed. In the late 19th century, many animals were pushed to the brink of extinction due to a large amount of unregulated killing and habitat destruction. There were no seasons, there were no accepted rules – it was open season on anything and everything. As more animals edged closer to extinction, the hunters realized this wasn’t sustainable. If they were to continue in this manner, there would be nothing left to hunt for neither them nor future generations.

To combat the declining wildlife populations, hunters took action. They began organizing conservation groups and advocated for hunting regulations, working with Congress to pass laws that would better serve conservation. By the early 20th century, several laws were passed providing long-term protection for wildlife and the areas that they inhabited. Those laws and regulations put in place a framework that included 7 important features still used to this day.

1. Wildlife is a separate public resource, independent of the land or water it lives. The government has an obligation to manage these resources on behalf of its citizens.

2. Wildlife is managed by the law, and one must go through the government to acquire a hunting license or tag.

3. Wildlife is also only allowed to be killed for legitimate purposes – senseless killing is not allowed.

4. Wildlife species are an international resource – if a species crosses international boundaries, there are various treaties and agreements in place that protect them.

5. Markets for wild game are eliminated – commercial operations that once decimated several wildlife species have been made illegal.

6. Science is a tool used for hunting – wildlife is managed fairly and objectively based on scientific research.

7. Hunting is a democracy, without regard to wealth, prestige, or land ownership.

The Lacey Act of 1900 was the first major piece of wildlife legislation put in place, banning the interstate transportation and sale of illegally taken wildlife and making it a federal offense. In 1905, the Game and Bird Preserves Act was enacted and has resulted in numerous refuges and preserves since its passage. The Migratory Bid Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918 prohibits the capturing, selling, trading, transporting, and killing of nearly 1,100 species of migratory birds.

Luckily for hunters and all of wildlife at the time, their president was both the hunter and wildlife advocate himself – Theodore Roosevelt. President Theodore Roosevelt was a true outdoorsman and hunted everything from bison to bison to elk to Cape Buffalo. As much as he was a passionate hunter, he was also a dedicated conservationist – for him, the two went hand in hand.

“In a civilized and cultivated country, wild animals only continue to exist at all when preserved by sportsmen… The excellent people who protest against all hunting, and consider sportsmen as enemies of wildlife, are ignorant of the fact that in reality the genuine sportsman is by all odds the most important factor in keeping the larger and more valuable wild creatures from total extermination.” – President Theodore Roosevelt

President Theodore Roosevelt brought his love of nature and the ideals of conservation to his administration. He was the first to set aside land to be used for a wildlife refuge, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, in 1903. In total, President Theodore Roosevelt was responsible for establishing 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and over 230 million acres of public land. Six of our national parks are dedicated in some way, to our 26thpresident.

Without this push, without hunters and lawmakers working together, much of the wildlife that exists in North America today would most likely be nonexistent. Bison, white-tailed deer and wild turkeys were some of the species all tip-toeing the line towards extinction. In the end it was hunters, with a drive for a more ethical means of hunting, that tipped the scales in wildlife’s favor.

Fun Fact: Did you know that President Theodore Roosevelt was the inspiration behind the common Teddy Bear? Once on a hunting trip in Mississippi, his hunting group cornered a black bear and wanted Roosevelt to kill it. The President, an ardent hunter, viewed the whole ordeal as highly unsportsmanlike and refused. The story was celebrated and turned into a cartoon by political cartoonist Clifford Berryman. Afterwards, a Brooklyn candy shop owner turned the cartoon into a stuffed bear, dedicating the bear to the President. Its name? Teddy’s Bear.

How (Much) Do Hunters Promote Wildlife Conservation?

NC State’s Chris DePerno, a professor of fisheries, wildlife, and conservation biology at the College of Natural Resources, states that “Hunters do more to help wildlife than any other group in America. They not only provide financial support for state wildlife agencies, but they also play an important role in wildlife management activities” citing hunters as the “backbone” of wildlife conservation in the US.

Hunter’s biggest contribution comes in what is most essential: funding. More than anything else, and as counterintuitive as it sounds, wildlife loves money. Mainly because, they need it to keep us humans away. When funds are put towards conservation, land and habitat is bought and persevered for wildlife to continue to thrive. Many people think it’s the everyday taxpayers that fund these conservation programs, but that is simply not true. Hunters are in fact the behemoth doners towards conservation. And there is A LOT of money put towards the cause.

Since the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, or Duck Stamp Act, was passed in 1934, $1.1 billion has been generated resulting in the preservation of over 6 million acres of waterfowl habitat. This is all from hunters; if you’re 16 and older hunting waterfowl, a stamp is a required license for hunting with ninety-eight cents of each dollar spent going directly towards the purchase of vital habitat and conservation efforts within the National Wildlife Refuge System. And that’s just waterfowl.

Additional Fact: Did you know that North America’s bird population has decreased by 30% since 1970? That’s nearly 3 billion birds gone due to habitat loss.

Through the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, a wide range of conservation programs are funded. For every purchase on firearms, ammunition and other related gear, there is an excise tax (10-11%) that dishes part of the revenue to state wildlife agencies which in turn are used for conservation purposes, hunter education, and access to outdoor recreation. Since the Pittman-Robertson Act was passed in 1937, sportsmen have contributed over $14 billion in the name of conservation!

Following the success of the Pittman-Robertson Act, Congress passed the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act of 1950. This act was similar in that it created an excise tax on fishing gear and brings in roughly $650 million per year. Between these two acts, they fund the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration (WSFR) Program and in 2021, they brought in a whopping $1.5 billion in annual funding!

And that’s just a portion of the equation. Those two acts are based on funding from excise taxes from the purchase of hunting equipment. Another form of funding comes from hunting licenses. Hunting license fees make up an enormous amount of funding and each year, over $1 billion is raised through the sale of hunting licenses. By law, 100% of the money from license sales cannot be used for anything other than state wildlife resources and conservation programs.

Yet another way that hunters help conservation efforts? Population control. The rate at which deer, turkey, elk, and other species reproduce, is too quick for natural methods of population control to work. There simply aren’t enough predators to keep them in check. Hunters provide a means for reducing overpopulation of these animals. Without this, these species would run amuck and threaten the wellbeing of other species.

Take for instance wild pigs. Wild pigs breed wildly fast year-round, producing easily 10 or more in a litter. And they’re wreaking havoc into what’s been called the “feral swine bomb”. These wild pigs crossbreed with other types of wild boars to create super-pigs that have enhanced genetics and make them both cunning and excellent survivors. There are over 9 million feral across the US and they’re expanding rapidly.

Feral Swine USA

Image Source

These wild pigs have become unmanageable with states unable to keep up in population control efforts. States like Florida, Georgia, Texas, and California have vast populations and the feral pigs are wreaking havoc on their natural habitat as well as their economies. It’s estimated that these wild pigs are responsible for roughly $2.5 billion worth of damage in the US each year. They mow through farmer’s crops, destroy native plants, animals, and natural habitats. One single pig alone can easily carry 30 viral/bacterial diseases along with even more parasites.

Texas has allowed open season on hunting feral pigs and a couple of counties even offer hunters bounties for each kill. California is pushing for further deregulation to allow hunters a looser leash for hunting feral pigs. The goal is not to eradicate, but to control. And it’s not just for feral pigs. Take for instance, Whitetail Deer.

Whitetail deer are oftentimes in close proximity to urban areas where they can affect our everyday lives in several ways. From causing car crashes and killing plants, to over-grazing and spreading diseases, if left unchecked, too many whitetails would be a major issue.

Simply put, if some species were to not be hunted, their populations would skyrocket causing crowded environments, reduced resources, ecological imbalances, and a major negative economic impact. Hunters help combat these issues in a safe way that just makes sense. And when done ethically, it’s often a better way out for animals than the natural world.

Nature is brutal and, more often than not, the way animals die is ugly. Disney has led us to believe that animals die in a peaceful manner, tucked nicely in a bed of leaves. But the truth is that wild animals are more likely to die in a violent or tragic manner; they’re eaten alive by another animal, they die from the cold, they starve to death, or they get sick and die. When really thought about, a single blow from a hunter, who will use the meat to feed their own family, is a much better way to go out.  

Sure, the opposite of sparing a life is taking one, so the idea that hunting and conservation are each other’s best friends is an odd idea, but one that makes sense. Without hunters, our ecological landscape would look drastically different, and not for the better. For those who do not hunt and oppose it for their own reasons, that’s fine and understandable. To kill a living breathing and beautiful animal is heavy, as it should be. But when done ethically, it doesn’t make it wrong. In fact, it may just be conservation’s biggest advocate.