James McWilliams: Hunting doesn't help conservation


Published: Sunday, February 10, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 8, 2013 at 8:44 p.m.

Writing in The Gainesville Sun on Feb. 4, Brian Block, an almost 20-year vegan, advocated opening land held under the Alachua County Forever program to hunting.

His argument was not an explicit endorsement of hunting so much as a roundabout utilitarian claim that hunting would leverage greater support for conservation efforts. Get enough people who like to blow away animals on board and you can prevent undeveloped land from becoming a Walmart.

This land preservation defense of hunting is a common one. It's so common in here in Texas, where I live, that one can, as I did yesterday, hear a defense of it over breakfast at a vegan macrobiotic restaurant in the liberal bastion of Austin.

As a general point, I think anyone who knows the first thing about ecology understands that ecosystems are healthiest when left unmanaged.

If it is the long-term health of ecosystems that we have in mind, our best bet is simply to leave them well enough alone.

Of course, humans are short-term thinkers. We're also environmentally meddlesome to the point of destruction. And, at times, arrogant.

Thus we have convinced ourselves that we can, by allowing a bunch of men and women with an arsenal of weaponry play Rambo amidst our fields and forests, improve these inherently robust ecosystems through federal- and state-run programs.

We are — again as a long-term prospect — almost always wrong about this.

We don't even fully know how these ecosystems work. What makes us think we can accomplish something as complex as micromanaging their species profile?

Theoretically, I suppose, it's possible that a team of experienced hunters could cherry pick a minimal population of doe in order to moderate deer numbers, minimize subsequent starvation and approximate the appearance of effective land management in the short term.

But it never works this way.

In reality, when bounties are placed on animals in the name of conservation, hordes of weekend warriors trying to compensate for something (perhaps a loss of power in some other area of life) dress up in camo, buy a case of Bud and firebomb the weakest members of a species, thereby selecting for the strongest.

Advanced riflemen then seek out the biggest bucks, reserving their fire for specimen that might serve as an impressive wall trophy.

Together, the end result of these approaches is ecologically counterproductive, if not disastrous. Populations that are perceived to be too high are, in their violent reduction, rendered so weak they may never recover, thus creating room for another, perhaps more invasive species to proliferate that could be, alas, hunted.

“Conservation” thus becomes yet another example of a euphemism obscuring our blood lust. The vast majority of conservation-driven hunting policies are designed not to improve the quality of a particular ecosystem but to improve the quality of the hunt.

As with so many activities humans pursue, we'd be so much better off letting go of the mythical associations of hunting and reflecting on what it is within us that makes us want to kill.

James McWilliams is a professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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