There are upwards of fifteen million active hunters in the U.S. Within this group there are enormous differences in ethics and approach, and while some certainly treat hunting as a cruel sport, others use it as means of better understanding and protecting the environment.
The (un)ethical hunter
One of the biggest discussions within the hunting community is between trophy hunters and meat hunters. Although some suggest that trophy hunting can be good for the environment as hunters’ fees fund conservation efforts, it seems that at the core of the issue is the real motivation of the hunter.
Wildlife killing contests, although mostly legal and often carried out on public lands, are an example of senseless cruelty: participants win prizes for killing the most, or the biggest of the species they pursue. Coyotes, foxes, bobcats and even wolves fall prey to the senseless killing, and public outrage against the practice is growing.
In some instances, hunting has become a vital part of conservation efforts. As most ecosystems on the planet have been negatively affected by human activity and many large predators have become extinct or are on the brink of extinction, herbivores such as deer can easily overpopulate. With deer often grazing on saplings, forests become at risk of turning into pastures, making permit-controlled harvesting of the population surplus an important conservation strategy.
However, it is important to remember that hunting isn’t the only way of managing wildlife population and there are other strategies such as fertility control or increasing the numbers of predators. For example, scientists were surprised to discover that coyotes praying on fawns in North Carolina helped to keep the deer population in check.
Unfortunately, the US conservation system is heavily dependent on revenues coming from the hunting community. Funds from license fees and taxes on guns, ammunition and other equipment provide about 60 percent of the funding for state wildlife agencies. Concerned officials are calling for a rapid change in the system: money needs to be found elsewhere—for example, through general taxation—but that would require a change in legislature.
Conscious meat consumption
A recent UN climate change report called for a reduction in the amount of meat in the human diet as its production is one of the major culprits in global heating. Incredibly, the CO2 emissions of producing half a pound of beef amount to the same result as driving ten miles by car. In comparison, hunting is a significantly cleaner source of meat which has a much less detrimental effect on the planet.
Contrary to common misconceptions, hunting for meat is also much more humane than industrial production. Most farm animals spend their lives in horrible conditions, a reality that is often obscured from the consumer who purchases and eats meat without being able to reflect on the harm it causes. Meanwhile, a skilled hunter can harvest an elk or a deer which spent its days in nature, and make a fast, cruelty-free kill that will fill their freezer for many months to come.
Wild meat is also healthier than its industrially produced equivalent, and many hunters harbor more compassion toward the animals they hunt than consumers buying burgers off the supermarket shelf. In that sense, eating game can actually contribute to reducing the amount of meat in the human diet.
Inherently, hunting itself is neither good nor bad—it’s the practices associated with it that make the difference. Certainly, if done right, it can be not only a sustainable source of meat but also a way of keeping traditions alive and a beautiful form of outdoor recreation. Its future can be ensured only through an ongoing discussion about ethics and prioritizing the environment and animal welfare over sporting ambitions.