Resulting in one of the most intriguing ecological phenomenons observed by man, the 1995 gray wolf reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park shed light on the various impacts large predators have on the ecosystem. In result of national park predatory control efforts conducted by various federal agencies, gray wolves were extirpated from Yellowstone by 1926. In the absence of an apex predator, elk had the ability to thrive and reproduce without fear of predation. Without wolf competition, coyote numbers also rose to unbalanced numbers which negatively impacted rabbit, red fox, and rodent populations. As the elk population reached near unsustainable numbers, shrub and plant life throughout the park were in peril. Cottonwood, willow, and aspen saplings were being consumed and destroyed at alarming rates, removing habitat and food sources for various other species. The ecosystem of Yellowstone National Park in the 1900’s was in desperate need of rebalance. It wasn’t until 1995 when biologists and wildlife agencies took action with a simple resolution. Gray wolves were reintroduced into the park to fill the missing predatory niche. The release of gray wolves gave rise to life. As the wolves predated on elk reducing their numbers, plant life throughout the park flourished. Beaver populations began to grow with the regeneration of food sources, and they built dams which changed the landscape. The new landscape changed by the beavers provided crucial habitat for waterfowl, fish, and amphibians. With wolves hindering the success of coyote reproduction, red fox, rabbit, and rodent populations also began to recover. As an apex predator, the gray wolf had a great deal of impact not only on its prey species, but on its environment as a whole.
Like the gray wolf of Yellowstone, human hunters have a significant impact on our environment in a trickle down effect to various aspects of ecosystems, species livelihood, and habitat quality. Due to our impact on nature, we as hunters are dealt a responsibility. In a world of growing population growth, growing disconnection to the food we consume, and growing habitat loss, hunters are the last line of defense for the preservation of natural systems. We are dealt the responsibility of environmental protection due to the fact that hunters are the largest group of conservationist and wildlife caretakers in the world. Without the contribution of hunters, finding the funds for wildlife and habitat preservation would be an impossible task. For the benefit of future North American ecosystems and wildlife, a hunter’s responsibility can be broken down into three core divisions: conservation, ethics, and education.
Whether the incentive to hunt is hammering a wide-racked whitetail, dropping a limit on waterfowl, or calling the gobbler of a lifetime into shotgun range, every hunter is an inevitable contributor to conservation in many different ways. For one, the sales of tags, licenses, ammunition, and hunting related items all contribute to conservation through excise taxes . In an even larger example, since 1934 as a part of the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Act, every waterfowler in the nation over the age of 16 is required to possess an up to date Federal Duck Stamp. The Federal Duck Stamp was formerly made available for $15, but after the passing of the Duck Stamp Bill of 2014 the price has jumped to $25. I have heard some complain and moan about the extra 10 bucks they must now pay to enjoy the luxuries of hunting ducks, but to complain about the extra payment is contradictory as a duck hunter. 98 cents to every dollar spent on the Federal Duck Stamp goes directly to habitat conservation and the purchase of wetlands for protection under the National Wildlife Refuge System. Since the Federal Duck Stamps became mandatory in 1934, 6 million acres of waterfowl habitat has been preserved. The equation is easy, more waterfowl habitat equals more waterfowl. More waterfowl circling a decoy spread is the hopes of every duck hunter, so we should all be delighted in the conservation efforts that caused the price jump of the Federal Duck Stamp.
Various success stories begin to tell the tale of a hunter’s place in conservation. The recovery of the whitetail deer from a population 500,000 to 15 million in just over 100 years is one example. The growth of turkey populations from 1.3 million in the 1970s to over 7 million today is another example. However, I think the greatest success stories lie in the creation of groups of people who care enough to donate their time, energy, and effort to conservation. The success and efforts of conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, National Wild Turkey Federation, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is unparalleled. The organizations are nonprofit and work endlessly for the conservation of habitat and in turn, the conservation of all species that utilize the given habitat. For example, the National Wild Turkey Federation just recently started a 10 year initiative called the Big Six to improve habitat across 738 million acres of landscape. They focus to improve habitat through tactics which include water quality improvement, forest restoration, land preservation, and forest maintenance. As well as Ducks Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation purchases target elk habitat and hands the land over to national agencies for conservation and management. There are countless other organizations like these three that strive for the protection of key game lands.
Not only do these organizations pursue unrivaled initiatives in wildlife preservation, but they also hold a strong influence in legislation. For example, Ducks Unlimited was the main proponent for the Duck Stamp Bill of 2014 which raised the price of the duck stamp from $15 to $25. These organizations display the power hunters possess as a group in being able to preserve the lands and animals they revere. However, these organizations would not exist if it weren’t for the many mindful hunters who have a stake in the security of natural lands. As a hunter with the responsibility to conserve and protect, volunteering for these organizations provides a perfect opportunity. The art of hunting in the contemporary world and being a contributing conservationist go hand in hand. To be a passionate hunter and be ignorant to conservation efforts is contradictory. One must be mindful and cognizant of the ecosystem he or she is harvesting from. For if there ever comes a day that all hunters turn ignorant to ecosystem management and conservation, it will be marked by habitat over-exploitation and species detriment.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ethics as rules of behavior based on ideas of what is morally good or bad. There are various reasons why people enter the hunting realm, but all hunters make a choice every time they draw back their bow or put the bead of their shotgun on their prey. When an animal’s life is taken, there is a sort of ethical guideline that responsible hunters must follow. Two relatively recent experiences I have had the displeasure of having help to convey a lack of ethics in hunting:
I once worked with a man who loved to fish. Every Monday he came back to work with numerous tales from his boat, most of them were fabricated, but displayed his enthusiasm for fishing nonetheless. On one particular Monday he came into work and as usual, started boasting about his weekend and the 72 white perch he had caught. “All cleaned out and ready, anybody want any?” he asked. When nobody took up his offer, he responded with “Ah thats alright, we can’t eat that many though. I’ll just dump the rest.” The amount of disgust and disdain I held against his immoral actions were immediately alleviated when a coworker asked why he didn’t just practice catch and release fishing instead of taking away from the perch population in such an irresponsible manner. To this question, he had no answer suitable enough to amend his unnecessary actions.
In another instance, I once knew a guy who we can call Jim. Jim was around my age and he claimed he loved to duck hunt. He would sometimes post pictures of his kills on social media and often tell me stories about his hunts. It wasn’t long before another friend of mine who sometimes accompanied Jim on duck hunts told me something that was left out of all the hunting stories and pictures. He began to describe a duck hunt in which he and Jim had managed to harvest five ducks. Three of the ducks were mallards, and the two others were hooded mergansers, which are not known for having the best tasting breast meat, but edible regardless. I was told that as they were cleaning the ducks, Jim picked up one of the hooded mergansers and without an incision made or feather plucked exclaimed, “This is a junk duck!” With that, Jim had thrown a perfectly edible hooded merganser which was on its migration just hours ago into the woods without a care in the world.
Why shoot a duck that you will just throw out and call a “junk duck”? Why pull such a substantial amount of white perch out of the river knowing you cannot consume them all yourself? This all boils down to a question of virtues and ethics. As a hunter, what are the ideal virtues and ethics you should possess? Well, like I had just written about with conservation, having a mind for the well-being of species is one important virtue. Next would be to eat the animals you do decide to hunt. It would be hard for me to believe that Jim or my former coworker have the ability to construct a cohesive answer as to what they feel they accomplished by taking an animal’s life which they did not eat. The philosophy of eating the animals you kill also encompasses the ethics of taking a clean shot. This means taking a shot in which there is a great chance that the animal will face quick death. Many hunters are scarred with stories of trickled out blood trails, and ducks that have ran away wounded in the marsh. After spending enough time hunting, these situations are inevitable no matter how good of a shot the hunter thought they had. Taking the extra time to secure a kill shot, however, can reduce the number of animals a hunter leaves wounded in the wild. Taking the extra time for a good shot is hunting responsibly. Holding every animal that taken, and appreciating it as a food source while being mindful that it was once a sentient being, is also hunting responsibly.
Another aspect of being an ethical hunter would be to treat others in the wilderness with respect. Too often have I heard hunting stories about people getting into fights over hunting territory. We have all heard hunters say “That’s my spot.” Well, unless you hunt private land, you hold just as much ownership to “your spot” as your neighbor who doesn’t even hunt. This is where issues of respect and ethics come in to play. As a part of being a responsible hunter, it is everyone’s duty not to intrude on other people’s hunts. Public hunting land is defined exactly how it sounds, public. There is no private ownership on public land.This means that if a hunter sees a treestand in the woods, they should leave the area and find a new place to hunt. If a hunter goes out on his/her boat early in the morning to find that someone has unknowingly taken “their duck spot”, they should leave the area and find a new place to hunt. These are a set of unwritten hunting laws that were instilled into myself and many other hunters growing up, yet many seem to have forgotten. Avoiding confrontation and guaranteeing an enjoyable hunting experience by steering clear of other people’s hunts is a crucial element in being a responsible hunter.
Being an educated hunter not only enhances the ability to autonomously put oneself in a position to harvest more animals, but it also allows the ability to pass on knowledge. The passing of knowledge can be in any of the forms I have described above: the passing of hunting ethics, the passing of conservation importance, etc. However, hunting is an activity that needs to be taught in order to be successful. I learned all the tricks and trades of hunting from my dad. He learned from his. So on and so forth. I intend to not only teach my future child the ways of hunting responsibly, but also anyone else who is receptive to learning the trade. Some people in the contemporary world were not born with the fortune of having a father who hunts. This is where modern day responsible hunters need to step in and educate. Educate those people on how to harvest an animal ethically. Educate those people on how they can give back to nature. Educate those people on how they can keep one of the oldest traditions of mankind alive. The education of new and young hunters is imperative for the future of hunting in North America. There will never be a day when conservation doesn’t need new and enthused proponents to help the cause. There will also never be a day when hunting doesn’t need more members to participate in a lost method of food acquisition. Education is indispensable when it comes to spreading awareness on conservation and hunting tactics. Becoming an educator is the responsible hunters obligation.
Like the wolves of Yellowstone, we human hunters have the ability to change landscapes, alter population dynamics, and manipulate ecosystems. With that degree of dominance, there must be an equal degree of responsibility through conservation, ethics, and education in every hunter who harvests from the land. There is something to be said of the hunter that follows these core values. Not only is he/she a provider for those they feed with naturally attained meat, but he/she is also a contributor to all natural systems. As the largest defense group for these natural systems, hunters must retain a sense of responsibility, it is a hunters duty.