Featured in Spring 2017 Issue of Maryland Hunting Quarterly
There are three universal truths you must learn to accept if you own a hunting license: You are a part of a desperate minority, you are subject to the legislation voted on by the vast majority, and you are guaranteed nothing.
These truths should concern you. Consider this: reflective of a losing battle for hunting privileges in California, the California Department of Fish and Game changed its name to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to appeal to the non-hunting public at the start of 2013. In 2014, the Maine Bear Hunting Ban Initiative Question 1 (2014) was placed on the voting ballot where it came scarily close to being reality, with a marginal defeat of just 6.8%. If this legislation had passed, which powerhouse supporters such as The Humane Society had wished for, practical bear hunting methods in Maine would have virtually been eliminated, making its use as a management and conservation tool negligible. In 2015, Cecil the Lion was killed in Zimbabwe by a dentist named Walter Palmer. A ripple effect spurred from Cecil’s death in Africa, leading straight across the Atlantic Ocean on a dead end course for the United States, where it met with a collision of controversy. Hunting practices in America were called into question – where does hunting fit in today’s society? Sportsmen were forced to find a justifiable answer.
Still not feeling the pressure? In May of 2016, a new Walter Palmer hit the scene. This time in the form of a young man named Josh Bowmar. Josh humanely harvested a black bear with a spear in Alberta and posted his video to YouTube. As one could have guessed, this was just the fuel needed for an uprise in media frenzy. News outlets condemned his ‘archaic’ and ‘barbaric’ hunting practices, and social media erupted with opinionates of all sides. Under the microscope of the public, hunters were once again put on the chopping block and persecuted for participating in an age long activity.
Oh yeah, how could I forget – Montana. A state once home to the centuries long American fur trade, bearing a reputation of infinite hunting opportunities, is now proposing the Montana Animal Trap Restrictions Initiative, I-177 (2016). If passed, the initiative will eliminate all fur trapping practices on Montana’s public lands. If it can happen in an outdoor state as iconic as Montana, it can happen anywhere. Montana’s trapping privileges were up for vote by the public this year. (Publisher’s Note: The Initiative failed – Trapping privileges in Montana were upheld by a 63% to 37% vote)
I find it necessary to be analytical as opposed to reactionary (although it can be a true test of self-restriction in some cases) in the course of finding resolution. To defend our cause we need to analyze the perception of hunting from the non-hunting masses, as well as examine how well we as hunters have done with our PR work. In order to protect our hunting privileges from being abolished we need to recognize our areas of strength, but more importantly we need address the areas in need of improvement.
Breaking It Down
If we are to protect our hunting heritage from encroaching public discontent, we must understand a few fundamental principles.
The first is the “charismatic megafauna effect”, which results in an unconscious hierarchical value for life. Let’s take Facebook pictures as an example. There will be more criticism if you post a picture of a dead bear than if you post a picture of a dead deer, more criticism of the dead deer over a dead duck, more criticism of the duck over a fish, and more criticism of the fish then the eggplant you grew and ate from your garden. The bigger and fluffier the creature, the more public support and empathy the animal receives. It’s used as a way to make money for conservation (think polar bears as poster children for climate change activists, and elephants as the image for conservation in Africa), and conversely used to attack hunting rights. The Maine anti-bear hunting proposition, the Josh Bowmar, and the Walter Palmer incidents are all products of the charismatic megafauna effect. When dealing with hunting these animals, we are fighting the greatest battle and must take the utmost care in defending our privileges.
Secondly, any legislation working to take away from hunting is going to work in increments. Like predators attacking a large herd of prey, these things work from the outside in. Opponents will not be able to abolish bear hunting as a whole through one swift legislative victory. However, they can and will attack fringe hunting activities then work toward taking away core practices. For example, they can start by taking away trapping bears, then a couple years later ban hunting bears with dogs, then hunting bears in certain areas, then hunting bears in specific zones, and so on and so forth until there is no more bear hunting. When bear hunting is abolished, deer hunting will be next. This is how minor legislative losses can result in large changes over time. This is why we should pay careful attention to the light in which we are portraying hunting.
The third and most important principle is that hunting legislation is in the hands of the non-hunting public, AKA the vast majority of people who hold power in the polling booth. The solution is to know your elected officials. Get to know the issues. Register to vote. Actually vote!
The Problem with Social Media
The general public’s image of hunting is told through the lens of social media. This is where we make our friends and enemies. Social media has provided a new age where videos, pictures, and opinions can be broadcasted in a matter of microseconds. Look no further than Facebook to see just how big the buck was that Jimmy shot last week, and look no further than Instagram to see the weeks tally on dead ducks. Not only are our social media posts reaching our hunting buddies, but they are also reaching our non-hunting followers. When it comes to the public’s perception of hunting, this has huge implications. Our actions are subjected to applause, scrutiny, and everything in-between.
To elaborate, I again point to bad hunting PR of the past, such as prolific cases like Josh Bowmar and Kendall Jones (the blonde-haired cheerleader who you may remember caused a Facebook uproar after she posted a picture of her with a dead lion under her foot in 2014). This is not to mention countless other instances which do not make mainstream media outlets. Not all of these hunters are at fault; some receive negative feedback and bad press through no fault of their own, however other cases can be attributed to simple carelessness.
Let me give you an example which really irks me. On my way duck hunting last week I was stuck behind a truck at a red light. Through blackened diesel exhaust, I read what must have been the drivers’ most proudly flaunted bumper sticker: “If it’s brown it’s down” accompanied with a silhouette of antlers and all. When my hunt was all wrapped up, I checked my Instagram and Facebook to see what others have been shooting as usual. A new hashtag trend has started up among my fellow duck hunters: “If it flies it dies.”
The fact of the matter is that sayings like these, although clever and amusing to some, do nothing to appeal the mind of non-hunters. In that same way, taking a picture with your foot over a dead lion does not necessarily resonate with others. Bottom line, it’s disrespectful. While I support duck hunting Instagram posts, deer hunting bumper stickers, and Kendall Jones’ ethical/legal lion hunt, these instances are hard to defend. In fact, their portrayal invites opposition. Being ignorant to the way you portray hunting is not only careless, but it is also reckless in a time where public support is a must.
The social media age calls for a certain level of consciousness; consciousness in the form of recognizing what you are putting out there, whether it is through the way we articulate hunting, or through the photos we post on our pages, or through the ways we define ourselves as hunters.
I am not suggesting censoring our pursuits, or not sharing your pictures, videos, or thoughts on social media, but what I am suggesting is respectful showmanship and being a true sportsman. We must respect that the non-hunting audience usually has limited exposure into the life of a hunter. We are trying to appeal to people of all walks of life, some of these people having lived their whole lives in big cities. Not all of them have been tracking deer with their dad since they were too young to walk themselves, the same way that not all of us were riding subway transits as a child. We need a degree of easement in what we post, allowing transition into the perspectives of a hunter.
What Can Be Done?
- Know the facts and articulate these appropriately. Become educated in the ways in which hunting promotes conservation. Be able to articulate and show how hunting is the leading economical contributor to the preservation of wild lands which benefit more species than just game. Keep up to date with the latest in wildlife biology and management. Understand how wildlife biologists use sound science to produce hunting regulations. Use these facts to engage non-hunters.
- Know your social media presence. Know what you are posting, what that post says about you and the hunting community, and how you can portray the importance of hunting in today’s society. On social media, we are representatives of the hunting community as a whole. A picture speaks a thousand words; don’t let your hunting pictures speak against hunting instead of promoting it.
- Speak Up. If you have a hunting buddy who is ignorant when it comes to their social media use, or if you know a fellow hunter who articulates hunting in a distasteful manner, for the love of god call them out. If we all keep our mouth shut, whether we are on the same team or not, we will let a few bad eggs lose us the battle.