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Harpswell Naturalist: The case for hunting

Ed Robinson
April 18, 2023

Originally published in the Harpswell Anchor

I am a hunter.

That statement might earn me a dirty look, even a request to leave the party, immediately! Much depends upon the company you keep and where you reside. We lived in England for many years, a country with a long tradition of wealthy landowners on expensive horses hunting foxes with packs of dogs. Surveys showed more than 80% of the population was anti-hunting, so I kept a low profile.

Arriving in Maine 15 years ago was a bit of a shock. On my first visit to a doctor’s office, a friendly young receptionist asked me if I was ready for hunting season! She launched into a discussion of a planned duck hunt and the coming deer season. It took me a few minutes to recover my equilibrium, feeling like I had landed on a different planet. The ensuing years have convinced me that Maine is a good place for a hunter.

I have written for the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust for more than a decade and more recently for the Anchor, focused on wildlife and the natural world. Despite encouragement from some readers, I have rarely mentioned hunting in print, mostly out of respect for those who may not support the activity for reasons of their own. Recent questions from readers and a discussion with Anchor Editor J.W. Oliver prompted me to lay out the case for hunting. The opinions shared here are mine, and I know some will not agree with me.

canada goose stands in grass

A Canada goose in late afternoon light (Ed Robinson photo)

When did I begin to hunt? In the 1950s, most people in rural areas were in close communion with the land through farming, and harvesting game was common. My father and uncles loved hunting for rabbits, pheasants, squirrels and white-tailed deer. They were hardworking, blue-collar veterans of World War II and a day afield with younger hunters was cherished by all. It was understood that you skipped school on opening day and the game that fell to our guns landed on the dinner table with pride of place.

Why do I still hunt? That is complicated, like asking a lifelong sailor why she would spend so much money on her rarely used sailboat, or asking a fourth-generation lobsterman why he goes to sea in the face of economic hardships. Many of the passions in our lives are instinctive, so deeply ingrained in our makeup that we rarely question why we persist.

Paleontologists note that humans are hunters to the bottom of our ancient DNA. Evolving in a dangerous world, stalked by saber-toothed tigers and cave bears, men of relatively small stature and light musculature were forced to learn how to hunt for protein and protection. Fortunately, we were blessed with superior brains and the ability to develop tools for an advantage over other predators in the competition for food. Some people opposed to hunting have suggested that there is no reason for people in developed countries to harvest game animals, that enlightened hunters should evolve to focus on protecting animals. This line of thought ignores many realities of today’s natural world.

The arrival of Europeans on our shores meant trouble for animal populations. Advancements in firearms technology and gunpowder resulted in enhanced weapons, allowing market hunters to harvest huge numbers of animals with little regard for their populations. We all know about the decimation of species like the American bison and the passenger pigeon, but fortunately, saner minds finally said enough was enough. Farsighted leaders and sportsmen like Theodore Roosevelt, George Shiras and Gifford Pinchot pushed Congress to pass legislation like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 that regulated hunting seasons and set bag limits, laying the groundwork for what is now known as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

Looking back, we can see the impact of these changes. America’s elk herd rose from 41,000 in 1907 to more than 1 million today. Decimated waterfowl populations recovered to an estimated 44 million. Wild turkeys flourished from 100,000 to more than 7 million today. In each case, these recoveries were heavily supported with funds raised by hunting-related conservation organizations: the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, and the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Today there are dozens of similar organizations boosting ruffed grouse, mule deer, white-tailed deer, American woodcock, wild sheep, and pheasants. The groups work closely with state and federal agencies, including Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Other partners include nongame organizations like the National Wildlife Federation, Maine Audubon, land trusts and forest owners. These coalitions recognize that leveraging biological data, citizen science, public advocacy and lobbying can cut through red tape to complete major land conservation and habitat restoration projects that benefit a myriad of wildlife species, not just game animals.

Hunting participation was falling until the pandemic stimulated interest, resulting in 15 million licensed hunters in America. Each year, national sales of licenses and permits generate more than $900 million, most of it directed to state fish and game departments. Maine’s sales raise nearly $8 million. Annual fundraising by wildlife conservation groups adds another $450 million.

The biggest source of funding for modern wildlife management results from legislation pushed by sportsmen, the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Act. This created an 11% excise tax on sales of firearms, ammunition and fishing gear, plus 10% on handguns. The funds collected, nearly $1 billion last year, are returned to the states to match proceeds from license sales.

These dollars are critical to maintaining professional staffs in states like Maine, and for managing state-owned recreational land, since most legislatures provide little funding to fish and game departments. Sales of federal duck stamps fund the acquisition and management of wetlands, with more than $1.1 billion raised since 1934.

Who are these hunters? That varies widely, with California having less than 1% of its population going afield and 11% of Mainers holding hunting licenses. The hunting fraternity is aging, with 60% of hunters over 45 years old, jeopardizing ongoing funding for scientific wildlife management. As more people live in (sub)urban communities, they become disconnected from wild areas. There are too many distractions, including video games and social media. In response, hunter groups and state agencies have launched several initiatives to increase participation, for example, introducing novices and young people to hunting, expanded seasons, lower license fees, online hunter safety training programs, mentoring, and youth shooting clubs.

The fastest-growing segment in hunting is women of all ages. Breaking into a male-dominated activity, women are motivated by the challenge and independence of shooting and hunting. The growing demand for local foods plays a part, along with interest in low-fat, low-cholesterol organic food without growth hormones, antibiotics, and preservatives. Young people advocate for reducing beef, pork, and poultry production because of the climate effects of industrial-scale animal husbandry. In just 10 years, thanks to groups like Maine Women Hunters on Facebook, women have risen from 10% to 15% of Maine’s licensees.

With 154,000 resident hunters in Maine, plus 33,000 nonresidents, there is a huge amount of money spent in pursuit of the harvest. A recent study estimated a total spend of $220 million for hunting in Maine, with an additional financial impact of $140 million around the state. That includes food, lodging, guides, equipment, fuel, souvenirs and sporting gear, enough to support more than 4,000 jobs.

Humans have caused huge imbalances in the natural world, thanks to population expansion and unbridled development. When we intervene in the environment, however well intentioned, it can result in overpopulation and societal problems. When the popularity of fur crashed in the 1980s, raccoons, foxes, skunks and coyotes proliferated, triggering the spread of rabies in the northeastern U.S. (and a harsh death for millions of animals). Excess numbers of white-tailed deer result in thousands of highway accidents and the spread of deadly tick-borne diseases. Despite ongoing efforts to increase the harvest of snow geese in recent decades, their population continues to soar, causing significant damage to fragile habitats in Arctic regions. In most cases, the only effective management strategy available to wildlife professionals is to increase legal hunting opportunities.

Friends have asked if I see a conflict between a love for wildlife and hunting or fishing, especially when I devote so much energy to habitat improvement. This is an issue that every sportsman confronts, particularly when harvesting a creature they have enjoyed watching in other settings. Taking the life of any creature is something that should give a hunter pause, whether for religious, moral or practical reasons. Many novices struggle with the idea of pulling the trigger on their first deer or grouse.

Humans tend to ascribe our own characteristics to nonhuman species, in what is referred to as anthropomorphism. If you find that hard to accept, consider how most people treat their dogs, talking to them, spoiling them, showering them with love, and treating them as full members of the family. It is easy to assume that animals think as we do, react as we do, and experience the same emotions that we experience.

A few presumably well-meaning people have advocated that some animals deserve the same legal rights as humans, while most folks find this ridiculous. One sticking point is where you draw the line — there are far more advocates for fur seals and polar bears than there are for rattlesnakes and black widow spiders. You can witness this conflict in the ethical debates about boiling live lobsters, neutering dogs, spring bear hunts, and so on.

I believe in legally harvesting edible species for the table. Game animals, plants and seafood are renewable resources, some of them short-lived. For example, ruffed grouse might live an average of just one year. Every creature on Earth is potential prey for a predator, and all our deaths are certain. Our remains will either nourish predators and scavengers or be returned to the earth for the benefit of other species.

I dispatch game in the most humane manner possible, while understanding that the manner of death for most creatures in nature is anything but quick and humane. I treasure my ability to hunt across America, unlike in so many other countries. We raised our family on game meat and friends relish a tasty meal of goose breasts or moose steaks in our home.

Animal rights groups may attempt to convince the public that hunting is a cruel blood sport pursued by heartless gun nuts with no regard for wildlife. They give the impression that hunters do little for wildlife but tromp through the wild, killing anything that moves. This argument ignores decades of scientific data from the field and the professional opinions of most wildlife biologists.

I freely acknowledge there are bad actors among the hunting community and that some aspects of the sport are open to disagreement. But I know hunting is 98% preparation, scouting, wildlife viewing, camp life, exercising and hard work — plus, if you are lucky, about 2% killing. During deer season last fall, I hunted more than 30 days for roughly 200 hours and did not harvest a deer. Yet I call the season a success because I enjoyed so much time afield with friends.

Hunters have options for their harvest if they end up with excess meat. Traditionally we share the bounty with family and friends. Since 1996 in Maine, you may donate meat to food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Under national programs like Hunters for the Hungry, you may take your harvest to registered meat processors who are paid to cut and package the product to state specifications. Each year, millions of pounds of nutritious food are donated through these programs.

Hunting has a rich tradition in Maine, especially in rural communities. Families and friends plan months ahead for their time in camp, and drawing a moose tag is cause for celebration. We have open seasons for at least one species from August through February, plus May for turkey hunting. Surveys have shown that more than 90% of Maine residents are positive or neutral on the continuation of hunting. This should not change if the hunting community continues to pursue wild game in an ethical and legal manner, respecting the rights of landowners and the sensibilities of the general public.

If you like Ed Robinson’s writing, check out his two Nature Notes books! Click here for more information.