by Whit Gibbons

November 17, 2003

I still run into people who think that sports hunting is antienvironmental. Consequently, I want to restate that when the overall picture of wildlife and natural environments is taken collectively from the standpoint of their health and well being, hunters are among the greenest people in the nation today.

But first, consider the plight of the hunter. The proportion of hunters in the general population has declined steadily over the last four decades, going from 11% in 1960 to 8.3% by 1990 to about 6% in 2001. Almost any statistic you can find about hunting reveals that the U.S. numbers are declining.

Another disturbing demographic aspect about hunters is that the actual number of Americans who hunt is declining at an even steeper rate than the percentage. One explanation is that the number of young people who hunt decreases every year. In other words, hunters are getting older; young hunters are not joining the ranks. This is equivalent to a deer herd or duck species having more individuals leave the population each year than are added to it. Recruitment is too low to result in a sustainable population.

Do not get the impression that not many people engage in wildlife sports activities any more. According to the most recent survey available to me, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that 82 million adults participated in hunting, fishing, or wildlife watching in 2001. But only 13 million of those were hunters. Yet people who hunt and fish contributed immensely to the national economy, spending more than $70 billion in 2001. Expenditures included licenses, guns, fishing equipment, and the costs of lodging, travel, and other goods and services. Wildlife watchers, meanwhile, spent $38 billion.

But why do I say hunting is good for the environment? First, let me define "good" as situations or activities that maintain wildlife at current levels. In that case, hunting is good for the environment because the hunting community ensures that wildlife populations of game species are sustainable from one generation to the next. This requires that a diversity of natural habitats be kept intact, unpolluted, and undisturbed. Hunters support all these efforts.

The taxes from hunting activities go to the states or to the federal government for such purposes as enhancing wildlife habitat, managing and maintaining parks and wildlife refuges, and conducting surveys and research to determine the status of not only game but also some nongame species. So, hunters contribute in a big way to benefiting natural environments.

Keeping our wild habitats as undamaged, clean, and natural as possible is a key aspect of having suitable places to hunt. But hunters are not the only ones seeking such habitats. Ecologists
depend on them for research. Hikers, bird-watchers, and wildflower viewers all prefer habitats that are uncontaminated and full of wild things.

Of course, these groups prefer habitats that favor their own interests. Hikers want trails. Bird-watchers want a diversity of relatively quiet habitats. And hunters want land management that favors their favorite game bird or mammal. Also, hunters and the other groups do not like to share the same habitat at the same time. But although time-sharing may sometimes be a problem, a variety of wildlife enthusiasts have a single common vision--healthy outdoor ecosystems.

Of course, what makes a "good" forest for a hunter may be different from what other groups consider a "good" environment, and compromises must be made to accommodate all of them. Nonetheless, the time has come when hunters must become involved in partnerships with other groups who have an equally fervent interest in maintaining healthy habitats of forests, streams, and small wetlands. The time has also come when these other groups must look to the hunting community for what they can contribute to environmental prosperity.

Indeed hunters are entering into partnerships with research ecologists, groups interested in wildlife recreation, and organizations that focus on habitat protection. Although the ultimate objectives differ for each, the primary goal of saving or restoring forests and other natural habitats benefits all. Hunters depend on and help maintain sustainable populations of their species of interest. Ironically, their own population is facing a serious decline in numbers.

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