by Whit Gibbons

November 13, 2005

Environmentalists should support hunters. Sound paradoxical? Not really, when you consider that in many states hunting clubs preserve more natural habitat than do most environmental organizations. Although their agenda may be directed toward management for deer, quail, ducks, or other game species, their role in protecting habitats has become increasingly important. Some hunting clubs are exemplary models of private ownership of land contributing to the preservation of natural habitats.

Preserving natural habitat is critical for all wildlife, not just game species. The major threat to most natural ecosystems and wildlife species today is habitat degradation and destruction. Irresponsible commercial development is a leading culprit when natural habitats are destroyed and replaced with artificial ones. Most of our native wildlife does poorly in strip malls or housing complexes that could have been more judiciously located.

I am not against creating places to shop or for people to live. But a little more responsibility by some developers would be refreshing. When a forest is destroyed just down the highway from abandoned buildings, one has to wonder. Something's amiss with our economic structure. Should we really have laws and regulations that make it economically more feasible to destroy woods and wildlife than to use areas we have already destroyed?

From the standpoint of the health and collective well-being of wildlife and natural environments, hunters are among the nation's staunchest protectors. But hunters have a problem. For almost a half century, the proportion of hunters in the general population has steadily declined.

The highest number of U.S. hunters ever recorded was in the mid-1980s, almost 17 million people; about 9% of the population. But as the nation's population has grown, increases in hunter numbers have not kept pace, going from 11% in 1960, to 8.3% by 1990, to about 6% in 2001. The proportion this past year dropped another tick, to about 5%, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2004 National Hunting License Report. Even avid hunters admit that the proportion of the U.S. population that hunts is declining.

One problem is that fewer young people start hunting each year than the number of old hunters who quit hunting. The formula, which is also used to assess game species, is simple: recruitment is too low to replace mortality and does not result in a sustainable population. But hunting revenues are not going down. The total paid for hunting licenses, permits, and other state or federal requirements was more than $700 million, an increase of more than 3% from last year. These costs borne by hunters do not include the billions of dollars in economic benefits to local communities through the sale of guns, ammunition, and other hunting supplies, plus the taxes at local, state, and federal levels.

The nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in annual hunting fees is only a starting point in support of habitat protection and wildlife management programs. Taxes from hunting activities go 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 why do I say hunters are good for the environment? Because the hunting community speaks out and pays out to ensure 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 these efforts with their attitudes about natural habitats and with their pocketbooks.

Hikers, bird-watchers, and wildflower viewers also prefer habitats that are uncontaminated and full of wild things and also contribute to the economic base. But the most recent surveys indicate that these forms of outdoor recreation are also declining in some regions. Also, a survey four years ago found that about $70 billion was spent each year for hunting and fishing compared to $38 billion by wildlife watchers. Neither of these sums is trivial but hunters definitely contribute more than their fair share. I don’t hunt and don’t plan to take it up. But I’m sorry to see the steady decline in the number of hunters because it means fewer high paying participants are working to keep America wild.

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