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The Cult of Hunting and Its Timely Demise

On August 7th, 1874, George Armstrong Custer shot a grizzly bear. At the time, he was trespassing in the Black Hills of the Great Sioux Nation along with more than 1000 heavily-armed soldiers and sundry civilians. To be accurate, he shot the bear as part of a fusillade delivered by two other soldiers and an Arikara scout. According to published accounts, the bear was innocently browsing on berries in a small draw prior to the ambush. Custer’s verdict on the incident was delivered in a letter to his wife: “I have reached the hunter’s highest round of fame…I have killed my Grizzly.”

During the next 50 years, Europeans driven by a similar lust for blood and glory eradicated grizzly bears from over 90% of the places they once lived in the contiguous United States. Thirty years after that, grizzlies were gone except for in remote enclaves centered on Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. This epoch coincided with a slaughter perpetrated by Europeans armed with guns, disease, and poison that drove most wildlife bigger than mice and voles nearly to extinction, perpetrated genocide against Indians, and relegated any who survived to Reservations.

The ethos informing this vendetta against nature and natives was one of violence and death, but under the putatively ennobling rhetoric of Manifest Destiny—of Taming the Wilderness to clear the way for White Anglo-Saxon Civilization. Those who styled themselves as hunters were at the heart of this enterprise. Thus it was that my ancestors showed up in South Dakota at the end of the 19th Century to lay claim to a seemingly vacant land, emptied of Indians and wildlife, begging to be populated with sheep, cattle, and (more-or-less) God-fearing white people.

Enter Aldo Leopold and the Legacy of his Ilk

At about this time, Aldo Leopold was sounding the alarm over the demise of Big Game in the Southwest, where he was working for the newly constituted US Forest Service. His remedy was the same as that being espoused by better-known “conservationists” such as Teddy Roosevelt and William Hornaday: protect Big Game from market hunting, supplement feed, and eliminate the predatory varmints and vermin. For all of these early conservationists, Big Game referred exclusively to large-bodied herbivorous mammals that comprised the stock from which sportsmen could harvest trophies and the occasional meat for the larder. Bears, lions, and wolves were amongst the varmints to be eradicated. And, notably, the core vernacular was agricultural: “harvest,” with the goal of producing “harvestable surpluses.”

So, we had gone from unchecked slaughter of anything that moved, to a more restrained and presumably sustainable slaughter of large sexy herbivores, but with a continuing mandate to slaughter any predators that might compete with our opportunities to lay claim to a harvestable surplus.

Tragically, this doctrine was grafted on the very bones of the newly professionalized institution of wildlife management, thanks, in part, to the likes of Aldo Leopold. And “sportsmen” were the newly ennobled allies of this undertaking, in fact, the only constituency and clientele that mattered.

So it has remained to this very day, with, over time, sport hunters developing a stranglehold on wildlife management. The only appreciable change during the last 50-70 years has been ever-more enthusiastic slatherings of science, both as means of increasing harvestable surpluses (of large sexy herbivores) and, more recently, increasing the legitimacy of an enterprise that looks ever-more corrupt to ever-more people.

Despotism Institutionalized

And, in fact, wildlife management is one of the most despotic and corrupt of modern-day institutions…which is saying a lot. The ingredients of undemocratic debasement are not subtle. Virtually all of the income for state wildlife management derives from either the sales of hunting and fishing licenses to hunters and fishers or, through federal grants, from taxes on the sales of arms and ammunition. Almost all agency employees and regulators are self-avowed avid hunters, creating a potent cultural amplification for financial dependencies. Almost all hunters, fishers, and wildlife managers are of a single demographic cloth: white, male, and disproportionately rural and ill-educated.

It is no wonder that wildlife managers talk about hunters as “clients” and “customers” and give little or no heed to the interests and desires of anyone else. And this, remember, by government employees putatively charged as public servants with serving the public trust.

Custer’s lust for blood and glory lives on in the modern-day ethos of sport hunting and wildlife management, to the detriment of anyone who cares about anything else.

But, Wait a Minute

Interestingly, Aldo Leopold sounded the alarm about wildlife management shortly after establishing its foundations. More specifically, he soon became concerned about the extent to which this new profession had become slaved to the narrow interests of hunters, to the neglect of all others. As he stated in his 1940 essay on The State of the Profession:

Someday the hunter will learn that hunting and fishing are not the only wildlife sports; that the new sports of ecological study and observation are as free to all now as hunting was to Daniel Boone. These new sports depend on the retention of rich flora and fauna…There is a growing number of private sanctuaries, private arboreta, and private research stations, all of which are groping toward non-lethal forms of outdoor recreation.

Not long after, in 1949, Aldo died.

The Cult of Sport Hunting

Leopold’s concerns seemed to die with him, at the same time that the incestuously intertwined pursuits of hunting and wildlife management became increasingly cult-like. The central ethos of this cult was, and continues to be, death, violence, and domination, linked to long-standing cultural obsessions going back to European settlement of North America. No one has described this syndrome better than Richard Slotkin in his epic treatises, Regeneration through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation. In this tripartite overview, Slotkin clearly links our national obsession with domination and death to chronic collective anxieties arising from colonization, industrialization, and imperialism.

But, of course, every cult needs a justifying if not ennobling myth which, in this case, is a racially-charged manifesto extolling the virtues of European conquest and dominance—even unto this day. Of more direct relevance to my argument here, derivative myths extoll the masculine virtues of white male hunters, hearkening back to Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Teddy Roosevelt. A recent mythic gloss has been provided by a codified doctrine and formula called The North American Model of Wildlife Management. Increasingly, those worshipping at the altar of sanctified violence directed at animals invoke this creed as justification, not only for their behavior, but also for their privileged status within the institution of wildlife management—for the perpetuation of despotism.

Rigid Maladaptive Institutions

The problem with despotic institutions is that they rarely constructively adapt to changing environments. Instead, the pattern is one of entrenchment against emerging threats at the enthusiastic behest of those who are most privileged by established arrangements. The result is an increasingly brittle institution destined for catastrophic failure, much like the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s.

This, then, becomes a problem, not only for those who are disenfranchised and demanding change, but also, ultimately, for those who hold the greatest prerogatives. And, yet, those holding power, besotted by privilege and blinded by justifying narratives, double down in defiance of irresistible change.

What about change?

The American public is, in fact, evincing increased alienation from the precepts of current wildlife management. A recent nationwide YouGov survey showed that 71% of those who were polled thought that sport hunting was morally wrong; 76% thought that killing animals for furs was unethical; both within a 3% margin of error. I’m not saying here that a super-majority of the American public “did not support” or “skeptically viewed” sport hunting. They felt something stronger. They thought it was unethical, even morally repugnant. And this objection, even revulsion, was exhibited across all age groups and political perspectives.

Similarly, the number of adults who hunt has declined since the early 1990s, not just as a percentage of the total, but also in absolute numbers. A survey conducted at 5-year intervals by the US Census Bureau at the behest of the US Fish & Wildlife Service found that hunter numbers dropped from 13 to 12 to 10-11 to 9% of all surveyed adult males. Between 1991 and 2016, absolute numbers dropped 20%. Revenues generated by hunting similarly declined. By contrast, numbers of people who considered themselves “wildlife watchers”—who valued animals simply to watch them—increased by 37%, and consistently outnumbered hunters by 6- to 9-fold.

Those who are morally repulsed by sport hunting or simply choosing not to participate in hunting for whatever reasons, are finding their voice. With increasing frequency, letters to the editor are objecting to hunting—especially “sport” or “trophy” hunting. Membership in organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is burgeoning. Other groups such as Project Coyote, focused on protection of predators, are flourishing. More and more people are talking about reforming wildlife management, especially as practiced by State agencies.

Demands for change are becoming more common, more vocal, more insistent, and more unavoidable.

A Predictable Response

And what has been the response of hunters and wildlife management bureaus to this crisis of credibility, support, and finances? What you would expect from despots and their allies: increasingly strident, even vitriolic, public derogation of critics and denial of their claims.

Moreover, rather than distancing themselves from sport and trophy hunting, wildlife managers are ever more exuberantly embracing it, seemingly as a symbolic act of defiance. There is no better example of this phenomenon than the current dogged push by the states of Idaho and Wyoming to hunt grizzly bears in the long-isolated Yellowstone population, only recently surrendered to state managers by federal officials after a 40-year battle to rescue this enclave of bears from extirpation.

One peculiar aspect of this reactionary exhibition is the frequent even frenzied invocation of “science” by hunters and wildlife managers as justification for trophy hunting. After all, science-based management is one of the purported pillars of the much-extolled North American Model of Wildlife Management. So, logically, in keeping with this doctrinal premise, trophy hunting is represented as “scientific” whereas objections to trophy hunting are represented as “emotional.” Examples are legion, including a recent letter to the editor of the Cody Enterprise in support of Wyoming’s planned grizzly bear hunt.

Bull Shit.

Pseudo-Scientific Hunting

“Science” does not, in fact, support trophy hunting grizzly bears, nor does it support sport hunting of essentially any large carnivore. Research worldwide, including in the Yellowstone Ecosystem of Wyoming, has shown that large carnivore populations are self-regulating. As these population near carrying capacity, self-regulating dynamics kick-in with ever-increasing vigor. There is no science-based justification for hunting grizzly bears in Yellowstone or anywhere else.

As evidence of this, a recent survey by Michelle Lute and her colleagues of conservation scientists and professionals worldwide asked, first, whether hunting of large carnivores (among other strategies) was effective for promoting coexistence with people and, second, whether killing carnivores was justified for (among other reasons) increasing carnivores’ fear of people and protecting people from perceived risk. Hunting was scored the least effective of 12 candidate strategies and increasing fear and safety from perceived risks the least justified of 11 candidate reasons for lethal management.

This professional consensus flies in the face of reasons being offered, for example, by hunters, wildlife managers, and the Safari Club for hunting Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. Science-based? Not really. Even Aldo Leopold, back in the 1930s and 1940s, would have probably objected to the invocation of science in support of trophy hunting grizzly bears—the last of which he so eloquently eulogized on Escudilla Mountain in the southwestern U.S.

Kyle Artelle and his colleagues published a recent paper that provides interesting context for the emotion-ridden invocation of pseudo-science by hunters and wildlife managers. Kyle and company decided to test the proposition that wildlife management in Canada and the United States was, in fact, science-based by looking at a slew of hunt-management plans. Without going into the details of their research, they found:  “These results raise doubt about the purported scientific basis of hunt management across the United States and Canada.” In other words, “science-based” was more often rhetoric than reality, which is consistent with the propaganda being propagated by the Wyoming Game & Fish Department and its hunter allies in defense of plans to hunt grizzly bears.

Killing Custer

At this point, convention would have me shift to—conclude by—providing a litany of practical measures that could be undertaken by a compliant institution to reform itself. Such is the nature of Liberals willing to widdle all over themselves in an effort to demonstrate their “reasonable” intentions. Well…not me. If nothing else, Trump has reformed me. In fact, virtually all of the white, male, rural, ill-educated people who devote themselves to hunting also voted for Trump, despite the self-evident fact that he is one of the vilest human-beings to ever take political center stage.

We need revolution, not reform, when it comes to wildlife management. We are no longer (for the most part) a nation bent of genocide, whether homo- or eco-centric. We need federal policies that empower everyone in this country—urban or rural; white, black, red, or brown; female or male; who cherish animals simply because they exist, or to enjoy watching them, or, yes, to hunt them—when it comes to living with the wild animals on this Earth. They are sentient beings, like us. They deserve rights. Their welfare deserves our attention.

I guess my concluding admonition would be, to paraphrase James Welch, author of Killing Custer: Relegate Custer’s ethos to the deserved trash-bin of history.

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David Mattson worked for the grizzly study team for 2 decades. He retired from the US Geological Survey two years ago. 

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