Brian Yablonski, Chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) was recently compelled to publish an editorial entitled “The Hunter Conservationist Paradox”. In response, I thought it important to dispel some myths and to present a true and accurate portrayal of the man known as the “Conservation President”; as well as some of his protégés. Perhaps some people should take notes as to what true conservation is.
Mr. Yablonski’s most recent piece was submitted as a celebration of Theodore Roosevelt’s 157th birthday and his conservation legacy. This editorial was published on the FWC website five days after the first Florida black bear hunt in 21 years, and was in obvious response to the public criticism of the FWC decision to host this hunt. It was also intended to pay tribute to the one we know as the conservation President. “The Hunter Conservationist Paradox” summarized the conservation accomplishments of this great President; who at 42 years of age became the youngest President to reside in the Executive office. After a lengthy childhood battle to overcome severe and debilitating asthma, President Roosevelt eventually became the 26th President of the United States, following President William McKinley’s assassination in 1901.
“Hunter as conservationist” has long been the first line of defense presented by hunters when challenged with the question as to why they hunt. With the plethora of grocery stores and fresh markets that are abundant today, the conservation argument long ago replaced the “hunt to eat” defense. And while most people would agree that hunting to eat is a justifiable reason for this activity, the connection between conservation and hunting is a more complex one.
However, making a generalized assumption that all hunters are conservationists is as dangerous as stating that all Southerners are dumb (thank you Hollywood and the “Dukes of Hazzard”); all Northerners are rude and all Californians are laid back. I know many intelligent Southerners, many pleasant Northerners, and many Californians who are stressed out. And it was Alexandre Dumas who said “All generalizations are dangerous, including this one”.
There is no question that the hunting community contributes to conservation via license and permit fees and federal duck stamp purchases. But, is killing off a particular bird or animal due to a perceived shrinking of habitat, or a food shortage, all in the name of conservation truly conservation? I can argue, but will leave that up to the reader to make his or her own conclusions.
Do hunters improve the gene pool by killing the weakest and oldest? If they targeted the weakest and oldest, then this might be a valid argument. But, the reality is that the trophy target is the lion with the darkest mane, the elephant with the longest tusk and the rhino with the longest horn. Hunters brag about killing the 500 lb. Florida black bear, not the 200 lb. black bear. Studies have shown that today’s African lion has a smaller, lighter colored mane. (The dark manned lions have become rare.) The average elephant tusk is smaller, as is the rhino horn. Hunted animals in general are smaller today, because the gene pool is weakening, not strengthening. This is the handiwork of man, not nature; and it clearly is not conservation.
However, let’s be clear. This is not a condemnation of all hunters and all hunting. Hunting for sustenance is not subject to debate in this article. Hunting when there is no possible threat of extinction, or risk to the survival of the species is not part of this conversation. Some people will disagree, based simply on ethics and morals; and that killing an animal for the sake of killing is wrong. And while I am in that camp, those are my ethics; my standards in how I live my life. The standards that mold and guide others may be different from mine. And truthfully, that probably makes neither of us right or wrong.
Now that we have established the ground rules, let’s discuss the crux of this “Paradox”; and how the significance of President Roosevelt’s contributions as a late 19th / early 20th century “hunter conservationist” is relative to today’s hunter who also touts the same hunter conservationist mindset.
By now,” it is well documented that President Roosevelt had a keen sense of right and wrong. During a bear hunting trip in to Mississippi, local hunting guides fretted over the fact that Roosevelt had not yet spotted a bear to shoot. Using dogs, they tracked down a feeble old bear on its last legs and tied him to a willow tree. They then summoned the president so that he could have the honor of dispatching the animal. Saying that it would be unsportsmanlike to do so, Roosevelt refused to kill the animal. A political cartoon captured the moment, which inspired a Brooklyn candy shop owner to put two toy bears made by his wife in his shop window. He asked the president’s permission to call these toy bears “Teddy bears,” and the rest is history.” (www.theodoreroosevelt.org.)
This teddy bear story captures the true character of Roosevelt (Teddy or TR), and few would argue that this in itself sets him apart from many hunters of today. With the proliferation of canned hunting, or “high-fence hunting” because canned hunting has such a negative connotation (don’t be confused…it is exactly the same thing), much of 21st century hunting is no less cruel than tying a bear to a true. The only difference is that TR refused to kill his bear.
Is this one isolated story enough to establish Roosevelt as a conservationist, or a hunter conservationist? No, but TR also established nearly 230 million acres of land under federal protection. He established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reservations, five national parks, and 18 national monuments. And one of his first notable domestic moves was the National Reclamation Act of 1902, which established irrigation projects in the west.
The famous Smithsonian – Roosevelt African Expedition of 1909 covered 2,500 miles of British East Africa and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan terrain over an 11-month period, where 11,400 animal and plant specimens were collected, and would become what we now know as the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Granted, many will detest that those specimens included lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, elephants, buffalo and rhino. However, this collection process was spread over a year’s period and over many geographical regions, to minimize the environmental impact of this expedition. And while this expedition did involve the killing of many animals, the underlying purpose was science, study and education.
Given Roosevelt’s accomplishments, particularly the establishment of the millions of acres of land under federal protection, few would question that he was a true conservationist. However, TR did not condone hunting just to hunt and referred to this as “butchery as objectionable as any form of wanton cruelty and barbarity.” Even in 1901 he was concerned with the preservation of wildlife and said “More and more, as it becomes necessary to preserve the game, let us hope that the camera will largely supplant the rifle.”
The African lion has been proposed to be designated as a threatened species by the US Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) since 2011, and although the lion’s population has shrunken from 300,000 in Roosevelt’s time to an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 today, the FWS still has not granted this designation, which is a story onto itself. However, few would question that any species experiencing that dramatic of a drop should raise significant concern for their survival. Yet, how many hunters have put down their rifles in an effort to protect the survival of the species and picked up a camera instead? Quite the contrary, actually. Even with the serious decline of the African lion population, trophy hunting of this majestic creature has only increased in recent years; not decreased.
Roosevelt also emphatically emphasized the importance of protecting all resources. “I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us. It is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals — not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements.” This man was a true conservationist; and few, if any, question that.
OTHER HUNTER CONSERVATIONISTS
Mr. Yablonski also mentioned several other notable “hunter conservationists”, including Aldo Leopold, Ding Darling and George Bird Grinnell. And there is no question as the conservation contribution that these individuals have also made.
Aldo Leopold was considered by many as the father of wildlife management and of the United States’ wilderness system. And early in his career, Aldo Leopold was assigned to hunt and kill bears, wolves, and mountain lions in New Mexico. Local ranchers hated these predators because of livestock losses, but Leopold came to respect the animals. He developed an ecological ethic that replaced the earlier wilderness ethic that stressed the need for human dominance. And rethinking the importance of predators in the balance of nature resulted in the return of these apex predators to the New Mexico wilderness areas.
He was quick to criticize the harm inflicted to natural systems, out of a sense of a culture or society’s sovereign ownership over the land base – eclipsing any sense of a community of life to which humans belong. Clearly, Leopold’s vision and recognition of the importance of apex predators such as the bear, wolf and mountain lions flies in the face of those hunters that hunt these animals for sport, or because they are deemed to be nuisance animals.
Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling was a Pulitzer Prize winning American cartoonist and was directly responsible for securing some $17 million for wildlife habitat restoration. He established the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission and made great strides toward bringing hunter and conservationist together. He also pioneered leadership in the field of proper game management. Darling initiated the Federal Duck Stamp Program, which uses the proceeds from the sale of duck hunting stamps to purchase wetlands for waterfowl habitat. Darling is largely responsible for the establishment of the network of game refuges in the country today, Darling was called “the best friend ducks ever had.” He also liked to remind overzealous developers that “ducks can’t lay eggs on picket fences”; and few would question his contributions to conservation.
Ding Darling illustration. Interesting perspective on hunting.
George Bird Grinnell was prominent in movements to preserve wildlife and conservation in the American West. He wrote articles to help spread the awareness of the conservation of the buffalo. He lobbied for congressional support for the endangered American buffalo. In 1887, Grinnell was a founding member, along with Theodore Roosevelt, of the Boone and Crockett Club dedicated to the restoration of America’s wildlands. Grinnell was also credited with single-handedly saving the American bison from extinction…a true conservationist.
And although Mr. Yablonski’s article only referenced Roosevelt, Leopold, Darling and Grinnell, there are several other hunter conservationists that are also due a mention.
John James Audubon was notable for his extensive studies documenting all types of American birds, and for his detailed illustrations that depicted the birds in their natural habitats. His major work, The Birds of America (1827–1839), is considered the finest ornithological work ever completed. He also identified 25 new species of birds during his lifetime. He too qualifies as a true conservationist.
Charles Darwin, through his collection and study of species, noticed similarities among species all over the globe, along with variations based on specific locations; leading him to believe that they had gradually evolved from common ancestors. He came to believe that species survived through a process called “natural selection,” where species that successfully adapted to meet the changing requirements of their natural habitat thrived, while those that failed to evolve and reproduce died off.
Lewis and Clark provided valuable information about the topography, the biological sciences, the ecology, and ethnic and linguistic studies of the American Indian, and the mysteries of the vast area known as the Louisiana Purchase quickly disappeared after Lewis and Clark completed their journey.
THE 21ST CENTURY HUNTER
The famous 19th and 20th century conservationist hunters above set aside millions of acres of land to protect forests, rivers, mountains, and wildlife. They saved the buffalo from extinction. They established a national network of game refuges. They rethought the importance of apex predators in the ecosystem. They provided us theories on evolution. They provided us with the greatest ornithological work ever completed. So, how does this compare to the hunters of today?
Today’s so-called “conservation” hunters include Corey Knowlton, who recently paid $350,000 to kill an endangered black rhino. They include Ted Nugent, who just refers to people against hunting as “stupid” because no one should question this activity.
We have Dr. Walter Palmer who illegally killed a black bear in one Wisconsin county and dragged his body 40 miles to another county, where the killing would have been legal. He offered three different hunting guides $20,000 to corroborate his story. They didn’t and he admitted guilt. In July 2015, he illegally killed the iconic Cecil the Lion after Cecil was lured from Hwange National Park onto private property. And most recently, he was videotaped driving his pick-up truck along the boundary of his property, allegedly in an effort to keep deer on his property so that he could shoot them.
We have hunters that participate in canned hunting expeditions, where lions and other animals are raised by humans for the sole purpose of being killed. They are trusting of humans, often sedated for an easier kill, and hunters are virtually guaranteed of a kill.
Hmmm…So, is it just me, or does the modern-day hunter as conservationist fall just a little short when measured against these great men that Mr. Yablonski mentioned in his editorial? Or perhaps it is simply that Roosevelt, Darling, Leopold and others truly were “hunter conservationists” and today’s version is simply a hunter? That seems about right.
WHAT WOULD TEDDY SAY?
I’m glad you asked, because TR did indeed have an opinion on this.
“The mere fair-weather hunter, who trusts entirely to the exertion of others, and does more than ride or walk about under favorable circumstances, and shoot at what somebody else shows him, is a hunter in name only. Whoever would really deserve the title must be able, at a pinch, to shift for himself, to grapple with the difficulties and hardships of wilderness life unaided, and not only to hunt, but at times to travel for days, whether on foot or on horseback, alone.”
The great naturalist, John Muir, was referenced by Mr. Yablonski as having spirited debates with President Roosevelt, and that one of their meetings inspired Roosevelt’s “aggressive approach to protecting American landscapes and wild treasures for future generations”. He also noted that Muir recognized and accepted the hunter conservationist paradox personified by Roosevelt.
While Muir certainly respected TR’s opinions and there is no question that those campfire meetings had a profound effect on President Roosevelt, I question where Mr. Yablonski’s obtained the information that Muir “accepted” the idea of hunter as conservationist. This is found nowhere in my research of Muir.
In fact, Muir was quoted as saying “Now, it never seems to occur to these far-seeing teachers that Nature’s object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all for the happiness of one. Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit – the cosmos? The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge.”
Rather than asking if today’s hunter is truly a conservationist, perhaps the more appropriate question to ask is whether the term “hunter conservationist” even exists? Certainly, someone can be a hunter and someone can be a conservationist; and Roosevelt has proven it possible to be both, but not necessarily at the same time. I can capture my travel adventures through the view of a journalist and I can capture my travel adventures through the view of a camera. But, I can’t do both at the same time. I am either photographing or I am writing. You are either destroying (killing) or you are conserving. It can’t be both.
Comparing the conservationist efforts of today’s hunter to Theodore Roosevelt and other great conservationists is like comparing me to Neil Armstrong because he walked on the moon and I had a glass of Tang. And until Corey Knowlton establishes a national park to protect our wildlife; or Ted Nugent implements a revolutionary strategy to save the African lion or leopard from extinction, we should leave Theodore Roosevelt out of the conversation.
Finally, the great men discussed in this article made their conservation contributions in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s; a time when few species faced the same level of vulnerabilities and threats of extinction that our wildlife faces today. Times have changed; and just because something was acceptable a hundred years ago, doesn’t mean it is acceptable today. I believe that if Teddy were alive today, he would be incensed that people would dare compare him to the modern-day hunter; and to suggest that the modern-day hunter shares the same conservation values that he possessed. There simply is no comparison.