Many well-meaning wildlife advocates and their organizations tread lightly around the topic of hunting, as though there is something special … perhaps historical or cultural … or even ‘constitutional’ about it.
Wildlife advocacy groups struggle to draft a policy statement regarding hunting that defines their position for supporters but offers a low risk for offending hunters and their advocacy organizations.
It’s as though hunters have an implicit first right of refusal regarding all matters regarding wildlife; that those who kill wildlife stand first in line.
While hunting is authorized in Nevada Revised Statutes (NRS) as a legal means to kill wildlife, there is no corresponding statement of priority in NRS which gives hunters preference over all other forms of public interaction with wildlife.
Fish and game agencies also assert that public approval for hunting is solid, even substantial.
What Does the Public Think About Hunting?
‘Hunting’ is not easily defined. A deer hunter, once a year looking to put venison in his family freezer, stands in stark contrast to participants in a coyote killing contest, using AR-15s or .50 caliber sniper rifles to physically destroy the animal for some odd and perverse pleasure. How can both examples be regarded as ‘hunting’?
Public attitude surveys regarding hunting are available. The usual question asked of the naïve-to-wildlife-management public is whether it supports ‘legal’ or ‘regulated’ hunting. Given that most members of the public do not hunt and generally abide by the law, it is not surprising that ‘regulated/legal’ hunting gets a 70-80% approval rating.
Given additional information, though, public approval drops like a brick.
In 2019, Responsive Management, the polling and public relations arm of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies published a report: American’s Attitudes Towards Hunting, Fishing, Sport Shooting, and Trapping. When public in the West was asked about hunting for ‘sport’, ‘challenge’, or ‘trophy’, this was its response:
The Percentage of Those That Strongly Approve + Moderately Approve
- Hunting for sport: 42% approval
- Hunting for the challenge: 33% approval
- Hunting for a trophy: 24% approval
When asked about various species that are hunted, respondents in the West responded thusly:
- Duck, deer, turkey, rabbit: over 70% approval
- Black Bear: 39% approval
- Mountain Lion: 37% approval
- Wolf: 34% approval
- Grizzly bear: 33% approval
- African lion: 10% approval
- African elephant: 7% approval
Clearly, public approval of ‘hunting’ falls off significantly when respondents have a chance to look beneath the covers.
Do Hunters Have Priority Over Non-Hunters For Access To Wildlife?
Members of the public attending a meeting of the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners (NBWC) for the first time can easily come away with the notion that wildlife management is almost solely for the purpose of facilitating hunting, fishing, and fur trapping by licensees.
Despite the word ‘wildlife’ in its title, there is almost no discussion by the commission regarding the ethics/morality of killing wildlife; no expressed appreciation or concern for the lives of individual animals or birds lost to a bullet, an arrow, a trap, or snare. Any public comment or question infringing on these missing topics is usually not warmly received.
Yet, Nevada Revised Statutes (NRS 501.100) clearly defines wildlife as part of the public trust; all Nevadans share equally in its virtues and benefits; no special status is provided for those who kill wildlife.
Hunting, fishing, and trapping are privileges, requiring licenses and compliance with various rules and regulations governing the behavior of the licensee. Penalties for violation of the rules and regulations are prescribed.
So, NRS 501.100 suggests that those who wish to kill wildlife do not have a priority over those of the public wishing to view and enjoy wildlife alive and well in its natural habitat.
Consider this: User data collected by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Census Bureau for Nevada shows that wildlife watchers outnumber hunters by a sizable margin and contribute more to the economy as well. While the most recent data is from 2011, it is reasonable to expect the margin to increase as public participation in outdoor activities increases and hunter numbers have historically been declining.
This raises the question: Are hunters and wildlife watchers entitled to equal access to wildlife? Or, in legal terms, are hunters and wildlife watchers in the same legal class, each group to be treated the same, without discrimination between them (absent a rational reason)?
There is a partial answer
In 2018, a lawsuit was filed against the Nevada Department of Wildlife and NBWC, alleging that:
- Plaintiffs were in the same legal class (‘similarly situated’) as hunters; that plaintiffs had the same access rights to wildlife as did hunters.
- That an unsuccessful predator control program conducted by NDOW/NBWC, killing coyotes and mountain lions to benefit mule deer hunters in a failed attempt to create more mule deer, discriminated against the plaintiff’s opportunity to view predatory wildlife, alive and well in its natural habitat and lacked a rational basis for doing so.
(Full disclosure: I was a plaintiff in this case.)
While the lawsuit proved unsuccessful on the judicial decision that legislative action creating the objectionable statute did constitute a rational basis, the narrative provided by the Nevada Supreme Court in discussing the elements of the case does not dispute that plaintiffs and hunters are ‘similarly situated’ interest groups.
In another case in 2012, WildEarthGuardians, a wildlife advocacy group, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Las Vegas against Nevada Wildlife Services (WS). USDA/APHIS/Wildlife Services is the 100-year-old federal predator-killing program that is active in Nevada.
Since WS employs lethal means to kill millions of animals and birds each year, it is required by National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or Environmental Assessment (EA) with associated public review to be sure no significant environmental impacts are inflicted upon our flora and fauna by its destructive activities.
In its lawsuit, WEG alleged that WS was using an outdated EIS which lacked current science and required revision. The federal judge ruled that WEG lacked the legal right (‘standing’) to sue. WEG appealed her decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
I provided an affidavit for the appeal as a long-time Nevada resident, asserting that WS through its lethal activity adversely affected my ability to view wildlife, particularly predatory wildlife. In a sense, I was experiencing a lack of access …. i.e., discrimination …as a result.
The 9th Circuit of Appeals found merit with WEG’s appeal, cited my affidavit in support of its decision (see under Discussion), and reversed the federal judge’s decision to deny standing. The case settled and Wildlife Services agreed to revamp its NEPA data.
For decades, hunters have had a public relations lead on the rest of us.
They have formed successful advocacy groups, convincing the naïve public, legislators, educators, and other decision-makers that hunting is ‘conservation’, that hunters ‘pay’ for wildlife, that wildlife would over-run its habitat without hunters, that predators are unfairly taking more than their share of game species, and that what is learned over the barrel of a gun trumps much of modern science.
Anecdotes about glory days past are the mother’s milk of much of what passes for wildlife management at the level of the wildlife commission even now.
While I admit exaggeration (slightly) and while I recognize that some hunters contribute time, sweat, and treasure on behalf of wildlife beyond a hunting license and tag purchase, I do so to contrast the Old with the New.
Public awareness and interest in wildlife and other outdoor opportunities are on an exponential curve upwards while traditional means of managing wildlife ….’ harvesting’ sentient mammals as though they are a farmer’s wheat field to be mowed ….is fast falling out of favor.
Traditional wildlife management has long been in the business of ‘sustainable yield’ …. making sure there are enough ‘surplus’ animals and birds to be ‘harvested’ via license sales and tags. The public is now beginning to understand that animals exist as individuals, not just numbers on a graph. Their lives matter and have value, too.
So, conflicts between traditional wildlife managers and enlightened members of the public with different views will increase. How the path forward unfolds to a more democratic and fair wildlife management system with more public financial support and the like, is very unclear.
Don Molde is a 50-year Reno resident, retired psychiatrist, co-founder of Nevada Wildlife Alliance, former board member of Defenders of Wildlife, and former board member of the Nevada Humane Society. He has been active in wildlife advocacy for 45 years. Support Don’s work here.
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