Hunting, conservation, and zero waste

I grew up in the country. My house backed up to the woods where my family hunted a variety of wildlife. Venison, rabbit, and wild turkey frequently passed through my dinner plate, as did duck and goose at times; I ate all of this with the same reluctance I ate the chicken and occasional pork my parents served me. Never much of a meat eater, it was a surprise to no one that I became a vegetarian in my teens and haven’t looked back since. While many of my childhood friends politely passed on the venison at dinner, as far as I can see it, hunting is pretty common in my neck of the woods.

Norton, our family pet and rabbit dog

Norton, our family pet and rabbit dog

These days, I don’t eat meat at all and prepare vegetarian food for my friends and family in hopes that they will one day see a meatless plate as complete. We know that meat production and factory farming contribute to pollution from runoff, create significantly more C02 emissions (which contribute to climate change) than plant foods, and there’s the lifetime of cruelty animals in animal agriculture (large-scale meat/dairy production) must endure. It’s also widely recognized by organizations like the American Dietetics Association that vegan and vegetarian diets can meet all of our nutritional needs.

This is my link to hunting and meat consumption; being in a family of meat eaters who have been supportive and willing to make changes in their own lives to reduce their waste and impact, meat consumption never quite sat right with me until I considered the bigger picture. Consuming hunted meat comes without many of the negative impacts of farmed meat. It also (glaringly) caught my attention that hunting and hunters have been placed in a different box than environmentalism and environmentalists. In a sincere and open message to the hunting community, Karl Malcom writes in the  Winter 2014 Issue of the Ruffed Grouse Society magazine:

Imagine for a moment that you knew nothing more about hunters and hunting than what you are exposed to through the popular media and casual observation. What conclusions would you draw from the magazine racks, the bumper stickers, the T-shirts or the TV shows? Would it have much to do with our legacy as conservationists? Is it an image of respect and reverence for the wildlife we pursue or the land we all claim to cherish? Does it adequately reflect your attitudes about this activity? .... it is all too often the image that is communicated to the non-hunting public.

The perceived emphasis on hunting for trophies, apparent disregard or disrespect for land and wildlife, and the in-your-face, “whack-‘em-and-stack-‘em” garbage has served only to alienate and stereotype our community of dedicated conservationists as something far less than admirable.

This caricature may be your image of hunting. You may be or have a close relationship with an avid, casual or novice hunter. This inaccurate image should be left in the past. Not all hunters are conservationists; some may not care at all, however, hunters and those dedicated to preserving the environment don’t have entirely different goals. This thoughtful piece examines the question of conservation and hunting, but through active efforts in or indirect support, hunters support the biodiversity in our local ecosystems and care as deeply about the land as environmentalists do.

Hunting is a part of sustainable resource management. The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation has been a successful set of guidelines that guides wildlife conservation and management in the USA and Canada. It is as follows, according to, with some edits for clarity on my part:

  1. Wildlife are a public resource.

  2. Markets for game are eliminated.

  3. Hunting must occur legally within the allocated, or pre-determined, take in any given region.

  4. Wildlife can be killed only for a legitimate purpose. Take of certain species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians does not correspond to traditionally accepted notions of legitimate use.

  5. Wildlife is considered an international resource. Many positive agreements and cooperative efforts have been established among the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and other nations for conserving wildlife.

  6. Science is the proper tool for making wildlife policy. Wildlife management appears to be increasingly politicized.

  7. Democracy of hunting is standard. Reduction in, and access to, huntable lands compromise the principle of egalitarianism in hunting opportunity.

Rather than a free-for-all of unregulated hunting, trapping, and fishing, resource conservation, or careful use of the resources we have like land, wildlife, etc., is a conscious part of decision making in regulations. The Pennsylvania hunting license course describes some of the functions of wildlife management laws for creating hunting seasons that avoid nesting and mating seasons, limiting hunting equipment, limiting the number of animals hunters can take, checking tags, and (importantly) “creating enough funding for wildlife programs by collecting license fees.”

Hunters need licenses to hunt, and licenses also give individuals the right to hunt with certain weapons, like archery or firearms. They must annually purchase hunting tags; for example, a hunter may have two doe and two buck tags for one hunting season, meaning they can legally kill two female and two male deer that season. Tags are allocated, or predetermined, and limited; if enough people were to apply for tags, tags could possibly run out or one may not be able to purchase the tags they want due to these efforts to responsibly manage the resources (=prevent overhunting).

Me as a child after rabbit hunting with my father; cropped out of the picture: the rabbit and the dog

Me as a child after rabbit hunting with my father; cropped out of the picture: the rabbit and the dog

The funds from these fees paid by hunters support conservation efforts across the states. This article found that more than “half of the Department of Fish and Wildlife is funded by hunting”. The department, which I was not previously familiar with, indicates that the majority of its funding in many states is through the sale of hunting licenses, tags, and stamps. The department was born in the 19th century in response to a crisis of overfishing and diminishing fish populations. Their mission grew in the 60s as human pressures began to threaten biodiversity. Nowadays it serves to help reduce the impacts of climate change on fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats. In addition to the funds provided from the purchases of licenses is the benefit of population control. This article went so far as to claim that “high deer populations have had a much greater negative impact currently and over the last several decades {than climate change}”. In fact, some prey species (like deer) currently exist in such abundance due to decline in their predator species and can threaten other animal populations. Not only does hunting not directly lead to the production of dangerous greenhouse gases like large-scale factory farming, the fees that are paid for legal hunting support conservation efforts and biodiversity.

For those concerned about overhunting, there is little concern about legal hunting. As previously shown, hunting is not without limits and conservation efforts prevent overhunting. For example, between 1700 and 1900, white tail deer were rare in their native Connecticut due to deforestation and overharvesting, but after tighter regulations were enacted to protect the white tail deer and more farmland was returned to natural landscape, deer numbers grew until in the 1970s they could be legally hunted as game. While this example occurred in the past, it is not an unreasonable precedent for restrictions on hunting of wildlife if populations dwindle.

The reason hunting is featured on this blog is not to encourage you all to seek out hunting permits. Similarly, when I write about the improvement of a vegetarian or a vegan diet on emissions, I don’t expect everyone to completely change their diet. Unfortunately, it’s been estimated that the average American eats 135lbs of beef, poultry and pork a year. Considering how much that is, it’s hardly unrealistic for any of us to consume less meat. Consuming locally hunted meat is a way to continue regularly consuming meat without contributing to the C02 emissions associated with animal agriculture. While many may consider free-range animals a better option than factory farmed animals, keeping these animals for slaughter is generally worse for the earth than factory farming due to land use, land clearing, and other factors. The only way forward requires less farmed meat consumption. Period.

Hunting is not the zero waste solution to the meat problem; consuming meat in any way isn’t the solution, but there are ways to do it better. Hunting is a way to consume meat without additional strain on our resources, and could be a common thread for many people to sustainability, the environment, and powerful personal choices. Consuming less meat is an immediate change we can all make, but for those with the resources, hunting may be a way to reduce the negative environmental impacts of meat consumption. There certainly wouldn’t be enough resources (available game) for everyone to switch to solely eating wild game, considering how much meat the average American eats. There are also questions of access to hunting lands, time commitment, and equipment, but as Harry W. Greene, professor in Cornell's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology said in a 2016 interview published by NPR, “one can claim today nobody needs to hunt, but that seems condescending to low-income rural people and hypocritical coming from those who buy their meat”. We can appreciate hunters and others who know the land, whose purchase of permits and the like funds important conservation projects, and who choose to consume wild game instead of meat from animal agriculture. Our common ground can allow us to make more progress in conservation and use of resources.

This year, like any other, I won’t be eating turkey at the Thanksgiving table. I would, however, love if the turkey were responsibly taken by a family member.

This post does not and is not meant to address the ethical implications of eating animals. The hunting discussed above is only in referral to legal hunting, not poaching, hunting out off season, or any other irresponsible and illegal forms of hunting.