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The Hunter Conservationist Paradox

by Brian Yablonski

Chairman, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

This past week was Theodore Roosevelt’s 157th birthday, and never has a former president looked so good. The occasion serves as a great reminder of what he stood for and what we still can do to honor his conservation legacy today. A naturalist with a deep love for America’s natural beauty and resources, TR embraced conservation ideals throughout his administration. He protected 230 million acres of land and created 150 national forests, the first 51 federal bird reservations, five national parks and the first four national game preserves. The very first National Wildlife Refuge he established, Pelican Island, is in Vero Beach.

Theodore Roosevelt was also a hunter, and it is his legacy as a sportsman-naturalist that serves as the best example of one of the great (and often misunderstood) paradoxes of wildlife conservation: Those with a passion for the hunt also have a passion to protect.

Though many Floridians may be unfamiliar with hunting, it is a critical component of wildlife conservation in the Sunshine State. In Florida, nearly a quarter of a million people hunt each year, and their numbers are growing. Even more consider themselves hunters but do not hunt every year. From 2006 to 2012, the number of hunters increased 2.5 percent in Florida, as more women, men, young people and those interested in eating locally-sourced organic meat swelled their ranks.

And it is these hunter conservationists who are underwriting and supporting politically a large part of wildlife conservation in Florida and the nation. Enjoying wildlife and its habitat is free to all, but the programs providing habitat conservation are not. Florida hunters specifically pay for managing wildlife through the licenses and permits they buy. For instance, all adult waterfowl hunters purchase a federal duck stamp. It’s a program the hunters helped create in the 1930s. Considered one of the best conservation tools ever, 98 percent of the duck stamp’s purchase price goes to acquire and protect wetland habitat not just in Florida, but throughout North America for migratory birds and other wildlife. Hikers, paddlers, campers and all who love wildlife benefit from the millions in conservation dollars generated by hunters.

So too, hunters were some of America’s first conservation activists. Not only Theodore Roosevelt, but Aldo Leopold, Ding Darling and George Bird Grinnell — all hunters — went on respectively to form the Boone and Crockett Club, The Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. Today, in the tradition of TR, many sportsmen and women contribute their time, money and effort to conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, National Wild Turkey Federation, Quail Forever and others. These organizations are dedicated to on-the-ground projects and advocacy that benefits wildlife, including purchasing lands for a wide array of species beyond animals that are hunted. As TR said, “in a civilized and cultivated country, wild animals only continue to exist at all when preserved by sportsmen.”

Hunters are also our wildlife thermometers in the woods and fields. As essential partners in wildlife management, they spend a great deal of time outdoors, providing the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission important information on what is happening in the most remote parts of the state. Hunters report on the conditions of wildlife and habitat, game law violations and other threats to wildlife conservation, helping the agency protect and conserve the state’s natural resources.

Finally, hunting is the first and original organic and natural grocery store, offering locally-grown and harvested protein from the land. Think of it as nature’s Whole Foods. Health-conscious families value living off the land and the meat from game birds and deer, which carries no preservatives, antibiotics or growth hormones. As society becomes more removed from the source of our food, hunting connects us directly to what we eat and to the life and death cycles of animals.

In the spring of 1903, President Roosevelt made a cross country trip to Yosemite to sit around a campfire with John Muir, famous naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club. Many historians believe this meeting inspired the President’s aggressive approach to protecting American landscapes and wildlife treasures for future generations. John Muir was a critic of hunting. It is said that he and TR had spirited debates on the subject, but their common love for the natural world moved them beyond these differences to become the original architects of America’s conservation legacy.

We are so fortunate that John Muir recognized and accepted the hunter conservationist paradox so profoundly personified by Theodore Roosevelt. Today’s conservation community, both hunters and environmentalists alike, can learn a lot from the great example set by these two great men. We all need to be more willing to share a campfire with those who think differently about wildlife conservation, focusing on our common ground so future generations can enjoy a rich wildlife legacy.