Hunters and conservationists – with shared cause

Do hunters conserve nature? This seemingly controversial issue seems to be a source of never-ending debate. I recently found a text discussing this issue, published in the “Finnish Nature” (Suomen Luonto) magazine as early as 1944. While conservationists and hunters may sometimes be in direct conflict, some shared targets were recognized already in 1944.

Extensive red fox hunting makes it possible for the rare arctic fox to breed successfully in Sweden and Norway. Red fox in an arctic fox habitat in Varanger Peninsula, northern Norway. © Sari Holopainen

Extensive red fox hunting makes it possible for the rare arctic fox to breed successfully in Sweden and Norway. Red fox in an arctic fox habitat in Varanger Peninsula, northern Norway. © Sari Holopainen

O. Hytönen (1944) raised the very same observations that are still apparent. Although hunters kill animals, prey animal populations should not be eradicated by responsible hunting practices. Some hunting actions are straightly connected to nature conservation, such as feeding animals during harsh winters, habitat management and predator control. Currently discussed effect of trophy hunting as an important conservation tool in development countries is an example of an indirect connection: by paying for hunting permits hunters help to maintain local animal diversity. As noted in a recently published paper, banning of trophy hunting can lead to exacerbating biodiversity loss.

In 1953 “Finnish Nature” (Suomen Luonto) published another text on the subject, this time written by G. Bergman. Bergman wrote that the relationships between hunters and conservationists has not always been smooth in Finland, or in other Nordic countries, while no benefits could be gained from these conflicts. Bergman noted that modern game management has several shared principles with nature conservation. He also pointed out that nature conservation and hunting have successfully been managed together in the US. As during Bergman’s times, Europe is still somehow on separate paths, and the situation has become particularly inflamed in some countries. Ironically, Bergman wrote that if we refuse to understand the interests of others, nature conservation aims may be disturbed.

The good old American way

What were the good manners already mentioned by Bergman in America? Maybe he meant the Federal Duck Stamp system established already in 1934. All US hunters must buy a Duck Stamp on a yearly basis, however, whoever can get one. With this small cost the buyers contribute to bird habitat conservation. The US Fish and Wildlife Service advertises that the stamp is “among the most successful conservation tools ever created to protect habitat for birds and other wildlife”. About 1 500 000 stamps are bought yearly, and 98% of the profits are given to the National Wildlife Refuge System for wetland conservation.

Coldwater River National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi provides great circumstances for wintering ducks. The park is protected, but bird watching is aloud in some parts of the park. Duck hunting is possible outside the park in private lands. © Sari Holopainen

Coldwater River National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi provides great circumstances for wintering ducks. The park is protected, but bird watching is aloud in some parts of the park. Duck hunting is possible outside the park in private lands. © Sari Holopainen

Another traditional American actor smoothly combining conservation and hunting is Ducks Unlimited (DU), founded by a group of hunters in 1937. DU targets habitat conservation, and is now claimed to be the world’s largest and most effective private waterfowl and wetlands conservation organization according to their website. Most DU members are still hunters.

The land of a thousand lakes

Wetlands have been destroyed for a long time due to differing human interests, also in Finland. Some areas have been lost altogether, while some have lost their value due to e.g. vegetation overgrowth. We still have many lakes left, but shallow eutrophic lakes – the waterbird lakes – are the ones that have been lost most often. Hunters are a group with an interest to construct and restore wetlands. According to a report by the Finnish Wildlife Agency, hunters have constructed or restored about 2 000 wetlands during the past decades. In addition to benefitting game animals, the entire ecosystem benefits. Wetlands also offer several other ecosystem services, including water purification and erosion control.

Many wetlands have been established in Finland to support game animals. Saarikko-wetland in southern Finland is a small, yet very productive duck habitat constructed by the REAH-project (active management of game animal habitats). © Sari Holopainen

Many wetlands have been established in Finland to support game animals. Saarikko-wetland in southern Finland is a small, yet very productive duck habitat constructed by the REAH-project (active management of game animal habitats). © Sari Holopainen

Methods matter

Sometimes hunting itself supports animal populations. For example, hunters can help to maintain animal communities through ecosystem engineering pushed by hunting and the co-evolution of animals and humans. In 2013 a scientific paper showed that in Australia Aboriginal hunting was one of the cornerstones supporting monitor lizard populations. Monitor lizards occur most densely in areas where they are hunted, because of the hunting method used; the burning method creates a patchy mosaic of regrowth in the landscape. In areas with no hunters, occasional lightning strikes burn land in a more homogenous way, and thus also lizards are scarcer. The same practice might also benefit several other desert species. However, in many cases Aboriginals have lost their traditional hunting possibilities, and the loss of these traditional practices sustaining habitats might have contributed to decreasing populations of several desert animal species.

While the debate between hunting and nature conservation has already lasted a long time, and is still on-going, common targets have been raised throughout the process by cooperative actors of both sides. There has always been, and currently still are, differing hunting methods for concerning conservational effects, but it is self-evident that all these practices are not against conservation targets.

Read more:

Enrico Di Minin, Nigel Leader-Williams & Corey J.A. Bradshaw: Banning Trophy Hunting Will Exacerbate Biodiversity Loss. 2015. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Online.

Connecting Aboriginal Land Use Management Strategies, Mammal Extinction Rates and Shifts in Fire Regimes in a Changing Climate: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Inform Conservation Strategies for Threatened Species in the Australian Western Desert

An interdisciplinary approach to understanding the role of anthropogenic fire in the desert grasslands of Australia

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A gloomy year for nature conservation?

Environmental legislation, and in fact the entire environmental movement, have been around for surprisingly little time. Inspired by single books and people, such as Silent Spring, the movement got to a slow start in the 1960s. The first practical conservation policy in the US, the Endangered Species Act, was ratified in 1973. Now that act itself has become endangered. And it is by no means the only of its kind.

 

The Endangered Species Act has been criticized for thwarting development, obstructing industry, and for supposedly not being effective. This last claim has been voiced despite several high-profile species (such as the bald eagle, gray whale, and Florida manatee) owing their current improved status solely to the Act. Now major changes are being called for, changes that would award private landowners more protection against conservation schemes and individual states more self management over endangered species present in their areas.

 

Claiming the Act to be a failure is complete balderdash. Its critics fail to consider (or understand) two aspects of basic biology: natural abundance and sexual dynamics. The population dynamics of a species defines its naturally occurring numbers and abundance. Meaning there will always be species that are not as numerous as e.g. pigeons are. Because of current land use policies and ecosystem loss, if such a species is placed on the Endangered Species List it may never come off the list. This does not mean conservation efforts have been unsuccessful though. The species is still alive, but it may not have enough habitat left and as its numbers were never bountiful to begin with it must remain under conservation efforts. Next come the species with slow reproductive rates. If their numbers become low, it will take a long time for populations to recover, even with tight conservation efforts. Conservation cannot change basic biological constraints; it must work around them. If an animal does not reach sexual maturity until it is eight years old, conservation cannot suddenly make it produce offspring at three.

 

The Act has only been around for forty years. Many ecosystems and species need longer times to recover. It is also important to note that some species, which have been success stories of the Act, have once again begun declining once taken off the list, most notably the gray wolf. Proof that our lifestyles just do not give enough leeway to nature, and conservation is necessary.

 

The proposal maiming the Act was released just days ago, on February 4. As mentioned at the beginning of this text, several other conservation or environmental efforts are also under threat. At the end of January, the EU announced plans to forgo its country-specific binding goals for the production and utilization of renewable energy. Just last week Australia saw the start of its “shark mitigation strategy”, a plan with the intention of culling thousands of sharks coming too close to Australian shores. The cull is directed at large, over 3-meter sharks, and targets several threatened and lawfully protected species (e.g. the great white).

 

Slow change is difficult to observe. Difficult to see, experience, or contest. Visualizing emerging patterns is crucial though. Can a pattern be forming within these three examples, all occurring almost concurrently? Or in western countries as a whole? Are we losing heart, or just interest? If so, we need to see it, act on it, and speak out.