COMMENTARY: Guns, Greens and Obama

How Hunters Will Help Save the Wild

President and conservationist Theodore Roosevelt was one of the best-known "nature hunters."

In his essay entitled "How Green Was My Party" (Fly Rod & Reel, 1994), Ted Williams mused about the lack of an environmental agenda in the Republican Party. Theodore Roosevelt’s conservatives, he said, conserved nature. The Reagan/Watt machine was not conservative by any stretch in Mr. Williams" book, and had changed the Republican party so much that Williams had no choice but to move across the aisle, albeit reluctantly. Today, his message resonates even clearer. The Bush administration’s legacy of eight years of environmental destruction in the name of "energy security" or "economic progress" has left the planet literally gasping. Anyone who truly values conservation cannot support the Republican party and look him or herself in the mirror. And many in America agreed with this sentiment in November. The stakes of the election were high for the environment; our planet might not have rebounded from a third Bush term.

Mr. Williams" other ideas hold even greater merit to consider as we embark into a new era in American politics. In another essay ("Guns & Greens," Audubon, 2005), he lamented that hunters (the guns) and environmentalists (the greens) were often at odds with each other, yet had so much in common that if they could work together they would be a potent political force. Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most revered of all Republican Presidents, was the epitome of this mix. He spent long hours in pursuit of game and fish, wrote passionately about the need to conserve what was left of nature, and fought for wilderness protection. His conservative legacy still lives in many hunter conservationists, such as Ted Williams. Yet for far too long hunters have often been lumped into the Republican party and taken for granted, in part because of gun rights issues. The recent election was no exception. It is high time to realize that hunters are an important political force, that most are much more sophisticated than the National Rifle Association would lead us to believe, that many hunters voted Democratic in November because of its pro-environment agenda, and that hunters are primed to support a pro-environment Obama administration.

Nature Hunters

There have always been hunters willing to speak their own minds, and willing to stand up for nature. Roosevelt, as well as the ardent conservationist Aldo Leopold, were nature hunters, a name coined by the social ecologist Stephen Kellert. They believed that to hunt is not to reign over wilderness, but rather to live within it, as an important predatory part of the evolutionary process. In different ways, they each understood that they were just a bipedal wolf, yet a wolf with a brain capable of destroying or protecting all of nature. In each of their minds, the latter was the only option.

Nature hunters are the guns that have joined with the greens. These and other hunters are members of The Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, Ducks Unlimited, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, among other conservation groups—groups that are pro-conservation, and not in the right-wing’s pocket. These groups have varied memberships, attracting members from both the left and right, and nature hunters find a happy home in their rolls.

But people hunt for many reasons, and some do not see the conservation message as consistent with their beliefs. A significant proportion of hunters can be categorized as "dominionistic", and they very likely voted Republican in November. Dominionistic hunters are those that see nature as a place for man to conquer, and believe that humans are outside of nature, rather than just another cog in the ecological wheel. They tend to be motivated more by trophies, scores, and the competition of the hunt than enjoying and protecting nature, according to Kellert.

Palin and All

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is a "dominionistic" hunter, of the "man rules all" mentality.

A good example of the separation between nature and dominionistic hunters can be found in the Governor of Alaska. One would think that hunters would have been overjoyed by the choice of Governor Sarah Palin, an avid hunter, as Senator McCain’s running mate. Indeed, I am sure that many hunters were, in fact, pleased by the choice; the NRA certainly was. But nature hunters thought differently. Governor Palin’s suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in an effort to stop the listing of the polar bear as an endangered species, and her promotion of a $150 dollar bounty on wolves in certain "management" areas within Alaska, are two obvious examples of Palin’s conservatism. The latter was the first bounty offered for a predator on a large scale in years; it is an old-west, dominionistic mentality. There are no nature hunters in the Alaska Governor’s office, no conservationists, no true conservatives. Conservatives don’t limit their conservation to the things that they can shoot, eat and put up on a wall.

It is clear from McCain’s decision to pick Governor Palin, and their mutual pro-drilling mentality, that we would have experienced more damage to our environment, and more habitat lost to "progress" in a McCain administration. And even though McCain has shown leadership in the past regarding global climate change, his apparent sell-out on drilling to appease the Republican base suggests little conservation would have been completed in the next term. This short-sighted, pro-growth-at-any-cost philosophy is not consistent with conservation. Thankfully, at least for four years, we don’t have to worry about the consequences of such a presidency.

But swaying dominionistic hunters will not be a trivial matter for President Obama. This is particularly true given the forces that are acting against him.

NRA Nation

For too long, hunters have been manipulated by a fear-mongering NRA that waives our 2nd amendment rights around as if they might be tossed in the liberal bonfire at a moment’s notice. The NRA has solidified their base by spreading propaganda in hook and bullet magazines that too many hunters accept without question. In doing so, they have also helped spread other conservative agendas, like the so called "wise-use" movement to open public lands to resource extraction, fighting limitations on ATV use, chipping away at protections for predators such as endangered gray wolves and grizzly bears, and the introduction of non-native species for hunting and fishing. This plays right into the hands of the dominionistic hunter’s view of the world: man the conqueror. Ironically, they often do so while exploiting Theodore Roosevelt’s image and legacy.

I was once a member of the NRA. But when the NRA was embroiled in fighting the Clinton administration over the assault weapons ban, I found their logic and tactics abhorrent. I own a small collection of guns, but see no reason why the average citizen needs an assault rifle. And lots of other hunters feel the same. Even some of my most conservative Republican friends are sick and tired of the NRA’s fear mongering and constant requests for money. They don’t believe that any President will ever take the guns from ordinary citizens. The idea that regulating automatic weapons will lead to a mass collection of guns is a slippery slope with lots of traction.

Environmental Hangover, and Cure

President-elect Obama has promised publicly that he has no intention of taking away America&

#39;s guns, and many are willing to take him at his word. But the fear of the unknown among the hunting crowd should be overwhelmed by the fear of the known. And the known enemy of all hunters is the "conservatism" that rules the Republican party. We see that the NRA is as much about conquering nature as it is protecting rights. We see that the policies of the Bush administration have led to more public lands open to oil and natural gas exploration, ruining habitat and reducing hunting and fishing opportunities. We see the ravaging effects of global climate change, yet our government does nothing to prevent it, because to do so, we are told, will reduce economic growth (or at least the growth of oil company profits). We watch as the Bush administration does little but create roadblocks for endangered species protection. We read about the fish advisories in our public lakes, rivers, and streams, and ponder the deformed amphibians on their banks. And, like Ted Williams, we wonder what went wrong with Roosevelt’s party.

Yet hunters also see the other side. We see partnerships between The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, state and federal agencies, and mining companies set aside large swaths of land for the reintroduction of elk into the eastern U.S. We observe collaborations between Ducks Unlimited and TNC to protect wetlands and manage habitat vital toward duck populations as well as plants, invertebrates, and amphibians. We see a Republican governor (former Florida Governor Jeb Bush) help put together a coalition of state, federal, and local governmental officials, conservation groups, and industry leaders to save and restore the Everglades. And we marvel at the dedication of federal and state employees who work at conservation each day with determination, yet are paid so little for their labors. We know that our government can do more, because citizen-sponsored conservation groups from both sides of the aisle have been picking up the slack for decades. And we know that our government can work harder at conservation; we have seen it in federal and state employees and their amazing accomplishments with such meager resources.

Most hunters are fed up with business-as-usual when it comes to energy, the environment, and guns. In a July 2008 poll by American Viewpoint, 81% of hunters and anglers believed we should set a goal of achieving 100% of our energy needs from clean, renewable sources, and 66% agreed that global warming is occurring. 47% of those sportsmen believed that conservation is as important as gun rights.

Thus there are a lot of hunters that have every reason to support President Obama, because they hear a conservative message not from the Republican juggernaut, the NRA, the "wise-use" movement, and certainly not Governor Palin. They hear it from Obama and the Democratic party. Obama’s energy plan focuses on alternatives to oil, not more drilling on western public lands. The Democratic party has taken the high road on global climate change, biodiversity, conservation, clean air and clean water. Sportsmen and women need to listen, engage, and act, supporting the administration and the Democratic majority in Congress in its efforts to heal our planet and pass pro-environment legislation, legislation that is consistent with conserving our world, as well as our hunting and angling heritage.

Hunters are a group of voters that with the proper message and attention, have and will vote Democratic. And should. Many nature hunters stood up and helped bring President-elect Obama a victory, which is a start. And if he could see such a victory, with hunters of all stripes voting for a true conservative, I am sure it would make Theodore Roosevelt very proud
not of his party, but of his country.

HOWARD WHITEMAN is Professor of Wildlife and Conservation Biology at Murray State University in Kentucky.