Like the Bush administration’s reaction following revelations of Iraqi prisoner abuse, some in the hunting community will undoubtedly dismiss the prairie dog "hunts" described in our cover story this issue as the work of "a few bad apples." Perhaps so, but just as the events at Abu Ghraib are only one of the ugly faces of war, hunting, even when not conducted by beer-swilling slobs from pickup trucks, involves a great amount of killing, suffering and death. Regardless of how much spin we employ to legitimize it, war is hell and so is hunting.
As with the highly questionable intelligence alleging Iraqi 9-11 involvement and weapons of mass-destruction that led us into war, hunting today continues on the strength of some long-debunked myths. They survive thanks to politicians and media that kowtow to the gun industry, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and others who work feverishly to obscure the truth about wildlife "management."
The dominating myth, of course, is that wildlife are overpopulated and in need of culling, a silly notion considering that humans are really the only animals that are overpopulating. Wildlife overpopulation is just relative to the ever-encroaching concrete jungle.
But to the extent that wildlife exceed the carrying capacity of the diminishing habitat we grant them, it is also in part due to the intentional manipulation of wild populations to supply animals for hunters to kill. Habitat is altered to deliberately maximize deer numbers, so claims of their "overpopulation" are largely self-fulfilling prophecy. In other cases, wildlife is stocked or trapped and transplanted to hunting areas. Habitat is "managed," for sure, but with money from hunting licenses and taxes on firearms, through the use of burning and clear cutting, flooding and draining—and the destruction of natural predators so that the hunters can instead have the "game" animals.
The vast majority of species hunted are in little if any need of population control. The 100 million animals killed by hunters each year are killed not for wildlife management science but to support a $22 billion firearms industry. While wildlife should belong to everyone (if it belongs to anyone), instead it is handed over by wildlife agencies to the five percent who hunt, rather than the certainly-more-than-five-percent of us who would prefer animals be left alone and shot with, if anything, a camera.
I have never been comfortable with the notion that "sportsmen" are either conservationists or, by extension, allies of the environmental movement. That’s another unfortunate myth—and one that many environmentalists swallow unthinkingly. Hunting isn’t remotely environmental. Natural predators, such as coyotes and wolves, tend to remove the old, the slow and the sick. Hunters go after the biggest, strongest and healthiest, affecting the health of animal packs and altering the natural balance in the process. Their taxes and fees may pay for "wildlife management" as we know it today, but in its present incarnation it is serving hunting, not wildlife—and even if the taxes and fees were serving wildlife, the killing still wouldn’t be.