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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

George: Oft-maligned trophy hunting actually key to conservation

Sept. 25, 2022 Updated Wed., Sept. 28, 2022 at 5:33 a.m.

Veteran wildlife expert Larry Carey measures a deer rack at the annual measuring event at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds Friday, Feb. 24, 2006.   (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)
Veteran wildlife expert Larry Carey measures a deer rack at the annual measuring event at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds Friday, Feb. 24, 2006.  (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)
By Bart George For The Spokesman-Review

This is an opinion piece written by Bart George, a wildlife biologist and hunter in northeast Washington. For another perspective read “Trophy hunting driving away would-be hunters,” by professor and author Paul Lindholdt.

When it comes to wildlife management and hunting, I cannot wax poetic and quote Shakespeare or ponder philosophical conundrums while drawing abstract conclusions that fit my predetermined bias. No, as a professional scientist, I am required to suspend my opinions and rely on hard data, historical knowledge and field observations to direct my course of action and management decisions.

The science of wildlife management is guided by research and data generated over the past several decades. Population dynamics, birth and mortality rates, carrying capacity and ecosystem-wide habitat composition are just a few variables we consider when managing predator and prey species, as well as their relationship to each other and humans. Wildlife managers are not gambling with outcomes. We take a very cautious approach. Further, we have 100 years’ worth of data from which to draw. In short, we know what works and what does not. And we continue to improve our understanding of complex biological relationships and adjust management schema as new technology increases our ability to collect more and new data.

To deny modern wildlife management is to deny science and history in favor of rhetoric and emotion.

Thankfully, most reasonable Washingtonians understand this, even if they personally don’t hunt. While it’s perfectly acceptable for a philosopher to cherry-pick data to bolster hypothetical musings, a scientist must look at the context of the data comprehensively. For instance, while a survey commissioned by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife did find a substantial decrease in the approval of hunting (which was at an awe-inspiring 88% in 2014), the full context of that paper found that an overwhelming 75% of Washington residents approve of legal, regulated hunting (with 44% strongly approving) in 2022. The survey found a mere 10% disapproved. Further context reveals that the small minority of disapproving residents feel that way because they are against the killing of animals for any reason.

Unfortunately for science, emotion usually wins. People today believe what they want to believe and sadly, confirmation bias tends to win the day.

We’re seeing this very paradigm unfold at the highest levels in Washington. Professional biologists from the WDFW have presented overwhelming data supporting a permit-only spring bear hunt that would remove 160 bears (from a total population nearing 30,000) from specific areas to avoid property damage and conflict with humans. However, those trained wildlife biologists with years of schooling and decades of cumulative experience have been overruled by political appointees with ideological or financial conflicts of interest.

That’s a loss for science. That’s a loss for wildlife.

I understand it’s hard for most people to wrap their head around the fact that killing wildlife saves wildlife. It is a logical challenge and as a simple wildlife biologist, I’m not sure I can explain it … but I’ll try.

The North American Model of Conservation is borne from our historical acknowledgment of what not to do. We know where we erred in the past: unsustainable harvest of natural resources and wildlife during westward expansion and the industrial revolution.

From that, we have created a sustainable model that produces funding for wildlife management, habitat conservation, biological studies, law enforcement and more. For the past century, this model has reversed the unsustainable practices of our forefathers while producing abundant populations of wildlife for future generations.

In fact, most people today don’t remember a time when there was a lack of wildlife. But not long ago our wildlife hung in the balance. If not for people like Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell, many species of America’s wildlife would be extinct.

Roosevelt and Grinnell, recognizing our unsustainable harvest of wildlife, founded the Boone and Crockett Club. The organization, comprised of hunters, initiated legislation for our national parks system and the first science-based wildlife management laws, including the Lacey Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, as well as conservation-based funding which created the Federal Duck Stamp Act and Wildlife Restoration Act.

This model has only improved over the past century, and those historic legislative achievements are still used today and fund the scientific wildlife management model in the U.S.

And while hunter numbers are dropping nationwide (although, contrary to some claims, numbers spiked during the pandemic), sportsmen contributed $1.5 billion to conservation (nearly $1 billion from hunting), which equated to more than $11 million for Washington state conservation from just hunting taxes. In addition to those excise taxes, purchases of hunting-related gear contributed $343 million to Washington’s GDP and supported 4,700 jobs.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Lindholdt’s assessment “For the sake of the environment, we need to keep the ethical hunters on board.”

Perhaps one of the greatest misnomers related to hunting is the word “trophy.” This word has been hijacked by 10% of the population that philosophically oppose hunting to advance their ideological beliefs. In truth, “trophy hunting” is responsible for the preservation of wildlife globally.

Roosevelt and Grinnell, recognizing unrestrained killing of wildlife, upon creating the Boone and Crockett Club hunting club, espoused forgoing the killing of females and young males of the species they pursued. To incentivize hunters to pass on these specimens, which would be left to reproduce and recover depleted populations of deer, turkey, elk, bear, cougar and more, they created a book of records that acknowledged the most mature examples taken each year. They were the “trophy” animals that were killed while younger animals were left to ensure sustainability of a species.

Genetically speaking, a mature animal has served its biological purpose. It has passed on its DNA for many breeding seasons, thereby ensuring survival of the species.

As a hunter, pursuing an older animal means I pass on opportunities at “legal” animals that do not meet my personal standards for size or maturity and, as a result, might not kill any animal during the season. By choosing to be selective and pursue a personal “trophy,” fewer numbers of animals are killed.

The term “trophy” often implies the animal is not eaten. That’s not true. Trophy deer, cougars and elk are eaten here while elephants, lions and more are eaten abroad. In fact, there are “wanton waste” laws requiring hunters to use all edible portions of game animals and laws that protect against senseless waste of useful portions of harvested wildlife.

The inaccurate use of the word “trophy” goes hand in hand with other loaded words, such as “sport” and “game.” Again, context matters. Historically, the word “sport hunting” was used to differentiate hunters who obeyed newly developed restrictions guiding hunting seasons, methods, bag limitations and selective harvest of only mature males from the market hunters of yesteryear who provided meat, feathers and hides in an unsustainable and unregulated manner to city dwellers for food and fashion. As “sport” hunters, we strive to use the animal in its entirety – meat, hides, bones, antlers, feathers – on our dinner plate and, we hope, on display for decades.

As a hound handler who contracts for Washington state, I can tell you this: When cougars are killed due to a human-wildlife conflict call, that animal is wasted. It is killed and summarily thrown in the dump, its meat, hide and skull rot unused – and at a cost to taxpayers.

A mount on display might seem a barbaric “trophy” to some, but everyone should agree that using every portion of a killed animal is more respectful and ethical than the alternative. Today’s “sport hunters” do that; when agencies kill animals, they are wasted. I know, I have been involved in dozens of agency removals and can recognize the shameful waste of an animal discarded as trash.

I can’t quote 400-year-old English sonnets, but I can promise one thing when it comes to wildlife management and the use of emotional arguments instead of science: Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Bart George is a professional wildlife biologist in northeast Washington who specializes in the study of cougars and human-wildlife conflict avoidance.

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