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Divided We Fall

Friday, April 8, 2005

Statistics indicate that hunting is a pursuit followed mostly by men, the majority much closer to drawing Social Security than securing a date for the senior prom.

Maybe that`s why so many hunters tend to fuss and feud among themselves -they`re getting old and grumpy. But infighting can be costly at a time when the future of hunting and wildlife conservation is under attack and interest among the next generation`s potential recruits appears tepid at best, especially at a time when the sport needs new blood and an injection of numbers.

Not so with at least eight anti-hunting organizations, whose recruitment efforts are solid and attention rarely diverted. Numbering millions of members and funded by a combined budget of around $96 million, their focus is affixed on a common target: a total ban on hunting.

We`ve all watched while anti-hunting theatrics provided prime-time viewing on the evening news. Each of these well-orchestrated melodramas tugs at naive heartstrings while ignoring logic, science and common sense. As a result, any biological defense of hunting has a tough time being heard by suburbanites who rarely see wildlife other than on PBS or through the window of a speeding automobile.

It`s difficult to defend hunting unless you love the outdoors and comprehend the principles underlying the predator/prey relationship. The majority of hunters respect their quarry, an attitude that underscores their behavior afield. Even so, it`s hard to justify "killing Bambi" to a culture increasingly prone to view nature in front of the flickering image on a tv set.

A large part of this country`s visceral connection to nature faded when rural communities lost their young people to jobs awaiting in expanding suburbs. Rural America produced generation upon generation of hunters and anglers. But now, outdoor traditions once passed from father to son are in danger of going the way of the buffalo, the Indian and the newest member on the endangered species list, the small rancher and farmer.

At the same time, expenses associated with hunting have soared while access to hunting lands has grown more and more limited. With the future of hunting precarious at best, it hasn`t been an opportune time for those of us who go afield with a gun to waste energy on the petty grievances that divide us--especially with the enemy at the gate, watching, waiting and smiling broadly, hoping we self-destruct.

Take for example the controversy over in-line muzzleloaders. When these firearms first arrived on the scene, a number of traditionalists protested that primitive firearm seasons were established only for guns that looked like, and shot like, those patented in the early 1800s. They were mortified by modern muzzleloaders that made the replica Hawkens seem as primitive as a blunderbuss.

A lot of breath could have been saved by adopting a "to each his own" attitude. Instead, the controversy took up time in the form of public hearings, game commission meetings, press coverage and probably a barroom fracas or two.

Those arguing over whether in-lines were wonderful or somehow inherently evil ignored the fact that seasons and limits are not set for the convenience of a particular group and their favorite firearms or bows. Wildlife biology is about numbers, not aesthetics. Each year a certain number of game animals need to die to keep habitat and populations in balance, and wildlife managers don`t have the time nor inclination to referee fights over firearm cosmetics.

In truth, biologists are more like physicians than sportsmen. Their overriding concern is the long-term health of the habitat, the flock, the covey or the herd. So, when wildlife managers sit down to draw up charts that will regulate an upcoming deer season, their focus typically is on the condition of the land in relation to its ability to sustain wildlife populations. At the same time, they have at their disposal information including an estimate of overall deer numbers broken down into regions, buck/doe ratios and reproduction trends.

Through the use of formulas and computer models, good biologists arrive at herd reduction numbers they believe will maintain herd health while optimizing habitat. Archers enjoy extended seasons because archery doesn`t compile the harvest percentage of modern firearms. Muzzleloaders get what amounts to a bonus season--;an extra week in the woods and an opportunity to add to the overall harvest tally wildlife managers hope to achieve. In some areas where buck/doe ratios are out of sync, hunters help achieve better balance through a carefully formulated doe harvest. Basically, the overall effort is designed to maintain equilibrium. In populated areas, law enforcement personnel may limit the method of taking to shotgun or bow. But the bottom line remains constant: kill enough deer of one sex or another to ensure a healthy herd in 10 years, or 100.

Certainly game and fish agencies want the hunter success ratio to be high, and they hope to involve as many hunters as possible in a variety of ways. After all, hunters` dollars pay for the wildlife management effort, and it would be poor public relations to exclude certain groups or limit seasons without scientific justification.

This is why the majority of local controversies can be worked out by establishing a sensible dialogue. Wildlife agencies want public input, and in many instances are required to solicit it. If there`s a problem over equipment or season lengths, dates or limits, hunters only need to organize with others who share similar concerns and request a hearing. In almost every instance a compromise can be achieved or the wildlife professionals will provide enough scientific data to support the status quo. On the other hand, unresolved feuds, fueled by rumor and innuendo, are self-defeating and divert attention from the truly serious problems that face modern sportsmen.

Science, Not Emotion

In recent years, we`ve seen infighting block bear hunting in some states and bring about a ban on cougar hunting in others. In Alaska, hunters battle over methods of taking while biologists struggle to maintain acceptable numbers of both predators and prey.

Overlooked in all this heated dialogue is the fact that to bait or not to bait remains beside the point if bear populations have outgrown available habitat and are in need of thinning. Too many bears result in garbage dump feeders and trash can raiders as younger animals are pushed to the fringe of their natural habitat. As a consequence, wildlife pros answer calls from irate homeowners who suddenly become less enamored with "Smokey" when the hungry critter comes through a plate glass window and raids the kitchen. Agents are then required to trap and relocate the animal, an expensive proposition when you consider that a more biologically sane and cost effective fate would have resulted in the sale of a bear tag and maybe the memory of a lifetime for some happy hunter.

On the West Coast, cougars are chewing on trail runners and bicyclists, generally due to the same biological overload. Young animals forced to the fringe of available territory often come into contact with swelling suburbs. The results are inevitableÐa hungry predator spots what seems to be a fleeing prey. And on the following day, the creature is damned by angry headlines and hunted down by professionals.

It`s ridiculous to blame an animal for doing what comes naturally. On the other hand, there is plenty of blame to share among those who pushed for a ban on hunting. As it stands, hunting remains the best tool we have for keeping large predators in balance with remaining habitat and the prey they require. As long as cougar hunting remains off limits, we can expect even more close encounters. It`s the price that must be paid for ignoring science while allowing emotion to govern the complex issues of wildlife biology.

To Each His Own

There`s a military facility in the Midwest that has grown famous for its whitetail deer herd. The buck/doe ratio is excellent, the habitat in prime condition and the antlers on the bucks are such that make a deer hunter drool.

This facility offers several special hunts, the participants chosen through a drawing. Those chosen feel as if Christmas has arrived in October. But there`s a catch: the archery season allows traditional bows and arrows only.

Many modern archers are lost without their compound bows with pulleys, sights and mechanical releases. So for years the compound bowhunters have raised a ruckus over the fact that traditional archers get a ticket to this whitetail utopia while they remain excluded.

The reason the facility excludes all but traditional bowhunters gets lost in the furor. Following years of experimenting, wildlife managers have found that this type of harvest best suits their overall management needs. And in this case, the proof is on the hoof, as well as in an awe-inspiring display of antlers.

Plus, it`s not as if the compound aficionados couldn`t pick up a recurve and learn to shoot it well enough to kill a deer. Most, however, would rather fight over such trivialities than take a common sense approach and acknowledge that the biologists have a responsibility to manage the deer herd in a way that produces results that others envy.

Hunters who feel strongly about such issues need to skip the bickering, organize, engage in debate rather than simply bellyaching and then be prepared to accept the outcome even if it doesn`t jibe with personal beliefs. Wildlife professionals respect an organizational approach to problem solving. At the same time, organized sportsmen will reap the benefits of an eager ear among local and state elected officials. Just as in wildlife management, it`s all about the numbers.

Unfortunately, in some cases local sportsmen`s organizations unravel because of personal differences between leaders. Of course, the anti-hunting groups love to hear of situations of hunting supporters fighting amongst themselves to the detriment of the sport. Give the anti-hunters a seam, and they`ll drive the wedge deeper. They are determined and focused, while some hunters find it difficult to agree on small issues that affect the future of hunting.Can`t We All Just Get Along? Fortunately, groups like the nra have the numbers, the organizational framework, the political skills, the biological acumen and overall clout to take on difficult issues at both state and national levels. Also, the nra works in concert with other hunting and wildlife organizations to provide a truly powerful union that has successfully blocked a number of anti-hunting assaults on sportsmen`s rights while also protecting their gun rights.

This is why drawing upon established national expertise provides a common sense way to build organizational strength. As it stands now, the need for additional unity will become even more self-evident in the months and years to come as access to hunting land diminishes, soaring fees eliminate all but the rich, and the traditional blue collar sportsman finds it easier to just go bowling.

If we can`t correct these looming problems, the ability to recruit youngsters into an outdoor way of life will become virtually impossible. Average Americans already find it difficult to absorb the cost of tags,

fees and equipment needed for a family to enjoy hunting as we once knew it. Hunters need to get on the same page if they expect to keep fees in line, keep avenues to public hunting lands open, aid in the recruitment of young people and ensure that a positive communications effort positions hunting as a positive way to conserve wildlife.

The first step is a relatively simple one: it`s time to condemn those who attack hunting rather than arguing with each other. Obviously, there is no way that hunters can ever agree on the myriad issues that arise in any tough debate. However, we can learn to recognize that our attitudes can be adjusted in order to achieve the common good, which is the perpetuation of hunting, the preservation of wildlife habitat and a continuation of the heritage and traditions that millions of us hold dear.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.