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The Death of Hunting

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  • Robert Sterling
    Please send as far and wide as possible. Thanks, Robert Sterling Editor, The Konformist http://www.konformist.com The Death of Hunting By Christina Larson,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 15, 2006
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      Please send as far and wide as possible.

      Thanks,
      Robert Sterling
      Editor, The Konformist
      http://www.konformist.com

      The Death of Hunting
      By Christina Larson, Washington Monthly
      Posted on January 9, 2006
      Alternet.org

      Colo, Iowa (population 900), a town about an hour northeast of Des
      Moines, is little more than a rail crossing, a grain elevator, and a
      dwindling main street. But at 7 a.m. on the opening morning of
      Iowa's celebrated pheasant season, the lights were on in a one-story
      building on Main Street where the Colo Lions Club was sponsoring a
      pancake breakfast for hunters. I arrived with two pheasant hunters,
      the three of us clad in the ubiquitous orange vests and caps of the
      sport, with dogs waiting in kennels in the back of a pickup. We were
      looking for a place to hunt.

      Inside, the scene resembled the cantina from "Star Wars" in one way:
      It was a strategic place to gather information and try to seal a
      deal. Men sat around folding tables swapping stories about the birds
      they bagged last year, but also grousing about the difficulty of
      finding land where they could hunt. Iowa is 97 percent private land,
      so to have much shot at a pheasant, you pretty much need a
      landowner's permission to roam his fields. That's getting harder to
      come by these days, with old farms being sold and fence posts hung
      with new signs that warn, "No Trespassing."

      As my companions and I filled up on pancakes, a friend of theirs
      walked over and pulled up a chair next to us. After helping himself
      to a plate, he glanced around slyly, leaned forward, and passed us
      an enticing tip: He had a friend who had a friend who was a local
      landowner and might give us permission to hunt on his land. We
      should drive down past Colo Bogs and look out for Joe Quaker in a
      grey van. Soon we were on the road, rumbling over gravel roads to
      the appointed meeting place. When no grey van appeared, we drove on,
      forced to look elsewhere for hunting ground. Occasionally, we passed
      hunters tromping through roadside drainage ditches, among the only
      public turf still available to those pheasant seekers without access
      to someone else's land.

      This hunt for a spot to hunt is increasingly a part of the
      sportsmen's pursuit today. In the terminology of those who follow
      the problem, "access" is the buzzword phrase. "When you ask hunters
      directly what their biggest concern is, out of 20-odd possible
      choices, land access is most often number one," says Mark Duda of
      Responsive Management, a firm that conducts surveys for state
      wildlife departments. The scramble to find land can cause friction
      between hunters and landowners--in at least one instance, with
      tragic results. In November, a Hmong immigrant was sentenced to life
      in prison for killing six hunters in Wisconsin after a trespassing
      dispute erupted when he wandered onto their land.

      The increasing difficulty of finding land to hunt on is, not
      surprisingly, nudging ever more hunters to hang up their shotguns.
      In Iowa, the number of hunters in state has dropped 26 percent in a
      decade, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and other
      states have experienced similar declines. One in three former
      hunters told the agency that not having a place to hunt motivated
      their decision to abandon their hobby. Around the country, more
      sportsmen each year are parking their deer stands and duck decoys in
      the garage.

      Even so, hunting is unlikely to disappear entirely. The ranks of
      hunters may dwindle, but hunting itself retains a cultural
      resonance, calling to mind a time when pioneers depended on
      ingenuity and perseverance to settle the frontier and evoking a
      pastoral nostalgia for farm life. Americans like to think of hunting
      as a national tradition, even as they tool around suburban parkways
      in their Subaru Outbacks. Hunting and fishing are touchstones for a
      world that many suburban and exurban dwellers value, even if their
      daily lives no longer reflect it.

      In American politics, few causes are more potent than those
      defending threatened heritage symbols. Real or perceived attacks on
      school prayer, the pledge of allegiance, and the etiquette of
      saying "Merry Christmas" have all been whipped into political
      maelstroms. That's largely because conservatives recognized, and
      then exploited, a latent but largely unorganized anger.

      A comparable frustration exists among hunters over land access. But
      conservatives haven't tapped into it because the source of this
      anxiety isn't a liberal bogeyman, like elitism or big government.
      Instead, it's the closing-off of private property and sale of public
      land, something many on the right defend. That means progressives
      could find themselves in the unexpected position of being the
      champions of hunters. Those states that have effectively slowed or
      reversed the hunting decline have done so with programs that use
      government to open up private lands voluntarily to public
      recreation. This time, it may be progressive government that holds
      out the best hope for preserving an American tradition.

      A wink from Uncle Fred

      If Americans don't hunt in the numbers that they used to, hunting
      goods stores aren't in danger of going out of business just yet.
      Hunting and fishing remain major national pastimes: In 2001, 13
      million Americans headed out to hunt and 34 million to fish. The
      total number of "sportsmen" -- men and women who hunt or fish -- is
      38 million today, nearly one in five Americans. But while that's a
      crowd, it's a shrinking one. Over the past two decades, the
      percentage of Americans who hunt or fish has tumbled from 26 to 18
      percent; the absolute number of sportsmen has fallen from 50 million
      to 38 million.

      The decline is related to the ripple effects of suburbanization, the
      gradual century-long movement of Americans from farms to cities and
      suburbs. Thirty years ago, many suburban residents still had
      relatives who lived in the country, relatives who would welcome them
      back to the farm to hunt on fall weekends. Now those relatives are
      largely gone -- or suburban dwellers themselves.

      Today, more than two out of three sportsmen live in metropolitan
      areas, where their children grow up less familiar with firearms,
      removed from daily contact with blood and dirt, and often less
      comfortable with the pursuit of game as sport. Just as successive
      generations of immigrant families lose touch with the language and
      customs of the old country, the descendants of rural America simply
      don't have the same strong cultural attachment to the land and to
      hunting.

      Yet there isn't an ocean separating the Old World from the New.
      Americans who want to reclaim their hunting heritage are at most a
      few hours' drive from doing so. Likewise, there's nothing preventing
      certain aspects of country culture from making their way into town.
      Other pastimes once thought of as rural, from country music to
      NASCAR, have found their fastest-growing markets in the suburbs of
      cities like Atlanta. But with hunting, the obstacles are twofold:
      Suburbanites are less likely to know anyone who owns land, and
      landowners -- particularly absentee owners -- are less inclined to
      open their property to strangers.

      Back when more Americans lived a short walk from a relative or
      friend's farm, the way someone found a place to hunt or fish was
      simply by asking for permission. If Uncle Fred wasn't home, you
      knocked on the doors of nearby farmhouses. My dad, who grew up in
      Dubuque, Iowa, in the 1950s, recalls that when he and his friends
      stepped onto a farmer's porch, the first question was
      usually, "Where you boys from?" Once the farmer had sized them up,
      content that local boys would know not to fire a gun near cattle and
      not to leave gates open, they were usually sent on their way with a
      wink.

      These days, knocking on a stranger's door, shotgun in hand, would
      likely meet with less success. For one thing, rural America has a
      greater proportion of absentee landowners: corporate farm owners,
      summer-home owners, investors who favor land over stocks. Those
      landowners who are home are more likely to eye unfamiliar hunters
      with suspicion. New arrivals from urban environments find it odd to
      share their lawns. Even old-timers like Uncle Fred are having second
      thoughts: Reports of trespassing and property damage are on the
      rise, especially near metro areas.

      As "No Hunting" signs hang from more gates, ammo boxes sit unused in
      more sheds. In a poll of inactive New Jersey hunters, the complaint
      that there weren't enough places to hunt topped the list of reasons
      for quitting the sport. Slightly further down that list was a
      related concern: "too many hunters in the field." As available
      places to hunt diminish, hunters are squeezed onto fewer fields. In
      Iowa, crowds on the state's limited public hunting grounds have
      swelled even as hunting license sales have declined; an estimated 20
      to 30 percent of Iowa hunters now hunt on the 1 percent of land that
      is managed for public hunting. What the crowds reveal is a growing
      mismatch between desire and opportunity.

      Hunting with checkbooks

      The old system of finding a spot to hunt was a favor among
      friends: "You knew the landowner down the road or got to know him,"
      Rob Sexton at the U.S. Sportsman's Alliance remembers, "maybe shared
      your birds or offered to help seed a field or brought over some
      cakes at Christmas time." The new system is the market.

      In recent years, an industry has sprung up to match hunter
      checkbooks with landowner bank accounts. Now, hunters can pay for
      exclusive recreational access to a property through a contract known
      as a "hunting lease." In 2001, leases averaged $670 per property for
      the hunting season, up 150 percent since 1991. To locate leasing
      opportunities, hunters post want ads on sites like Huntspot.com,
      listing what they are looking for and what they are willing to pay.
      A sportsman with the handle "Texas Law Dog," for example, wrote on
      behalf of five hunters seeking a hunting lease in the Lone Star
      panhandle; each was willing to pay $1,750 for land access.

      Awarding access to the highest bidder tends to drive up prices, and
      consequently drives some people out. When Dave Hurteau, a columnist
      at Field and Stream magazine, solicited reader comments on the
      subject, he found he had touched a nerve. One reader wrote to
      say: "I had a lease that cost me $850 the first year, $1,100 the
      second, and $1,300 the third. Three years was enough for me." A
      hunter confirmed the high price of pay-to-play hunting: "Today, a
      fine South Texas lease with trophy potential [big game hunting] will
      run $3,500 a gun and up. And I mean way up--to around $10,000. It
      had gotten totally out of hand."

      The rising cost of a place in the field has, according to Todd
      Peterson of Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources, "priced
      some people out of the sport." Nationally, the number of hunters
      with below-median incomes has declined 16 percent in 15 years; over
      the same period, the number of hunters with above-median incomes has
      declined just 3 percent.

      Tony Dean, a sort of Walter Cronkite of Midwestern sportsmen, who
      mixes walleye recipes with political commentary on the popular "Tony
      Dean Outdoors" show, says he fears a day when hunting and outdoor
      recreation become pastimes of the elite, something only the well-to-
      do can afford to enjoy. "Our forefathers left a European system in
      which wildlife and land belonged only to landowners," Dean told
      me. "We don't want to go back to being like the Europeans."

      Blasting snowy egrets

      Indeed, in Europe the land and the creatures on it traditionally
      belonged to the nobility, who alone had the right to pursue game.
      Even today, when debates over British fox hunting arise, the
      descendants of dukes generally defend it while the great-grandsons
      of cobblers generally oppose.

      But in America, something like the opposite has long been the case.
      In 1683, William Penn's Charter for the Commonwealth enshrined the
      right of the average man to hunt and fish on all lands not enclosed
      for livestock. One hundred and fifty years later, in 1842, a New
      Jersey landowner and an oysterman found themselves in front of the
      Supreme Court, arguing over whether Mr. Waddell owned the oysters
      stuck in the mud on his property. The Court ruled that he did not,
      and it granted sovereignty of the waterways, the soil, and the
      critters in them to the people of each state.

      Subsequent rulings refined the unique American system that exists
      today: Wildlife is held in trust by the state (managed by state
      wildlife agencies) for the benefit of the public, who collectively
      own it.

      This idea of public ownership became the intellectual foundation for
      America's conservation movement a century ago, when commercial
      hunters had begun decimating buffalo herds and blasting snowy egrets
      with cannons in order to sell feathers for ladies' hats. Theodore
      Roosevelt and a handful of other naturalists -- most of them
      hunters -- argued that wildlife belonged to the public and therefore
      could not be obliterated by business interests.

      "Public rights comes first and private interests second," Roosevelt
      wrote in 1905. "The conservation of wildlife and... all our natural
      resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and
      method." He outlawed commercial hunting and promoted measures --
      such as bag limits and game seasons -- to ensure that wildlife could
      be enjoyed by future generations.

      In a reversal of the tragedy of the commons, the American
      conservation movement has been far more successful, both in
      garnering popular support and in saving species from extinction,
      than efforts in countries where a different mentality exists toward
      ownership of wildlife. Whereas America brought back the elk,
      antelope, and white-tailed deer, in Britain boars, beavers, and
      bears no longer roam. Today, however, this heritage faces a new
      challenge, unfathomable in the days of Penn or Roosevelt. As Todd
      Bogenschutz of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources told
      me, "Our forefathers made wildlife public, but they screwed another
      thing up. They should have made access to wildlife public."

      What's right with Kansas

      From the window of an airplane, Kansas looks a lot like Iowa. Both
      are square states, checkered in agricultural fields, and more than
      97 percent of the largely flat land is in private hands. A glimpse
      at census reports shows that they are also demographically similar.
      Iowans and Kansans alike have been moving from the countryside to
      cities like Des Moines and Wichita; the two states have seen similar
      single-digit population growth over the last decade, and they now
      rank 30th and 32nd in overall state populations. And both have
      beloved pheasant seasons, anticipated by hunters and promoted by
      small-town chambers of commerce.

      There is one notable difference. While the number of hunters in Iowa
      has dropped 26 percent in a decade, in Kansas resident hunter
      numbers have remained steady and out-of-state license sales have
      increased. It isn't that Kansas has more enthusiastic sportsmen's
      groups or tastier birds or prettier fields than Iowa. What it does
      have is a state-run program that increases access to hunting grounds.

      Kansas' Walk-In Hunting Access program (WIHA) -- delightfully
      called "wee-haw" -- works with private landowners to arrange for
      public hunting use of their land. It started a decade ago after the
      Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks polled inactive hunters and
      found that access was the greatest obstacle to hunting.

      In 1995, a pilot version of WIHA debuted in seven counties around
      Wichita, encompassing 10,000 acres of land. Since then, the program
      has grown to include over one million acres across the state. In
      early November, on opening morning of this fall's pheasant season,
      Mike Thompson and his son Brandon drove 40 minutes west from their
      home in Wichita, parked their truck beside a field of tall grass,
      and hopped out to don orange vests. Signs bordering the field
      read: "Walk-In Hunting Area, foot traffic only." Anyone with a $19
      resident hunting license can hunt on WIHA land, and it's not hard to
      find convenient sites. Mike had noticed the signs for this
      particular spot while driving; he might also have found it by
      consulting an online atlas of available sites or flipping through a
      listing at Cabela's, the sportsmen's megastore.

      The Thompsons were walking back to their truck, a bird in hand and a
      black lab trotting ahead of them, when a state wildlife department
      employee pulled up to distribute survey cards. Mike said he had
      relatives in Illinois with hunting land, but that was "a real long
      drive"--having a destination under an hour away was much better.

      "I'd pay for this program," Mike offered. The biologist tipped his
      hat, a burnt orange cap that read "Kansas Hunting Access," and
      said, "There's an address on that card if you want to send a
      donation. We'll send you a hat."

      That same morning, LaVeda Cross, longtime resident of the small town
      of Lewis, Kansas, watched hunters pour into restaurants where cooks
      had fired up griddles and coffee pots before dawn. Cross owns about
      3,000 acres that members of her family homesteaded generations ago
      outside of town. Four years ago, she contacted the state wildlife
      agency about enrolling her land in WIHA; a wildlife biologist came
      out to inspect habitat conditions before offering her a contract and
      negotiating the compensation. Payments vary based on habitat and
      hunting seasons, but the average rate is $1.25 per acre in Kansas.
      (That's in addition to any money a landowner makes farming or
      grazing the land, or enrolling it in a federal conservation reserve
      program.)

      Cross now lives in town; her son works the land. She tells me it's
      harder to make a living on the farm than it used to be, and the
      spike in fuel prices hit hard this harvest season. So, while the
      payment from the wildlife department is not a lot, "It's a simple
      way to make a little bit of money and help keep up income and
      repairs."

      And there's another reason Cross likes WIHA: She's grateful for
      Charlie Swank, a wildlife biologist who wears his ten-gallon hat on
      official business and calls Cross regularly to keep her informed of
      what's happening on the land. Before she enrolled her land in WIHA,
      Cross had problems with hunters trespassing and taking pot shots at
      the windmills on the farm ("The ones who don't ask permission tend
      to be the reckless ones"). Now, the state has authority to watch
      over the land and assumes limited liability, which otherwise would
      rest with Cross and other landowners. More people use her land now,
      but according to Cross, there have been far fewer problems with
      property damage: "I really look forward to the time when the hunters
      come back," she tells me.

      According to the department's annual surveys, just one in five
      landowners live on the enrolled property, though many, including
      Cross, reside nearby. With fewer farmers each overseeing larger
      plots of land, monitoring property has become a big concern. Eighty-
      one percent of landowners said that state patrol of their lands was
      a "very important" or "moderately important" component of the Kansas
      program. Each year, Cross says, she turns down an offer for a more
      lucrative private lease from a group of Colorado hunters, in part
      because of the "peace of mind" the state program provides.

      Kansas is one of seven states that has operated a sizable access
      program (involving 500,000 or more acres) for a decade or longer. In
      each of these seven states, the number of hunters in state has
      either gone up, held steady, or dipped at a rate far slower than
      would otherwise be expected, given urbanization and other
      demographic changes.

      During a decade in which the number of hunters nationally declined
      by 7 percent, those states with large established access programs
      collectively saw the number of hunters in state (resident and
      nonresident) rise by nearly 5 percent. Access programs are wildly
      popular with hunters, benefit landowners and farmers, and promise to
      slow hunting's decline, at least for the moment. The only question
      seems to be: Why aren't more states embracing them?

      A bunch of biologists making policy

      Given the escalating payments that private leasers are willing to
      make in order to secure land access, some skeptics question whether
      states can afford to be competitive in the deals they offer to
      landowners. As LaVeda Cross and other owners, especially the growing
      cadre of absentee landowners, can attest, part of the attraction of
      an access program is the peace of mind that comes with authorizing
      someone else to watch over your land. But some states have also
      worked with landowners to develop creative methods of compensation
      that meet their specific needs.

      In Pennsylvania, for instance, the state offers landowners habitat
      consultations with state biologists and free seedlings in lieu of
      payments. Oregon has hired retired state troopers to beef up patrol
      of lands enrolled in its access program. The goal is to identify
      ways to supplement cash payments to landowners with services that
      draw upon the state's expertise--and provide a market advantage over
      private leasers.

      In addition, cash-strapped state capitals, under political pressure
      from conservative activists to avoid raising taxes, are loathe to
      implement new programs that require additional funding. Even though
      hunting season can be a significant economic generator for rural
      economies -- filling main-street restaurants and roadside motels --
      state legislatures have not clamored to start access program to
      attract more hunters. In almost every case (Oregon is the
      exception), the initiative to start such programs has come instead
      from state wildlife departments. "It's kinda dangerous," says Mike
      Mitchener, Kansas' wildlife section chief, "a bunch of biologists
      getting into policy and marketing."

      What states have found, however, is that access programs can have
      benefits that exceed their costs. Kansas has paid for its $1.5
      million program largely by redistributing its existing wildlife
      operating budget, which is only just over $3 million annually. Yet
      wildlife-related recreation is estimated to bring a hefty sum of
      $785 million to the state each year. In Oregon, a $2 surcharge on
      hunting licenses has funded its access program. But despite polls
      that show hunters in other states are willing to pay a modest charge
      to fund access programs, wildlife agencies have found it difficult
      to convince legislatures to embrace anything that looks like a tax
      hike.

      If politicians realized the potential support for access programs
      beyond the nation's relatively small cadre of hunters, they might be
      more enthusiastic about the political benefits of expanding
      Americans' access to enjoy wildlife on private lands.

      Wildlife belongs to all of us

      Access programs are an elegant way to stem hunting's slow demise.
      Yet the potential of the idea extends far beyond hunting, for
      sportsmen aren't the only ones having a tough time finding a spot to
      enjoy nature. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "non-
      consumptive wildlife recreation," a category that includes such
      pursuits as nature hiking and bird watching, has also declined--13
      percent in a decade. This drop has occurred even as visits to
      national parks have increased substantially, suggesting that
      Americans' demand for experiencing nature hasn't diminished, it's
      just outstripped the supply of accessible land.

      Access programs could provide an answer. In Wyoming and other
      states, programs are being adapted to help anglers. In Pennsylvania,
      lands managed under the state's hunting access program already
      attract horseback riders and hikers. And because many access
      programs target acreage near metropolitan areas, giving landowners a
      small incentive not to sell out too quickly to developers (and
      developers a modest reason to hold off building on land they own),
      these programs ought to be popular with everyone from Boy Scouts to
      mountain-bike dealers to suburban anti-sprawl advocates.

      It takes time for any new idea to percolate nationally, and the
      origins of access programs (in conversations in the field, and
      between regional fish and wildlife departments) are literally as
      grassroots as they come. But another reason these programs haven't
      yet caught fire in Washington may have more to do with the fact that
      conservatives currently dominate every foothold of federal
      government. Polling shows that hunters and anglers vote
      predominantly, though not overwhelmingly, Republican. On some
      issues, such as gun rights, the GOP has courted these groups
      intently. But on hunting and fishing land access, conservatives have
      routinely supported industrial interests over those of sportsmen.

      The Bush administration has pushed sales of oil and gas drilling
      rights on public land in the West, much of it prime habitat and
      hunting and fishing range, sparking increasingly loud protests from
      sportsmen's groups. Outrage at plans to allow exploratory drilling
      near Montana's Rocky Mountain Front (oft-dubbed "America's
      Serengeti," a trophy-hunter's paradise) convinced the White House to
      back off before the last election. The latest outcry occurred over
      language House Resources Committee chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.)
      inserted into a GOP-backed budget bill. The insertion, since
      withdrawn, would have allowed the sell-off of vast holdings of
      public lands to mining companies and developers.

      Liberals hardly have a better record at championing sportsmen's
      causes. Local chapters of the Sierra Club, for instance, have
      campaigned against everything from dove hunting in Minnesota to the
      culling of black bears in New Jersey -- even though state wildlife
      biologists insist the hunts pose no ecological risks. Some
      environmental leaders, though, are beginning to find philosophic and
      political common ground with sportsmen's groups, pursuing
      partnerships on a variety of fronts, including private land access.
      So are some Democrats in Congress.

      For the last two years, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Sen. Pat
      Roberts (R-Kansas) have introduced an "Open Fields" bill. The
      measure would provide $20 million a year for five years in federal
      money for states to establish or expand access programs
      for "hunting, fishing, bird-watching, and related outdoor
      activities." That any elected official would fail to support such an
      inexpensive, uncontroversial, and potentially popular bill might be
      hard to imagine. Yet in both GOP-dominated houses of Congress the
      measure has garnered nearly twice as many Democratic co-sponsors as
      Republican, and consequently not gone very far.

      As long as the conservative ethos reigns in Washington and in state
      capitals, then America's hunting, fishing, and outdoors culture will
      almost certainly continue to decline. The best hope for protecting
      this heritage probably rests with elected officials of a progressive
      bent, Republicans as well as Democrats -- officials who are
      ideologically comfortable using government to assert a right
      bequeathed by America's political forefathers: that wildlife belongs
      not to private interests but to the public.

      Christina Larson is managing editor of The Washington Monthly.
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