I’m writingthis in the darkest weeks of the coronavirus, with no real sense of how the pandemic, or America, will look when we emerge from the other side.
By the time you read this, summer will be on us, and hopefully the infectious disease will have loosened its grip on our physical and psychic health. I hope more than anything that you and your family are healthy. Next, I hope you are looking forward, and shifting from huddling in place and caring for your family to fishing mid-summer patterns and prepping your fall hunting gear.
This is as it should be, minus the collective dread.
As you look ahead to another autumn, one that probably has more significance and accumulated anticipation than any other in your recent memory, I hope you realize that hunting is much more than simply filling a tag or spending unscripted time in the fields and woods of the nation. Instead, I want you to think of hunting as a quintessential act of American citizenship. Here’s why.
Hunting is Humane
You’ve heard this before. One reason we need hunters is to keep wildlife in balance with available habitat. That sounds airy, but if you’ve ever seen the alternative, it sticks with you.
Death by nature lingers. It is painful. And it is relentless.
Humans have so altered the landscape that many wild animals no longer have natural predators to keep their populations in check. And many species that dominate our altered landscapes thrive in the habitat that we humans have created: fertile fields, protected forests, greenbelts and leafy suburbs. Without regulated hunting to control wildlife numbers, other engines of population management—starvation, vehicle collisions, disease and winterkill—will readily take our job.
For those who aren’t accustomed to the traditions around hunting, the practice can look barbaric. But a hunter’s swift arrow or bullet surely beats the lingering cruelty of starvation or the other ways Mother Nature enforces her iron rules of supply and demand.
Hunting is a Societal Bargain
When we don’t hunt them, wildlife populations increase in number and proximity to humans to the degree that they become nuisances. As the social value and specialness of wildlife declines, so too do the protections that our society has built up around wildlife.
Our user-pay system of wildlife management is one of the great bargains of the world, and an essentially American invention. We hunters tax ourselves in order to manage a public resource. If that system breaks down, and wildlife species become trash to dispose of, they also become a drain on public resources. Local governments hire sharpshooters or “animal-disposal officers” to do the job that we hunters have paid to do for the last century.
Hunting is Democratic
One of the national conversations that will linger long after COVID-19 passes on is how equitable our nation and society really is. We divvy up health care, lifespan and even ZIP code by household income, which itself is influenced by factors such as race, age and gender.
Hunting is one of the few national activities that is blind to our demographic differences. If you can buy a hunting license, you can participate in this national expression. Now, I’m not ignorant to obstacles—logistical, cultural, demographic and even linguistic—that favor certain populations and create headwinds in pursuit of a hunting license. But the fact is, hunting is available and open to every American citizen in good standing.
Name one other activity that is as democratic as hunting. If you are poor, hunting can provide sustenance. If you are lonely, hunting can provide you a community. If you are numbed by walls and windows, the outdoors can revive your senses and restore your faith in the possible. If you are pessimistic, the pursuit of game gives you hope and a sense of purpose.
This national moment should encourage us to lower barriers to hunting. We should resolve constraints that discourage access to hunting spots. We should bring hunting and fishing opportunities closer to people who don’t have the resources to get to them. We should simplify the complex code we have created around the mechanism to get a license. And we should demystify and stop demonizing the tools—guns and bows included—that we use in pursuit of game animals.
Hunting is Healthy
Nature goes on, no matter the human condition. Geese migrate. Bucks rut. Bass spawn. It’s a good reminder that while humans have engineered so much of our lives, cycles of the natural world will endure long after we’re gone.
But hunting is also the best reminder of our ability—and responsibility—to positively influence that natural world. When we buy a hunting license, we invest in the infrastructure that wild animals require. Hunting licenses fund improvements to critical habitats that not only benefit wildlife, but also human communities that require clean air and open spaces. Fishing licenses help ensure we have clean and abundant water for fish, as well as healthy aquatic habitat to recharge the aquifers, rivers and reservoirs that we rely on for our cities and communities. The federal excise taxes we pay when we buy guns, ammunition and archery equipment fund research into animal migration and disease.
Hunting is a way that we recoup our investment, which pays us dividends in healthy meals of roasted venison, trout fillets and squirrel stew. But the health benefit runs both ways. Seeing a field of white-tailed deer, or a stream teaming with trout, or a sky full of migrating ducks is a reminder that the world is better for the contributions of hunters and anglers.
Hunting is Hopeful
So many of our conventions have been stressed by coronavirus, including human definitions of family, neighborhood and resilience. But one convention is blissfully intact, and that is the mystery of a good hunt.
We might hunt for many different reasons: food, escape, tradition. But the single element that binds us is that every hunt is different, because every hunt is unknowable and relies on opening your mind to any number of possibilities. As we try to solve all the other mysteries of our lives—the source of invisible disease, how our children can prepare for an unknowable future, understanding how health-care funding works—it’s healthy to surrender to the open end of a hunt.
We may be experts in deploying our gear, parsing signs, reading wind and anticipating the antics of a wild animal, but when we hunt, we agree to embrace the unknown. It’s that pursuit of hope that connects us with our aboriginal ancestors, but it’s also a tonic for a world full of useless knowledge.