Conservation, Ethics, and Hunting
Updated: Apr 21
The only sound I hear is the snow creaking beneath my Baffin winter boots as I slowly navigate through black spruce and tamaracks. The silence is briefly broken by the powerful, steady wingbeats of a common raven as it flies directly above me. I look down at the moose tracks I’ve been following all morning, tracks that are fresh in last night’s snow. Taking a break I sweep the fluffy snow off of a downed spruce and sit down, pulling out my Suunto compass and creased topographic map to get a bearing on where I’m headed. As I start munching on a salmon sandwich, a whiskey jack lands on a branch to my left eyeing up my lunch. Suddenly, I hear the crack of a twig and see a whitetail deer step out from behind some tamaracks. He looks right at me as I quickly set down my sandwich and reach for my 30-06 Remington leaning beside me on the downed spruce.
Since the age of 14, I’ve been an avid hunter. Some of my most cherished memories are trudging through the snow on cold November days in the middle of the Alberta muskeg — days spent harvesting my own meat while gaining not only a connection to where my food comes from, but also a connection to nature. And doing all of this in an ethical way while also benefiting conservation of the nature around me. Recently, however, I’ve begun to question this. Is hunting for food ethical when we have access to so many alternatives? What about hunting for sport or trophies? Does hunting actually conserve wildlife? These are important questions to ask and explore honestly.
Does Hunting Conserve Wildlife?
The question on whether hunting conserves wildlife is a difficult one and there are definitely arguments on both sides. The main argument when defending hunting’s role in conservation is that it contributes to the conservation of wildlife through economics; essentially that hunting brings in money that is then used to protect and restore wildlife and habitat.
So how much economic support for conservation and our natural world comes from hunting? During Alberta’s 2017/2018 hunting season, 20 million dollars of revenue was collected from the sale of licenses of which 48% went to the Alberta Conservation Association and 2.4% went to a government fund to deliver wildlife management programs such as ungulate surveys.¹ This approximately 10 million dollars is a huge number but to put it into perspective, the Alberta government put 417 million dollars into environment and parks in 2017/2018.² While the levy from hunting licenses has a financial impact on conservation programs, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for, in the absence of hunting, the provincial government to pick up this cost when their budget in this area is magnitudes greater.
Another area where hunting can benefit in the economics of conservation is through hunting organizations. As an example, Ducks Unlimited Canada, whose members are primarily hunters, has 2 271 habitat projects in Alberta that have secured 34 826 acres of habitat in 2018 alone and since 1938, Ducks Unlimited Canada has secured 2 344 551 acres of habitat in Alberta.³
One consideration for the conservation funding that comes from hunting or hunting organizations is where that money is being applied. Often, the goals of hunters and environmentalists are the same (habitat protection for instance) but sometimes they differ. An example is money going towards wildlife stocking programs exclusively for hunting such as the introduced ring-necked pheasant hunts in southern Alberta. So while money from hunting licenses can definitely have positive impacts on habitat and conservation, is it the best way to fund environmental initiatives? Are there other ways? What about the positive impact of hunting organizations?
Another key way that hunting can be beneficial to conservation and our natural world is that it provides a reason and motivation to protect habitat. A 2017 study explored the impacts of hunting and hiking on wildlife behaviour and found that the presence of humans had a very minimal impact on the wildlife. It found that the much bigger impact was the fragmentation and degradation of habitat.⁴ This is where these types of recreations can actually be a benefit as through these hobbies, there is a clear motivation to protect habitat. It is groups like hunters that strongly advocate for protecting habitat as it directly impacts the quality of their hunting experience.
Hunters can act as stewards of the land and can help keep awareness of the degradation of habitat in the public’s eye. Other activities such as photography, wildlife viewing, and bird watching can also accomplish this but often hunters will go to areas with wildlife that not many other people will, areas that are remote or dangerous. Hunters become stewards of these areas that are less photogenic, accessible, or just less desirable for other activities. If you remove hunting from the equation, areas can be ignored and easily exploited for resources without the public even noticing.
Impact on Wildlife Populations
In the past, hunting has caused huge impacts on wildlife even to the point of extinction, one of the most notable being the passenger pigeon. The passenger pigeon’s story is both amazing and incredibly sad. This bird was once the most numerous bird in North America possibly even the most numerous bird in the world. In a remarkably short amount of time the bird went from a population of 3 – 5 billion in the 1800s, to extinct in 1914.⁵ From staggering numbers to completely gone; the decline to extinction occurred in just 30 years.⁶
There is no question that our history has seen hunting cause huge population drops and even extinctions. The difference today, however, is the presence of more regulations such as seasons, bag limits, and protected areas that do not permit hunting. While these regulations go a very long way to prevent impacts to the ecosystem by hunters, they do not eliminate impacts entirely.
Even if proper limits and restrictions are in place, it is possible that hunting can still negatively affect ecosystems. One way that this can happen is through the changes in wildlife behaviour that hunting can cause. One Florida study found that deer avoided roads and clearings in areas that they were hunted as well as changing their habits to be more nocturnal.⁷ Interestingly, in this study, the changes positively impacted a deer predator, the Florida panther by moving deer into panther habitat, making the deer active at night while the panthers hunt, and keeping the panthers further from the hazards posed by roads. While this study shows a positive impact for panthers, it highlights the large impact hunting can have on wildlife behaviour and the results are not always positive.
A 1995 study discussed the impact hunting has on seabird behaviour and found that hunting caused disruptions to normal activities, displacement from key feeding areas, and even negative impacts on pair bonds and family structures reducing reproductive output.⁸ This study underscores the unintended impacts of hunting beyond the direct killing of individual animals.
Another impact that hunting can have on wildlife is through the selective nature of recreational hunting. Hunters typically look for specific traits such as large antlers on whitetail deer or long beards on wild turkeys. A 30 year study from Ram Mountain in Alberta looked at how hunting for trophy bighorn sheep impacted the sheep populations genetically. Because hunters targeted sheep with large horns and greater mass, the study found that both horn size and body weight decreased significantly over time resulting in smaller-horned, lighter rams.⁹ It is disconcerting to know that people can so quickly impact traits that evolved naturally over many years.
In this area, there is a considerable amount of evidence that hunting can greatly impact wildlife populations in numbers, behaviour, and genetics.
What About Wildlife Management?
Wildlife management is the control of wildlife populations to benefit the ecosystem as a whole. This is a key argument in favour of hunting as it can be a valuable tool to wildlife managers but it is also quite controversial. Wildlife populations have always kept themselves in check, increasing and decreasing in cycles naturally whether through predator-prey relationships, fluctuations in the amount of food for herbivores, or through disease and parasites. This has always kept a balance; however, when anthropogenic factors disrupt this balance, it is believed that wildlife management is necessary.
One example of this is the management of Alberta’s caribou herds. Through resource extraction, much of Alberta’s caribou habitat has been fragmented and degraded causing the woodland caribou to be listed as threatened by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) in 2002.¹⁰ Now, as part of the management strategy of herds that could soon be extirpated, wolves are being culled. Here is a scenario where we impacted an ecosystem but are trying to improve it through the hunting of a predator.
Another example is moose on Cape Breton Island. Moose were extirpated from the island in the late 1800s due to overhunting but reintroduced by the federal Park Service in the late 1940s with moose from Alberta’s Elk Island National Park. In the 1970s, an eastern spruce budworm outbreak greatly reduced the number of balsam fir on the island and allowed birch trees to fill the gap. Since these trees are preferable for moose, populations exploded to the point that the moose, through feeding, were preventing regrowth of the Acadian forest and allowing grasses to take over in areas, slowly changing the ecosystem of the island.¹¹ This change is a concern to certain species on the island such as the Canada lynx so moose hunting was opened up in order to cull the populations.
In these specific examples, wildlife management through hunting could be an important tool but there is some debate as to how effective it really is. A 6 year study in Quebec tried to find how effective a cull would be by killing 50% of the anterless deer in 5 different 20km² areas in the first year and 30% in each year for the rest of the study. The impact on the population at the end of the study, compared to the 5 control areas with a 5 – 7% harvest rate, were minimal as was the impact on vegetation between the test and control sites.¹² This study showed that in some cases when using hunting for the purpose of wildlife management, results can be very unpredictable. As well, some even question whether wildlife management is even necessary.
National parks are a good example case where animals are not hunted and culling is not necessary. In these areas, when people just get out of the way, nature takes care of itself. Ecosystem integrity can be managed on its own as long as we do our best to minimize anthropogenic impacts on the ecosystem. It is easy to get into a cycle of “yo-yo” conservation when we start to manage it ourselves where we control predator populations through hunting until prey species recover and then hunt the prey species until their populations are depleted again.
When it comes to using hunting for wildlife management there are definitely arguments on both sides.
Is Hunting Ethical?
Ending the Life of an Animal
The first question to ask when it comes to the ethics of hunting is whether or not it is ethical to kill an animal at all. If it is unethical to kill a sentient animal, this would have to encompass livestock that are raised for food as well. In fact, some would argue that it is in fact more ethical to kill a wild animal than it is to raise an animal for slaughter. A philosopher named Peter Singer made this argument in his book, Animal Liberation when he said,
“Why, for instance, is the hunter who shoots a deer for venison subject to more criticism than the person who buys a ham at the supermarket? Overall, it is probably the intensively reared pig who has suffered more.”¹³
If ending the life of any animal is unethical, however, then hunting, where the goal of the activity is to in fact kill an animal, would be unethical.
One more interesting point that hunters often make is that a clean death with a rifle or shotgun or even a bow, would be a much preferable death to what an animal would face naturally in the wild such as starving during a rough winter or being eaten alive by wolves or bears. This point does bring forward couple of interesting questions. Which is better, a clean death today or a more painful death possibly many years from now? As well, is it our right to make that decision for the animal? These are not easy questions to find the answers to.
Motive for Hunting
The motive of the hunter is another aspect to the ethics of hunting. Why hunt? Is it to harvest food for the hunter and their family? Maybe it’s to spend time in nature and for the love of the activity. Is it for the sport or maybe for the trophy? Is the entire reason for the hunt to contribute to wildlife management? Or maybe, the motivation is a combination of these.
One key argument against hunting is that it is unethical to get enjoyment out of killing an animal, that ending the life of an animal shouldn’t be “fun”. Roger Scruton argued that humans have a moral obligation to maintain the balance of nature which can include hunting but that we need to remain virtuous in our treatment of animals and not take joy in their death.¹⁴
Roy Hattersley summed up this argument well when he wrote,
“I have long supported whoever it was who said that the real objection to fox-hunting is the pleasure that the hunters get out of it ... If killing foxes is necessary for the safety and survival of other species, I – and several million others – will vote for it to continue. But the slaughter ought not to be fun.”¹⁵
This line of thinking does not mean that no part of the recreation can be fun. The experience of exploring nature, tracking prey, and spending time with friends in the natural world should be enjoyable but when the act of actually ending the life of the quarry occurs, the action should not be joyful, but sorrowful.
Another argument against hunting is when the motivation for hunting is to collect trophies. When the primary reason for the hunt is to claim a trophy, the ethics of that hunt are on very flimsy grounds. A 2017 peer-reviewed essay discussed the psychology behind why people trophy hunt. It hypothesised that while trophy hunting, the hunter is, consciously or subconsciously, doing it for “status”. Hunting for status and prestige are not solid moral grounds for killing an animal.¹⁶
Clearly the ethics around hunting is a complicated issue and far from black and white.
It is quite obvious that when it comes to both the ethics of hunting and hunting’s role in conservation, the verdict is not a simple one. Every individual needs to look at the evidence and make their own decision. Myself, I’m going to head into the woods this November as usual but for the first time since I was 14 years old, I’ll be armed with binoculars and a camera, not my 30-06 rifle and instead of a hunting license in my pocket, I’ll have a receipt for a donation to a local conservation organization.
1. Alberta Environment and Parks. (2018). 2018 Alberta Guide to Hunting Regulations
2. Treasury Board and Finance, Government of Alberta. (2019). 2018–19 Final Results Year-End Report.
3. Ducks Unlimited Canada. (2018). Ducks Unlimited Canada annual report 2018. Retrieved from https://www.ducks.ca/assets/2018/08/AR-2018-FINAL.pdf
4. Kays, R., Parsons, A. W., Baker, M. C., Kalies, E. L., Forrester, T., Costello, R., ... & McShea, W. J. (2017). Does hunting or hiking affect wildlife communities in protected areas?. Journal of Applied Ecology, 54(1), 242-252.
5. Hung, C. M., Shaner, P. J. L., Zink, R. M., Liu, W. C., Chu, T. C., Huang, W. S., & Li, S. H. (2014). Drastic population fluctuations explain the rapid extinction of the passenger pigeon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(29), 10636-10641.
6. Blockstein, D. E. (2002). Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.611
7. Kilgo, J. C., Labisky, R. F., & Fritzen, D. E. (1998). Influences of hunting on the behavior of white‐tailed deer: implications for conservation of the Florida panther. Conservation Biology, 12(6), 1359-1364.
8. Madsen, J., & Fox, A. D. (1995). Impacts of hunting disturbance on waterbirds-a review. Wildlife biology, 1(1), 193-208.
9. Coltman, D. W., O'Donoghue, P., Jorgenson, J. T., Hogg, J. T., Strobeck, C., & Festa-Bianchet, M. (2003). Undesirable evolutionary consequences of trophy hunting. Nature, 426(6967), 655.
10. Thomas, D. C., & Gray, D. R. (2002). COSEWIC assessment and update status report on the Woodland Caribou, Rangifer tarandus caribou. Canada. Committee on the status of endangered wildlife in Canada, Environtment Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
11. Bridgland, J., Nette, T., Dennis, C., & Quann, D. (2007). Moose on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia: 20th century demographics and emerging issues in the 21st century. Alces, 43(1), 111-121.
12. Simard, M. A., Dussault, C., Huot, J., & Côté, S. D. (2013). Is hunting an effective tool to control overabundant deer? A test using an experimental approach. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 77(2), 254-269.
13. Singer, P. (1995) Animal Liberation, 2nd edn. Pimlico, London.
14. Scruton, R. (2006). Animal rights and wrongs. A&C Black.
15. Hattersley, R. (1990, April 21). Guardian.
16. Darimont, C. T., Codding, B. F., & Hawkes, K. (2017). Why men trophy hunt. Biology letters, 13(3), 20160909.