Aldo Leopold was sure of himself, as young men so often are.
It was 1919 and the 32-year-old had been promoted to assistant district forester, bringing 20 million acres of Southwestern wildlands under his purview. He knew two things: that hunting was one of the highest uses of public land because it forged a bond between man and nature, and that every wildfire had to be fought lest it made the land unavailable for its highest uses. These principles guided early forest policy.
Years later, Leopold would recognize his errors. Clearing out predators didn’t make a sportsmen’s paradise. Nor did fighting wildfires create healthy, resilient forests. In fact, by meddling in the natural order of things, humans are pushing the places we love a step closer to destruction.
It has taken a century to realize the grave mistake of early fire policy; every summer we still see its effect in our smoke-hazed horizons. So why haven’t we revisited the game-first conservation strategy that still guides public land management?
In essence, this policy prioritizes prey, while eliminating apex predators and giving humans the duty to keep prey populations in check. This has not borne out.
Hunting in America is in decline. A 2016 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that 4 percent of Americans over the age of 16 hunted during the prior year. That’s half the participation rate of 50 years ago.
The reasons for that come down to demographics and population trends. Urban centers (where hunting participation rates are about 2 percent) have seen a huge influx in population, while rural areas (where hunting participation rates stand around 12 percent) remain relatively flat.
Moreover, hunters are aging out of the sport. According to the USFWS study, the biggest hunting cohort is 45 to 64-year-olds (6 percent); the rate falls to 2 percent among those who are older. It’s also worth noting that 90 percent of hunters are white, while our national population is growing fastest among minorities.
With fewer hunters, the population of prey animals has ballooned to numbers the ecosystems can’t support, and those very same prized elk and deer find themselves starving to death, being struck by vehicles, or becoming carriers for pathogens like Lyme disease. Prey animals were never intended to manage ecosystems; and yet, by killing all their predators, we’ve put them in charge and disrupted a natural balance thousands of years in the making.
There is folly aplenty here, but it all stems from one basic error: Mastery is not the same as control. As we learned with fire, flames are a critical tool in maintaining healthy ecosystems. It is not a mistake that fires sweep wildlands in the West; it is how those lands are renewed. When we fought every wildfire as if it were an emergency, we made the land more prone to devastating fires, not less. But we’ve learned from that mistake: In some areas, the U.S. Forestry Service lets fires burn as long as they don’t threaten people or structures.
Now, we need a rethinking of game management on public lands. Humans have to accept our evolving role in natural landscapes as visitors, apart from the ecosystem. We’re not apex predators; we’re sportsmen and -women. Nothing wrong with that. Hunting is an honorable pastime that respects the hoofstock that is often its quarry. (And yes, subsistence hunting is part of our national heritage from the flash-in-the-pan pioneer days.) But it is not a viable strategy for ensuring long-term ecosystem health. Countless studies show that overbrowsing by deer creates sick forests. The population needs a check.
So let’s delegate ecosystem management back to nature. Let’s restore the true apex predators and use them as tools to prioritize the health of the entire ecosystem over occasional weekend fun for a shrinking segment of the population. This means reinstating wolves, bears, mountain lions, and the rest of the A-team, while augmenting programs to reimburse ranchers at market rates for livestock depredation.
As with fire, we need policy that safeguards the greatest good over the longest period of time. Hiking and nature visits are riding a pandemic-caused surge in popularity. That’s the experience that needs forest management (and user fees) to support it. Otherwise, we’re a bunch of folks padding around an unhealthy playground designed for old white guys with guns.
And if such a shift makes it harder for hunters to bag a deer or elk, well, isn’t that all part of the game?