Are Bounties and Killing Contests Conservation?

Conservation involves complicated layers that must be navigated. It involves a diverse set of voices, nuanced motivations, and vastly different ideas about the best types of programs and policies. Inevitably, there is a great deal of push and pull and disagreement about the right kinds of decision-making in conservation and what constitutes a morally right way to approach conservation.

Bounties and killing contests occupy a contradictory space in the North American conservation narrative. Predator bounties were responsible for the widespread destruction of species such as wolves and bears across North America over the last couple centuries. At other times, bounties and killing contests are packaged as deliberate conservation initiatives.

What complicates matters is that there is not one single measure of success in conservation. Certainly, healthy ecosystems that support robust and diverse populations of wildlife is one widely accepted measure. However, the challenge before us is not only to work towards a future with healthy biodiversity. We also need to continuously evaluate how we make decisions, and when we are willing to compromise with other groups and accept approaches that make us uncomfortable. Compromise will be absolutely critical in the next half century if we hope to address the biodiversity crisis we are currently facing.

In the context of 21st century conservation, can bounties and killing contests contribute to conservation outcomes? Equally importantly, do we want programs like bounties and killing contests to have a place in our moral landscape and to be part of what we consider conservation?

21st Century Killing Contests

There are a number of recent examples of predator bounties and killing contests in both Canada and the United States. In one case, in March 2019, two local hunting groups and a local business in British Columbia promoted killing contests for predator species such as wolves, cougars, and coyotes. In the contests, hunters formed teams and received either immediate cash prizes or acquired points for each animal killed to compete for cash prizes.

Flyer from the Creston Rod & Gun Club in B.C. advertising a predator killing contest.

The contests themselves were legal and hunters were required to purchase and carry all required hunting licenses and to follow all applicable laws under the provincial Wildlife Act.

Unsurprisingly, the contests divided groups around the ethics of what some saw as a measured wildlife management strategy and others considered to be programs that glorify killing for sport.

Local hunting clubs expressed concerns about a “growing predator population in the Interior, which they say is threatening other animals” and argued that the contests address concerns by the cattle industry, “which was being decimated by an overpopulation of wolves over the last decade”.

Opposition to Killing Contests

In response, a coalition of 54 individuals, organizations, and businesses opposed to the contests signed an open letter to Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Doug Donaldson calling for the government to intervene and “end all current ‘wildlife killing’ contests and modernize regulations to prohibit such ‘contests’ from being held in future”.  In addition, an online petition calling the contests “slaughter” and “blatantly cruel” built up 122,601 signatures as of August 2019.

Spokespeople for the coalition against the contests questioned that the motivation of the contests was truly about wildlife management. One spokesperson argued that hunters are “killing for the sport of it…To believe that this is an unbiased, science-based predator removal program is just, it’s not true”.

Are wolf killing contests wildlife management or sport killing?
By Mas3cf – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47155532

For the government’s part, Minister Donaldson said in a statement that wolf populations are “healthy and self-sustaining throughout the province”. The Minister stated that the B.C. government does not condone the contests but clarified that there are no rules “preventing these types of contests providing the hunters are properly licensed and all laws are followed”.

Points of Agreement

Interestingly, both sides agreed that there is a problem with habitat mismanagement in the province that is contributing to the decline of species such as caribou.

Hunting groups have said that the B.C. government’s destruction of caribou habitat has increased predation pressure on the species. In an online video addressing the provincial government, one hunter argued that because of “the habitat that you have annihilated and because of the extra predators that you are trying to save, it is all adding up to the decimation of numerous species”. Charlotte Dawe of the Wilderness Committee, who signed the open letter to end the contests, argued that “governments are choosing to kill predators rather than address the actual problem, which is habitat destruction. Wolves get killed so that governments don’t have to deal with the burden of protecting and restoring habitat”.

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Minister Donaldson declined to comment on the government’s management of the province’s endangered caribou populations, which has garnered criticism in recent years as four herds disappeared between 2004 and 2018.

Predator Killing as Management

Bounty programs in various forms have been used in wildlife management in North America since the 19th century. Technically speaking, it is worth evaluating bounties based on their ability to achieve specific and measurable management goals. On a program level, wildlife bounties and killing contests are used to engage the public in helping lower predator populations and reduce pressure on species such as moose and caribou.

At the same time, wildlife management policies are largely influenced by public opinion. The way the public collectively feels about predators has influenced when and how bounties have been used. Generally, history has shown that the extent to which the public is affectionate or antagonistic towards predators in influences whether bounties are used by wildlife managers.

Regardless of our feelings, it is worth asking ourselves, does predator killing work?

The Ecology of Predator Killing:
Two Case Studies

Declining populations of woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) are one of the most complicated, challenging, and urgent conservation tasks currently facing wildlife managers in North America.

Woodland caribou live in the boreal forest across Canada. Their habitat overlaps regions targeted for resource extraction and development, which fragment caribou habitat through the construction of roads and seismic lines. Most populations of caribou across Canada are in decline and some have already been extirpated.

Caribou populations in Canada have been declining rapidly, with four herds lost in B.C. from 2004-2018. The last remaining herd in the lower 48 was recently extirpated.
By I, Perhols, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2420592

Factors that can affect caribou populations and survival are referred to as “limiting factors”. Managers in British Columbia have been exploring conservation options to slow the decline of caribou in the province. Scientists, for their part, are researching and modelling the effects of different wildlife management options.

One study, led by Robert Serrouya with the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in March 2019, conducted an experiment to explore the results of different management options for caribou. The researchers examined the outcomes of four options: reducing predators, reducing other overabundant prey species, translocating caribou, and building fenced areas to provide refuge from predators.

The study found that while removing one limiting factor increased caribou population growth, “the greatest increase occurred when two limiting factors were reduced simultaneously”. The researchers also found that as the intensity of efforts increased, so too did the projected benefits to caribou recovery and therefore caution against half measures in the use of management options.

Cost Per Caribou

A second study led by Chris Johnson of the University of Northern British Columbia, published in Ecosphere in March 2019, used population models to examine interactions between caribou, moose, and wolves in B.C. and Quebec. The models allow the researchers and wildlife managers to consider potential outcomes of multiple management options.

The study modelled the outcome of six potential conservation actions, including actions to reduce the impacts of predation such as lethal control of predators and the use of maternal pens to protect pregnant cows and their calves. Results found that bear predation on calves impacted the Quebec population whereas wolf predation was the primary limiting factor for caribou in the B.C. population.

Simulations of the effects of different combinations of conservation actions revealed interesting results. In Quebec, the study found that deliberately reducing bears, for example through hunting, could benefit caribou recruitment. However, bear populations would need to be reduced by more than 80% to really impact caribou populations.

Black bears are the primary cause of predation on caribou calves in Quebec.
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2760883

In B.C., active, long-term wolf control was the most cost-effective strategy to address caribou decline. However, the study also examined the costs associated with different conservation actions. In B.C. in particular, lethal predator control was not necessarily the most effective or even desirable (from an ecosystem perspective) approach, it was simply the action associated with the lowest cost per caribou.

Results from both of these studies suggest that in certain cases and given the range of constraints facing wildlife managers, lethal predator control can be an effective caribou conservation action. The studies also acknowledged the potential use of hunting to implement the programs. Do these results, therefore, support the use of bounties and killing contests as conservation or is there a less tangible consideration that needs to factor into our decision-making?

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Poisoned Relationships

The historian Thomas R. Dunlap found that there were observable shifts in environmental attitudes among the public around government predator control programs in the U.S. throughout the 1920s-1930s.

When ranchers and hunters began using strychnine to poison wolves, rodents, and other predators in the U.S. in the mid-1800s, there was little opposition. The U.S. federal government became involved in predator control efforts in 1885 and sponsored initiatives that killed thousands of coyotes and wolves across the country.

By the mis-1920s, people had begun to organize opposition against state-sponsored predator extermination programs. As Dunlap reports, the emergence of the field of modern ecology helped lay the groundwork for the “defense of predators as integral parts of the ecosystem”. In fact, it was a student of Aldo Leopold whose research contributed to changing attitudes about predators by showing that predators were not the killing machines that old wisdom had painted them to be.

“We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be – the mythologized epitome of a savage ruthless killer – which is, in reality, no more than a reflected image of ourself.”

– Farley Mowat, Never Cry Wolf

Opposition to widespread predator killing spread as voices outside academic circles began to argue for the value of predators on the landscape. The Audubon Society, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson, for instance, highlighted the importance of ecological relationships between species, reducing justification for exterminating individual species. The ideas spread to national parks management and to wider public opinion, contributing to growing public opposition to predator killing programs.

As Dunlap described the paradigm shift around predators, “only when the animals were seen as part of a system, when the value of a varmint would lie in its role in the complex workings of nature, would there be a full and open commitment to the coyote as something worth preserving for its own sake”.

Real or Perceived Impacts

As Robert Serrouya notes about intensive predator control in caribou conservation, “social and logistical barriers to implementation are immense, primarily due to real or perceived impacts on human values”.

The question about “real or perceived” impacts on our values is a subtle, but important, distinction. What constitutes a real impact and how do we measure the threshold between an impact that is real and one that is merely a perception? Further, should wildlife managers respond to perceived impacts on human values or should they only consider concrete conservation outcomes?

Humans cling tightly to their values. Generally speaking, we hold values more sacred than facts and will ferociously defend perceived attacks on our values even while factually incorrect information persists right in front of us. This somewhat natural human tendency is magnified and exacerbated in our current social-political climate of fierce in-grouping and divisiveness. The result is that controversial issues such as predator hunting are more likely to become polarized in the public sphere than they are to be met with moderation and nuance.

Public Opinion and Hunter Image

Just as the squeaky wheel gets the grease, it can also give the rest a bad name. Whether we like it or not, wildlife management is not only a technical exercise. It exists within democratic institutions influenced by the public and, as Dunlap observed, public opinion shifts. In this case, there is a risk that perceptions about killing contests will affect public opinion about hunting more generally, and this should concern anyone with an interest in sustaining both hunting opportunities and the image of hunting itself.

Hunters should be conscious of the public image we project and the way in which the public perceives us. The potential for controversy does not mean we need to discard predator hunting as a legitimate wildlife management or conservation action. However, it does mean that we need to carefully and meaningfully consider how we present predator control programs to the public and the impact these programs have on our public image as hunters.

“Killing contests are viewed in widely different perspectives. Some people view them as making a game of killing animals, thus demonstrating disrespect for and devaluing animals; others view them as a potential management tool to be used to control predators and increase prey populations…”

– The Wildlife Society, Wildlife Killing Contests, 2019

In their March 2019 statement on Wildlife Killing Contests, The Wildlife Society (TWS) states that their policy is to discourage contests that adversely affect “the public appreciation of wildlife resources”. The kind of language and framing used in the contests promoted by the B.C. stores and clubs certainly fits this definition. TWS further suggest that although species targeted in contests can be legally hunted, “making a contest of it may undermine the public’s view of ethical hunting”.

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Competitive Relationships

Conservation programs become an expression of our individual and collective philosophies about our relationship with wildlife. In this way, conservation both reflects and recreates a particular worldview about our relationship with wildlife.

Therefore, we need to weigh the outcomes of conservation programs and what those programs say about us and our culture. The question before us is, what type of relationship do we establish with wildlife through bounties and killing contests and is this the relationship we want?

I don’t believe that the potential usefulness of predator control programs justifies their framing as killing contests or bounties. We change something about hunting when it becomes a competition. The Wildlife Society comments that killing contests “differ from typical regulated hunting by the very nature of the organized public competition and prizes being given specifically for killing the largest, smallest, or most animals”.

Presenting hunting and trapping as a competition positions hunters as oppositional to wildlife and this does a disservice to the depth of meaning I believe hunting should have. An oppositional, competitive interaction with wildlife is not the kind of foundation on which I believe conservation programs should be built.

The Chilcotin Gun Club advertised “wolf whacking” contests. How does this type of language impact hunting more broadly?

Since, as hunters, we have repeatedly and meaningfully argued for hunting’s place in conservation, we have a responsibility to ensure that hunting practices are consistent with the spirit of conservation. This does not mean that we shouldn’t explore the usefulness of predator control programs and managed hunting seasons for predators. Rather, hunting within the spirit of conservation means we need to refuse to participate in killing contests or accept rewards for killing wildlife or any family.

It should be unacceptable to all hunters for any kind of hunting program to be presented to the public as a “wolf whacking contest”, as the Chilcotin Gun Store in Williams Lake, B.C. did in March 2019. To a hunter-conservationist who cares about the symbolic place of wildlife in our moral landscape, this kind of deprecating language is deplorable.

Conclusions

In many cases, it is difficult to definitively state whether intensively reducing predators is an effective long-term management strategy. The urgency with which we face certain conservation concerns, as is the case with caribou, makes experimenting with different management strategies impossible. There is also often insufficient time for the kind of long-term testing and monitoring required to comprehensively assess whether strategies work. The complicated relationship between conservation, predator reduction, and public perception is, therefore, quite difficult to manage.

Both research studies discussed above acknowledged the social and moral element of lethal predator control programs. Considering the strict population outcomes of lethal predator control as a management or conservation action is one thing; balancing these strategies with the social costs of implementation is another challenge altogether.

At the end of the day, if we are unable to definitively state that reducing predators will save wildlife, it becomes an exceedingly difficult public relations task to convince the public that killing contests are appropriate.

Typically, I tend to lean towards an inclusive approach to conservation and advocate open-mindedness and sympathy towards other people’s perspectives. It is important for us to keep our eye on the prize and remember that our divergences in approach are minor in the bigger picture of our desire for a future that includes healthy biodiversity.

However, there are times when I think it is worth declaring a position and standing apart from something even if it risks creating divisions.

I cannot reconcile presenting hunting as bounties and contests. Hunting is far more than pulling a trigger. In my mind, the physical actions of hunting are inseparable from the need for appropriate attitudes and values. I recognize that hunting ethics are by nature largely an individual choice. In my ethics as a hunter, I am willing to definitively stand apart from bounties and killing contests. In that opposition, I defend a much deeper and more profound sense of hunting.

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