Letters Among Friends: Hunting, Ethics, and Language

Throughout the 19th century, hunters, trappers, and mountain men would emerge from the mountains each spring to meet for an annual rendezvous. They would trade, sell their furs, restock supplies, exchange news, and engage in general frivolity. The last rendezvous took place in 1840 in Wyoming.

In the spirit of meeting with like-minded people to trade, this series presents discussions I have with friends about topics related to hunting and conservation. It is a kind of virtual rendezvous that presents largely unedited written exchanges with dear friends of mine. As with the rocky mountain rendezvous, it brings together diverse people who spend most of their time far apart but share an important set of motivations and ethics. This is a conversation with Caleb Musgrave (Canadian Bushcraft) and Jon Gattozzi.

Letters among friends.

Caleb and Jon,

As hunters, we often talk about hunting as conservation or hunting itself being conservation. I recently read a paper by Adrian Treves, Kyle Artelle, and Paul Paquet (2018), titled Differentiating between Regulation and Hunting as Conservation Interventions, which digs a little deeper into this idea that hunting is conservation.

The authors of the paper ask us to question whether it really is hunting itself that is conservation or whether it is actually the regulation of hunting that is the true mechanism. They point out that the massive wildlife declines in North America throughout the market hunting era were stemmed because of the implementation of regulations on hunting. However, according to the authors, this history is “persistently misrepresented and replaced in the scientific and management literature by an interpretation that hunting itself was the intervention”.

Sketch of a scene from a rendezvous of trappers.
Source: Squeakinglemur – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=48472450

This is an interesting topic and has made me think a little about what we mean when we identify as hunters. Of course, the authors are correct that the act of hunting does not save animals – by definition, hunting is designed to kill animals. But is that really what we mean when we say that hunting is conservation and as hunters, we are conservationists? When we talk about “hunting” being conservation, do we really mean the actual act of hunting, or are we talking about “hunting” as a broader symbol of a lifestyle and set of values?

Importantly for all of us in the 21st century, a time characterized by unprecedented rates of wildlife extinction and increasingly polarized political climates, should we consider changing our language to be more precise with how we talk about the relationship between hunting and conservation?

I’m interested in your thoughts.


To my two conservation oriented sportsman pals,

As humans we have a tendency to place people into certain boxes. What I mean by this is we all have ideas as to where a person belongs in a specific system or organizational hierarchy. This method of judgement dates back in time to our ancestors, Australopithecus and controlled survival of our family group.

There are parts of the brain that evolved specifically to allow us to see this invisible hierarchy and determine in what place we stand. The prefrontal cortex regulates emotional bases, planning and moral decisions. The cingulate cortex mediates conflict between the emotional and rational points of moral reasoning. These two key pieces sit within the frontal lobe of our brain and together give us the ability to judge whether something is right or wrong to do.

I identify as a hunter, a fisherman, a trapper and a conservationist. I feel the need to differentiate between them and use them either partially or together when conversation arises as to who I am.  I feel wholly that these four categories can describe me as a person and it is all a person would need to know to place me into one of their “boxes”.

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At the base of all this, I try my hardest to identify (especially with those who disagree with my lifestyle) as a conservationist. Conservation, to most, comes with the implication of more life with less death. To hunt is to be a hunter, to trap is to be a trapper, to fish is to be a fisherman. All of these identities and actions come with the implication of perceived pain or death, which isn’t the first image I would like anyone to have of me when their prefrontal cortex starts running it’s emotional and rational decision making to choose whether it is moral to support a person such as myself or a lifestyle such as mine.

When I view hunting I see it as my contribution to conservation. Hunting and trapping is my way of placing myself back into the organizational system of the world. It is my form of control over right and wrong. It is inclusive of the future I want to see. I trust that when I am hunting I am enacting the highest form of judgement towards what I am doing and why. At the base of this judgement, to take a big mature bull moose or a young calf, is the purpose of conservation. This is all dependent upon my understanding of the landscape, environment and wildlife populations. In a world of regulation, these understandings can shape my judgement, of course.

Our limits and regulations are put in place by a governing body that has human and technical resources to explore and make educated decisions about how many of which thing we are allowed to legally harvest. We can always take less than the law sees fit to set as a limit, but we may not take more. Beyond this limit we leave the realm of hunter and become poachers.

Relying on a system of regulation may be perceived as an argumentative crutch to someone who disagrees with the act of taking animals for food. Why? Because this may imply that I am not making my own decisions. To an extent, this may be true. I have limits, rules, and regulations that I must abide by and I may not take more than what regulations allow.

However, this is oversimplified and misses an important part of how I think about my place in these activities. I believe that blindly relying on established regulations is a much more disconnected way of understanding the land.

I take it upon myself to actively engage in the idea of regulation during trapping season when instead of “tags” I have blank boxes, indicating “unlimited” next to certain species. This is when my rational and moral reasoning is really tested. In a way, this is where I get to understand the land I’m on; the activity that goes on day to day. It’s a much freer feeling working within the confines of the law but with more leeway and choice in how to manage the land you are given.

With that thought in mind, I can only leave you with another question. In a world where our environmental governance falls and you are given the choice on how to selectively harvest or manage the land that you hunt, would it look immensely different from how you harvest now?

I am knowledgeable to the fact that the land we all hunt and our circumstances are all different, so I will let you both delve into those differences.


Sorry for the late reply my brethren,

It was end of trapping season and the rush of the sugar bush season, and so I have been tardy with my input.

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I am a meat hunter. I am not in this necessarily for the sport of it, although I would be a liar to deny a certain thrill around shooting at a wood duck going 50 km/h. I am not in this for the largest buck or bull; in fact I often end up with a spike horn at best. My objective is to fill my freezer with the best quality meat that I can, in the most ethical manner possible. Within my ethics, my options would be either to:

1) Spend a lot of money on free ranged organic beef, pork and poultry.
2) Hunt, fish and trap.

The first option has some great benefits. I wouldn’t have to drag 50 lbs. of steel traps and wire, digging in the mud of a riverbank, hoping to bag a couple of beaver. I could spend my mornings sipping coffee and panicking about the latest news, instead of sitting in a soaking wet patch of cattails, shivering while I wait to trick a mallard to come close enough to hit them with some No.4 steel shot. And I definitely wouldn’t have to pack the meat out on my back for 2-5 km. 

But it doesn’t jive with how I look at the world. So I suffer, and accept the let downs, on the off chance that I can kill an animal as fast and clean as humanly possible.

Hunters help in conservation not by the act of hunting, but by everything that we do to get us hunting. Paying our tax dollars, paying for our hunting licenses, contributing to hunting organizations, reporting our kills, and reporting of wildlife. I don’t think, as a meat hunter, that I am in particular working towards conservation by killing animals. Nor do I believe any hunter believes that. It is the money we put towards conservation, and the information we relay to conservation organizations that makes me work towards conservation. Almost every waterfowl hunter I know is a birdwatcher. And it makes sense that they are.

Last fall, from my muddy little duck blind, I witnessed scarlet tanagers, bald eagles, northern harriers, trumpeter swans, golden eagles, screech owls, Sandhill cranes, blue herons, barred owls, bluebirds, Bohemian waxwings, night herons, loons, common ravens and about 30 other bird species that are not legal to hunt in this part of Canada. And all of them I helped add to the bird registries for the region’s conservation authority. Just me. I know a dozen other duck hunters that do the same – it’s where I learned how to report sightings. This helps in conservation efforts.

When I build a food plot, or maintain my duck hunting pond, I aim to make good habitat for deer, turkeys, ducks and geese. This encourages them to come to my spots, so that I may kill them. This is only truly possible by encouraging biodiversity. 

This past September, my hunting group came together to improve habitat on the 75 acre property we hunt deer. We spread the seeds and nuts of over 50 species of shrubs, forbs and trees throughout the swamps and forests. We planted red oak, basswood, red elm, shagbark hickory, black walnut, sugar maple, red osier dogwood, maple-leaf viburnum, Saskatoon serviceberry, and others. We then seeded the surrounding fields with prairie ecosystem flowers including black eyed Susan, wild bergamot, prickly wild rose, cardinal flower, butterfly milkweed, and even lupine seeds. These species make good habitat for whitetails. But the secondary effect? It is good habitat for pollinators, native songbirds, turkeys, black bear, rabbits, reptiles like snakes, and amphibians like gray tree frog.

As a regulated trapper I know that I do not control the population’s mortality rate. But I can influence how some of them die. Instead of a long drawn out death by starvation, my 160 Bridger body grip trap breaks their neck within a fraction of a second. For me, that is all I need to remember when I question my ethics.

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Market hunters are not what we are. We are meat hunters, and sportsmen. We now recognize that to enjoy our way of life, it must be sustainable. And therefore we do what we can to sustain it.

We are hunters, and through that we contribute to conservation by being involved in the ecology.

As for changing the terminology, I think we are focused too much on semantics these days. Keep it simple. A carpenter works in carpentry. A fan of a band supports that band whenever possible. A hunter is a supporter of conservation. Therefore in modern times, we are conservationists.

Hope this reply reaches you in good health and spirit.

All of my love,



In the end, the three of us share some fundamental opinions and ethics about hunting. These shared ideas are very important to us. Still, our perspectives converge, intertwine, and diverge at different points.

Jon talked about how humans constantly evaluate what is right and wrong and our moral perceptions of our own actions. The psychologist Paul Slovic explains that our ability to evaluate right and wrong is deeply rooted in our genetics and invokes a subconscious balance of emotion and analytic reasoning. What we need to remember is that those outside of our community also constantly evaluate their moral perceptions of our actions.

We discussed whether we should more explicitly address the role of regulation when discussing hunting’s relationship with conservation. However, Jon suggested that this might obscure a more fundamental point that even outside formal regulation, many hunters would still devote deep reflection to how they regulate their own actions. Importantly, Jon believes that a hunter’s self-regulation is guided by the same motivations as formal, state-sponsored regulation.

Caleb added that the extra actions we take beyond the act of killing are important considerations when we evaluate the morality of our actions as hunters, trappers, and gatherers. The extra things we do as hunters, including habitat improvement initiatives, are ingrained in our identity and role as hunters. Those actions are so deeply tied to conservation that it would be superficial to separate modern hunters from conservationists.

Hunting is an important part of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. That model embeds hunting in principles of equality, democracy, and fairness. Hunting is directly expressed through the lens of acts of regulation.

Therefore, regulation is not implied and unstated, but rather is an explicit part of what we mean when we refer to the role of hunting in conservation. Thoughtful and critical self-reflection, understanding of habitat, and deep love for the species and landscapes we hunt are also explicit and inseparable parts of hunting.

Treves, Artelle, and Paquet ask, “Was overexploitation by hunters and trappers prevented by the enforcement of quotas and bag limits or prevented by other factors related to organized hunting?”

My response is admittedly simplified, but complete: both.

One Comment on “Letters Among Friends: Hunting, Ethics, and Language

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