My Position as a Hunter-Conservationist: Re-Visited

I started this blog five years ago as a space for personal reflection, intellectual exploration, and, hopefully, to connect more meaningfully with a community of other hunter-conservationists. I wanted a space where I could communicate some of the things I was learning about hunting and conservation and what I was learning about my place in that world. I began in 2015 with a post titled Setting the Stage: My Position as a Hunter-Conservationist. In that post, I tried to frame my thinking about what it meant to be a hunter and a conservationist and how I understood that role at the time.

Now, as the year comes to a close five years later, I want to re-visit that original post and reflect on my initial frame of mind and what I have learned about hunting, conservation, and my position as a hunter-conservationist in that time.

Among other things, 2020 has been a year full of time to reflect and dig into who we are as people and as communities, to look inwards at the values we hold and outwards at how we convey and live those values. So, as 2020 nears an end, it is a good time to pause and consider where we have come and where we might be headed over the next number of years. To that end, rather than go back and edit an old post, instead, I am going to re-visit my first post on this blog and offer some reflections and re-imaginations about what I said at that time and what I would add to it now.

These are personal reflections. At the end of the day, my ultimate goal is to find ways I can contribute to the conservation of wildlife and wild places. Conservation takes many different kinds of knowledge and requires collaboration between diverse groups of people. To that end, we each have roles we feel we are best suited to play and things that enable our contributions to conservation. Here, I speak only to the things I feel are foundational to my ability to be involved in conservation. Of course, we need things like conservation volunteers, scientific research, policy, and other facets of the wider conservation landscape. The following reflections are some of the places I think we need to start.

To structure this post, I’m going to use quotes as subheadings that will thematically frame each section and the ideas I want to reflect on. I chose each quote to highlight something I have learned about being part of hunting and conservation and how I would like to continue to shape my role as a hunter-conservationist.

Be just a little bit more honest than you are comfortable with.

Neil Gaimann

There is an overarching lesson I’ve learned in the last five years about both myself and the process of trying to express my thoughts on hunting and conservation. The lesson is that a genuine and meaningful exploration of complex topics like hunting and conservation requires honesty; it requires the particular brand of honesty that comes from a willingness for vulnerability and humility.

There are many wonderful outdoor writers out there who write about the outdoors with poise and beauty, capture hunting stories with poignancy, and write about conservation with both intelligence and inspiration. Writing about the outdoors is a daunting world to try to join and the process is full of feelings of imposter syndrome and consistent rounds of second-guessing yourself. But one thing I love about the unique field of hunting and conservation writing is that, unlike many other genres I have come across, its writers seem to move seamlessly between personal reflection and scientific analysis in a way that does not diminish either style. It is a world where art and science, creativity and rigor, and the personal and public come together.

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However, writing publicly about anything is frightening. Wanting to write about hunting and conservation has forced me to be comfortable with the discomfort of exposing yourself and your opinions, along with all their imperfections and incompleteness. But at the same time, I have enjoyed the feelings of honesty that have come with that effort.

I recently watched Neil Gaimann’s MasterClass about writing. While he focused on teaching fantasy fiction writing, some of the lessons resonate with writing of any kind. He suggests that writers needs to be honest, beyond their comfort level. As I’ll come back to below, beyond the world of fiction literature, his advice about honesty is the foundation for what I feel is needed in hunting and conservation writing and activism.

In 2015, I commented that “hunting is a topic that involves complex ecological, political, cultural, and ethical dimensions. Considered this way, it’s hard to deny that at the very least it is worth earnest and sincere discussion.”

If we want to meaningfully explore the various and complex dimensions of hunting, we need to be painstakingly, and perhaps painfully, honest with ourselves and others. This also means having the humility to be honest when we don’t know something. Admitting we don’t know can feel like we are exposing ourselves to critique; it is an insecure feeling. However, we need to accept uncertainty as an inherent part of dealing with complex issues.

We explore deeply important ethical questions in hunting and more often than not, these questions are not cut and dry. They have a plurality of possible answers. It is important that we are honest about this. We might have opinions about the answer to an issue, but we should also be honest that we cannot always know for sure. We need to bring a diversity of actors together to address the profound conservation challenges we all face. I think we need to start with a great deal of honesty to build the level of trust needed to work together with diverse groups.

Empathy is not the truth; it’s not the reality; it’s the other side’s point of view.

Chris Voss

In my original post, I said right up front that the idea of this blog is to “explore a topic that is controversial to many”. I then said that my purpose is not to win anyone over, to lobby for any one thing, or prove political points. I still stand by those comments and I have learned – both from some of the research I’ve done for posts and in my own experiences – how important it is to approach these issues as conversations and not contests. When it comes to hunting and conservation issues, we should be there to discuss and not win.

The world is so polarized right now and social and political division is rampant. When an issue becomes politicized and we dig in to our perspective, we lose our compassion and the conversation devolves into rhetoric and personal attacks.

So, what have I learned about the approach I said I wanted to take in my first post?

I have posted over the last few years about various issues related to hunting ethics and conservation discourse to explore how we can collectively talk about hunting and conservation issues in meaningful ways.

I want to understand how we can collectively promote more patient and compassionate discourse around important ethical questions. I think one of the things I hadn’t put my finger on five years ago is a key ingredient for the kind of conversations that can create collaborations to generate meaningful conservation solutions. That ingredient is empathy.

To make progress on complex conservation challenges, we don’t just need intellectual and scientific conversations (though we do need those). We also do not need more opportunities to prove another side wrong. What we need more than ever right now are empathetic conversations. The writer Ryan Holiday discusses the need for intellectual humility and empathy in his blog post, “It’s Not Enough to be Right – You Also Have to be Kind“, saying that “Being clever is easy. Humiliating someone in the wrong is easy too. But putting yourself in their shoes, kindly nudging them to where they need to be, understanding that they have emotional and irrational beliefs just like you have emotional and irrational beliefs—that’s all much harder”.

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In a way, I think this is the other side of the coin I addressed above. Where the need for honesty focuses on how we express ourselves, empathy focuses on how we make the discursive and cognitive space for others to express themselves. We need to have conversations in which we are not simply waiting for our turn to speak. We need conversations in which we measure the success of the discussion by the extent to which we more fully understand the other person’s perspective, experiences, feelings, and priorities. This does not mean we shouldn’t advocate for our priorities. We should still advocate for hunters and express the importance of hunting. It just means we need to do so with patience, humility, and empathy.

So, in the next five years, I want to explore how to encourage and facilitate empathetic discourse about important ethical issues in hunting and conservation. As hunters, we often talk about the love we have for wildlife and wild places. Therefore, while we may not express it in precisely these terms, love and compassion are integral parts of what it means to be hunter-conservationists. I think we would do well to be sure that empathy for other people is also a key part of our identities as hunter-conservationists.

Though the seasons may change, love is all that remains.

Bear’s Den, “Broken Parable

Perhaps the most poignant theme that has emerged for me in the last five years is the importance of community in hunting.

To be clear, it’s not that I didn’t think about the concept of a hunting community five years ago. As soon as we take a hunter education course, we hear all about the hunting community. However, I think I initially thought of a hunting community as more of a rhetorical phrase that referred to a passive, at best loosely-knit, community.

Now, I now look for a richer and deeper concept of what constitutes a hunting community. I see a hunting community as something we actively build. I want to see a hunting community that is defined by inclusion, diversity, and positivity. The idea of community did not figure prominently in my original post five years ago because I was simply unaware of two things I have now thought a lot about.

First, I did not realize how important it would be for me to feel part of a hunting community that is defined by both a strong conservation ethic and a deep sense of social justice and inclusion. Over the years, I have found that there are very clearly people I do not want to hunt and fish with and who do not share the values I want to define my hunting experiences. In some cases, I have found myself hunting with people who litter and treat wildlife disrespectfully. In other situations, I have heard people make racist comments. I no longer hunt with these people. This has meant that I also needed to actively find people who do share the values I feel are important, and as I have continued to surround myself with that community, I realize how important it is to me.

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Second, I did not realize all the work that needed to be done to build the kind of community we need in hunting. The outdoors are here for everyone, but we must acknowledge that not everyone feels safe and welcome in the outdoors. We need to work harder to make the hunting community a place that people feel included and represented. And let’s be clear, hunters can still define themselves by how tough they are, the fortitude they show in withstanding hard treks and harsh weather. But we also need to respect and welcome everyone who wants to be part of the hunting community. We need to be courageous enough to shape a hunting community we are proud of, as one that amplifies values of inclusion.

I hope that in another five years, we look back on the events of 2020 as a time when we internalized a wider set of societal lessons into the hunting community and used those lessons to make our own community better. I hope we recognize the connection between being hunter-conservationists and social activists. If we want to improve issues in conservation, we must also be allies and active participants in social justice issues. I am excited to have found other communities of hunters, anglers, trappers, and outdoors people who are working to build a stronger and more positive community.

New Conclusions

Taking the time to re-visit ideas years later can reveal some interesting details. In 2015, my first post was framed as a reflection on my “position” as a hunter-conservationist. One of the reflections that gave me pause in this exercise to re-visit that post is that I no longer frame it as my “position” as a hunter-conservationist. Now, and with no intended ounce of dramatic flare, I frame it more as an “identity” as a hunter-conservationist.

I used a quote by Edward Abbey in my original post where he says, “Hunting is one of the hardest things even to think about. Such a storm of conflicting emotions!” Hunting is full of wonderful complexities and contradictions. Thinking about hunting, and dealing with it in the context of conservation, compels us to be comfortable with complexity and contradictions so that we might work towards the conservation challenges we need to address.

But hunting also allows us to experience joy, gratitude, and a deep sense of community. It teaches us honesty and humility and trains us in patience and empathy. Hunting puts us in the field, leaves us in awe, and gives us the opportunity to bring home some absolutely wonderful stories and delicious meals. So I am now thinking about what I would like to be able to reflect on in another five years.

One of the things that 2020 has taught us is the importance of personal connections. Many people have spoken about the effects of social and physical isolation this year. The importance in personal connections is also true in hunting and conservation. These are deeply personal topics and while they involve a great deal of science and policy, it is important to focus on connecting personally with others who care about the natural world. We should talk about what motivates and inspires us to be hunter-conservationists and what this identity means to us. Perhaps more importantly, we should also listen to what others have to say.

My main question moving forward is about how I can more firmly embed the values I have come to learn in actions as a hunter-conservationist. What kinds of words and actions do I want to define my identity as a hunter-conservationist? What kinds of stories do I want to be able to tell?

“Evenings the men sat on the deacon’s bench staring into the flames, arms resting on thighs, hands dangling; they chewed and smoked, they talked and their lives crept out of the stories as moths out of chrysalises.”

Annie Proulx, Barkskins

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