Silence of the lambs
In my home province of British Columbia, Canada, a public debate is raging over the future of the province’s scientifically regulated grizzly hunt. Opponents to grizzly hunting moved their agenda into the public forum hoping that it would become an issue in the 2017 provincial election. For the most part, this debate has gone unnoticed by the North American and the international hunting community.
For professional animal rights activists the grizzly bear anti-hunting campaign is routine and follows a scripted formula. For the average non-hunting member of the public the topic is emotional and confusing. Hunters have not been able to articulate arguments that resonate strongly with non-hunters. A handful of hunters have engaged in the debate with integrity while others have abandoned respectful dialogue. Most, however, prefer not to get involved in hope that the issue will simply go away. The issue is not going away. Society is demanding moral progress in hunting and, if anything the debate is going to intensify and broaden.
How are grizzly bear populations in British Columbia doing?
British Columbia is one of the largest and most biologically rich regions in North America. The province has land base of 944,735 square kilometres (364,800 sq mi) with 14 contrastingly different terrestrial ecosystems in addition to the many different types of freshwater and marine ecosystems. With a population estimate at 15,000 animals, British Columbia has about 25% of all the grizzly bears in North America. Bear populations in most of the province’s management units are stable and self-sustaining. Approximately 35% of British Columbia is closed to grizzly hunting and 58% of the Coastal First Nations traditional territories is closed to grizzly hunting.
The anti-hunting side of the debate
Even though the Cecil the Lion controversy put hunting under the magnifying glass, the anti-grizzly hunting campaign in British Columbia predates the fallout from the Cecil campaign. The anti-grizzly hunting campaign in the province began in the late 1990’s. In early 2001 the government of the day announced a three-year moratorium on grizzly hunting as a pre-election voting tactic. After the election later in 2001, the new government lifted the moratorium and the province returned to a science-based hunt.
The recent growth in the bear-viewing tourism industry in the Great Bear Rainforest along the coast of British Columbia put hunters and bear-viewing tour operators on a collision course. Conflict and international attention followed as tour operators went to the media with their stories. The conflict was no fault of either party. The interests of each group are simply not mutually compatible. Some hunters and politicians agree that separation is in the best interest of both groups. Professional advocacy groups, however, have got involved and are campaigning to ban grizzly hunting across the entire province.
How the anti-hunting campaign frames its debate
It’s important to recognize the use of framing in professional agenda-driven campaigns. Framing an issue around a widely-held social value is a tactic employed in the most aggressive political and corporate spin campaigns. The most effective framing is one that makes the opponents appear to be against something good and wholesome. A classic example of framing is a legislative bill introduced in the US that was named the Clean Air Act. The Act allowed for more industry air pollution, however, given that it’s frame of reference was clean air, an important social value, opponents to the Act appeared to be opposing a law that would make the air cleaner for everywhere.
The anti-grizzly bear hunting campaign frames its debate by likening grizzly bears to humans. Pictures of female grizzlies and cubs are commonly used images in the anti-hunting campaign. The grizzly sow and cub are used to represent a human mother and her child. It’s a powerful frame because it exploits a deep emotion in the human psyche in which people hold the moral value that a mother and her child must be protected. Hunting grizzly bears attacks this widely-held social value and serves to intensify public support of a hunting ban even though it is illegal in British Columbia to hunt bears that are in family groups.
Why do professional campaigners polarize the issue?
Complex issues cut across people’s interests, moral values and perspectives. A willingness among stakeholders to find consensus solutions is the best way for public issues to be resolved. However, some campaigns are not about consensus, win-win solutions or compromise. They are about victory at all cost, defeating the enemy and win-lose outcomes. Polarization is a tactic that renders a complex issue into a simplistic two-sided argument. You are either for or against, there is only good or evil or your only option is to vote yes or no. Polarization tends to highlight the extreme ends of a continuum making it easier for people to form opinions without having to think critically. Polarization often favors one side of an issue. The more controversial that an issue is the more successful professional campaign fundraisers can be.
The anti-hunting campaign organizers in British Columbia orchestrate polls that do not adhere to accepted statistical standards so that results can tailored to support their agenda. Unfortunately the media uses the erroneous polling results without any verification of accuracy. Professional anti-hunting campaign organizers are also part of a network of academics who publish questionable “research” in obscure pay-to-publish science journals. This provides anti-hunting advocates with published “science” that they use to refute claims made by legitimate wildlife scientists. These tactics promote polarization rather than constructive public dialogue about wildlife conservation.
Hunters as the evil-doers
People are conditioned from early childhood on the dichotomy of good and evil. Religion teaches right from wrong using the concept of good versus evil as do movies, books and news stories. Creating a stereotype enemy is a tactic that is used to help reinforce polarization and circumvent rational thinking. Governments create “enemies of the state” in order to gain wide public support for agendas around policy and military intervention. In the debate over the grizzly hunt, the hunter is portrayed as the enemy. A fictitious hunter stereotype is demonized and portrayed as psychotic, blood thirsty, murderous and immoral. Hunters are being made out to be the weapons of mass destruction in the anti-grizzly hunt campaign.
What ideology underlies the anti-hunting campaign?
Animal rights ideology lies at the heart of most professional anti-hunting campaigns. Animal rights are an extension of human rights movements that are centered on the freedom and autonomy of individual people. Animal rights ideology views animals as moral beings capable of feeling and suffering, therefore, an individual animal ought to be entitled to pursue its survival free of persecution or discrimination. The concept of sentient animals is, however, not a myth. Science has shown that animals across all species in the animal world have the capacity to feel and perceive as well as act with intention and make decisions. However, these characteristics do not mean all animals think and act like humans. Sentient abilities in the animal world are adaptations that help species evolve and survive.
Animal rights ideology is also based on a philosophy that morality can be judged simply by differentiating right from wrong. Using or harming animals for any reason, including harvesting animals for food and even keeping animals as pets are believed to be morally wrong. Concepts of right and wrong are not the only way people judge morality though.
How does the average non-hunter judge hunting?
Many people judge the actions of others based on whether they believe their actions are morally good or bad. To judge whether hunting is morally good or bad people judge the motives, intentions and character of the hunter. Non-hunters generally accept hunting as morally good as long as:
- The motives of the hunter are for sustenance, the
- Intentions of the hunter follow lawful, humane and fair hunting practices and, the
- Character of the hunter demonstrates behavior that is respectful, careful and knowledgeable and that the hunter’s emotions are appropriate.
People are most likely to judge the hunter or the act of hunting as morally reprehensible when any one of these three elements of morality is violated.
Are hunters’ arguments rational?
Hunters that have engaged in the public debate over the grizzly hunt have primarily tried to counter the anti-hunting arguments with arguments that generally do not resonate with the non-hunting public or, are not well-supported by science. The arguments that have been tried include:
Argument: The grizzly hunt is necessary to control bear populations.
The objective of science-based wildlife management in British Columbia is to ensure hunting does not reduce or destabilize grizzly bear populations.
Argument: Killing dominant males prevents them from killing cubs which in turn leads to increased cub survival.
Population dynamics and environmental factors that influence grizzly bears are incredibly complex. There is no large body of science that supports this argument for grizzly hunting and in some cases science actually contradicts this argument.
Argument: Hunting makes bears fearful of humans and prevents human attacks/conflict.
The notion is not well supported by science either. Some hunted populations of grizzlies in British Columbia continue to experience increasing levels of human conflict especially when food shortages drive them in settled areas.
Argument: Hunting pays for conservation.
While this value is important to hunters, it is not necessarily a logical counter argument to animal rights ideology that believes the sacrifice of an individual animal for the good of group is not a moral act. The controversial black rhino hunt in 2014, which lead to the harvest of a bull that was aggressively killing other male rhinos in an endangered population in Namibia elicited outrage because of this ideology. People objected to the hunt even though the fee went back to the management of the entire rhino population. While the hunting-pays-for-conservation argument does not resonate with animal rights ideology it’s a fundamental reason why many species of wildlife are still abundant in North America.
Argument: Science shows that the grizzly hunt is sustainable.
Published science has demonstrated that the hunted grizzly bear populations in British Columbia are self-sustaining. The relationship between this science and the question of whether hunting bears is necessary is often misunderstood by many hunters. The science simply concludes that the grizzly hunt, as currently managed is not detrimental to grizzly bear populations. The science does not say that the grizzly hunt is required. The choice to allow hunting is a social one. Science does not make social decisions it supports decision making.
Argument: Grizzly bears are no more or less significant than any other animal.
The anti-hunting campaign is only concerned with the hunting of grizzly bears. Hunter conservationists argue that grizzlies need to be considered in the context of all wildlife. The conservation of habitat at the landscape-level and eliminating the most serious threats to grizzly bears (habitat loss, migration barriers and human-wildlife conflict) are priorities for hunter conservationists. This is a rational argument that hunters need to continue putting at the forefront of this debate. Single species approach to conservation tends to ignore the majority of species in an ecosystem as well as the relationships within ecological systems.
Looking at the big picture, many hunters feel compelled to try to “win” the grizzly hunting debate with non-emotional matter-of-fact arguments. Matter-of-fact arguments tend to dehumanize hunters making them appear unemotional or that they hunt simply because they are management tools or revenue generators. Unfortunately the anti-hunting campaign is able to exploit many of these arguments especially where the arguments are not supported by science. Hunters have fallen into the trap set by the anti-hunting campaign when they demand hunters justify why they hunt and explain why hunting is not morally wrong. Hunters do not need to justify why they hunt in order to legitimize hunting any more than a photographer has to justify why they take pictures to rationalize whether wildlife viewing is moral or should be allowed to remain a lawful activity.
Smashing heads doesn’t open minds
Insults, personal attacks, dismissing others perspectives and making statements intended to provoke emotional responses in a public debate are part of what author James Hoggan refers to when he writes, “Smashing heads doesn’t open minds” in his book I’m Right and You’re an Idiot. Opponents of the grizzly hunt have fallen into this trap with their toxic public dialogue. Some hunters have not taken the high road either. Hunters often accuse the anti-hunters as being driven by emotion but it’s fair to say that hunting is equally an emotional topic for hunters. However, I have not seen an instance on social media where a hunter has made death threats against another person.
Opponents of the hunt are often slandered and called ignorant bleeding heart city-dwellers who don’t have clue what life is “really like” in rural areas. It’s a generalization that implies that hunting and conservation are only rural values, that city-dwellers are not knowledgeable about wildlife or that they do not have the right to have an opinion about wildlife management. Many resident hunters in British Columbia reside in urban centers and many non-hunters who are opposed to hunting live in rural areas. Creating stereotypes and generalizing about people based on the size of community they reside in is as irrational as saying all hunters hunt just because they enjoy the thrill of killing.
Some hunters engage in social media debates simply to troll people by posting inflammatory comments in forums frequented by people who do not agree with hunting. Comments like “I can’t wait to go shoot a bear”, “crybaby”, “bleeding heart” or posting pictures of bears that have been shot is behavior unbecoming of a responsible hunter. This emotional behavior reflects poorly on all hunters and contributes to anti-hunting sentiment. Unfortunately, responsible hunters are not calling out these individuals for their behavior either. It’s one of the signs that hunters have lost respect for one another and for standing up for the institution of hunting.
The fundamental crux of the grizzly hunting debate
At its most fundamental level there is a broad social expectation for moral progress in hunting. It has been documented that human moral systems originally centered on affection for the immediate family. Over time, moral systems expanded to include affection for larger groups of relatives, communities and nations. In 19th century Europe, moral values were extended to the animal world and within the last few generations the moral sphere has further expanded to include consideration for the earth itself. Hunter conservationists are faced with the reality of expanding the moral sphere around hunting. Egregious public behavior or disrespect for wildlife or Nature, egotistical motives, reveling in the act of killing, using animals as targets, using technology to overwhelm an animal’s defenses or using only parts of an animal generally cause the average non-hunter to object to hunting.
The hidden dangers of an out-of-control public debate
The anti-grizzly hunting campaign encourages and endorses harassment of hunters and has gone so far as tolerating people who advocate murdering or torturing hunters, guides and politicians. Most will never act on these threats but social media threats and bullying have led to tragic consequences including suicide of victimized individuals. Even higher education institutions like the University of Victoria in British Columbia are supporting messages that advocate victimizing hunters in the public forum. Society must recognize this type of “adult” debate is occurring within full view of younger generations. There are too many tragedies where young students being pushed over the edge by society’s problems show up at school with a gun. How far is society willing to let these dangerous aspects of a hunting debate continue?
How should hunter conservationists be framing their side of the debate?
Some people hold the belief that the individual animal is the focus of moral consideration. Hunter conservationist’s values tend to focus on the well-being of populations of animals and their habitats. Hunter conservationists tend to place the most value on the idea of grizzly bears and not the life or death of particular individual. These moral values find their roots in the conservation movement where sustaining populations over time and space are fundamental tenants. But framing a debate means hunter conservationists have to understand the most important values of hunting that resonate with both hunters and a wider audience. Social values that hunter conservationists need to focus on are:
- Hunting for food is generally accepted by everyone and,
- Hunting is morally good as long as the motives, intentions and character of the hunter are all morally good.
Each of the guiding principles in North American Model of Wildlife Conservation are rational arguments from which hunter conservations can frame any debate about hunting. Each of the model’s principles was written with enough foresight about the future that hunter conservationists will find frames that align with the non-hunters most interested in conservation.
A more progressive path forward
The only aspects of a debate that a hunter conservationist can really control are his/her own words, actions, ideas and behaviors. It’s critical to recognize that it is nearly impossible to reason someone else out of a deeply held belief. An important moral principle that hunter conservationists must uphold in any debate is the Golden Rule Principle – behave towards others as you would desire that they behave toward you.
Hunters should understand that trying to change the beliefs of professional anti-hunting advocates is not a constructive use of a conservationist’s time. Regardless of any argument, science or data that are presented the job of a paid anti-hunting advocate is to disagree and elicit emotional responses that can be exploited. To be more effective in the public forum, hunter conservationists should dedicate more time to meeting with members of their own community including non-hunters and elected officials. The more people in society who get to know hunter conservationists on personal level and, the more we earn the respect of non-hunters the less divisive the issues will become.
The grizzly hunting debate, like other controversies in hunting, is fundamentally underpinned by an expectation by society for moral progress in hunting. The hunting culture has dramatically changed in the last decade with regard to hunting black bears for sustenance. Harvesting bears for food in some regions have been part of the culture for generations, however, I now see more and more hunters elevating black bear meat to the same status as deer, moose and elk. More people are sharing their bear recipes and culinary wild protein creations. Social pressures around the moral value, “you shoot it you eat it” may be responsible for this culture shift. Steven Rinella from MeatEater has been instrumental in leading the field-to-fork culture shift within the hunting community for game species that were traditionally not hunted as food including, bears and cougars. Rinella is a positive example of hunter conservationist who is expanding the moral sphere around hunting.
There may be no greater challenge for hunter conservationists than to adopt the willingness to change perspectives and points of view to expand the moral sphere in hunting. Hunting grizzly bears is not the only topic where moral progress needs to be made. Non-hunters are concerned with what the future ought to look like. Hunters continue to hold onto what hunting is. The real debate is bigger than just grizzly bear hunting in British Columbia. If the culture of hunting is to sustain itself into the future, hunter conservationists have a responsibility to formulate what the future ought to look like for all hunting.