Managing wildlife using science is one of the core tenants of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. The sustainability of wildlife in North America in the midst of a growing human population and increasing pressures on the land is largely due to the laws and ethics built around the model’s tenants. Science, as a critical part of the model, provides objective factual information for biologists and policy makers to make balanced decisions for wildlife and people. Science provides the most reliable way to objectively understand wildlife’s needs, population dynamics and responses to natural and human influences. Wildlife science is particularity important in hunting when it comes to setting sustainable harvest objectives and ensuring there is enough habitat to support wildlife across the landscape.
As important as science is to wildlife conservation there are some hunters who openly criticize wildlife science and scientists. There are three main reasons why I think some hunters dis science. 1) They do not understand what wildlife science is, 2) new science requires them to change their beliefs or behaviors or, 3) they are plain ol’ protecting their egos.
Science is confusing, therefore, it’s wrong
If you have ever tried to read a hardcore scientific paper it is not that easy to understand so that turns a lot of folks off. Some hunters turn to trashing science and scientists simply because they don’t understand how research is conducted or what the findings are actually saying. Scientific papers are generally written for other scientists not the general public. Scientists need to be doing a much a better job of explaining their research in plain everyday language using storytelling to help get more hunters on board. Organizations like The Wildlife Society and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation provide a great service in translating complex research studies into stories everyone can understand.
The most important elements of any wildlife research include having a focus on the questions that are of utmost importance to conservation, study methods that ensure the findings are real and not accidental and detailed documentation that allow other scientists to repeat the studies to confirm or expand upon the findings. These important elements of wildlife research help increase the certainty around whether scientists are onto something that may be worth changing the way wildlife managers do things.
There are essentially two types of published science. There is peer-reviewed science also known as “primary literature” and there is the “grey” literature. Peer-reviewed science is the research that hardcore scientists publish in top science journals like The Journal of Wildlife Management. The top journals will only publish research that is done with exactingly high standards. To ensure that only high quality science gets published, panels of scientists intensely scrutinize new research to ensure it’s sound and valid. Grey literature includes all manner of technical reports, monitoring studies and assessments. Grey literature reports do not always go through the same level of scientific scrutiny as the peer-reviewed research; however, these reports are still valuable for wildlife managers. Peer-reviewed research is expensive, however, it is the best way to answer the most complex or sensitive wildlife management questions.
I don’t believe your science
Science has become one of the most controversial topics in the public forum. The science around climate change has created a lot of controversy as has a lot of the new medical health science. People undergo increased psychological stress when faced with new information that challenges deeply-held beliefs or suggests a change in behavior. When this happens, the brain seeks ways to bring harmony back to one’s mental well-being by looking for ways to get out of the mental dilemma. Unless you have mastered your emotions, ignoring or criticizing new science is an automatic reaction when faced with new ideas. Climate change skeptics have exploited this mechanism in the human brain. When interest groups began to discredit climate change scientists and introduce their own science people jumped on board with the skeptics simply because it was the easy way out that their brain was looking for. No change, do nothing, and status quo are always the brain’s preferred options.
The same phenomenon happens with new wildlife science and hunters. New leading edge wildlife science can present findings that go against widely held beliefs or the traditions of hunters. Some hunters, who are not aware of how the brain manipulates emotions towards new ideas, will turn to dismissing science so they don’t feel the mental discomfort of having to admit what they thought was true isn’t. There is a saying that every new idea goes through three phases – ridicule, discussion and then adoption. When it comes to wildlife science the role of hunter conservationists is to skip past the first phase.
Those young whipper snappers might be book smart but…
Some hunters dis science and scientists simply to protect their ego. With these types of hunters there are likely a number of things going on in their noggins (or not going on). They likely don’t understand science so they spout off that science is just a bunch of government bs that can’t be trusted. They might not like the idea that the scientists are telling them something that contradicts what they think they know. Rather than being open to learning something new about wildlife these hunters attack the scientists as a way to protect their egos – “I’ve got 50 years of boots-on-the-ground experience and that counts for more than any book smarts”. There are some folks who simply won’t accept that they might not be the wildlife experts they claim they are. Conversely, hunter’s knowledge and observations should never be discounted in wildlife science; however, hunters must recognize their experiences and views do not represent absolute truth either. Rigorous science conducted by experts that makes use of hunter observations as a check-n-balance should be a partnership we are all working towards. Smart phone apps, like the BC Moose Tracker App is a new innovative way hunters and scientists are making this partnership a reality.
My paper versus your paper
Hunter conservationists read and make use of wildlife science more than any other outdoor user group. This is why hunter conservationists tend to be at the forefront of advocacy when wildlife or habitats are threatened. Gathering wildlife science to prepare arguments is something that hunter conservationists do a lot of especially to dispel the mis-truths put forward by anti-hunters or when development threatens wildlife. However, I often see arguments from hunters that rely on a single research paper to support their position. This approach is called cherry picking and it is easily discredited for being biased. Using research to support a position is more effective when one makes use of the “weight-of-evidence” approach. This approach takes a collection of research papers on a given topic and identifies common themes and overlapping conclusions. As well, the weight-of-evidence approach requires one to acknowledge where opposing or contradictory results have been reported. Hunter conservationists should try to rely mostly on the primary peer-reviewed science using the weight-of-evidence approach and provide additional support from the grey literature whenever possible. The whole point of using research for supporting arguments is to be objective in presenting what a body of science is or is not telling us. After all, this is what the scientists are simply trying to do.
Be wary of the junk science
A big trend in the anti-hunting movement these days is for sponsored “scientists” to publish junk science that is then used as “credible” evidence to support campaigns against hunting. There are scientific journals out there that will publish almost anything as long as the researcher pays enough money to get published. Publishers of predatory journals, which is not referring to animal predators, are infamous for producing junk and fake science. These publishers are often located in countries known for questionable business practices. Be very critical of people presenting an anti-hunting argument using a research paper that has been published in an obscure science journal that is known in the academic world to be a predatory journal using pay-to-publish schemes. Essentially, if research on North American wildlife has not been peer-reviewed and published in a well known scientific journal the red flag should go up right away.
Stand up for wildlife science
Hunters don’t necessarily need to know exactly how wildlife research is done. They just need to understand the implications of new science to be effective advocates for wildlife conservation. If we want to protect the future of hunting, all hunters must be supportive of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation which includes being fully supportive of science-based wildlife management, new science and the scientists doing the work. Criticizing wildlife science or scientists is as damaging to our hunting heritage as any anti-hunting propaganda, habitat destruction or loss of access to public land. When the attacks on wildlife science comes from within the hunting community hunter conservationists need to call out these individuals and stand up for conservation. So next time you see someone dissing wildlife science or a scientist send them the link to this article. The message they will receive will be loud and clear. Stop acting like an anti-hunter.