Hunter-gatherer societies evolved 3 million years ago. But pre-historic people did not invent hunting for something to occupy their time nor did they invent hunting to have a reason to escape everyday life. Hunting was an instinct. Hunting was their job. Hunting was the first true occupation of man.
In his book Meditations on Hunting written in 1942, Spanish philosopher and hunter Josè Ortega y Gasset said that the simplest definition of hunting is what a hunter does to take possession of a prey species. Hunting is not something just humans do; in fact, hunting occurs in groups of animals throughout the entire animal kingdom, which is why Gasset’s definition of hunting covers all species of hunters including humans.
For pre-historic people, the parts of an animal used for clothing, tools and shelter as well as the spiritual and cultural meanings of the hunt were secondary purposes. The pre-historic instinct to hunt served one primary purpose – to take possession of prey for food. Hunters evolved specialized skills for hunting particular groups of prey. Different prey evolved unique abilities to evade their hunters. Every action of the hunter precipitated, through evolution, a counter tactic in the prey species. Prey species instinctively foresee the hunter and more often than not they evade their hunter. The essence of hunting is simply a contest between two systems of instincts. The instinct to capture and the instinct to evade, as Gasset saw it, is the greatest instrument that Nature uses to regulate life on the planet.
Around 11,000 years ago many hunter-gatherer societies started to shift to agriculture. This period in history saw the rise of farming, animal domestication, metal technology, religion and civilization. These changes brought about rapid world population growth and the assault on Nature.
Early hunters lived in the animal world. But the more humans became dependent on agriculture the more hunting transitioned from necessity to pastime. However, hunting is such a deep human instinct that people, even to this day, deeply desire to re-immerse themselves in the animal world through being a hunter.
Hunting was held in such high regard by society it became a sport of Kings where the common person was prevented from hunting animals that belonged to the “Crown”. The French revolution was, in part, precipitated by a desire of the people to take back hunting as their own birth right. The first thing many citizens did after the revolution was to return to the land and hunt. Hunting has always been that important to people.
Hunting is not defined by the weapons used by humans nor does the progression of weapons from stick to spear to bow to rifle define the hunt. The hunt itself is the actions a hunter takes while hunting. For today’s hunter conservationists, the deeper meaning of hunting comes from the activities, traditions and rituals of the hunt. Gasset proclaimed that hunting is hard work that requires effort and skill yet it is not essential that the hunt always be successful for it to have taken place. Hunter conservationists have said these very words for generations.
Modern hunters look different than our pre-historic ancestors, we are equipped with different weapons, possess different motives and hunt according to self-imposed ethics and social standards which never existed in pre-historic times. We apply self-imposed ethics to temper the hunting instinct to ensure that the inequality between hunter and prey does not become so wide that hunting becomes destructive to wildlife. Modern hunter conservationists believe deeply in the intrinsic value of wildlife and care about the long-term survival of all other species.
As civilization’s impact on Nature spread, something remarkable developed in humans. Conservation became part of conscious thought. The idea of conservation traces back to 1662 and even though it may have started as the idea of one man I believe that the growth of the conservation ethic that followed was not merely an exercise in human thought. Rather, the conservation ethic evolved naturally as hunters witnessed the degradation of Nature. Over generations, the conservation ethic passed from thought to instinct. The modern hunter conservationist is a result of the ancient instinct to hunt having merged with the more recent instinct to conserve.
In my home province of British Columbia Canada, many fish and wildlife populations are declining. As one of the largest and most biologically diverse areas on the North American continent we, British Columbians, have not been re-investing enough in our renewable resources to sustain our fish and wildlife populations.
A generation of hunters in the province focused on regulations, quota, bag limits and allocations. Pressures on the land became more complex at the same time reductions in funding for fish and wildlife management went unnoticed. The emphasis on wildlife management in British Columbia has mostly been about mitigating the effect of hunting on declining populations in what is aptly called “managing to zero”. While wildlife decreased there were never any plans or objectives to restore populations to their former levels. Declining populations have become the accepted norm over the last half century. By the end of 2017, two former world class steelhead populations in British Columbia will go onto the endangered species list. It’s too late to prevent their extinction. By the end of the next decade the endangered southern populations of Mountain Caribou will be gone and the future of moose recovery in the province is still uncertain. We are not giving the next generation a resource that is better than what we inherited.
I’m not embarrassed to share with you that I struggle with feelings of being overwhelmed by all this. I feel that I have not accomplished enough for wildlife in my career dedicated to renewable resource management or to a personal life dedicated to wildlife. Consequently, I’ve learned to live in two worlds. As a natural resource professional I live in the impacted world where I try to influence what is happing on the land in the name of conservation. As a hunter I try to leave that world and find one where I can satisfy myself that wild animals and ecosystems are still functioning as Nature intends.
I’m not sure if this is a healthy way to live and I have not reconciled this dilemma within myself. However, I am not giving up. I am not giving up because I am optimistic about what I am seeing in British Columbia and across North America. There are grassroots movements building. There are others that feel this way. There is hope for wildlife. But this hope needs to grow. New leaders in the form of hunter conservationists must step up to say “I care – let’s change this together”.
I reject the notion that suggests hunters are a dying breed. We are not. We are growing in numbers. I disagree with those that say it is time for us to give way to civilized society. Anthropologists report that, throughout history, hunter-gatherer societies suffered from fewer famines and less food and resource shortages than “civilized” societies. Our way of life is sustainable.
Together we have one moral obligation to the next generation – to unleash our conservation instincts. It is time for British Columbia’s hunter conservationists to become – One Province, One Community, with One Purpose. The time has come to take back ownership. It is time to restore fish and wildlife populations as a coalition – a coalition led by hunter conservationists. There has never been a time where hunters are more important than right now.
The way we have been managing wildlife is not answer.
National parks that exclude hunting are not the answer.
Preservation instead of conservation is not the answer.
Banning hunting is not the answer.
Recovering wildlife populations is the answer.
Reinvesting in scientific wildlife management is the answer.
Everyone who uses and profits off the land paying into conservation is the answer.
Conservation is the answer.
Our senior generation has been fighting this battle – often alone, or in small numbers. They are our war vets. Many of them are tired, angry and suffer emotionally from fighting for wildlife. It is time for them to rest. But it is time for the rest of us to honour their efforts and step forward and say – “I’m ready to fight for wildlife”.
Everything in British Columbia has been more important than fish & wildlife for far too long. Issues like the Vancouver housing market and natural resource extraction gets more attention than the very things that make British Columbia Super Natural. If this makes you angry then get angry. Take to the streets and protest, rally or blockade. Do whatever brings attention to the cause of wildlife conservation. Tell society wildlife is important and that you are not going to let go or give up. Bring solutions to the table and build collations of like-minded citizens. But do not live with apathy.
Gasset said that the essence of hunting is a contest between two systems of instincts.
The essence of a hunter conservationist is taking action to rebuild wildlife populations.