I love spring. Its arrival heralds nature’s rebirth, with plants and trees shedding winter’s drab cloak and wildlife reappearing in the woods and fields.
I count myself as one of the millions of Americans who are active wildlife watchers. Since the first explorers gazed in wonder at the splendor and variety of wild animals, Americans have increasingly drawn pleasure and inspiration from simply viewing them.
The ranks of birders, photographers, eco-tourists, and other wildlife watchers increased from 62.9 million in 1996 to 71.1 million in 2006, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in its last national count. Today, given the rising trend, the number has certainly increased.
In the same report, the USFWS says the ranks of hunters 16 years and older declined from a peak of 19.1 million in 1975 to 12.5 million in 2006. That’s a 35 percent loss—even as the nation’s population increased by a whopping 85 million during those three decades.
When it comes to interacting with wildlife, binoculars—not bullets—are preferred by a margin of almost 6-1.
The most critical barometer of the downward trend is the number of new hunters. Despite the efforts of nearly every major hunting group, fewer and fewer youngsters are picking up a gun and heading for the woods and fields. In the past two years, some 17 states have passed laws designed to attract young people to hunting, in order to turn around this demographic shift. In West Virginia, where hunting permits dropped 20 percent over the past decade, the legislature passed a new school curriculum law last fall. Unfortunately, it’s designed to teach skills more suited to life in the agrarian 18th century than the high-tech 21st. All middle and high school pupils can now take classes in hunting.
But, in the broadest sense, these efforts are not arresting the trends. There are many cultural factors at work, but the anti-cruelty message of animal welfare groups like The HSUS increasingly resonates with young people. The HSUS doesn’t actively campaign against traditional hunting practices but we do focus our efforts on ending the most inhumane and unsporting abuses of wildlife.
© SXC/Alan Smith
These include shooting semi-tame, domestic and exotic trophy animals held captive in pens; killing black bears point-blank while they are feeding at bait stations; staging competitions where hounds tear apart captive foxes and coyotes, and contests with cash prizes for killing the most coyotes, pigeons or prairie dogs—practices that many rank-and-file hunters and The HSUS agree are abusive and unacceptable.
We’re also doing our part to protect wild animals and their habitat through our Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust. It has worked with private landowners to create more than 100 permanent wildlife sanctuaries, prohibiting recreational and commercial hunting and trapping while also restricting logging and development on each. Alone or in collaboration with a variety of partners, it has been involved in the protection of millions of acres of wildlife habitat in 37 states and eight foreign countries.
Sport hunting is here to stay in the short run, but my guess is that it will continue to wither, with the most dramatic declines on the West Coast and in the East. On the other hand, less harmful means of wildlife-oriented recreation will grow in every state in the nation, and political support will increasingly flow in that direction in the coming years. Today, roughly one in four Americans participates in wildlife watching, demonstrating the nation’s close relationship with the outdoors and its deep respect for nature and wildlife. That is welcome progress.