Hunters & Conservation -What does the future hold for us? The topic of wildlife paying its way and the sound premise that hunting a species helps to preserve it prompted this post. As we all know there is a constant debate about hunting behind high fence. Generally we as hunters argue about whether or not this is actually hunting. There are so many variables from one ‘game farm’ to the next and certainly the manner in which one chooses to pursue game in these confined areas and the size of the area are going to play a big role in the quality of the experience for those who are concerned about such things beyond the five star accommodations, courteous staff and fine wines in the evening. Now before I get into this a little deeper, please do not misconstrue what I am about to say and think that I am painting all high-fenced hunting with the same brush. There are operations that were in fact started to help preserve species at risk and the hunting clients paying a trophy fees to kill a surplus animal helps the animals pay their way. There are places like Texas and South Africa where the majority of hunting is on private land because the sad truth is that there is next to no ‘public’ land available to hunters and the majority of the hunting would just be for the landowners and friends and relatives if people were not willing to pay land owners for access and/or the game harvested. Areas that have always offered fine free range hunting during government set seasons have also seen high-fenced operations popping up all over as operators try to offer what the clients want in the way of additional species. The introduction of a breeding herd is an expensive proposition and represents real property to the land owner who does not want to see his new herd of expensive antelope wander off and settle on a farm a hundred kilometers away and out of his control or systematically get wiped out by predators. Game ranches provide surplus animals for transplant to former parts of their range where they have been eradicated by war or unrestricted poaching. They provide a renewable supply of animals that can be moved and introduced to other herds to improve the genetic diversity of a particular species in a given area and in many instances pay the way for portions of the land base to exist in a natural state and avoid the chainsaw and plow. As I said, there are exceptions, but these exceptions do not explain the proliferation of privately owned ‘game farms’. The rapid expansion of these businesses can only be explained by hunter demand. If sufficient numbers of people did not want to kill a markhor in Texas, a red deer in Pennsylvania or purchase a guaranteed 60 inch kudu or a 400 class bull elk on a quickie hunt and pay big bucks to do it…………you would not have game farms showing up in countries and areas that have vast tracts of public land and healthy wild herds of native game animals. In many cases these fenced hunts are offering exotics, but just as often they are offering the same species behind fence that can be hunted on public land and under free range conditions. What many seem to forget about these days is that it was hunter driven support that originally fueled the conservation of wildlife and wild places in so many countries, including the United States, Canada and a number of countries in Africa. It is the revenue generated by hunters to this day that provides significant monetary support for local communities and helps justify setting aside large areas for wildlife. Well over a century ago avid hunters began lobbying government to set aside tracts of land to prevent commercial development from destroying every last square kilometer of natural habitat and to institute a wildlife management strategy that would prevent the complete annihilation of local wildlife. It was hunters who pushed for National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and National Forests. It has always been the funds generated by hunters from licenses, trophy fees and hunting related products that helped sustain wildlife. It has always been funds generated by hunters belonging to organizations such as Safari Club International, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Wild Sheep and local state and provincial wildlife organizations too numerous to mention that help fund various wildlife and habitat conservation projects. I find it disheartening when I continually hear hunters tell me they are tired of hunting on crown or government land and spending the money to travel to these areas, where they have a greater chance of coming home without an elk in the back of the truck than with one. They prefer to spend their money where they get more bang for the buck!! These hunters are focusing their disposable income on hunting where private enterprise is the driving force and not the conservation of lands and the creatures that inhabit them. They are shifting the funding from the wild natural places to privately owned lands and game herds. They are focusing more on personal satisfaction and guaranteed success than what this was all suppose to be about in the first place. And this is all taking place at a time when the wild lands in all countries are struggling to survive against a vast number of land use issues, declining hunter numbers and governments with less money to ear mark for the continued support of wild areas and wildlife management. Hunters really need to sit back and do some deep thinking about what they are supporting with their hard earned dollars and what the long term consequences are for wildlife, wild places and their right as hunters to exist. Non-hunters historically do not spend money to support conservation. Non-hunters do not belong to the various organizations that work so diligently to protect wildlife habitat and the animals that inhabit these places. They protest, they launch lawsuits to hinder wildlife agencies and prevent them from practicing sound conservation strategies, they take a free ride on money they solicit from the well intentioned but misinformed, but they do not contribute to the actual conservation of wildlife and wildlife habitat. It has always been hunters paving the way for wildlife conservation. Unfortunately many of the wildlife conservation organizations are struggling to continue, especially the grass roots fish and wildlife associations whose traditional membership has always been the average Joe. When I corner hunters during conversation, I find few belong to anything, be it local fish and game associations, national or international groups…………….they do not even belong to the firearms associations in our respective countries that are fighting an endless battle. No, in a good year only 5% of the people who hunt actually belong to any of these groups. We take what we have out there for granted and this does apply to hunters, not just the general public. The newer generations of hunters are far removed from the land and several generations down the pike from the men and women who struggled and fought to have land set aside and legislation put in place to protect the dwindling wilderness areas and game populations in countries around the world. Today’s hunters and the general populace grew up with long established National Parks in place and abundant wildlife………… and so many seem to think it has always been thus and will simply carry on and continue to be. Non-hunters complain about park use fees and hunters complain about the price of hunting licenses and species tags and low success rates. The hunter who decides to go to an elk farm in Saskatchewan, drive around in a truck for an hour or two, shoot a 400+ bull, cut the ear tags off prior to photographs and then pay the farm owner $20,000 for his trophy is not only missing what hunting is all about, they are in fact shifting their financial support away from the conservation of wildlife and the land they inhabit. They are placing the personal acquisition of a ‘trophy’ and the guaranteed kill ahead of sound wildlife management, habitat conservation and what is in the best interest of hunting and hunters in the long term. The hunter who forgoes the annual deer camp and decides instead to pay a trophy fee to shoot a red deer on a ‘preserve’ in Quebec or Maine is turning their back on the very foundation of wildlife management in North America. Sure they are helping support a farmer/rancher who hopes the ‘hunters’ will help keep him afloat now that the Asian market for velvet antlers and restaurant demand for venison has either collapsed or failed to materialize, but it does nothing to help pay the way for the conservation of the wild elk herds in Saskatchewan or support the wildlife management within the various states and provinces. The hunter’s money bypasses what we claim to love and enjoy. Yes there are notable exceptions and I know we can easily poke holes here and there in the generalities I am using to express my concerns, like the cheap license required in Texas to hunt exotics, or a general hunting license that is required in a specific country by all hunters. But, these small anomalies do not detract from the fact that the vast majority of the money spent on a hunt behind high-fence in many states and provinces does nothing to help with the conservation of native habitat and game species. Nor does this money benefit local communities as a whole beyond a handful of jobs, if any, for those directly employed with the landowner. I am not suggesting that high-fenced operations should be boycotted. Not at all. I am suggesting however that the hunters who think they are justified in paying for a fenced quickie elk hunt for a big bull instead of hunting elk in their native habitat are not only missing out on what hunting is really all about, they are ultimately helping to end what so many fought so hard for many years ago. The argument that spending $12,000 on an elk farm to quickly kill a monster bull is a good thing and better than spending that much on a couple of free range elk hunts in the mountains of the west and quite likely never having a big bull to show for it, is a hollow one. It is also ultimately self-destructive for us as hunters, the places we love and the creatures who inhabit them.