A candid look at how the conservation sales pitch is failing to recruit new hunters.
If the message of conservation was effective, the R3 movement never would have had to happen. Yes, I said it. The truth is there are a lot of reasons people become hunters and you would be hard pressed to find someone who said, “I took up hunting so I could do more for conservation.” Now that’s not to say that conservation and how hunting plays a roll in the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is not important. But where we have failed is thinking that this is a sales pitch, that conservation will recruit more hunters.
If I simply wanted to be a conservationist, I could do a lot of easy things with a shorter distance from my care for the environment to my action. Maybe donate some money to a non-profit, volunteer with said non-profit, or talk about the thousands of conservation issues that essentially have nothing to do with hunting.
Conservation is a Lousy Carrot
I stood behind the bench, looking over my squad of 7- and 8-year old hockey players. We were in the third period and tied up with the rival team from the next town over. With only a few minutes left, the tension was thick and their smiles were huge. They were experiencing the best of what youth hockey has to offer.
I was proud of the kids. They had been hustling hard on every shift, cheering each other on, and doing the “little things” that help teams win games. It was time for an encouraging word from coach. I cleared my throat. “Alright guys, let’s keep pressuring them, taking away their opportunities to score. Let’s move the puck and get one more goal!” Little black helmets bobbed up and down. They were motivated. The entire team was completely in the moment. Well, almost the entire team.
One of the speedier kids, let’s call him Johnny, who had scored two goals for us already, leaned over to the player next to him. “I don’t really care if we win, ’cause my dad told me if I scored two goals, I’d get ice cream.” I guess you have to appreciate the honesty of 8 year olds.
We ended up winning the game in sudden-death overtime on a beautiful goal from one of our unlikely players. The bench erupted and stormed the ice in celebration. But I couldn’t help but be a little sad that Johnny’s joy in this moment was perhaps a little tainted. The intrinsic thrill of a close game and narrow victory, or even the individual accomplishment of scoring a goal weren’t the driving motivations for Johnny. It was something extrinsic to all that. It was ice cream.
You’re probably wondering what that story has to do with hunter recruitment. And I would venture to say, “Everything.” It is illustrating a fatal flaw in our historic approach to R3. For decades, our standard recruiting pitch has been, “Hunters ensure/protect/enable the future of conservation . . . . If you care about conservation, thank a hunter . . . .” And so on. Setting aside for a moment that this particular approach is fundamentally on the defensive, it is also simultaneously ignoring the intrinsic motivations for hunters (i.e., adventures, challenges, experiences, camaraderie, etc.) and focusing on a single extrinsic motivation–conservation. Let’s face it: ice cream is a much better motivator in this very personal scenario than conservation.
To put it another way, we’ve been dangling the wrong carrot in front of the horse. Conservation is an extremely valuable byproduct of hunters and hunting, but I don’t know if I’ve ever met a hunter that got into it so that they could become a conservationist. Frankly, there are plenty of other ways to be involved with conservation that don’t involve hunting. Just like there are plenty of ways to get ice cream that don’t involve scoring goals.
We could probably even take it a step further and toss the carrot out altogether. If we look at why people engage in interests that are adjacent to hunting, like conservation, locavore movements, photography, hiking, camping, and the like, I think we would notice that the motivations are intrinsically tied to the activities themselves. Conservationists are passionate about conservation. Locavores find joy in local food. Photographers labor to produce beauty in a single image. Hikers and campers are in hot pursuit of outdoor adventure that can only be experienced in the places hiking and camping can take you. There is nothing outside of these pursuits that is beckoning the participants onward; the pursuit itself is the reward. So why are we trying to sell hunting in any other way than simply celebrating hunting?
So how do we correct course? We must start by creating hunter recruitment programs that showcase the thrill, the joy, and the beauty of hunting in and of itself. I believe the best way to do this is through storytelling. We need to hear hunters share the things about hunting that get them excited, that get them teary-eyed, that get them out into the field day after day. Hunter recruitment is not going to be accomplished with cold statistics of acres conserved, but by hearing real people share their passions. We need to spark the imaginations of non-hunters by sharing a compelling picture of the hunting life. A life of adventure, challenge, and camaraderie. Who doesn’t want that?
If we continue to try to sell hunting as a stepping stone to some other thing, we will quickly see that there will be no lasting enthusiasm for hunting itself. We are diluting the passion. Every single time we point to an external motivation, we are undermining the much more compelling, internal motivation. Substituting external for internal rewards produces an 8 year old who isn’t interested in winning an exciting hockey game so long as he gets ice cream. I don’t think it’s a bold prediction to say that whatever enthusiasm he has for the game itself will continue to dwindle until it disappears altogether. And, after a few decades of this tactic, I think we’re already there for hunting.
How the Word ‘Conservation’ has Become Weaponized
The neighborhood party is underway. It’s the first time you’ve met almost everyone in the room since you moved here. A man walks up and shakes your hand. “I saw you getting into your truck in camouflage the other day,” he notes with a tone of curiosity.
Like most hunters, there’s a spike in your pulse. Talking about hunting? This party might not be so bad after all. You think to yourself.
You smile. “Yeah, I was on my way to hunt deer. Do you hunt as well?”
The answer comes back fast: “I’m against hunting.” The statement is cold, plain, and sucks the wind out of the proverbial sails of your anticipation.
Now let’s pause right here. Have we prepared our community for such interactions? Sure, we would like to think so. Tell him about all the conservation hunters do! we’d be thinking. And we’d be right. More likely than not, the conversation would quickly lead to defensiveness on the hunter’s part and, without a doubt, at some point the poisonous words would be muttered, “Hunters do more for conservation than anyone else.” Let’s face it: you have heard that statement more times than you care to remember.
Did I just say poisonous? I did. Because there is a problem that I think we already instinctively know–the conservation apologetic doesn’t work. If it had been working, hunters would not be the targets of such abysmally poor perception from the non-hunting public.
What should be a very positive message has been weaponized by both hunters and anti-hunters to the point where it simply cannot nudge anyone from their established opinion. We must understand how there is almost zero chance the opposing party is now going to say, “Oh, that makes perfect sense. I’m sorry that I offended a person who is so proactive about conservation.” In reality, this is now a hostile conversation and all words are weaponized, including the word conservation itself.
In fact, we have all heard the boilerplate retaliation to the conservation apologetic. It goes something like this: “Ah, you’re a conservationist . . . So that’s how you justify your killing?”
What is a Conservationist?
A conservationist is a person who advocates or acts for the protection and preservation of the environment and wildlife. Now, I’m not trying to poke too hard here, but how does buying a hunting license (which is required by law) and paying excise taxes on gear translate to that person “advocating or acting?” My town requires us to recycle by law. Does that make me an environmentalist? I would submit that being a conservationist is much more than simply buying a hunting license and paying the excise tax. And many hunters have no business weaponizing a word that they have no business claiming for themselves.
If a hunter desires to be a conservationist, he or she would have to actually act or advocate. Maybe join a non-profit, volunteer time, raise awareness on environmental issues that affect wildlife. Ranting about big bucks and the need for more deer when we live in a world plagued by overpopulation leading to CWD, invasive plant species expansion, and destruction of diverse habitat sounds like quite the opposite of conservation.
There is a real need to teach the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation to the public but we cannot confuse that act with hunter recruitment. It is an awareness campaign, not a conversion campaign. And as explored above, even the awareness campaign needs some work.
Hunting is Older than Conservation
Plenty of humans over the history of our species have taken up hunting without conservation in mind. In fact, we could argue that the idea of killing an animal for food is one of the oldest human practices. In contrast, conservation is a rather modern idea and not as “natural” as hunting. The Wildlife Restoration Act is not yet even 100 years old!
However, “understanding where our food comes from and being morally responsible for the act” is an idea which is a modern take on the oldest of human ideals. The idea of connecting with nature on such a level and obtaining organic meat in the process is very human and reframes the whole argument in not just a positive fashion but as a more accurate measure.
I believe that embracing honest human ways of interacting with nature will win in the end. Yet we are an industry scared to speak about climate change, lead shot, and anything else that may offend the hunting culture that is in the process of dying. Our future (and present) is driven by an organic craze, a sustainability movement, and the carrying of a banner for the environment as advocates and whistle blowers. When you think of it that way, this new culture is no longer that far away from the days of Teddy Roosevelt. A world where the “message of conservation” is not needed because it has become common knowledge. A byproduct of a generation inspired to be more human.
Let’s start talking about ways that have worked to inspire new hunters, ways that are inherently human and at the same time, intrinsically conservationist.