A hunter approaches a trophy deer

Written by 7:30 am R3

The Message of Conservation Failed

A candid look at how the word conservation has been weaponized rather than celebrated.

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?”

Before we go any deeper into how I’m proposing that these types of interactions should be handled, let’s make sure we hash out the idea of conservation itself. A conservationist is a person who advocates or acts for the protection and preservation of the environment and wildlife. Now, I am not trying to poke too hard here, but how does buying a hunting license (which is required by law) and paying excises 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 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 nonprofit, 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.

So, back to our confrontation from earlier. How could that conversation have gone better? Allow me to draw on some personal experience. My usual answer when challenged is that my family is very committed to “understanding where our food comes from and being morally responsible for the act.” 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 a positive fashion. In fact, we could argue that the idea of killing an animal for food is one of the oldest human ideas. As where conservation is a rather modern idea and not as “natural” as hunting. The Wildlife Restoration Act is not even 100 years old!

I wrote and published an article online entitled, “The Good Reasons Old Hunting Culture is Dying.” I apologize for how click bait-ish that title sounds and I know that I should have went something more in line with its argument and titled it, “The Fourth Hunting Rebellion.” That title would have been based on the book the “Marketing Rebellion” by Mark Schaefer. That book inspired the idea, if I am being honest. In it, Schaefer explains four marketing rebellions that have occurred in the past 100 years or so. The latest being spearheaded by millennials, the largest consumer segment. I translated his rebellions for the hunting culture in the US.

Rebellion one was the birth of market hunting. Rebellion two was the birth of the days of Teddy Roosevelt and conservation, which lead to the death of market hunting. Rebellion three was the big buck craze, which caused the death of celebrating the numbers in conservation and by the accompanying rise of celebrating names next to numbers.

And now, I believe, we are very much in the middle of the fourth rebellion. And as I am sure I will not reword it better now, I will pull this from the article.

“Who knows what to call it? Honestly, it’s much in its infancy. But what we can do is accurately identify the parts. This new culture is being built by millennials. Despite what some may think or say, the millennial world of hunting is booming and they probably do not see it because this new culture is not only different from the big buck craze but is intentionally contributing to its downfall.

We are talking about a generation that has different motivations, ideology, lifestyles, religions (or lack thereof), politics and views on conservation. This is a culture that embraced the sustainability movement, the organic craze, fights tooth and nail for public land protection, and picked up the torch for climate change. Sounds almost like an environmentalist movement.

I recently read a study that pointed towards ‘food’ being a motivational factor for hunting in both previous generations and millennials. Where that study failed was the failure to recognize that this is not a two-dimensional theory. Millennials are quite literally taking up hunting for food. You will never make a sound argument that the big buck craze generation took up hunting because they wanted to know where their hamburger came from. Sure, that was a byproduct, but not the initial motivation.

That shift is having a domino effect. Trophy hunting, method obsession, and all the other things the industry has created have given way to ‘how can I put the most meat in a freezer in the fastest and most ethical way.’ Plenty of millennials fall in love with the process, but this is a major shift in thinking from previous generations

Add in all the culture changes of a new generation and we are actually left with a lot more conservation-minded culture. There is an impending need to make sure the system is not only sustainable now but stays sustainable. I would fall on the floor if any big buck craze-culture hunter ever spoke to me in that tone.

Plenty of this new culture has left a tough pill to swallow for the previous generations. The marriage between gun rights and hunting has fallen victim to a staunch put-thebrakes-on moment.

Further, differences in the concept of public lands and a near hatred for privatization are causing the old culture begins to wane even more. Try and argue with a millennial that hunting in any part of Africa is good for conservation and you will be met with complex knowledge on government corruption, social inequalities, and ultimately a generation that says, ‘It’s not that simple.’ This is, in fact, the culture that gave rise to millennial-minded organizations like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

But the fact still stands: none of this can be stopped. This is the death of a hunting culture and the birth of a new one. And if you plan to be an organization/brand that exists in this brave new world, you will have to fit the new narrative.

But what kind of data can we support this with?

Looking at Project Upland, which has a strong core of a millennial followers, we have dug into these trends. So let’s start by looking at attitudes about hot-button terms like “climate change.” While 57% of upland hunters in the baby boomer demographic are concerned about the effects of climate change on upland birds, nearly 72% millennials were concerned. Accordingly, 91% of millennials believed climate change is real, and 46% believe it is man made.

Digging into hunting specific practices and attitudes, 26% of millennials have switched to shooting only steel shot for environmental reasons, which is double the number of their baby boomer counterparts. While 41% of baby boomers belong to a gun rights group, a mere 15% of millennials do. “Sport” is the reason that 21% of baby boomers upland hunt while only 5% of millennials cited the same.

Further into the millennial stats, 60% are from urban or suburban areas and 31% are first generation hunters. There are many more intriguing data points that can be viewed throughout this study and our past studies, all of which paint a very viable picture of the future of millennial hunting culture.

In the end, my long-winded point to “how the message of conservation failed” is that conservation does matter, but we cannot put the cart before the horse. Having a generation that is inherently more environmentally conscious will help grow the future of conservation, but it is not the sales pitch to create hunters. It is also not the rallying call to combat anti-hunting.

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.

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Last modified: February 15, 2021