Thursday, February 10, 2005

Sound Resource Management

I recently spent the weekend birdwatching around California's Central Valley. It was pretty amazing. It's migration season, and in some places we saw Ross's geese and Sandhill cranes by the tens of thousands. From a distance, one field seemed at first to be covered in snow. The amount of noise they made was unbelievable, even from half a mile away.

It was hunting season. At the trailheads where hunting was permitted, there were pick-ups and SUVs surrounded by pudgy white men in khaki pants. Most had guns, and a few pulled little carts laden with dead birds whose necks dragged in the dirt. We pulled into one lot, and our bland but very incongruous rental car was given a palpably hostile once-over. We left immediately, assuming we'd transgressed against some unwritten law.

I'm often told how grateful I should be to hunters, because most of the wetlands that are left in this country were bought or restored with their money. And honestly, I am grateful. I 'll admit that I don't comprehend why someone would want to blast a goose out of the sky instead of admiring it in flight, but I do recognize that this is a less-than-ideal world and well-regulated hunting is necessary for the greater good. I've had people tell me this a million times, and I've always agreed. And why shoudn't I? It's completely true.

But there's an important part of this story that tends to get left out: the federal government literally had to force hunters into the conservation efforts that they're so very, very proud of today. Hunting is a perfect example of those game-theoretic situations where the pursuit of individual gain causes an overall loss for everyone. Birds are a renewable resource, but only provided they're given sufficient latitude to renew themselves. And it's the government - not hunters - that gave them what latitude they enjoy today.

Most people who are avid birdwatchers are familar with the classic series of ornithological books by Arthur Cleveland Bent, which were written in the early years of the twentieth century. On page after page, he describes the total or near-total destruction of bird species: some for food, some for pointless "sport," and some for their plumes. By 1913, the situation was so dire that the federal government stepped in and put migratory birds under its protection. In particular, the wood duck, an indescribably beautiful bird, had been hunted to the brink of extinction. Fortunately, a thirty-year moratorium on hunting these birds - and strict regulation of hunting after that - brought their numbers up to fairly safe levels.

In 1934, the government designed a duck stamp, which every hunter was required to buy along with a hunting license. Since then, the money from sales of the stamp has paid to protect nearly forty million acres of wetlands. (If a conservative ever challenges you to name a federal program that works, mention the duck stamp program and watch him sputter and stammer.)

Nobody's perfect, of course. Like many people, hunters had to be forced to do the right thing initially...but in the years since, they've done a fair amount of good for birds and the environment, often purposefully. And if they want to strut around and bellow about how they're "the real conservationists," I usually figure there's no harm in letting them enjoy themselves.

But you have to draw the line somewhere, and I draw it at deranged, dishonest nonsense like this:

Lead ammunition won't be banned for big-game hunters in California, as least not in the short term, and four proposed projects to convert capped wells in the Mojave National Preserve to wildlife water sources have been approved by the National Park Service.

Both of these decisions are major victories for hunters and wildlife enthusiasts who are interested in sound resource management and efforts to protect and improve wildlife habitat.
No, that's not a typo. According to this writer - who clearly thinks of himself as one of the real conservationists - the fact that hunters can still litter the ground with lead ammunition is a victory for people who want to "improve wildlife habitat." And it's not just a victory: it's also an example of "sound resource management" ("sound" being yet another word we'll have to throw on the ash-heap thanks to the radical right).

When she worked at a wildlife hospital, my wife treated animals with lead poisoning fairly often...birds, mostly. When they died, as they generally did, she usually found lead pellets in their stomachs or gizzards. There are hundreds of pellets in a single shotgun shell, so even when an animal is hit, most of the shot goes onto the ground or into the water. The government made it illegal to shoot waterfowl with lead shot in 1991, but some hunters still use it anyway, and lead shot is routinely used on other game. And of course, ammunition that contaminated the ground and water before the ban still poses a problem...not least for the hunters who unwittingly eat lead-laden birds.

It's very true that birdwatchers, conservationists, and hunters need to find common ground if they're to withstand BushCo's unprecedented attack on the environment. But ignorant, unscientific, dishonest, smug articles like the one above make it very hard. Thankfully, there are hunters who aren't as stupid and callous as this self-styled spokesman for "sound resource management." They really need to speak out against his brand of idiocy.

1 comment:

WHT said...

I did not know that about the wood duck population.

Quick story. I had to do an ecology project in high school for I think a geography class. I built a wood duck house and constructed it close to water according to recommendations. When it came time to get credit, I showed the teacher the Polaroid I took. The bastard thought I cheated by taking a picture of some already constructed house. grrrrr.