Getting your meat from outside the industrial food system is also better for the environment. Wild game isn’t fed on tons of grain that used excessive water, land, and fossil-fuel-based synthetic fertilizer. They aren’t clustered in “concentrated animal feeding operations” that produce toxic and terrible-smelling lagoons of manure.
There’s another facile belief that the new kids in the duck blind need to jettison: the idea that all hunting is somehow the cultural property of jerky guys with big trucks and a fondness for the country music and Republican candidates. The cartoon of the red-state hunter has held back many people who would enjoy hunting and find in it a good solution to their ethical and environmental concerns. These people felt, somehow, that hunting was not what their “tribe” did. Yes, lots of hunters are conservatives. But many political conservatives are ethical and environmental hunters who deeply respect the animals they hunt. And there have always been plenty of liberal hunters.
After growing up in Seattle and going to the University of Texas, Austin, I know plenty of urban, lefty hunters. I married into a family of gun-toting, game-cleaning, bleeding-heart liberals. They hunt to connect with nature, to round up some tasty protein, to help manage populations in the absence of their historical predators. They also fish, forage for mushrooms, pick wild asparagus, grow vegetables, and can and dry fruit. And they’ve been doing it since the 1960s. They were Michael Pollan before Michael Pollan was Michael Pollan.
In the 1990s, I went deer hunting with my friend Lon Ingram and his family in Texas and sat around the campfire after a day of sitting in a tree with a gun in my lap (and not seeing a thing) talking about things like immigrants’ rights and how much everybody missed former Gov. Ann Richards. Lon says the motivation for his liberal clan to don hunter orange is “spending time in the woods with friends and family, primarily. Oh, and drinking more than you can get away with at home, eating unhealthy food, and farting. These are bipartisan pursuits.”
Besides, hunting is green. Hazel Wong, a senior policy adviser at the Nature Conservancy, told me that to pass environmental legislation at the state level, “believe it or not, we work with hunting groups a lot.” I wasn’t surprised. Conservation in America was practically founded by hunters. Yellowstone was first envisioned as a giant game reserve that would create big populations of animals that hunters could nab as they spilled out over the boundaries. Our first conservation-minded president, Teddy Roosevelt, mowed down untold hundreds of animals in his long career as a sport hunter. And “hook and bullet” organizations continue to fight for land protection. You see, you need nature to go hunting. And hunters—liberal and conservative—generally like nature. That’s why they are out in it.
So hunting is not a red state thing. It is a red meat thing. And, more than that, it is a necessary thing. In the lower 48, we have nowhere near as many wolves, cougars, and other predators as we would need to keep our deer populations in check. Without hunters, we would be up to our eyeballs in whitetail deer—scruffy, hungry, disease-ridden whitetail deer that relentlessly devour any flora they can reach, be it crops, garden plants, native groundcovers, or tree seedlings. In some places, we already are. In many places, deer overpopulation is so bad that teams of sharpshooters are called in to cull numbers.
State departments of conservation and game have been frantically trying to recruit more hunters. “Hunters are basically the only tool, other than cars, that we have to control deer in Missouri,” says Missouri Department of Conservation spokesman Jim Low. To boost hunter numbers, the department offers a “hunter skills university” for adults interested in getting into the pursuit. And they have permits for “apprentice hunters” who want to try it out (with a licensed mentor) before they go through the trouble of taking the required safety classes.
One problem in deer management is that many hunters are mostly interested in taking big bucks with impressive antlers. But removing bucks doesn’t do much to reduce populations. The number of does needs to be brought down to reduce the number of fawns born that season. Enter the hipster hunter, who is out in the woods for meat, not antlers, and is happy to shoot a tastier, smaller doe.
Changing blue state mores about hunting may help solve many of the problems of wildlife-human conflict. But there is one other solution: getting people out of the sprawl and into cities, where efficiencies of scale and density reduce the per-capita impacts on the environment while simultaneously creating more space for the rest of nature. I believe this is possible, given the right constellation of policies, incentives, cultural shifts, and energy prices. Right now, many people live surrounded by nature but don’t understand it—the Bambi and ’burbs problem. But it is possible to become simultaneously more urban and more nature savvy. Then we can leave the woods to the deer and turkeys, except when we visit to admire them and/or shoot them for dinner.