Perhaps it's this patriotic element of hunting that makes hunting advocates fear for the country when they see their sport in decline. In surveys done by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife service, the overall number of hunters has fallen from a peak of 19.1 million in 1975 to 12.5 million in 2006. Why? Historian Daniel Justin Herman, in his essay "The Hunter's Aim," floats the theory that the middle-class businessmen who went duck and deer hunting in great numbers in the 1950s found a new natural arena to display their manliness, courtesy, and deadly aim: the golf course. If you read around on hunting sites, the anecdotal blame falls on suburbanization, single-parent households, and restrictive gun laws—but the real bile is saved for video games. Chad Love, of Field & Stream, echoed the sentiments of his fellow hunters in a recent blog post, when he recalled his boyhood "back before the dawning of the 'Stoned on Electronic Entertainment Age.' " His remark was greeted with this typical Amen: "We don't let our kids play outside, yet wonder why they are fat, full of allergies and lazy."
The decreasing number of hunters has only intensified the sport's hold on those who still do hunt. As Herman explained: "Hunting has become a counterculture among rural, blue-collar people. It's something that offends the snobs, the white-collar middle-class that has become so soft and opposed to the cruelty of animals." (For a glimpse of the extreme edge of this counterculture, watch an Exploding Varmints video on YouTube.) Herman also notes that the patriotic strain of hunting persists in the contemporary vogue for all-things camouflage. "Camo does double duty," he says, "I'm a hunter, and I'm ready to be a soldier when the call demands."
The outsider status of Sarah Palin-style meat hunting (as opposed to the insider status of Cheney-style hunting) harkens back to the olde days. Herman describes how the Founding Fathers were mostly not hunters, as hunting at the time was deemed "too Indian." It was an insult to call someone a "buckskinner." In addition, early Americans justified the taking of land from Native Americans on the premise that the Indians were hunters who were just passing through—not farmers like the white settlers. It was after the Civil War, as America began to industrialize, that hunting became popular as an aristocratic sport pursued by gentlemen, i.e., "sportsmen," while subsistence hunters found game where they could. Roosevelt built his political career around the gun but also started the conservation movement that set aside land on which average Americans could practice the invigorating, country-affirming act of hunting. Gilded Age women followed their manly men into the forests, as hunting was one way for the "new woman" to exhibit her burgeoning sense of independence.
Like most kids who grow up to be hunters, Sarah Palin was taught by her father—a hunting parent is the key factor in whether a child takes up the sport. Palin's dad, Chuck Heath, is a frontier-style, self-reliant pothunter. He recently bragged to the British Sun, "We raised our family to be able to support ourselves—90 per cent of our meat and fish we get ourselves." His comments are also in tune with our disastrous financial moment. Gun sales have been up this fall, and Tony Aeschliman of the Shooting Sports Association speculated that lack of work gives rural people more time to hunt and more incentive to "put a deer in the freezer." And by the deer carcass is where the shooters and the foodies meet. This week, the leading locavore, Michael Pollan, in an essay titled "Farmer in Chief," advised the next president, "You should support hunting as a particularly sustainable way to eat meat—meat grown without any fossil fuels whatsoever."
In these divided times, I would love to propose a red state/blue state détente—you guys shoot the deer; we'll cook the venison in a lovely reduction sauce—but game markets didn't work so well in the past. A central tenet of preserving wildlife is that we must remove the economic value from an animal. Otherwise, extensive poaching and habitat destruction follow. So bringing back game markets on a massive scale wouldn't quite work, although Hunters for the Hungry is a worthy idea, and it's only slightly crazy to imagine city dwellers having "community supported hunters" in the manner of "community supported agriculture." There's also the whole moral question of whether hunting is a humane way to treat animals that I will gladly sidestep. Still, animal lovers, latte sippers, and muzzleloaders, please hold your fire for a moment and consider what we have in common: We may disagree about big, federal government, but we're starting to share an idea about small, local food.