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Hunters: To protect our social licence, we have to stop killing animals we don’t eat

Chris Darimont is an associate professor in the department of geography at the University of Victoria and science director for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Television personality and hunter Steve Ecklund recently became a target. He posted images of his smiling face lording over a cougar he had legally killed in northern Alberta. Mr. Ecklund and a team of hunting guides had released dogs to pursue fresh cat tracks. After a chase, the exhausted cougar took short-lived refuge up a tree as frenzied dogs barked below. Some time later, Mr. Ecklund arrived at the tree with his weapon.

The imagery of a delighted hunter holding up his trophy – the bloodied, lifeless cougar – was grotesque to many. Thousands commented online, including Laureen Harper, the wife of former prime minister Stephen Harper, who suggested on Twitter that Mr. Ecklund "must be compensating for something, small penis probably."

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Broader outrage also erupted, many lamenting the senseless killing of a large carnivore or questioning the ethics – indeed, legitimacy – of a wildlife-management system that normalizes the killing of animals that are not eaten. Many hunters, myself included, were among those disgusted. Though far fewer in number, other hunters fired back with fervent support.

Such fiery debate, increasingly common, suggests that change is coming. But it will not come easy for either side.

Understanding this conflict requires acknowledging that wildlife can mean not only populations but also individuals that comprise them. Wildlife managers in Alberta and elsewhere focus their concern for wildlife exclusively at the population level. In general, they estimate whether the population contains a so-called "harvestable surplus." If so – fair game! Those opposed, however, consider the suffering endured by the individual animals caught up in this system. They understand that hunting involves suffering, and that wildlife can suffer in the same way humans can. The logic was expressed elegantly by an early ethicist: Jeremy Bentham famously asked, "The question is not, 'Can they reason?' Nor, 'Can they talk?' But, 'Can they suffer?'"

And here's the important part: most people can accept the idea of suffering and death if the hunter kills to fulfill a basic life requisite, such as feeding one's family; in contrast, most people oppose killing inedible animals for trivial reasons, such as feeding one's ego.

Proponents of predator hunting understand the nature of the opposition, and are desperately trying to adapt. That is why, no doubt, Mr. Ecklund made the point to show off a photo of his cougar stir-fry. Most people were repulsed, understanding intuitively that the meat of large carnivores should be avoided. Evolutionarily and culturally, this ability evolved because of the risk of acquiring diseases we share with predators. Recognizing this, hunting regulations in Alberta and elsewhere have never required hunters to take any potentially edible portions from the carcasses of large carnivores. The explicit understanding is that these hunters are only interested in trophy items: skins, heads and claws and, more recently, photos to post online.

Together, this means that deceptive claims of food hunting will not fool those opposed to the killing that large carnivores and the trivial benefits the hunter receives. In the case of Mr. Ecklund, he called it "an unreal ending to a fun filled season."

Opposition to the killing of carnivores will intensify in North America. This values-based opposition will mirror other campaigns for just treatment of those human and non-human groups commonly mistreated. Many managers and hunters will vigorously defend the status quo, often using questionable science as justification. Their population-level logic, however, which draws on our reverence for science, is seductive. That is, until one confronts its central assumption: that science alone (i.e. the presence of a "harvestable surplus") can dictate policy. In theory and practice, this is not the case.

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Sound wildlife policy needs to draw from many domains. Clearly, it should reflect not only the values of hunters (often less than 10 per cent of the population) but also the values generally expressed by society. Conflicting economic interests, such asecotourism, must also be considered. For example, economic analyses have shown that grizzly bear viewing brings in over 10 times the annual revenue of grizzly hunting in coastal B.C.. Policies and laws asserted by Indigenous governments also need recognition. All these factors led to the ban of grizzly bear hunting in British Columbia. Similarly, a referendum in the 1990s led to a ban on cougar hunting in California, not because there were too few cats, but rather because society thought that the time of hunting mountain lions was up.

Hunters argue, reasonably, that if non-hunters want to influence wildlife policy then they, too, need to contribute to the system, doing more than solely expressing passionate emotion in their online advocacy. As individual recreationists or ecotourism clients, they could, for example, pay for access to wildlife-rich areas. They could consider contributing to the purchase of guided hunting territories, a conservation economic strategy pioneered in B.C. At the very least, they must minimize the impacts of their recreational, consumer and investment behaviour that ultimately causes suffering and death of wildlife. Finally, non-hunters must understand that in North America, habitat loss is typically a much larger threat to wildlife than hunting.

Hunters and their lobby groups have a choice. One option is digging in their heels and ignoring the changing times. The BC Wildlife Federation (the organization that represents B.C. hunters) has done precisely that in response to the grizzly hunt ban. Such a stand endangers the social licence afforded to all hunters. A minority of hunters – those that kill large carnivores – sully the reputation of the whole group. Anachronistic policies also cause conflict with environmental groups, foreclosing opportunities for collaboration over shared interests.

The other, more promising optionwould require hunters and their organizations to rid themselves of the fringe trophy-hunting element. That way, the privilege to feed our families is not jeopardized by a minority who hunt carnivores to feed their egos.

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