Heart of the Hunt

Why hunters might want to reconsider how they explain themselves to others.
By Thomas Baumeister, Ph.D.

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
November–December 2002

It may be time for hunters to start talking about themselves differently. As coordinator of the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks hunter education program, I’ve listened to hundreds of hunters and hunting instructors over the years talk about hunting. When we hunters are asked to explain or justify hunting, more often than not we respond: “Because we’re helping manage wildlife.” If there were no hunting seasons, we explain, populations of deer, elk, and other wildlife would overrun their available habitat. The result would be land crowded with hungry deer and elk, followed by mass starvation among the overpopulated animals. Hunting, we tell ourselves and others, prevents that from happening.

This traditional rationalization of hunting is certainly based on fact. It is true that the only way to effectively manage populations of many large ungulates is through regulated hunting. The alternative would indeed be depredation and massive starvation. But as a way to really explain what hunting is about and why a hunter feels so passionately about his or her activity, this wildlife management explanation, as I call it, falls pitifully short.

So what? Who cares whether or not hunters can adequately explain why they rise out of bed before dawn on a cold November morning, or what accounts for their willingness to pursue an elk mile after mile, hour after hour, with no more than the hope of catching a glimpse of their prey? It may not matter. But I think it does. I strongly believe that unless hunters can better understand why they love to hunt, and then explain that passion to nonhunters, hunting as we know it may not survive.

Changes appear inevitable
I say this despite knowing that hunting continues to reign in Montana. More people hunt here, per capita, than in any other state, according to a 2001 survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If you hunt in Montana, this is good news. It shows that hunting continues to thrive in a state that continues to provide excellent hunting opportunities.

However, these good times may not last. Nationwide, the number of hunters is declining, and per capita participation is dropping even faster. In 2001, only 13 million Americans bought a hunting license— almost one million fewer than in 1996. Since 1975 the number of participants as a percentage of the U.S. population has declined steadily, and the trend is forecasted to continue.

Nationwide, hunting continues to be outpaced by more popular activities such as golf and wildlife observation, and that trend may show up in Montana sooner than we think—if it hasn’t already.

The face of Montana is changing. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Montana’s urban counties grew over the previous 10 years while rural counties lost residents. Research has shown that people who grow up in urban areas are less likely to hunt than those from farmsteads. Urban- and suburbanites who aren’t raised in the hunting tradition may view hunting as something strange, or even repulsive or dangerous. For every nonhunter who moves into a Bozeman suburb, it seems there’s a hunter leaving a ranch on the Hi-Line. That doesn’t bode well for hunting’s future, even in such a pro-hunting state as ours.

Moreover, public disapproval for hunting continues to increase across the country. Over the past few decades, many groups have successfully portrayed hunting as a medieval, if not barbaric, activity that lacks relevance in the United States today.

But that’s in New York, right? Or Portland. Why should anyone who hunts in Big Sky Country care about such matters? After all, hunting is still a way of life here.

True. Which is why I think that it’s important that we who hunt in Montana articulate what we are about. This is a state where hunting is still a core element of the culture. If those of us who hunt here can’t explain ourselves to others, then how can we expect hunters in Seattle or Cleveland to do so? If we Montana hunters don’t understand ourselves as hunters, then who will?

It matters that we work harder to convey to nonhunters the essence of hunting. Montana is no island. Hunter numbers are declining nationwide, as is public acceptance of hunting. Hunting’s future in Montana may ultimately depend upon hunters’ ability to successfully communicate why they hunt and to show how hunting is an expression of core values shared by many, if not most, Americans.

Nonhunters may still not want to pick up a rifle and join us. They may not even agree that hunting is okay. But I think they will be more likely to assent to our desire to hunt if we’ve at least made the effort to explain to them who we are, what we’re about, and why hunting is so important to us.

I believe that traditional justifications for hunting given by hunters and state and federal conservation agencies are no longer persuasive to an increasingly skeptical public. For decades, the value of hunting has been assessed almost entirely in terms of ecological contributions—along with some mention of the economic value of hunting to rural communities and our responsibilities to be stewards of the land. These justifications are certainly valid, but they don’t fully capture the range of reasons why people take to the field. The fact is, most hunters don’t hunt to support rural communities or to aid in managing or conserving wildlife. These are byproducts of an activity motivated by deeper, more personal values.

For more than a century, scholars and writers have been trying to puzzle out what motivates hunters. They have made thoughtful and complex investigations into the motives for an activity that, in a modern world, defies simple explanation. By understanding and thinking about these reasons, we hunters may be able to better understand our own reasons for hunting, and, in doing so, may be able to more successfully explain ourselves to others.

Why chase game?
Scholars have suggested three possible explanations for why hunters hunt, which I would summarize as: tradition, interaction with nature, and self-reliance.

The first explanation for hunting is that it’s a way to maintain a long-standing and venerable cultural tradition. For many, hunting is a way to recapture, if only briefly, a sense of life in a simpler time. It offers an escape, though temporary, from the stress and anxiety of living a complicated life largely determined by the pace of technology and commerce.

The second explanation of hunting’s appeal is that it demands an honest and unsentimental interaction between humans and nature. Many hunters believe that hunting teaches them about the fundamental relationship between humans and the natural world. Certainly other activities bring a person close to nature, but few of them demand the level of intimate interaction and engagement that hunting does. I contend that most nonhunters don’t understand the true cost of living, because so few are directly involved in food production. Most people simply go to the local grocery store when the fridge is empty; they let someone else do the killing. Hunting is a way to reassert the role of the individual in sustaining his or her life. It is a means of taking direct, personal responsibility for one’s own food in a way that satisfies body, mind, and soul, and in a way that can foster a respect and reverence for the source of that food.

The third major value of hunting noted by scholars is that it embodies the American tradition of pioneering and self-reliance, which have defined the American character for nearly two centuries. Hunting is one way to reassert a commitment to these ideals. Though hunting today is often a symbolic act (the game taken may make only a token contribution to a family’s entire food intake), it is also a means of actually practicing self-reliance, of providing for oneself through hard work, skill, knowledge, and tenacity. Rather than expressing a primordial urge to kill and dominate—as it is often depicted—hunting is actually an affirmation of certain deeply held social values about self, responsibility, virtue, work, and the American identity.

The values that underpin these three deeper explanations of hunting apply not only to hunters. I believe they also may resonate with those who would never carry a bow, shotgun, or rifle. Many nonhunters crave tradition and the escape from the frenzied modern world. Similarly, many seek intimate contact with nature, be it with a pet, through gardening, or simply by hanging an Audubon calendar on their office wall. Moreover, most Americans value the pioneer spirit and self-reliance; we’ve run out of new lands to discover, but we still tend to seek out new things, to develop novel techniques or products, and to desire independence.

By thinking about the ways that hunting expresses and arises out of these core values, and by discussing these thoughts with nonhunters, hunters may be able to make a more compelling case for the value of hunting, and the hunter, in the modern world.

The uniqueness of Montana
I think it’s possible for nonhunters to understand what motivates their neighboring hunters. And
I think it’s most possible in Montana. Here is a state where the tradition of hunting is not just tolerated but celebrated. Though it has cities, symphonies, football stadiums, and cyber cafes, this is also a state that retains much of the old America, which for many people adds to its appeal. In Montana, nature in all its wildness is present and (almost) complete. Here people imagine that they can find a simpler life, an intimacy with nature, and some small share of self-reliance. Hunters and nonhunters are each in their own way drawn to this land. The attraction to nature is as strong in a Kalispell bird watcher as it is in a Libby elk hunter. How they express this attraction—in word and in deed—is what makes them different.

Which goes to show that a hunter in Montana is not unlike anyone else in Montana—longtimer or newcomer. The hunting tradition does not rely on values foreign or incomprehensible to the general population. Rather, hunting reinforces core social values shared by most of us living in or visiting Montana.

Hunters’ motives for taking to the field may be deeply personal, but those motives are not unique to just hunters. If we hope to continue hunting, we need to better understand—and articulate—what drives us from the warmth and light of civilization into the imponderable cold and darkness of the pre-dawn Montana wilderness. I believe these impulses are the same ones that draw gardeners out to their plot, birders into the woods, and urban refugees to the Bitterroot Valley. It’s our duty as hunters to point out these links between ourselves and all others who value tradition, nature, and independence. They need to understand that we are not hunting alone.Bear bullet

The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions to this essay made by Ashley Preston, professor at the College of Humanities and Science in Tempe, Arizona.

Thomas Baumeister coordinates the FWP Hunter Education Program