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Wild Ideas: A place for hunting in a more environmentally-conscious world

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Camouflage gear is not an unusual sight in Kawartha Lakes. Like many rural Ontario communities, hunting is part of our recreational history and has long kept retailers stocked with leaf-adorned bedspreads, decals and, yes, even masks.

But people don’t relate to hunting, or to hunters, like they once did. Despite hunters’ widespread presence in our community, a lot of folks are uncomfortable or even downright angry that some among us would go out of our way to kill an animal. Hunters are increasingly portrayed as behind the times, the strange and unfortunate remnants of a less progressive era. So, it raises the question — does hunting still have a place in our society?

As a lifelong hunter, I encounter this question from time to time, and part of my answer always seems to raise eyebrows. Hunting, I say, is a sustainable source of food. Hunting offers a unique opportunity to remove oneself from a corporate and notoriously problematic livestock system and enter into something not only personally rewarding, but environmentally conscientious.

For one thing, wild animals don’t represent an anthropogenic (human-made) source of greenhouse gas emissions. Due especially to livestock, commercial agriculture is now one of the world’s leading contributors to human-made climate change. By consuming wild game, hunters can partially step outside of this system, effectively eliminating a portion of their personal carbon footprint (other than hunting-related transportation.) In contrast, plant-based diets usually replace calories that would otherwise come from meat with a crop of some sort and, while these generally have a much lower impact on the climate than livestock, they are still responsible for human-induced emissions.

Hunting can also be an opportunity to live a less invasive and wasteful lifestyle. Marcie Goldenburg is a local high school teacher and recent graduate of the Ontario Hunter Education Program whose interest in hunting developed 15 years ago.

“In my 30s I moved out of Toronto to the Kawarthas and really got more connected to the outdoors. That’s when I thought ‘yeah, I really should get into hunting.’” For Goldenburg, interest in hunting has always stemmed from a desire to be less dependent on systems that generate vast amounts of waste, landscape change and overuse of our natural resources.

“I don’t want to strip the planet of its resources for a throwaway lifestyle … I wanted an alternative meat source and at first it was to go to free-range farmers, but that was so expensive and hard for me to access that I thought hunting would be a better option, especially since it allows the trees and the land to remain in their natural state.”

Despite a very real legacy of resource abuse, hunting has come a long way in North America. By the 19th century, unregulated market hunting had completely altered our natural landscape, driving species like the American buffalo to extinction and bringing countless others to the brink.

Out of necessity, hunters and conservationists developed the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, a management framework which is now the foundation for all Canadian and U.S. fish and wildlife regulation.

Thanks largely to this model, which has been imitated across the globe, 100 per cent of fishing and hunting revenue in Ontario goes into a special purposes account that can only be used for fish and wildlife management. In 2017, Ontario hunters and anglers contributed $71 million to this fund, accounting for two thirds of all provincial funding in fish and wildlife science, policy, enforcement, ecological rehabilitation and enhancement, licensing, and education. Hunters have also established some of North America’s largest non-profit conservation organizations, like Wildlife Habitat Canada, Ducks unlimited and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. With the help of groups like these, hunters have been an integral part of bringing back many of the vary species they once extirpated.

The trouble is, there are fewer and fewer hunters. Even with the new wave of sustainability-minded recruits, most provinces (and states) have been experiencing a steady decline in hunter participation since the late 1980s.

Locally, there are few places more directly affected by this than Nesbitt’s Meat Market. Owner Adam Hayward says that, while many local hunters still bring their deer to his shop for butchering each November, it’s not the same as it once was.

“Overall, we have seen numbers decrease over several years, especially in the last five or six.”

While he points out that it’s difficult to pin down an exact reason for the change, it has wide-ranging impacts.

On top of its financial implications for the world of conservation, having fewer hunters around may be an ideological issue. Hunting gives people a sense of value and connection to the natural landscape, as well as to their food. In an increasingly urban world, these qualities could mean the difference between tackling the great environmental issues of our time and complacency. For me, hunters are the natural-born champions of issues like climate change, partly for the potential that their lifestyle holds as a solution. As someone who spends much of the year outside, I don’t just bear witness to the changes our world is undergoing, I’m defined by them.

It would be naive to suggest that everyone should adopt this lifestyle, out of a desire to be sustainable or otherwise. Clearly, despite the benefits of increased hunter recruitment, few resources on this earth could withstand humanity’s full attention. But the way forward, toward a greener future, is not likely to be created by one standalone solution that’s applicable to everyone. It can only be a blend of ideas and lifestyle changes — a melting pot of stewardship.

I believe hunting has a place in that world. At the very least, it has a place in our community.

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