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December 13, 2005

To Save a Species, Shoot Here

From the wilderness of British Columbia comes an innovative conservation tactic about which I am strongly... ambivalent. Raincoast Conservation Foundation is acquiring the guide-outfitting hunting rights to five areas along the central BC coast, a remote area of vast wilderness that is home to the rare "spirit bear," among other species. The angle here is probably obvious: Raincoast bought the rights in order to put a stop to hunting.

Raincoast and other conservation groups have a strong interest--one that I share--in protecting biodiversity and relatively pristine wild places. So what's my beef? It's a two-parter.

First, I'm not sure that hunting is bad for the species being hunted. Second, I'm not sure the price--Can$1.35 million plus annual licensing fees--is the best conservation use of the money.

Now on one level, hunting is obviously bad for a species because it involves, well, killing it. But the formula isn't really so simple. For at least two reasons, hunting can actually be beneficial. First, hunters often form powerful constituencies supporting conservation. Ducks Unlimited, a powerful voice for wetlands protection, is probably the best-known example, but it's worth remembering that National Wildlife Federation also first took root in the hook and bullet crowd. Just as hikers often become advocates for trails, hunters and fishermen often become advocates for protecting their recreation. In the Northwest, for instance, you can find plenty of farmers who don't care much for salmon regulations, but you can't find a single steelhead fisherman who doesn't get animated about water quality.

Second, as globe-trotting naturalist David Quammen argues in his recent book Monster of God, hunting can actually be the lifeline that rescues species from the brink of oblivion. In the Russian far east, India, Australia, and Romania, Quammen finds compelling evidence that hunting of the most objectionable sort--big game trophy hunting of endangered species by well-heeled foreigners--can spell the difference between life and death.

The reason is depressingly venal: a lot of money gets spent to bag a saltwater croc or a Siberian tiger. When done right, some of the money gets ploughed back into habitat conservation. But by far the biggest benefit, according to Quammen, is that locals see a direct, tangible (read: cash money) benefit  for conserving that species. And without local protection imperiled species are all too often victimized by poaching or habitat destruction. To localize Quammen's reasoning, the perpetual specter of logging in coastal BC is a far more pernicious threat than hunting.

So hunting, which creates a conservation constituency and provides a financial incentive, is not unequivocally bad for biodiversity. Indeed, I suspect that on balance it's actually a boon. But hunting also doesn't sit well with many environmentalists who are, for perfectly legitimate reasons, ethically opposed to gratuitously killing animals. And I must admit, I have a hard time keeping my blood pressure down when I think about certain kinds of hunting, especially of big predators like grizzlies, cougars, and wolves. When I think that those emblems of wildness may wind up as adornments of faux masculinity in a Texas drawing room, I get positively pissed off. But still, that doesn't mean hunting is a bad deal for biodiversity.

Raincoast and other conservation groups argue that ecotourism can supplant hunting. Ecotourism, they argue, can infuse cash into the region and create a constituency just as hunting is alleged to do. Perhaps it can. Indeed, recent studies in the US show that Americans spend more money watching wildlife than fishing or hunting for it. But ecotourism, despite its green appellation, can also carry tremendous environmental consequences--everything from carbon emitted by many people traveling to remote locations to habitat-destroying development to keep pace with the hoped-for crowds. (Some other time I'll write a post about my deep suspicions of ecotourism as a silver bullet for conservation.)

Moreover, I don't see why BC can't reap the benefits of both ecotourism and sustainable limited-tag hunting. So while ecotourism confers many benefits, I don't see why hunting can't add more.

Finally then, there's the question of whether $1.35 million plus annual fees is worth the benefit. Owning up to opportunity costs can be a painful choice when it comes to protecting places and animals that we love, but it's even more painful for the wilderness when we choose poorly. The model Raincoast is using--buying a license and holding it for conservation--is a good one. It's been done with increasing success with water rights (keeping water in streams for fish), grazing rights (keeping livestock off fragile public lands that need breathing room to recover), and development rights (buying easements on farms, for instance, to prevent them from subdividing).

Hunting rights have even been purchased before too, though never on the scale that Raincoast is doing it. But unlike rights for water, grazing, timber, minerals, or development, the biodiversity threats of hunting rights are far less clear. I would like to know what else might have been accomplished with that money. How many acres of land could have been protected from impending habitat-destroying development? How much logging could Raincoast have prevented with that money? And how much logged-over land could have been restored?

The conservation world needs a steely-eyed list that prioritizes the ecosystems and species that are most imperiled. (More on that list tomorrow.) And then it needs an even more steely-eyed accounting of the costs of protection. What are the best buys? What are the investments that are most stable, most leveraged, most likely to reap benefits in the future? As far as I know, that accounting has never been done, but I have a strong suspicion that hunting rights would probably pencil out as a rather bad buy.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink


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I absolutely agree with you here. The regulated hunting that we see in the modern U.S and Canada is by and large not a real threat to wildlife. The threat is habitat destruction. People just get worked over hunting more easily, because the animal is directly killed, and because hunting played a larger part in wiping out species in the U.S. in late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Posted by: Mike Lommler | Dec 14, 2005 2:34:19 PM

Perhaps you should learn more about First Nations rights and title issues in the Great Bear Rainforest, as well as their stance on the hunting tenure buyout, before assuming how much of a "boon" hunting grizzly bears (as well as the unlimited number of wolves and ungulates that could be killed with this tenure) was for this landscape.

It is disappointing to see poorly researched information under Northwest Environment Watch's banner.

Posted by: Bonnie Charles | Dec 14, 2005 5:02:30 PM


I said "I suspect it's a boon" to refer to certain kinds of hunting in a general sense, not in the GB Rainforest in particular. The specific issues are in any locale are, of course, complex. But that said, I'm not sure why the stance of First Nations is relevant to whether or not hunting is actually good or bad for native biodiversity.

Our conservation resources are simply too scarce and important not to evaluate our investments closely. I want to know that we're spending our money as wisely as possible. So I want to know: 1) Is big-game trophy hunting by foreigners (the worst kind, in my book) actually bad for biodiversity? 2) Is it worth $1.35 milllion to buy a very small number of hunting tags that won't eliminate hunting when we could use that money for other forms of conservation? It seem to me there's evidence that the answer to both questions is probably "no."

If someone can show me an accounting that says otherwise I willy gladly--gladly--change my mind.

Posted by: Eric de Place | Dec 14, 2005 5:20:12 PM

Great entry Eric. I think part of the "accounting" as to why buy these hunting rights opposed to other conservation targets is in the fact that they didn't just HAVE this money to spend. They actually ran a fundraising campaign to buy these hunting rights.
As you mention this sort of campaing is an easier sell because it has direct images of bears being killed. Campains to buy logged land just aren't as sexy.

It also helped that they had one LARGE donation to buy these rights.

(clip from article)
The society raised the money over a six-month period mainly from private donations, McAllister said.

One of the major donors, Michael Mayzel, an executive vice-president of Daymen Photo Marketing, who with his business partner, Uwe Mummenhoff, contributed a "very significant" amount of money to the project -- he refused to say exactly how much -- said he did so because of his special regard for bears.

"The killing of bears through hunting has always appalled me," Mayzel said. "Because it's just senseless, particularly when people are brought in from other countries strictly to hunt and kill bears, wolves and so on. I just find it appalling. Hunting for food is one thing, but hunting for trophies is wrong."
(end clip)

Posted by: Jeremy Brown | Dec 15, 2005 11:39:40 AM

We need more of this in my opinion. Way to go Raincoast Conservation Foundation! I hope to donate towards the next buy :)

Posted by: Bill | Dec 15, 2005 2:46:08 PM

If anybody out there believes that hunting will now stop, due to the Indians trying to take over this area( if they can).Then you are fools. You will soon see massive hunts,as by the guides mandate, to keep the guide area by law, and there will be hunting year round as these people usualy do and not all for "food",good conservation tactics? and be assured most of these so called inseason hunts will be for BIG none-Indian money.These people have all ready stated that they plan on trying to stop ALL HUNTING, but their own of course, what does that tell you? Talk about racism and descrimination, this farce is going on all over BC and Canada. Have any of you who applaud this unfolding farce, actualy read the constitution of Canada, where it states that all Canadians are supposedly equal and the RIGHT to fish and hunt are as stated as OUR RIGHT. Do you smell the stink of Apartheid here, I do.
Try the Nisgaa deal for some real eye opening reading,and dont forget the add ons, as to what is realy going on in BC, try and vote if you unfortunately live there.

Posted by: K.Collins | Dec 17, 2005 1:12:22 PM

To put a finer point on my previous point, it is disappointing to see such poorly researched information on Northwest Environment Watch's site. I really trusted that information from NEW was among the most thoughtful and well-researched available. Unfortunately, I find I now question my own assumption about that.

See the Raincoast Conservation Society's rebuttal to Mr. La Place's fuzzy assertions and assumptions that he uses to form his arguments.


Among other things, Raincoast Conservation Society states:

"The NEW article was extremely uninformed and exhibited a significant lack of understanding of grizzly bear biology, as well as the ecological, political and cultural context in which Raincoast's initiative has occurred. But it is easy for an armchair critic like de Place to take pot shots from his ivory tower "think tank" when his criticism is based on such superficial arguments."

Mr. La Place, are you now ready to "glady -- gladly -- change your mind?"

Posted by: bonnie charles | Dec 21, 2005 5:11:05 PM

Uh, Bonnie, I said I'd change my mind if I saw an accounting -- not if someone decided to stoop to childish ad hominem attacks.

Posted by: Eric de Place | Dec 22, 2005 12:16:19 PM

Eric, I really appreciated your original post. The tone that Bonnie Charles used in her response (aka. her "ad hominem attack") is precisely what turns me off about many environmental organizations. I appreciate NEW's willingness to cut against the grain and look Conservation issues in a fresh way and not resorting to emotional arguments.

As for your original article that started this whole discussion I cannot agree more with you more. My brother-in-law is a stereotypical Alaska "mountain man" - complete with gun rack and handlebar mustache. He is as conservative as "Uncle Ted" - Alaska's famous oil drilling senator. He hunts, fishes, and teaches his kids to trap lynx, fox, and rabbit. (They even adorn the walls of their home with various animals that have been bagged by their children - No faux masculinity here). Despite that, I hear concerns from him about illegal hunting and habitat destruction that would endanger wild game far more than a few pelts on the walls. From what I've learned from him, I reluctantly believe that the world needs MORE hunters - not fewer.

Posted by: Matt Leber | Dec 22, 2005 4:41:18 PM