The Brunt of the Hunt: The Emerging Response of America’s Game Changers to the Climate Crisis
Updated: Dec 16, 2022
In Kalispell, Montana, Todd Tanner spends his days living amidst some of wildlife’s greatest wonders. Having learned to fish at the age of five and hunt at the age of fourteen, he has quickly familiarized himself with the families of deer and waterfowl and trout that make their homes on the rough northern terrain, together instilling in him an undying appreciation for the diversity that his homeland offers. Like most hunters and anglers in the United States, Tanner finds solace in spending hours immersed in the outdoors to cultivate an intimate relationship with the animals around him. For him, hunting is more than just a pastime: it is a source of comfort that enables him to become one with the natural world that he has valued since childhood, thereby transcending his role as a mere spectator of the complex ecosystem characterizing Montana’s landscape.
Tanner’s choice to kill animals for personal pleasure takes many non-hunters by surprise largely because Tanner is the founder of Conservation Hawks, an environmental organization centered on lobbying for increased protection of game species in the face of climate change. Other sportsmen and sportswomen, however, are rarely startled. An increase in droughts, fire frequency and intensity, and water temperatures have together begun to threaten Montana’s ability to support the species that have thrived there for so long, compromising the only form of recreation that Tanner knows. Witnessing firsthand the wildlife crumbling around him each year, Tanner recognizes the urgency of addressing the root causes of a rapidly changing environment. The emotional weight he feels when he enters the outdoors is especially heavy. “There’s this tradeoff for those of us who fish or those of us who hunt: we get this wonderful connection to the natural world, but when the world is wounded, we feel that,” he recently said in a New York Times interview. As he continues to find less and less comfort in the environment that he once adored, he fears that his homeland may never return to what it was (Kerr et al. 2022).
Tanner is not alone in his worries. In fact, he is joined by millions of other American recreational hunters and anglers who, upon realizing that their interconnectedness with the natural world is under threat, have begun to take on a new responsibility – one that focuses on advocating climate action to rebuild a world in which they now feel increasingly foreign. America’s sportsmen and sportswomen have seldom publicly been known as environmental activists, especially because the media, textbooks and literature, and furious animal rights activists often list hunting as a significant cause of species declines. In fact, the centuries-old extinction of the passenger pigeon, the near-extinction of the American bison due to Westward expansion, more recent declines in African elephants and lions, and even the continued overfishing of many aquatic species have all long been linked to reckless hunting – something that many Americans fail to realize is distinct from sustainable hunting. Whether by viewing graphic television scenes of the killing of popularly loved animals such as white-tailed deer or by reading grave statistics about threatened species, Americans are frequently led to portray all sportspeople as enemies and not as defenders of the natural world. Contrary to reckless hunters, however, thousands of sportspeople value hunting as a form of population control that protects rather than endangers some of America’s favorite species. Understanding the responses of these individuals to the climate crisis, as well as the frustrations of those who want to preserve wildlife but have little background in hunting and angling, is therefore a must if we hope to form effective solutions that integrate the perspectives of sportspeople and anti-sportspeople. Failure to encourage healthy conversation between these two opposing sides may, much to our dismay, hinder the long-term protection of threatened species – all while further widening the rift that has already split our society into two.
Though the effects of climate change on local wildlife vary drastically from region to region, they all share in common the detriment they pose to most fish and game populations. Research conducted by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) illustrates this idea clearly by highlighting the many ways in which climate change’s impacts can already be felt by hunters and anglers. While certain effects, such as the death of wildlife and the destruction of habitat caused by natural disasters, may seem strikingly obvious, the vast majority are not. Rising water temperatures in lakes or streams, for example, stimulate the multiplication of oxygen-consuming algae, which create oxygen-poor conditions that are unsuitable – even deadly – for many species of fish. Anglers who rely on fishing for recreation consequently find themselves struggling to obtain a catch, only amplifying their concerns about the deteriorating state of their environment. Meanwhile, warmer winters facilitate the reproduction of disease-carrying ticks that threaten both animals and the people that pursue them. Deer ticks, for example, can transmit Lyme disease to both white-tailed deer and to hunters, forcing many hunters to take more precautions when venturing outdoors or limit their outdoor expeditions altogether. Even seemingly minuscule increases in air or water temperature can force migratory birds and fish to shift their ranges to higher latitudes or migrate earlier in the year, leaving behind those people whose source of recreation centers on searching for and finding them (TRCP 2022).
These effects all tell the same sobering story – one that hunters and anglers are experiencing firsthand. According to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), moose, for instance, are not only reproducing at lower rates and producing lighter offspring due to excessive heat exposure, but they are also dying in large numbers due to tick infestations that weaken their immune systems and force them to starve. Consequently, states such as Montana have reduced the number of active moose hunting licenses by over half in under thirty years, while Minnesota has banned the hunting of moose altogether. Looking underwater, brook trout are being threatened by both declining oxygen levels and the loss of shade-providing vegetation due to extreme droughts, both of which may soon cause a fifth of brook trout habitat to be decimated in states such as Virginia and Tennessee (NWF 2015). In an interview conducted by PBS, long-time brook trout fisherman and North Carolina Wildlife Federation representative Richard Mode reflected on how the downfall of this particular species has personally impacted his own mentality about the climate crisis. “There’s a sense of loss there that I cannot fully describe to you verbally,” Mode said as he explained the almost incomprehensible sense of grief that overcomes him whenever he sets out on the water. Like Todd Tanner and thousands of other recreational sportspeople, Mode is struggling with solastalgia – the perceived loss of a sense of place that one feels without even leaving there. Having spent nearly sixty years fishing in the wilderness, he has become intimately familiar with the accelerating effects of climate change on the animals he knows and loves. And dreading the eventual loss of his kinship with the fish who have surrounded him since childhood, he recognizes the need for more stringent climate-focused policies that secure the futures of the animals residing on America’s landscape – and of the hunters who so deeply respect them (PBS 2017). Mode’s story thus makes clear that the ecological transformations brought about by climate change can have profound consequences not only for game and fish species, but also for those individuals whose lives are so heavily intertwined with the natural world.
Even less widely understood, however, are the contributions of hunting to conservation efforts. The killing of animals has long been a hotly contested issue on the American dinner table – and understandably so. Millions of people are vocal about their criticisms of hunting for personal pleasure, portraying it as an unethical form of animal cruelty that subjugates other living things to a torture that no animal should have to experience. Throughout the country, prominent animal rights organizations frown upon hunting for “damaging natural ecosystems” and for signifying a “cruel and unsporting nature,” while others go as far as to propose that such hunting “is not conservation” and “can hurt the overall population of a species” (Humane Society 2022; One Green Planet 2020). Surveys of American citizens are similarly bleak: while nearly 80 percent of adults support hunting for subsistence, hardly a third of them support hunting for sport (Byrd et al. 2017).
Public perspectives on hunting are only further exacerbated by the education system and the media alike, where the narrative of hunting and angling focuses primarily on overharvesting rather than on sustainable harvest. In fact, animal rights activists are just as angered by perceived biodiversity losses as they are by the killing of animals themselves. They argue that hunting unnecessarily interferes with intact ecosystems and deprives them of their diversity – a perspective that resonates with many Americans who have been taught from a young age the oversimplified claim that killing animals can only harm rather than help their overall populations. Only making matters worse is that entertainment, children’s literature, and the media together focus a lot of their attention on species that have become a source of comfort for Americans. Witnessing news articles or films that portray the demise of popularly cherished species such as the Arctic reindeer – a household gem during the holiday season – further frustrates Americans who have grown increasingly attached to such family favorites. These issues together have caused hunting and angling to become highly contested forms of recreation, with the majority arguing that hunting harms beloved species and the minority arguing that it indirectly protects them.
The reality certainly challenges the views of the majority. Though killing animals does not promote conservation in and of itself, widespread spending by hunters and anglers certainly does. And despite that on the surface it makes sense that each individual kill would cause game and fish populations to decline, federal laws make matters slightly more complex. The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, for example, requires hunters to pay an eleven percent excise tax on weaponry, with all revenue going directly towards state wildlife conservation efforts and education on responsible hunting practices. The Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act features a similar premise, using the tax paid by anglers for fishing equipment to fund state fish population management efforts. These acts together contributed $1.1 billion dollars to state wildlife agencies in 2014 alone and continue, alongside license sales, to fund a substantial percentage of wildlife conservation within the United States. And while many may question the extent to which this funding has been successful, the evidence bears signs of optimism. Revenue raised through Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, for instance, has contributed directly to the protection of pronghorn and white-tailed deer, both of which were previously nearing extinction (NWF 2015). In a time when species as diverse as blue crabs and snowshoe hares are being threatened by climate change, money spent by hunters and anglers can thus play a significant role in protecting these species – a serious surprise to those who strongly object to hunting due to their preconceived notion that it threatens animals whose livelihoods are already at risk.
Similarly surprising to many Americans who lack a personal connection to hunting is the large proportion of sportspeople who are not only worried about climate change, but who are also actively joining climate activism organizations. A survey conducted by the TRCP highlights that 72 percent of hunters and anglers believe in climate change, and 74 percent of those people attribute climate change to human activity (TRCP 2022). From this concern about the impacts of a warming world has emerged a movement by America’s sportsmen and sportswomen to lobby for stricter climate regulations. The National Wildlife Federation’s Sportsmen Outreach Campaign is one such example of an organization that is actively working to educate hunters and anglers on the dangers climate change poses to their source of recreation. In an interview presented by the Public News Service (PNS), John Gale, a sportsman and one of the leaders of the campaign, articulated the valuable contributions that hunters and anglers make towards environmental progress, as well as the need to restore existing landscapes to secure hunting abilities for future generations. Describing sportspeople as “Mother Nature’s first responders,” Gale hopes to encourage hunters and nonhunters to find common ground in their views on climate change (PNS 2014). His journey shows that sportspeople like him are not takers but rather givers and listeners, hearing the cries of the natural world – and of the nearly two-thirds of Americans who oppose the killing of wildlife for sport.
Todd Tanner is himself another such individual. His organization, Conservation Hawks, puts the words “climate change” in bold letters on its website to emphasize the need for the hunting and angling community to unite to protect those species that remain on Earth. By educating outdoorsmen about the effects of climate change and partnering with major brands such as Patagonia and Winston, Conservation Hawks aims to raise awareness of global warming among a community that has otherwise very rarely been associated with climate activism. When asked why hunters and anglers should care about the climate crisis, Tanner remains firm in his belief these individuals “hike through the empirical evidence every time they step outdoors” – a somber reminder of the ecosystem degradation that sportspeople frequently witness up close (Conservation Hawks 2022).
The TRCP is yet another organization that focuses on harnessing the power of sportsmen and sportswomen to invest in climate-positive solutions. In Louisiana, for example, the TRCP has lobbied for human efforts to increase habitat in Plaquemines Parish, a former wetland that has been slowly consumed by sea level rise. Further north, in Alaska, the organization is aiming to prevent deforestation of the Tongass old-growth forest, which not only absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas contributing to climate change – but also serves as a home for salmon and Sitka black-tailed deer, among others (TRCP 2022). Thus, the strides that groups such as the National Wildlife Federation’s Sportsmen Outreach Campaign, Conservation Hawks, and the TRCP have made in protecting the planet and its organisms are certainly evident across a broad geographic scale – a testament to the growing sense of urgency hunters and anglers feel when they take a look outdoors.
These initiatives together culminate in an important realization: most hunters and anglers are not necessarily the threats to conservation that many people far too frequently portray them to be. Despite that in the political sphere, both Democrats and Republicans generally agree on the importance of wildlife protection, there still remains a debate between sportspeople and animal rights activists over whether hunting and angling can contribute positively to conservation efforts (TRCP 2017). The media only further deepens the divide between these two groups and convinces audiences of the seemingly irreconcilable differences between them, neglecting to emphasize that they share a common goal: to protect the species around them from a rapidly changing world. Though recreational hunting’s contributions to conservation have often been framed as a battle between cultural values and ecological impacts, it may be worthwhile to seek common ground between the two – in other words, to embrace the space where contrasting personal beliefs on hunting can intersect with a shared determination to maintain biodiversity. Animal rights activists are understandably against the killing of animals by hunters in the first place, but they would be remiss not to consider that the money spent by hunters often more than compensates for the life lost in a hunting expedition. Hunters and anglers would likewise be remiss not to hear the concerns of animal rights activists and climate change activists and provide them with greater insights about the potential environmental benefits of a hunt. Combatting the climate crisis will require the willingness of individuals of opposing perspectives to not only listen to one another, but also to collaborate to protect the lands and species that we value. Working against one another is never the solution: continued neglect of the commonalities between these groups could force them even further apart, resulting in devastating consequences for the species that both hunters and their non-hunting counterparts so deeply cherish.
Though many Americans are simply unaware of the links between sustainable hunting and angling and climate change mitigation, the reality makes clear just how profound these connections are. Sportspeople not only fund habitat and biodiversity conservation through the purchase of licenses and equipment, but they also lobby for environmental policies that protect the species that they pursue. Several such individuals have been transparent about the struggles they have faced: consider Todd Tanner, who regularly tries and fails to find a catch in the Montana wilderness; and Richard Mode, who feels a continued sadness at the sight of declining numbers of brook trout; and John Gale, who reminisces about childhood fishing experiences that may never be the same again. Yet what matters more than these individuals’ passion for hunting for sport is their desire to protect the species around them in the face of a changing climate – a goal also shared by many non-hunters who often fail to recognize the potential for common ground. As inhabitors of the same Earth, everyone is responsible for protecting threatened species and minimizing the effects of climate change on the natural world. Only by enhancing healthy discussion between both sides of the table will we be able to bridge the divide that has existed for so long between sportspeople and those with little background in hunting and angling. And perhaps by taking the time to open our ears and hearts to one another, we may finally unite as the environmental force that our world has been calling for – game changers, through and through.
Byrd, Elizabeth et al (2017). “Perceptions of Hunting and Hunters by U.S. Respondents.” Animals, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, doi: 10.3390/ani7110083.
Conservation Hawks (2022). “What We Do.” Conservation Hawks, https://www.conservationhawks.org/what-we-do.
Croswell, Alexis (2020). “5 Reasons Trophy Hunting is not Conservation.” One Green Planet, https://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/5-reasons-trophy-hunting-is-not-conservation/.
Inkley, Doug et al (2015). “Game Changers: Climate Impacts to America’s Hunting, Fishing and Wildlife Heritage.” National Wildlife Federation, https://www.nwf.org/~/media/PDFs/Media%20Center%20-%20Press%20Releases/2015/NWF_Game_Changers_Report.pdf.
Kerr, Sarah et al (2022). “The Unseen Toll of a Warming World.” New York Times. Amin, Sameen et al (editors), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/03/09/us/mental-health-climate-change.html.
Morrissey, Tim (2014). “Activist: Hunters and Fishers are Mother Nature’s ‘First Responders.’” Public News Service, https://www.publicnewsservice.org/2014-06-11/climate-change-air-quality/activist-hunters-and-fishers-are-mother-natures-first-responders/a39763-1.
PBS North Carolina (2017). “Richard Mode: Outdoorsman, Conservationist.” Climate Stories, North Carolina, Public Broadcasting Service, https://www.pbs.org/video/richard-mode-outdoorsman-conservationist-ghjtvw/.
The Humane Society (2022). “Banning Trophy Hunting.” The Humane Society of the United States, https://www.humanesociety.org/all-our-fights/banning-trophy-hunting.
TRCP (2017). “TRCP National Sportsmen’s Survey.” Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, https://www.trcp.org/trcp-national-sportsmens-survey/.
TRCP (2022). “Nature-based solutions: How hunters and anglers can play a major role in advocating for habitat-driven climate change solutions.” Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, https://www.trcp.org/nature-based-solutions/#ns-polling.