Sportsmen and Environmentalists: Together Politically, An Unstoppable Juggernaut
Another View are not necessarily those of Field & Stream. As a fulltime and longtime contributor to what are called...
Another View are not necessarily those of Field & Stream.
As a fulltime and longtime contributor to what are called “environmental” and “hook-and-bullet” publications, I am continually dismayed by how my two audiences alienate each other. Neither comprehends their combined political power.
“You put sportsmen and enviros together, and you get a minimum of 65 percent of the vote–an unstoppable juggernaut,” says Chris Potholm, a Brunswick, Maine-based pollster and political consultant who has engineered ballot-initiative funding that has protected millions of acres in 30 states. “The hardest part is getting the two groups to see that they need each other. In one Montana ballot initiative it took us three days at a retreat. The cowboys wanted to shoot more elk. The Nature Conservancy wanted to save the black-footed ferret. They couldn’t agree. Finally, we said to the TNC folks: ‘Do you want to save ferrets or not? If you do, you gotta let the cowboys shoot more elk.’ And we said to the cowboys, ‘Don’t these ferrets eat the prairie dogs that eat your grass?’ After that it was duck soup.”
I’m walking on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina. Why, I wonder, are my fellow surf fishermen giving me one-fingered salutes? Then it dawns on me–I have binoculars around my neck, so I must be a birder. I couldn’t possibly be an angler, too.
Stickers on some of their vehicles depict a piping plover skewered by a diagonal red line, others a fist clutching a tern with middle finger raised over the caption “Hey, Audubon, Identify This Bird.” Audubon’s sin has been to support the National Park Service’s belated enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act. The agency has banned motor traffic in some of the more important nesting habitat of imperiled birds. Surging back have been oystercatchers, common terns, gull-billed terns, least terns, black skimmers, and piping plovers. Fishing and birding are almost never simultaneously bad, so I rarely have an unproductive day.
The closures do inconvenience anglers. During peak nesting activity, as few as 19 of the 64 miles of shoreline may be open to beach buggies. Something like 55 miles are likely to be open to foot traffic, though. So you’ll often have to walk–at most about a quarter mile.
In New England I’ve had to walk much farther, and I confess that I have been unhappy about it. I don’t mind long walks to a favorite spot. But I very much mind the return walks to my truck when I’m toting stripers and bluefish. My attitude improves, however, when I consider that the closures are the result of the above-mentioned federal laws that have restored and protect the woodcock and waterfowl I hunt, and have prevented the extinction of beautiful creatures that I love such as greenback, Gila, and Paiute cutthroat trout.
For advocating wild trout recovery in Audubon magazine and elsewhere I was honored by the Federation of Fly Fishers–a transgression for which it received letters from members, such as: “Let me get this straight: You give the Aldo Leopold Award to a guy who works for the National Audubon Society, an anti-fishing-and-hunting mob that worked, and succeeded, in closing the Channel Islands in California to all fishing, even fly-fishing. . . . The ‘antis’ will not stop their fight until they have put an end to fishing.” A handwritten note at the bottom urged me to quit “”whoring” for Audubon.
I understand the guy’s pique. In its campaign to establish marine protected areas (MPAs), and not just around the Channel Islands, the environmental community could have enlisted instead of alienated anglers. When the Ocean Conservancy pushed for what it called “ocean wilderness,” I asked its press person if sportfishing would be grandfathered into ocean wilderness MPAs. He said it would not be.
“How about catch-and-release?”
“No,” he declared. “You can dive it; you can surf it; but there’s no catch-and-release fishing. You can’t do that with native fish in national parks or wilderness areas.”
That, of course, was false, and it undercut the effort I and others had been engaged in for decades of trying to convince sportsmen that wilderness is not a plot by the “antis,” but an opportunity for some of the best hunting and fishing available. Worse, it gave MPAs a bad name. MPAs are desperately needed, especially around the Channel Islands to restore long-lived, slow-reproducing bottom fish that get the bends when you haul them up. But near the surface, abundant species such as tuna, yellowtail, and marlin are in the MPA one minute, out the next. Had the enviros bothered to talk with anglers, they’d have learned that banning fishing for these species was pointless.
To its credit, the Ocean Conservancy has scrapped its ocean wilderness campaign. But what of Audubon–that “anti-fishing-and-hunting mob”? In addition to assigning me pieces advocating wild-trout recovery it has assigned me pieces advocating increased deer hunting (Audubon’s idea, not mine). For one title my editors chose “Wanted More Deer Hunters.” An alliance with hunters? What could be in it for Audubon?
Overpopulated deer, especially in the East, are wiping out shrub-nesting birds (as well as destroying rare plant communities, retarding and in some cases preventing natural regrowth of forests and spreading Lyme disease to humans). Enlightened hunters, like members of the Quality Deer Management Association, have joined Audubon in pushing for increased doe harvest. Resisting are unenlightened hunters who have grown up taking shots at herded deer over what used to be understory. They’re being assisted by ecologically illiterate enviros who don’t want Bambi killed no matter what his stage of malnutrition.
The latter group was well represented in the blizzard of nastygrams from Audubon readers. So much space did the letters take up that I was required to write one, brief response to all. This is what ran:
“Wolves and cougars were not ‘killed off by hunters.’ They were killed off by government predator-control agents for stockmen. Hunters do not ‘weaken the species’ gene pool.’ The world’s leading deer authority, Valerius Geist of the University of Calgary, points out that ‘trophy bucks’ are the slackers, the animals that didn’t compete for does and therefore have large, perfect racks. By culling them, hunters improve the gene pool. No one suggests killing off ‘one species of animal to save another.’ We’re just trying to reduce individual deer for the benefit of all wildlife, including deer themselves. I agree that ‘the human being, not the deer, is responsible for creating the habitat problem.’ That’s why Audubon is promoting efforts to fix the problem. I did not ‘demean’ animal-rights groups; they demeaned themselves. All I did was report their anti-wildlife behavior.”
George Cooper, former president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, is a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist and consultant on hunting and fishing issues. He perceives recent progress–at least with major legislation like the Farm Bill. “Sportsmen and environmentalists are talking and sharing ideas,” he says. “An alliance with environmentalists is how we got conservation compliance into the Farm Bill. At first I didn’t think we had a chance in hell. The Farm Bureau wanted farmers to keep getting paid for doing nothing. We thought that was absurd. Now, to qualify for federal assistance, farmers have to implement conservation measures. This will protect and restore tens of millions of acres.”
On May 21, 2014, President Obama established the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico, thereby protecting half a million acres and some of the best mule deer, pronghorn, dove, and quail hunting in the West.
It was the culmination of an exhausting, decade-old joint venture by sportsmen and environmentalists. Key players included, but were not limited to, the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Environment New Mexico, New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Southwest Consolidated Sportsmen, Wild Turkey Sportsmen’s Association, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Trout Unlimited, and Dona Ana County Associated Sportsmen.
The president of the last group, John Cornell, offers this: “We had opposition from some of the ranching community and folks who are against any kind of government involvement. And some sportsmen were skeptical until we visited them and explained that national monuments allow existing uses, that there wouldn’t be any gates or closed roads, and that the only thing the designation would change would be preventing these lands from being pulled out from under us. Once people understood it wasn’t a land grab, everyone came onboard. This was a model collaboration. I think we’ve seen a huge shift on how some of the environmental groups see consumptive users. They realize this [public-land designation] wouldn’t have happened without sportsmen. And sportsmen realize they stand to lose most in the ongoing war on our public lands.”
Maybe the most effective alliance builder is the TRCP. Consider its response to George W. Bush, a hunter and angler who surrounded himself with some of the worst enemies of fish and wildlife Washington has seen. Environmental groups raised funds by kicking the administration from hell to breakfast and were therefore excluded from the White House. So they could only continue fuming when they saw a leaked draft of an administration wetland rule that would have devastated fish and wildlife. TRCP, which had offered only private, constructive criticism, was granted an audience with the president. Its strong complaint, along with a blistering article on the Field & Stream website got his attention. In the words of TRCP’s CEO Whit Fosburgh, “Bush went back to his people and said, ‘What the hell are we doing if these guys are mad at us?'” The president promptly rescinded the rule.
With the Wilderness Society, TRCP stitched together a coalition of about 1,000 groups called America’s Voice For Conservation, Recreation, and Preservation.
The single goal was to increase federal funding for fish and wildlife in 2013. Ideologies as disparate as those of Defenders of Wildlife and the Boone and Crockett Club were checked at the door. “We agreed to not talk about individual programs,” says Fosburgh. “Instead we worked together to get the overall numbers as big as we could so we wouldn’t all be fighting over crumbs. It was a huge success. All the agencies got bumped up, reversing years of decline.”
Currently TRCP is working effectively with Audubon on sage-grouse conservation. “What we end up doing will affect 117 million acres of the West,” says Fosburgh. “The bird is a surrogate for all kinds of wildlife. Our goals and Audubon’s are the same–good management over this whole ecosystem. We’re trying to get the Bureau of Land Management and the 11 states to come up with responsible plans. States like Montana, Wyoming and Oregon are doing well. Utah and Colorado are reluctant. The best-case scenario is that there won’t be a need for draconian U.S. Fish and Wildlife intervention with an endangered listing.”
There are major issues that most sportsmen and most non-consumptive enviros will always disagree on–wolf management and proposals to ban lead rifle bullets, for example. It’s fine to disagree. Sportsmen and non-consumptive enviros don’t even need to like each other. In fact, it’s okay for them to dislike each other. What’s not okay is for them to go their separate ways.
The gulf between them is nowhere near as wide as that between Russia and England in 1941. Winston Churchill’s hatred of communism was virtually unrivaled in Europe or America. He defined communists as the lowest “criminal class” and “baboons” who pursued “sub-human goals.” So all who love fish and wildlife should recall Churchill’s words when he was scolded about England’s alliance with Stalin: “I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby. If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”
— Ted Williams writes full time on fish and wildlife issues. He has received the Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation, the Federal Wildlife Officers Association Award from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Aldo Leopold Award from the Federation of Fly Fishers, and the Jade of Chiefs from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. A former information officer for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Williams lives in Grafton, Massachusetts with his wife, Donna, and his Brittany, Westy.