A Hunter’s Heritage – Public Lands and the Hunters Heritage

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There are all types of hunting and hunting adventures. As I’ve previously mentioned, I don’t hunt with the same regularity or passion as some of my family, friends and colleagues. One thing I can say, however, is that I’ve probably experienced a greater variety of hunting types and hunting cultures than most everyone I know, including hardcore hunters. When you consider the variety of animals that can be harvested around the world, the methods of locating and then hunting them, the way they can be taken, the different cultural groups that engage in hunting, the motivations (personal, economic and spiritual) for hunting, the way animals are butchered and transported…well, the potential combinations are immeasurable. Add in my expertise at looking at how extinct cultures hunted over several million years of human prehistory and they approach being infinite.

I’ll explore this concept of hunting diversity in later columns, but my broader point for the moment is that here, on the North American continent, when I refer to hunting I’m talking about the ability of your average citizen to have access to lands where they can hunt, be able to own their means of take (firearms, archery equipment, etc) and have the right to consume their harvest (and I don’t mean just eating – a wall mounted trophy is also “consumption”) within their own cultural norms. When I refer to hunting in this manner, I am also referring to an endeavor that should not be overly cost-prohibitive – i.e. most people, of even modest means, should be able to engage in the activity without mortgaging their house. Finally, the hunting I refer to is also regulated (hopefully by experts in biology and game management – not always the case and something for a later discussion) with the goal of maintaining wildlife populations for future generations.

public lands
Public lands on the west side of the Sierra Nevada; these lands hold wild populations of deer, pigs and turkeys and are accessible to the public.

In essence, this cultural style of hunting is the foundation of all other types of hunting, is key to the conservation of species and habitats, and provides the moral, social, spiritual, and scientific foundations of our hunting heritage. Without it, hunting quickly becomes irrelevant. At best, it then becomes a cultural novelty, engaged in by a few backwards cultures around the world; at worst it becomes the “King’s Sport”, available only to a few rich and powerful.

big game
Big game on public lands photographed by the author.

The common type of hunting some of you will recognize as the “North American Model” of game management. We will explore this concept later, but for now I want to draw your attention to what I believe is the lynchpin of this model: the availability of public lands for hunting. There is a move by many in the west to remove public lands from the federal roles and give it to the states or county governments (or worse, private entities) to manage. Those who advocate such a move seem to largely argue that management would be more effective under local control and local constituents could better access and enjoy their public lands. While seemingly a coherent argument on the surface, this effort masks some serious flaws that could ultimately lead to the demise of public hunting as we know it.


Federal land management, as cumbersome as it is, functions to provide the greatest opportunities for the public as possible. Sometimes this is recreational, sometimes it is for resource extraction, and sometimes it is for resource preservation – not everyone always benefits in every circumstance, but by and large the purpose is to meet public need. Federal land managers constantly struggle to balance all of theses desires and needs for the benefit of both today’s population and for generations to come. The intended goal is always multiple use and management for the long term.

Local governments will suggest that they can do a better job managing public lands than the federal government, but that argument doesn’t equate to a level comparison of abilities. What they really mean is that they could manage better in absence of most of the regulations and policy federal land managers have to currently follow. These are the same regulations and policies that try to insure multiple use and management for the long term. Allowing an end-run around those rules and policies moves land management from long term sustainability to simply meeting short-term goals.

mule deer
Mule deer photographed by Kevin Vella on federal public lands in California.

I fundamentally do not trust local governments to handle broad based land management issues. First, ball fields, river parks and a few bike trails are about the speed they can handle. Not because there are not good people working for local governments, but because they are neither trained nor have the experience in big land management. They lack the appropriate expertise needed to properly manage large tracts of undeveloped land for a variety of purposes. And more importantly, they are ultimately unwilling to spend the funds necessary to attain that knowledge.

Which brings me to the primary concern I have with local control of public lands. I do not believe that local governments have the similar motivations to maintain opportunities for a variety of constituents. In the end, what principally drives local governments is the need to obtain sources of revenue. This is most easily done by allowing free reign to businesses that rely on resource extraction (timber harvest, mining, oil and gas production) or single commodity use (ranching and farming). While some of these activities can be beneficial to habitat management, they can also have adverse effects on wildlife populations (both directly and indirectly), and can result in efforts to restrict or eliminate access for the general public.

Federal land management is not without its issues and pitfalls, there is no doubt. But it also has a track record of providing the best opportunities for hunting and fishing on the broadest scale. The ultimate goal of local government is economic gain that frequently benefits only a small proportion of the population. My expectation is that local control will ultimately mean sacrificing hunting, wildlife viability and public access in a heartbeat if there are economic rewards from some other land use.

Pronghorn photographed by Kevin Vella on federal public lands

Finally, I’ll leave you with the words of no less a hunter than Steve Rinella on the efforts to take public lands away from the public:

“The people who are fighting against federally managed public lands often justify their viewpoint with the argument that federal land managers don’t do an adequate job of managing these lands. In order to give some teeth to their own arguments, they do everything in their power to deprive land managers of the necessary tools to do their jobs.” – Steven Rinella – MeatEater #PublicLandsProud  (Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership).

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