An old way of survival turns into a sport for many, sparking ethical and environmental controversy
For sophomore Johnny Willingham, hunting pigs, deer or birds is a principle family tradition and rewarding sport. Hunting is not only a cultural practice; many hunt to control populations, feed themselves or collect trophies. Some are opposed to the ethics or environmental elements of hunting, such as senior Amber Donahue or biology teacher Max Augé.
A rustle of leaves catches the hunter’s attention. He turns, pulling the string of his bow to his ear and focusing his senses. He signals his tribe members to follow. They all creep towards the sound, hoping this hunt will serve the tribe well.
Humans, in the beginning, were mostly nomadic. When hunting first began, the practice was largely out of necessity and people used all parts of the animal for food, clothes and tools. “Ninety-five percent of our time as humans has been a time of hunting and gathering,” upper school history and religion teacher Travis Gilmore said. “So before the advent of agriculture, we just hunted. We found things through scavenging, we found things gathering and we eventually developed technologies that hunted animals.”
When agriculture and livestock became a common practice, the number of people that hunted dwindled. However, hunting had a resurgence during the European Middle Ages.
“Hunting used to only be reserved for the upper class, for the nobility and for the aristocracy,” Gilmore said. “Because who owns the land? The rich. This was the claim. Whoever owns the land owns the wildlife on it. Therefore, only landowners can kill the wildlife on it.”
Hunting in Europe often is seen as a very “posh” thing to do because it requires land ownership. In the U.S., however, hunting is possible for everyone because of the amount of free, public land.
“In fact, because it’s done by people that are rural in America and because rural people tend to make far less, there’s going to be a lot lower socioeconomic class within the rural communities in America,” Gilmore said. “We associate hunting with [the] lower class, not [the] upper class.”
While hunting is not as crucial to survival as it was in the past, some Americans still rely on hunting for food.
“I actually grew up with people that hunted to eat because it was much cheaper,” Gilmore said. “Could they afford grocery bills? Yes, but it was hard. They were rather poor people that would hunt as a way to alleviate their grocery bill. So they were getting close to subsistence hunting at that point. [This] was not uncommon where I grew up.”
People often hunt for recreation or to spend time with family. According to the College of Natural Resources, only 4 percent of Americans hunt; however, a poll taken on Nov. 1 out of 160 students and faculty said that 73 percent of them hunt.
“I first started hunting with my dad around kindergarten,” junior Stephen Swann said. “I would just go sit with him at first and watch him hunt, but I got my first gun in first grade and harvested my first deer in second grade.”
When people think of hunting they often think of guns; however, in 2021, according to Statista, 4.58 million people bow hunt. Using a bow requires more skill and patience.
“I have picked up bow hunting which makes hunting for me way more exciting because instead of being 100 yards from an animal, I am within 20 yards of it, making every aspect of the hunt more exciting and difficult,” Swann said. “If the wind is wrong the animal will run away if it picks up my scent, but also I get to see the animal up close and personal.”
Even though males make up the majority of hunters are male, a small number of women hunt as well. According to Statista, 15 million people in the U.S. who hunt. Yet, only 1.2 million of them are women, according to National Public Radio.
“I go hunting about four to five times a year with my dad or with my cousins,” freshman Stella Wynne said. “I started going on hunts with my dad [when I was] around 5, and the first hunt I went on was duck hunting.”
But hunting is not for everyone. People often question the ethics of killing animals when grocery stores are available.
“I am anti-hunting unless it is for population control or you eat all of the meat from the animal,” senior Amber Donahue said. “I have always been an animal lover, and so I naturally don’t like the idea of violence towards animals. I understand its tradition for many kids here, especially in Texas, but I just personally wouldn’t be able to do it myself…If killing is a ‘game’ to someone I don’t support it, especially when the playing field isn’t even close to even.”
Some believe that the ways in which animals are bred and killed in commercial farming are worse than hunting, as they are not able to definitively tell that the animal was treated with due respect. Gilmore used to hunt growing up but he doesn’t do it anymore.
“Hunting really did not appeal to me personally, so it wasn’t an ethical question per se,” Gilmore said. “I did not enjoy taking the life of another animal… I’m sure people in America are completely disconnected from the meat they consume. They have no idea where it came from or what’s going on with those animals or how ethical that is. I think most people would regard factory farming to be way more ethically problematic than hunting is, because there are certain ethics about hunting, where if there’s an animal in your sight, you have to take a shot in such a way that it reduces the pain to basically zero for the animal that is, your shot has to be true. It has to be a killer shot. That’s instantaneous.”
ESD parent Alexandra Lovitt tallies the number of fallen doves from the skies of Argentina. Her daily count is above 100, but her numbers are few compared to her group’s. Unlike Texas, thousands of doves swarm above farms in Argentina, providing bountiful hunting opportunities. The flocks are a beautiful sight but negatively impact the environment. Local farmers consider them to be pests, damaging their crops and agricultural success.
“It’s sort of a win-win for the [hunters and Argentinian farmers] when Americans and British tourists come down and hunt,” Lovitt said. “We’re really helping them keep the dove population at a reasonable amount.”
Ecosystems hold a specific carrying capacity for each population, such as deer or birds. In the summer or springtime, when food and resources are plentiful, that carrying capacity rises. More individuals can sustain themselves, like the Texan white-tailed deer. But as the temperature drops, vegetation growth plummets. Less food is available for the members of a species, inevitably leading to their death.
“The reality is, a certain number of animals will die anyway [during] the fall or winter,” upper school biology teacher John Gallo said. “So it’s a good thing that [hunters] get rid of such deer.”
Sophomore Johnny Willingham, an experienced hunter, also considers environmental patterns while hunting.
“Deer need to be hunted to help keep the population from getting too large,” Willingham said. “If the deer population gets too large, many of them will starve. I also hunt pigs, because they mess up the land and can ruin your crops.”
Sometimes populations must be managed for reasons other than seasonal starvation concerns. Greg Casey, employee of The Texas Parks and Wildlife association, published an article on “Deer Management Within Suburban Areas,” reporting 200 human deaths and 1.5 million deer deaths per year due to deer-vehicle collisions. He explained how large populations of deer transmit Lyme disease, as they are a major host for black legged ticks – all causing a decline in herd health.
On the other hand, hunting can be disastrous for the environment; hunting predators is typically discouraged by scientists.
“The populations [of predators] are particularly low to begin with because at the top of the food chain there are not many predators,” Gallo said. “So those kinds of critters you’re better off leaving alone because there’s not that many.”
In addition to predators, excessive hunting of birds and other prey can endanger tree populations. A study performed at the Huai Kha KhaengWildlife Sanctuary in western Thailand was reported by the Yale school of the environment. It found that when birds and other frugivores (animals that feed on fruit) were absent in a region, due to over hunting, seeds were inadequately dispersed away from tree roots. This occurrence can be fatal considering seed’s specific “density-dependent mortality rates.” Seeds clumped together that have just fallen from the parent tree have a greater chance of consumption by rodents, fungal pathogens and insects. Birds and frugivores are essential to terminating this process by eating and carrying seeds across forests, and this is only made possible by the birds’ abundance.
Similarly, the imbalance of wolves in Yellowstone National Park prompted environmental changes.
“Being a keystone species, other species were out of balance, vegetation changed and so did the flow of rivers through the park,” upper school biology teacher Max Augé said. “It’s crazy to think that the near removal of a species could do this. When wolves were resettled into the park, the park began to heal, and the flow of water through rivers was restored.”
Because of the need to maintain this fragile balance, hunters and landowners monitor species numbers to adjust their hunting activity accordingly. Sometimes low numbers are a result of hunting; other times, habitat destruction or predator prosperity causes a species’ demise.
“Game wardens, park rangers, etc. have to analyze population sizes,” Auge said. “[They] use computer modeling, prior history, etc. to estimate a healthy number for licensing hunts.”
The Texas Parks and Wildlife organization published statistics concerning Texas bird species: bobwhites and scaled quails have decreased by 75 and 66 percent respectively since 1980. In response, land owners have suspended hunting to allow population recovery. Similar efforts have been made for countless species across Texas and the globe, some ending in success, others in failure.
“As long as the game is a legal game, and it’s something that’s being monitored by scientists, [hunting] is fine,” Gallo said.
Trophy hunting, when a person pays a government to receive a permit that legally allows the killing of a certain species of animal. The purpose of trophy hunting is to acquire a part of the animal’s body or take a photo to have a symbol of a successful hunt, for example, the head of a lion, the claws of a black bear and the antlers of a deer.
Trophy hunting differs from poaching, which is killing an animal without a permit. Poaching is linked to trophy hunting because people often poach animals that are considered trophies like elephants. The World Wildlife Foundation estimates that 40,000 elephants are globally illegally killed every year.
“I see the value in [allowing] someone to protect their elephant population so they’ll [allow hunters to hunt them],” AP Economics teacher Amy Livingston said. “Then you’re allowing hunters to come in because they don’t see another outlet to kill them. That doesn’t mean that you’re never going to have poaching in a legal situation.”
Livingston thinks that there will always be poaching, but when legal hunting is allowed, animal populations grow and there’s an economic benefit to those people who are selling the licenses to give people the right to hunt.
Livingston believes that legal hunting is important to all economies, no matter where, and that it is also important for protecting the animals. In her opinion, it all goes back to the idea of the tragedy of the commons.
“The tragedy of the commons is when you have public ownership of something where no one owns, like, let’s say, White Rock Lake. So no one owns that. It’s public property,” Livingston said. “People have less incentive to take care of it because it’s not theirs.”
She often uses this example in her classes because she lives next to White Rock Lake and sees that it is always dirty.
“And why is that? No one owns it, so no one has an incentive to clean it up,” Livingston said. “But your own front yard, you take care of your front yard. You don’t throw trash in it because it’s yours. You own it. The same can be applied to hunting. When you allow for licenses to be sold, you’re able to control the animal population.”
Trophy hunting occurs everywhere. However, it is most popular among Americans. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Americans make up 71 percent of the importation of trophies. Americans will either trophy hunt in the U.S. or travel to places like Africa, Canada or Mexico to trophy hunt.
“One notion that we need to understand is that trophy hunting still happens in America,” Gilmore said. “It is a term that is fairly pejorative. People don’t like using that term because it brings certain ethical connotations with it.”
Gilmore also said that in Africa, where most people prefer to trophy hunt, hunters catch or kill an animal that is somehow special, rare and very hard to find.
Often the most coveted animals to hunt are at risk of extinction. Because of this, there is a large discourse on the ethical implications of trophy hunting. However, in order to keep hunting these animals, trophy hunters supply the majority of funds that go into conservation. According to the National Rifle Association, ever since Namibia and South Africa allowed the hunting of a total of five Black Rhinos annually, their populations have increased by 67 percent. Black Rhinos are an endangered species, but the money accumulated by the permits to hunt them have gone into their conservation.
“So a lot of people find [trophy hunting] to be morally wrong because you should never kill anything that’s endangered, period,” Gilmore said. “What’s interesting about this is the money that is used by selling the permit is put back into the conservation fund for that country. When countries sell these very expensive permits, they’re doing this intentionally to raise money to help the population of the very thing that’s being killed.”
Trophy hunting in America is only with non-endangered animals, but animals lower in population, like the bighorn sheep, are hunted as trophies.
“Endangered species are basically never, ever going to be killed in the United States,” Gilmore said. “They are protected, and there is no permit that will ever be expensive enough to justify it. Trying to get a really big buck or really big elk bull because at that point, what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to take a male who has really big antlers. Well, that’s a trophy on the wall. So that can be considered trophy hunting.”
In America, conservation departments run by states decide what is allowed to be hunted. These decisions are made to keep a healthy balance of ecosystems and to avoid populations of animals becoming too high or too low. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, only a very limited number of bighorn sheep are hunted annually.
“If there are no hunters, there’s no balance anymore, because then what other methods can you use to keep the population too high or too low?” Gilmore asked. “If there are no hunters, the population is going to get too high.”
Gilmore also said that there could be ways of doing population control without hunting, but it would be extremely expensive. Euthanizing animals, which involves capturing thousands of animals and then putting them down with some kind of lethal injection, would be one way of controlling population growth. In his opinion, hunters are an economical way of giving people what they want: hunters want to hunt and states want a healthy animal population.
Passed in 1937, the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act put an 11 percent tax on sporting rifles, shotguns, ammunition and archery equipment, as well as a 10 percent tax on handguns. All of the money generated is distributed to the state based on the hunting population and used for wildlife conservation. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, hunters’ taxes supply $1.8 billion into wildlife conservation.
“[The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act] falls in line with what we call the benefits principle of taxation which is that, if I’m not hunting, then I’m not paying the tax,” Livingston said. “But if I am hunting, then I’m paying a tax based on the benefits I receive from hunting. And, the money goes back into protecting the animals.”