Hunter as Naturalist: An Oxymoron?

When hunters hold themselves to standards of hard work, respect and compassion, the seeming fissure between the hunter and the wildlife conservationist slips away, revealing a person with a deep reverence for nature and for the symbiotic relationship between predator and prey.

| November 17, 2011

Racks David Petersen

Antlers embellish the walls of our homes, our barns and, in previous centuries, our castles. They are stark testaments to status and skill, souvenirs of adventures in the wild, and striking, one-of-a-kind natural art. In “Racks: A Natural History of Antlers and the Animals That Wear Them,” accomplished hunter David Petersen profiles the noble creatures — deer, elk, moose, caribou — behind this storied emblem, offering facts and stories and chronicling his own sense of wonder regarding antlers and their bearers. First published in 1991, the 20th-anniversary edition of “Racks” includes insightful postscripts that further ponder the ancient, natural act of hunting and the inextricable bond between hunter and hunted.


The following is an excerpt from Racks by David Petersen (Raven’s Eye Press, 2010). A self-described “campfire philosopher,” Petersen is the former Western Editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS and the author of nine books. David and his wife, Caroline, live in a self-built cabin in the rural Colorado Rockies, where they garden, gather wood to heat their home, and hunt for dinner and philosophy. In recognition of Petersen’s ongoing work to protect public lands, fish and wildlife habitat, the Colorado Wildlife Federation named him Conservationist of the Year in 2010. This excerpt is from Chapter 8 of Racks, “The Hunter as Naturalist: An Oxymoron?” 

Like yin and yang, deer and deer hunting are inseparable — so it is now, so it has been since the dawn of humanity. And so, I am here to argue, it should be.

But only if it’s done right. Which increasingly it is not.

What follows is intended primarily to objectively inform the approximately 80 percent majority of Americans who (unless they’ve been understandably tainted against hunting by the Outhouse Channel or similarly bad examples) hold no strong opinions one way or another.

I am a hunter. Not merely “a person who hunts,” but someone to whom this ancient, natural and honorable activity is an essential and deeply meaningful part of life. As such, I take no small umbrage at uninformed and unfounded attacks from anti-hunters or, on the other side of the philosophical coin, at the disgraceful behavior of some who pass themselves off as hunters these strange and sickly days.

When I speak kindly — even affectionately, of “the hunter” — I refer to the man or woman who stalks unobtrusively through forest and field or sits quietly alongside game trail or watering hole, and who eats what he or she kills, no exceptions, whether making meat is the primary motive for hunting or not. While I acknowledge the grunt work and patience required to lure in and shoot a bear over bait, there’s no woodsmanship involved in it — no hard-won skills, no real challenge, no compassion, no sense of fair play and, ultimately, no point, even when the meat is eaten (and bear meat can be delicious — the pork of the wild kingdom).

todd reece
12/7/2011 8:18:08 PM

Wonderful article. Noone can love nature more than someone who lives it. A hunter, even a modern slob that hunts for fun (meat donated to friends or food bank) are more intune with the glory of nature than the slobs that continually want green lives but can't pull themselves away from cpu's cellphones and ipads. I don't hunt nearly as often I as I've wanted to.... and it's a true regret. Your article is truly a service to the sport and to conservation. I don't agree with everything, but it strikes a great chord

robert johnson
12/7/2011 2:44:39 PM

The environment should not be partisan.

robert johnson
12/7/2011 2:42:56 PM

The Sierra Club works with hunting groups.

frances harriman
11/26/2011 12:36:10 AM

I am vegan. Hunting is more honest than throwing 'neatly' wrapped packages of dead animal into a grocery cart. A wild animal has not lived its life brutalized, abused, and then betrayed. It does not know what has hit it, with a good shot dies quickly, and its final sights, sounds and scents are of the woods where it has lived - not the sound of others of its kind crying out in terror and agony, not the scent of their blood. That being said, human hunting - recreational hunting - is not the equivalent of natural predation. Even the author makes the point that natural predators take the old, the very young, the weak and the ill: the easiest to bring down. Human hunters seek the biggest and the healthiest - nobody's bragging about the undersized spiker that they shot. As far as hunters being necessary to curtail herd numbers, it is well known that when you eliminate natural predators the prey numbers rise. I live in central PA where there are coyote hunts because they prey on deer and fawns. I've read articles complaining about fawn predation by black bears. Alaska allows aerial hunting of wolves - how sportsman like - in order to ensure 'adequate' numbers of prey for hunters and their $$$. Wolves are blamed for making it 'harder' to hunt elk out West - the elk are more scattered and the hunters have to spend more time actually...hunting. State College Craigslist hosts ads for deer 'hunts' in fenced enclosures. The dearest friend of my life was an avid hunter and he would agree with everything I've said.

robert lacoe
11/23/2011 11:30:24 PM

I felt as if I had written a lot of your article, except I was raised in Northeastern Pa. I spent as much time in the woods as possible, and suffered being called a liar when I said I saw a Whitetail or turkey. Pa has a whole lot of both. In 1950 I shot the first deer I knew was shot in the Newton/Ransom area. When the super deep snow we went into the woods to cut popular trees so the deer could eat the buds, we placed large rocks in small streams to create riffles to aerate the water for trout, and hunted predators to protect all small game. Even back then I was called a killer for shooting Bambi, especially his mother. They did not know the herd had to be maintained. We ate everything we caught or killed except the hawks that had been eating our chickens. This article brought back a lot of dear memories. THANKS

frankie anderson
11/23/2011 2:52:19 AM

Like the deer and the elk, we people once walked free on the face of the earth. But we sold out our freedom, our connection with the land, and our spiritual and physical health for the comfort and convenience and the "security" of a life based on agriculture. We are now a thoroughly domesticated species, sickly and stunned - very much like those sad chickens in cages and the cattle standing in their own refuse that we call our "food". They are a mirror reflecting back what several thousand years of our poor choices have finally led us to in this appalling "space age" that we live in. Hunting is a sacred act, and true hunters and huntresses remind us of who we once were, who we still could choose to be. Kudos to David for his fine writing.

barb mundorff
11/22/2011 10:09:34 AM

When you think about it, hunting is a lot more humane than the horrors our food animals go through at the ends of their lives. Even if it's not quite a clean kill, I think it's better than living in an egg factory, or spending months in a feedlot that is worse than a swamp, then lining up for a slaughterhouse that reeks of death. Maybe the people who get upset about hunting don't protest these things because they are afraid the price of a good steak would go up even higher.

jim adams
11/22/2011 3:02:03 AM

Thanks, David. I like the hunter/conservationist values as you describe them. Big grin. And i'd like to see the ones you call slobs controlled a bit more too. BUT I have a disagreement with you, tho it's only for the white-tailed deer. From your discussion of hunting, you seem to be a westerner, and the species you talk about have limited capacity for reproduction, mostly because they live in specialized habitat or habitat where food is limited. Here in the east, deer are on the edge of being a major pest -- to suburban dwellers, farmers, gardeners and natural ecosystems. Since we no longer have wolves, grizzlies, and cougars, people are the only deer predator there is. Deer feed in the edges of forests and fields. As the number of farms goes down, more land goes back to forest -- providing deer browse. Logging has become more technical and efficient -- providing more edge growth and therefore more deer browse, In other words and at current population levels, lack of food is not a limiting factor in deer multiplication --- only hunting is. And since deer can double their population in 2 to 3 years (depends on which sources you use), it takes a lot of hunters to keep the deer population in check. Also, with all the arguments and strong feelings about gun ownership and use, there seem to be fewer young hunters coming in to replace the aging ones. Plus, fewer people live in the country than in generations gone by, and country people are/were the most avid hunters and often the best naturalists. We have fewer and fewer country people and more and more urban folks.Here in Virginia, the deer kill last year was almost 220,000 (estimated) to be20 to 25% of the total number of deer in the state, or 850,000 to 100,050,000 .. it takes a lot of hunters to kill that many deer. And it is these hunters ... slobs or not, or conservationists or not ... that will hold the deer population in check. If this fails, deer will multiply to the carrying capacity of their environment and then starve. I don't have any elegant solutions, only a description of our part of the world and the way it works. Again, thanks David. Do you have any thing to add to this?

greg bryant
11/21/2011 10:54:13 PM

I agree with Jon. There's an article by Ted Williams in the September/october 1996 Sierra magazine, "Natural Allies," that makes this point very clearly (I'd put a link here but it probably wouldn't show, so google it). The least compatible with conservations would be animal-rights advocates, as much as I respect their values. Habitat just isn't their thing. Plants, and even inanimate water and stone are important habitat. On the other hand, there's very little difference, sometimes none, between wildlife habitat and game habitat. Furthermore, legal hunters and anglers pay for their own policing, and accept limits in the interest of conservation. Animal rights is an important branch of ethics, but it should go deeper: read Aldo Leopold's essay, "The Land Ethic." You can google that too.

jon streufert
11/21/2011 6:50:00 PM

The oxymoron is not hunters being conservationists. It would be more likely that non-hunters and non-fishermen being conservationists is an oxymoron, as hunters/fishermen in America have worked hard and long to 1) ensure fishing/hunting licenses were in place, 2) set up taxes/other fees to tax themselves for the privileges of hunting/fishing, 3) ensure forests, lakes, ponds, meadows, wild areas were put off limits to development so hunters AND non-hunters could enjoy the outdoors, and 4) ensure game and other animal/fish species were protected from overuse, overhunting, overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, and all the other impacts to natural resources. Hunters and fishermen are the ORIGINAL conservationists, and will CONTINUE to be!

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