Article body copy
The minority of hunters who engage in trophy hunting—the killing of large carnivores, such as bears, wolves, and cougars, for sport—could threaten the social acceptance of the majority who hunt for food, according to a new study led by Chris Darimont, a biologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and the science director for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
All extractive industries, such as logging and forestry, require a certain amount of societal buy-in. The companies in these industries need legal government permits to conduct their business, but they also need a more subtle community acceptance of their activities—a so-called social license to operate—especially when operating on public lands.
In the study, Darimont and his colleagues propose that hunting of wildlife should be viewed through the same social license framework. High-profile trophy hunts of charismatic predators in particular “can exert rapid and significant pressure on policymakers and politicians” to change laws.
The shooting of a male grizzly bear named Cheeky on British Columbia’s central coast in 2013 helped fuel a long campaign that resulted in a provincial government ban on grizzly hunting in 2017. A professional hockey player was fined CAN $10,000 for hunting without a proper license and banned from hunting for three years.
In the United States, public-initiated ballot measures have resulted in several hunting bans or restrictions over the decades, including an end to cougar hunting in California in 1990. And just last week, California senator Scott Wiener introduced a bill that would ban black bear hunting in that state.
Time and again, polls have shown greater public support for hunting to put food on the table than simply for the thrill of the kill.
In the United States, a survey conducted by Responsive Management in 2019 found 29 percent of respondents approved of trophy hunting, while 84 percent approved of hunting for meat.
A 2015 poll showed that in British Columbia, where the number of resident hunters stands at around 107,000—a 25 percent increase over the past 15 years—seven percent of respondents supported trophy hunting, while 73 percent supported hunting for meat.
But societal morals can change. “More people recognize the inherent value of animals and fewer perceive humans to be dominant over them,” says Darimont, who hunts deer for food.
Some hunters fear that “opposition to large carnivore hunting could lead to the eventual ban of more popular and socially accepted food hunting,” the report says.
“The public doesn’t have a good grasp on how hunters vary,” Darimont says by email. “They think a hunter is a hunter. So the risk is that they paint us all [with] the same brush, even if a minority of hunters are interested in killing for reasons other than food.”
The 40,000-member BC Wildlife Federation,* which lobbies for hunters and anglers and engages in conservation work in the province, says that the term trophy hunter can be misleading. Board member Jesse Zeman says in a study he wrote, commissioned by the BC Conservation Foundation, that only two percent of resident hunters in BC define themselves primarily as trophy hunters. (Darimont suggests individuals are likely to avoid describing themselves as trophy hunters due to the social stigma.)
Zeman further observes that about one-third of British Columbian hunters are currently purchasing black bear licenses, including for the meat. Since 2018, however, the province has required hunters to remove edible portions of cougars—which supports the argument that these hunters have been primarily interested in the trophies.
People who hunt wolves also often believe they are doing good by helping to reduce pressure on ungulates such as moose and deer, Zeman says.
With social media making it easier to mount antihunting campaigns, the question arises as to whether public opinion should supersede science in cases where research shows that a population of wildlife is healthy and could withstand hunting pressure.
“They have very different roles,” concludes Darimont. “Science can tell us how the world works, but what it can’t do is suggest it is right or okay to do something. That is squarely in the domain of public values and attitudes.”
How society’s changing relationship with animals plays out in the future is in many ways up to hunters themselves, the study suggests. One strategy open to hunters is to adapt and better align with public expectations; another is to take a defensive, aggressive stand.
To avoid losing their relatively widespread acceptance, Darimont and his colleagues suggest food hunters especially will need to work openly with the public “to gain legitimacy, credibility, and—ultimately—trust.”
*Correction: This line and a few others have been updated to more accurately reflect the role of the BC Wildlife Federation and the motivations of British Columbian resident hunters.