Wildlife does not exist by accident. It thrives today in North America because of a wondrous network of policies, laws and financial support structures largely put in place and maintained by the small percentage of us who hunt and fish. Perhaps in some distant future society at large will pay for what we have carried for a century or more; but even if this were true would not the history of our achievement be worth telling? The reality is that no feasible alternative model for wildlife conservation is yet within our reach, and may never be.
Over long and now misted millennia the rhythm of our human existence was the same. Pursuing our sacred and relentless desire to survive, we hunted and gathered the living things that miraculously suited our physical needs for food and warmth. Across endless wild environments we perfected the one great arc of our existence, the first great act of globalization. We marched slowly out of Africa and encircled our world, driven by need and curiosity and fuelled by the death of wild others. Perfecting weapons within, we fashioned stone, honed bone and wood, and hunted our way to modernity.
The most recent surveys of public attitudes towards regulated hunting in the United States indicate that over 75% of those responding support this activity. Yet we know very well that not all is well, that participation in hunting is declining, that state agency conservation programs are running out of money, that privatization of wildlife and a host of other controversies are highly divisive in our own ranks, and getting more so, and that our hunting community is aging rapidly.
As a society we are in desperate need of a more fundamental debate and dialogue on the issues of why we hunt and its relevance in modern times. It may be fashionable or convenient to reduce arguments in favour of hunting to simplistic categories or half-truths, but in the end these arguments will fail us where it matters most; in the fight for the hearts of the public majority who still support us, for the support of those who may be opposed but are truly open minded, and for our own life long commitments to our greatest engagement with nature.
Unfortunately the wild abundance of America today is often taken for granted. Citizens of Canada and the United States have come to expect wildlife diversity as part of their cultural experience and remain largely uninformed of the heroic efforts that led to this priceless wild legacy and the complex infrastructure that ensures its continued presence in our lives. Addressing this lack of awareness by North American society is beyond question one of the great social responsibilities for the conservation movement in this 21st century.
The American buffalo (or bison, more technically) may have been, at one time, the most abundant large wild mammal on earth. The historical references to their immense herds are difficult to comprehend; such is the scale of their numbers and the sheer improbable spectacle the authors of these reports try to convey. Perhaps these images are also difficult for us to understand because they inevitably inspire in the sensitive reader a feeling of great sadness that such a wondrous prospect must now be denied us all, forever.