Do Hunters Hold the Silver Bullet for Climate Change Consensus?

Environmentalists gain an unlikely ally


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Step One: Collect the best and latest science, clearly describing how and why the climate is changing.

Step Two: Strip away the lefty-leaning language and anything with an “eco” prefix. Step three: add camo, elk meat and language about freedom, self-reliance and defending the rights of future generations to hunt and fish. Steep.

Hunters and anglers probably follow migration patterns, the snowpack, and water levels more closely than any other group of outdoor enthusiasts, and they’re witnessing climate change firsthand. In Wyoming, a slimmer snowpack keeps elk at higher elevation, out of reach of all but the most determined hunters. Those seeking waterfowl are seeing waterways drying up and sea levels rise.

But compared to, say, climbers or skiers or paddlers, hunters are not as vocal in fighting climate change—or, in some cases, even acknowledging that it exists.

Todd Tanner would like to change that.

“I’ve been a hunter and angler my whole life. I’ve worked as a flyfishing and big game guide and I’ve been writing about hunting and fishing 20 years now—and about climate change since about 2005,” he says. “No one was publishing about climate change at the national level in hunting and angling circles, and I pushed a couple national conservation groups to focus on it. Then a couple years ago I heard they were getting pushback from funders. They seemed to back off the issue and at the same time I got the feeling the work I was doing wasn’t having the impact I wanted.”

The result is Conservation Hawks, a non-profit that Tanner leads with the help of fellow sportsmen/women as well as scientists and writers, including Rick Bass. Tanner says he wants to convey a message that transcends politics.

“If [hunters] listen to people like Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck, they’ll get the idea that climate change isn’t real, that it’s some liberal plot. They’re not getting a different perspective,” he says. “Our point is not necessarily: ‘believe us because we’re sportsmen.’ People should see things with their own eyes.”

At the same time, Conservation Hawks wants to insert climate change into the political agenda where it is still absent. “If you’re [a legislator] in a red state and only hear from a few constituents, it’s easy to brush aside,” says Tanner. “On the other hand, if large groups of hunters approach their representatives and say, climate change is hurting us, deal with it, we believe it’ll be easier to force legislative action.”

Asking hunting and angling groups to write to their Senators and Representatives is one thing, but does Tanner expect to attract hordes of blaze-orange protestors to show up at climate rallies? Perhaps not. He says a different approach and a different voice is required to get the messages through to this demographic.

“You typically hear green groups talk about the need for change. We think that is the wrong message,” says Tanner. Conservation Hawks is hoping, instead, to appeal to the fact that without swift action to curb climate change, the government is likely to force changes that will impact hunter’s daily lives. “We don’t want the government to tell us we can’t have wood-burning stoves in our homes,” he says, as an example.

Fine. But preserving the American way of life is going to require major policy changes to, for example, energy production. How will those jive with a libertarian worldview shared by many hunters and anglers? “If you look at the EPA coming in and saying ‘we’re going to release new standards for power plants ‘… we look at those as intrusions that we’re not particularly happy about, but we need to reduce CO2.”

Concurrent with Conservation Hawks’ advocacy work is a growing chatter about climate change across the hunting and angling demographic. Take this video diary from the Yale Climate Forum:

The number of hunters is also growing. The latest figures from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show 13.7 million hunters as of 2011, up 9 percent from 2006.

As Outside editor Grayson Schaffer wrote in the February issue, Hunting’s Big Comeback is being fueled by some unlikely devotees, such as author and  Tim Ferriss and social media titan Mark Zuckerberg. But more broadly, people who are already consumed by mountain sports—skiing, paddling, climbing—are taking up firearms or bows.  

“Stuff happens out in nature that doesn’t happen anywhere else,” says Tanner. “[These new hunting converts] feel connected there, with the world around them. They treasure that. Maybe they’re eating local, or eating organic. And they say, maybe there is something to the idea of hunting for food.”

“I don’t really care why someone decides to become a hunter or angler,” says Tanner. “I care that they treat the resource ethically and they share that with other people and realize that we need to be the stewards of the landscape.”

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