Washington Report – Words Matter
Has it been a year already? The annual battle over funding the government has paralyzed Washington yet again. The government’s fiscal year ends on September 30, and Congress must take action to provide new funding before then, or else the government will shut down. The American public is aghast at the notion of a government shutdown, no doubt reflecting the degree to which the federal government has become a dispensary of financial entitlements. So politicians of both parties are loath to be blamed for any hiccup in the stream of wealth redistribution.
At this writing, the deadline is a scant ten days away, and the hunting policy debate has moved to the sideline under the pressure. Once the inevitable deal is reached and government funding is restored, all bets are off. But until that point, the only major federal development in hunting and conservation is actually a good one. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finally declared that a listing of the greater sage grouse is “not warranted” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In the announcement, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell credited partners in 11 western states, including state game agencies and private companies, saying “the deteriorating health of the bird has sparked the largest land conservation effort in U.S. history.”
Some detractors have argued that onerous restrictions in Obama Administration federal land management plans would amount to the same restrictions as an ESA listing, but at least we have avoided the dreaded official application of “endangered” to the species. Hunters and conservationists know that the definitions in the Act can be elastic in practical application, but the public swoons every time a species is labeled “endangered,” and hunters are often subject to the public opinion backlash.
The terminology involved in the hunting debate can be very powerful. Landmark new research from the country’s leading research company on hunting and conservation issues has been recently released, and it outlines some important lessons about how the science of hunting should be explained to the public.
The firm has tracked American public opinion on hunting issues for decades, and has found a consistent majority in support of hunting. But, the firm cautions, that support is conditional based on several factors.
The first is species. 78% of adult Americans support the hunting of deer, and wild turkey hunting is close behind at 75% approval. Small game, waterfowl, and elk all register comfortable margins of majority support. But support for hunting drops below the 50% threshold when the species is bear, mountain lion, or mourning dove. This phenomena has no basis in science, but it does have an effect on the politics of hunting. It explains why hunting seasons and methods for all three of these species have been the subject of state ballot referenda sponsored by anti-hunting groups like HSUS. They have polling too, and it has clearly identified hunting for these species as weak links in the chain.
Motivation is another factor. Hunting for food has a whopping 85% approval rating, and wildlife management motivations like “animal population control” and “protecting humans from harm” are way up there as well. Support drops below the majority level, however, when the motivation is “for the challenge” or “trophy hunting,” which registers a scant 28% in favor. So clearly, while many hunters may have all of these goals in mind on any given hunt, it’s better to emphasize the nutritional and management aspects of hunting in discussions with the public at large.
The research identified another unfortunate reality; that a certain segment of the public mistakenly identifies hunting as inextricably tied to poaching. Many people within this segment also harbor the mistaken belief that hunting is a threat to wildlife populations. These are the low-information observers of the hunting debate, and it’s not necessarily their fault that they harbor these misapprehensions. These beliefs correlate to certain demographic factors, including the location of residence. People living in cities and northern or western coastal states are more likely to harbor these falsehoods, while residents of the South Atlantic region are the least likely to hold such views.
But even this population segment can be subtly re-educated. Simply using the modifiers “legal” and “regulated” before the word hunting can increase its approval rating by almost thirty percent among this segment of the population.
There’s more, much more, and readers are welcome to explore the findings further by visiting www.responsivemanagement.com online. They key take-away is to remember that the science of hunting is counterintuitive, and that the non-hunting public simply doesn’t understand many of the core principles that we as hunters take for granted.
Some of those non-hunters also get elected to office. When Congress is done with the battle over government funding, the policy debate over hunting issues will resume. And your SCI team will deploy every possible advantage in explaining the science of hunting and conservation to lawmakers who may simply not know the truths we take for granted.