Women, Hunting and the Future of Conservation
November 20, 2018
As hunting season moves into full swing across America, GPR’s Debra Fitzpatrick interviews Alexander Brown, co-founder of Expedition Outside, and Jennifer Bernstein with the Spatial Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California about the exclusionary history of hunting, contemporary efforts to attract more women to the sport and the implications of an overall decline in hunting on state and national conservation efforts.
Debra Fitzpatrick: Welcome Alexander Brown, cofounder of Expedition Outside and a lifelong camper and hunter and native of Colorado now living in the South, and Jennifer Bernstein with the Spatial Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California. Let’s start with a little bit of history on hunting.
Jennifer Bernstein: Sure. So, hunting is an activity that is very laden with rhetorical symbolism in the United States and elsewhere, often in the context of it being a tradition that’s being lost. And Alex will talk a little more about how this is true. We’ve got the numbers to back that up. But, at the same time, one of the ways in which we started engaging was what is the role of hunting in a world that’s thoroughly modern?
We can’t go back and pretend that we’re in the Pleistocene, not necessarily that our Pleistocene ancestors had a perfect relationship with wildlife and ecosystems that they managed, but what does hunting and our relationship with animals mean now when we’re dealing with issues of climate change and we’re not really looking at animals and we don’t really have the choice as to whether or not we want to go back in time and live in this idealized hunter-gatherer society.
We have a world where animals are being driven from conservation areas due to climate change, where species are very carefully managed by wildlife managers, especially at the state level. Geographer Jim Crestwell wrote a book called In Place, Out of Place, and a lot of animal geographers have taken that concept to look at where we expect animals to be, and where they shouldn’t be. So, it’s okay to have animals as pets and animals on farms, and animals in zoos, and then animals may be out in the wilderness; but, when coyotes are walking around downtown Los Angeles, that animals is out of place. And we’ve seen multiple instances where our way of reacting to animals when they’re not in the place that they may have been traditionally, or what we think of as traditionally, makes us humans react in a way that may not be so measured or well thought out. But we’re wrestling with this idea of how do we create this new ethical paradigm. In a world that is thoroughly modern, where does this traditional activity of hunting fit in?
Alexander Brown: I think the history of hunting is so fascinating in the U.S. and often tied back to a very unlikely meeting between an environmentalist and a more traditional hunter/environmentalist, Teddy Roosevelt. And to Jen’s point, I think that the American population back in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s viewed wildlife as a resource. And they really viewed a lot of predator or apex animals as threats, so it’s interesting to see this evolution or change in the way we view animals.
When we talk about hunting in the context of our history, it’s important to note that, and like in a lot of our history, as we start to examine it we see that certain groups were excluded from these stories and it’s very sad or, perhaps, just a reflection of our own history books, but you don’t see a lot of female hunters historically highlighted.
You don’t read about female hunters, and so, I think that’s an interesting node and I think we’re all more aware now as we’ve started to study history, how important it is that we look back honestly and candidly and take a look at who participated.
Jennifer: I want to talk a little bit too about the conservation era. Many people think of conservationism as the beginning of American environmentalism. And, within this movement it was largely driven by sportsmen who were looking to preserve, not necessarily wilderness but to preserve land with various megafauna that they wanted to hunt for sport. It was a way of making sure that they would have animals and wildlife to be able to pursue their hobby. And, it did largely consist of men. Some women were involved in the early conservation movement in the context of exotic bird feathers for hats, and sort of an awareness in which fashion was decimating populations. But some of the ways in which hunting is being revitalized now hearkens back to that conservationist era, and I think it would be remiss to talk about the ways in which that era had a lot of strengths in terms of setting a precedent for responsible outdoors personship in the U.S., but at the same time, it did have all the trappings that people still accuse environmentalism of.
It had a big white guy problem, and these folks tended to be preserving land and species not necessarily for the good of the land or for the species.
Of course, you can’t divorce your hobby from that, but at the same time, it was a lot more in the model of Gifford Pinchot, the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest amount of time. How do we steward these populations so that we can hunt in the future and have landscapes that we like hanging around in, rather than preserving, in sort of the simplified, dichotomized John Muir sense of wilderness just being important for its own sake? So, I think the environmental movement, more broadly, has changed a lot since 1930, obviously, and become a lot more urban and inclusive of things like race and class and ethnicity. And so, as we try to mine the best aspects of the conservation movement, I don’t think that we can do that and remain blind to the ways in which that movement didn’t recognize these multiple groups that were out there but we just, perhaps, haven’t really painted into the picture in a way that we should have or could have.
Debra: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the current state of hunting in the U.S. but especially when it comes to gender and politics.
Alexander: We’ve seen a significant decline in the number of hunters, and perhaps, even more, alarming for those that have followed this is that a percentage of the adult population that hunt. So, just to kind of frame that on a longer-term view. Since the early 1990’s in about 1990, 1991, about 7% of the adult population hunted. We are somewhere near around 4 percent today of the adult population hunting. So, a pretty significant decline in percentage and in actual numbers, from about 15 million hunters to 11.5 million hunters. And I think what’s perhaps most interesting in those numbers is that when they break that out by gender, you see one kind of shining growth in the hunting population, and it’s interesting because it’s actually women hunters.
Although we’ve seen declines in almost every category, women are picking up their bow and arrow and they’re also picking up their rifles or shotguns to go hunting.
So that has been quite interesting. I think when you look at the actual numbers, what you see is probably similar to conversations about other demographic cliffs. And what I mean by that is that what you see is mostly baby boomers in their mid 50’s who are by far the largest participants in the percentage of overall hunting, and they are aging out of hunting. They’re getting too old or are passing away, or whatever, and so now you’ve got to replace those hunters, and women are now about one in five hunters, roughly, and I think it’s pretty exciting from a gender standpoint.
I’ve spoken to a friend of mine who runs Hunt Like a Mom; she’s a full-time mom, and she’s got a job as well and in addition to running Hunt Like a Mom. Even with all of the inroads in the last 15 years with women becoming the fastest growing demographic and now being a pretty significant portion of the hunting population, that there’s still some aversion to having women out-hunt their husband or boyfriend. And it’s hard for men, I think, to acknowledge that their significant other is a great hunter or perhaps even a more accomplished or better hunter than them. What I think we’re seeing right now, though, is hunting is actually empowering women. Or fly fishing, even. It is empowering women to break down stereotypes. And what she told me, Jackie Guccini is her name, she said she was raised in the South and she was always taught that women were physically weaker, and she doesn’t contest that women are physically weaker in terms of raw strength, but she said that in her experience of running these groups of like-minded women who want to go out and explore and be independent, sort of Lewis and Clark-like, get out there and do it on their own, and feel independent.
In her experience, and she’s pointed to a couple of studies that show that women are more likely to ask for help, less likely to seek trophies, per say, based on the measurements, but really wanting to get outside and provide for their family some sort of meat in the case of hunting, or fish in the case of fishing often.
And one of the things I took away from that conversation with Jackie is that when we delve into why she thinks that this growth has happened significantly in the last 6 or 7 years, she indicated to me that she felt one of the biggest reasons why women are coming into hunting is that they have a sense of community on social media. So, we hear a lot about the negatives of social media, but here’s an example, I would argue based on my conversation with her and some other folks, where women who felt like they were a tomboy growing up, or maybe ostracized from the hunting camps because they were a woman, or looked down upon by other women, or fishing too for that matter, have found a sense of community online and through different groups, hunting organizations and fishing organizations, where they can come together and go explore outdoors and be totally independent.
So, for them it’s actually been empowering and quite frankly, it’s breaking down these stereotypes that have been long held.
I think that when people close their eyes and picture a hunter, at least this has been the case for most of the hunters I know, they tend to picture the traditional quote, unquote “hunter.” This burly man with a beard, maybe, or whatever it is you picture in your mind, but I would encourage everyone to do that exercise and when you open your eyes, realize that the hunter is changing rather quickly. It’s women and children and people of all different backgrounds are coming into this sport and I think it’s changing, and I think it’s for the better.
Jennifer: So, one other point is that this is not from a purely, the desire to get more women out and hunting is not purely to rectify this gender imbalance. It’s also a market segment that these outdoor companies are very aware of and aware that it’s not being capitalized on.
Again, if they’re 20 percent of the hunters but 50 percent of the population, those are folks that can buy a lot of stuff. And I think that one of the things that we have seen with the growth of women hunters is a lot more gear tailored specifically to women.
I come to this as a geographer and having done some research in the field of economic geography. So, I think about labor and recreation and things like paid and unpaid labor. And one of the things that struck me-I was listening to Steve Rinella’s Meat Eater Podcast, which is a great podcast, and he’s doing a lot to broaden the appeal of hunting from being so stigmatized and polarized into something that is accessible from a conservation as well as a recreational point of view. But I was listening to one of his guests talk about going to a nearby state and spending an entire day knocking on doors and to try to see if he could get access to hunt on these people’s land. And as an avid outdoors person but also as a working mom, I couldn’t even imagine being able to spend an entire day taking a trip, not even to do the activity that I wanted to do, but to actually go and just try to get access to the activity I wanted to do. It just seemed so ludicrous because I’m listening to this podcast while picking up one kid and taking someone else to swimming. Unpaid labor in every country around the world is disproportionately performed by women. This is not saying that men aren’t pitching in more to do unpaid labor, they certainly are, but in no country around the world is it anywhere remotely equal. And the thing about unpaid labor is that it often happens around the home. And this has implications for women’s both professional life, as well as their recreational life. So, for instance, activities, things like schools and doctors appointments, those tend to be within a shorter geographic range of the home, and time is sort of chunked up into smaller chunks. Preschools run 2 to 3 hours, doctor’s appointments are an hour and require 10 to 15 minutes of driving, so basically, the temporal and spatial dynamics of whoever is performing the bulk of that unpaid labor, are just going to be more constrained.
And so, thinking about this issue of women hunting as a geographer, I’m saying, and this is just my suspicion, but I wonder if it has less to do with finding a shirt that fits right, and more to do with being disproportionately responsible for the unpaid labor to make a household run.
And, what that means, somewhat ironically, is that if men or marketers want women to be more involved in the outdoors to make up for this declining segment of the hunting population, they’re going to need to take on more of the unpaid tasks of the household. So, my guess is that if and as society becomes more egalitarian, women will be able to free up that entire day and be able to go and ask for permissions door to door because they know that the household is running just fine without them. I do think that’s the trend, but I wonder if some marketers are missing the mark in terms of what’s really needed to spend time both in the outdoors and other recreational activities.
Alexander: I think it’s got much more profound implications, though, than just getting more females out hunting. I think what it also means is, if we look at, for example, how all of our state and national parks are funded and a large chunk of these conservation programs are managed, and this includes native species, this includes wildlife, and all kinds of stuff, 60 percent of that is funded from excise taxes on ammunition and guns.
So, the implications of not keeping hunters at least at the level they are now, or getting the other half of the population, women, involved are quite severe. And really, what this means is if we don’t accomplish this, if we don’t keep hunters spending money to buy the ammunition to pay for the guide, to pay for the license, and it’s both men and women, we’re going to lose a significant amount of funding to keep our environment in the manner that we are accustomed to.
And the question then becomes, how do we fund these parks? Can we rely on birders and hikers and mountain bikers to spend on average what a hunter spends per year, which is $2,400? I think that those implications could be severe for society if we don’t figure it out or start to ponder it. So I think, Jen, to your point, the theory is very interesting. It makes a lot of sense to me as a man just listening to it, but I think that the implications are much bigger than just new markets for hunting. I think it has to do with our very core of what many of us like to do in the outdoors and that’s to have an area we can go and access publicly, safely, and have wildlife to view and see.
Jennifer: I think you’re absolutely right Alex, and I think that’s a big deal.
Because it’s true that a lot of this conservation money comes from hunting and it’s a lot harder to monetize these other recreational activities.
That said, we were talking about conservationism earlier, and we can’t ignore the fact that this model we’ve established for state-level wildlife and ecosystem management is really based on this idea of maintaining these ecosystems for hunting and extracting activities. So, I guess I would argue I think it’s important, but that way of paying for conservation is also a historical artifact. It varies from place to place, but I wonder if we could open this question up a little bigger, rather than assume we’re inherently locked into this model of hunting being the only way we could achieve conservation goals.
Alexander: Yeah, and I think that that could be argued as a false dichotomy. I think that we’ve got enough space in the U.S. and enough people interested in just getting outdoors that what I foresee happening is everyone participating and everyone paying. Not just the hunters paying the bulk of everything, but also charging people who want to mountain bike or hike or camp higher fees. And I suspect that everyone will come up with a compromise, but I think it’s going to be very, very difficult to fund all of this without having hunters as part of the equation, and certainly without having half of our population participating or being willing to get out and have an experience outdoors where they actually may catch a fish and eat it, or harvest an animal and eat this wonderful, organic meat.
(Edited for brevity and readability)