October 12, 2019 | By:
American Black Bear © MasterImages

Hunting By Permission Only

Thoughts on killing, from Rewilding Earth editor, wildways scout, and land steward John Davis

Private conservation land-owners may have good reasons to open their lands to hunting, but these reasons will be more often social, political, economic, or personal than ecological or ethical. A sound and simple policy for many land trusts regarding hunting on their reserves may be Hunting By Permission Only – and that permission should be granted cautiously. An equally sound and simple, but in many places unpopular, position could be: No Hunting.

Some background facts and observations help put the debate over hunting on private conservation lands in perspective: The farthest an animal can get from a road in the Lower 48 United States is less than the distance a strong hunter could hike in a day – about 21 miles, in the Thoroughfare Backcountry of Yellowstone National Park. The remotest places in the US East are less than ten miles from the nearest road. The US is more than one-third public land (primarily federal, secondarily state, small amounts county, town, etc.). The vast bulk of the 700+ million acre public domain, including land classified as Wilderness, is open to hunting, trapping, and fishing. As well, many, perhaps most, large private conservation land holdings are used seasonally for hunting, often through private leases that help cover carrying costs for the land-owner.

So, hunters have relatively easy access to most wildlands in the US. Most of Canada is federal or provincial land or tribal land, and most of that is open to hunting of various forms. Mexico is quite different, in that it has scant public wilderness, and less of a rifle hunting culture than have the US and Canada. The amount of North America, then, that offers wildlife fully protected refuges not only from industrial development but also from sport hunting is remarkably small.

It should also be remembered that historically in North America many parts of the world, overkill – direct killing by hunters, trappers, and fishers – was the leading cause of extinction or diminishment of wildlife species. Now, habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation are by far the leading cause of extinction, especially since the end of the early days of unregulated subsistence and market hunting. Paleontologists now believe that the loss of North and South America’s megafauna (including scores of species of mammoths, ground sloths, horses, bears, lions, and other grand beasts) was caused more by newly arriving human hunters than by climate change. In North America, habitat destruction and climate chaos have probably surpassed overkill as leading threats to wildlife, but our history should remind us that we are quite capable of hunting wild species to extinction. There is good reason to strictly protect some places as wildlife sanctuaries.

In my opinion, trapping should generally be banned from all conservation lands, as a painful, inhumane, and indiscriminate way to kill, which often takes the very carnivores, which bind our ecosystems together. Trapping may have a place where invasive animals are displacing natives, or where true subsistence economies still persist; but on most North American conservation lands, trapping is ecologically harmful, scientifically unjustified, and ethically dubious.

Snake River Fine-Spotted Cutthroat Trout © KIT West Designs

Snake River Fine-Spotted Cutthroat Trout © KIT West Designs

Fishing should also be viewed with circumspection; and Fishing With Permission Only may be an apt policy for many private conservation waters. Anglers tend to be conservation-minded people, but the legacy of “fisheries” management in North America is most water bodies being compromised by introduction of “game” fish. Private conservation landowners could significantly contribute to the protection and restoration of imperiled native fish and other aquatic organisms in waters they own or control. As an interest group, fisher-men and women should support restoration and conservation of native fish, rather than stocking of exotic game fish.

Hunters, too, should think more like rivers, and forests. Land trusts and conservation landowners should absolutely prohibit the hunting/trapping of predators of all sizes on their properties.  The elimination of apex predators from much of temperate North America, combined with land management for early succession species (logging), has led to herbivore overpopulations and consequent harms to vegetative communities. The problem is particularly acute in the US East, where unnaturally abundant White-tail Deer populations are browsing the Eastern Deciduous Forest to the ground in many places. Wild Turkeys, too, seem to be omnipresent these days, and their fondness for tree nuts may not bode well for hardwood regeneration.

Yet hunting by modern, gun-equipped humans seldom mimics hunting by natural predators. Wild carnivores, especially Wolves and Pumas, help protect plant communities and waterways by holding ungulate numbers in check and preventing plant-eaters from congregating in and over-grazing or over-browsing grasses, forbs, shrubs, and trees. Mid-sized and smaller predators exert similar controls on smaller herbivores and omnivores.


As generally practiced in the United States and most affluent countries, modern hunting by humans does not play such guardianship roles. Whereas natural predators tend to cull the old, weak, and sick individuals, human hunters too often target the “trophy animals” – the big bucks and other strong individuals whom natural selection would favor. Moreover, human hunters are diurnal and seasonal, not exerting the consistent pressure that can help protect riparian areas and other places where herbivores concentrate in the absence of predators.

When land trusts or other conservation land-owners receive requests for permission to hunt, they have an opportunity – and perhaps an obligation – to explain why they allow killing only of abundant species, like deer, turkey, squirrels, and geese; why they do not allow hunting of native carnivores, which are unnaturally scarce in modern landscapes, or of keystone species, particularly Beaver in eastern hardwood forests; why they do not allow any trapping, which kills sensitive and wide-ranging animals, like River Otter and Mink; and why they favor natural hunters who will target not the big bucks but the old and lame individuals. Conservation land-owners, by talking with the hunters they choose to permit, can help inculcate an ethical hunting paradigm, in which prey species are seen as neighbors who can provide food, not as game; and wild carnivores are seen as neighbors who keep herbivores and plant communities in balance, not as competitors or vermin. An ethical hunting perspective acknowledges that human hunters do not replace extirpated carnivores, but should mimic natural predation as much as possible.

For the sake of wildlife, private conservation land-owners and hunters should support broader, more egalitarian funding streams for wildlife agencies. Only then will wildlife agencies stop depending primarily on sale of hunting and fishing licenses and become more eco-centric and democratic, transcending their present “hook and bullet” orientation. Human hunters should support restoration and conservation of their wild counterparts, for the sake of the Wolves and Pumas themselves and the health of the land.

Mexican Wolf © Robin Silver

Mexican Wolf © Robin Silver

In short, where support for land conservation can be enhanced by working with hunters, private conservation land owners should consider Hunting By Permission Only policies to educate visitors on the ills caused by persecution of predators and to invite them to help correct these imbalances. Land trusts, especially, have an opportunity to encourage reintroduction of Pumas, Wolves, and other missing carnivores, even as they use science-informed and ethical hunter programs to win greater public support and reduce browsing pressure on native plant communities.

Helpful Books

Saving Nature’s Legacy, by Reed Noss
Rewilding North America, by Dave Foreman
Hunter’s Heart, by David Peterson
Continental Conservation, edited by Michael Soule and John Terborgh
Trophic Cascades, edited by John Terborgh and Jim Estes
The Carnivore Way, by Cristina Eisenberg
Where the Wild Things Were, by Will Stolzenburg
Large Carnivores and the Conservation of Biodiversity, edited by Justina Ray, Kent     Redford, Robert Steneck, and Joel Berger
Animal Behavior and Wildlife Conservation, edited by Marco Festa-Bianchet and Marco Apollonio
Phantoms of the Prairie: The Return of Cougars to the Midwest, by John Laundre


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