On April 10, I attended the Dane County hearing of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress. I have attended the WCC hearings for seven years, and learned a great deal about Wisconsin's natural resources. Yet this year, I was alternately disappointed and disgusted at the level of dialogue between the almost 3,000 hunters and animal rights advocates gathered in the Expo Center.
I have been active in the environmental movement in northern Wisconsin, and have supported Native American rights to hunt, fish, and gather. Though I have a problem with hunting certain species such as doves and wolves, I am not against hunting. Rural Wisconsin has historically relied on hunting for its economic and cultural livelihood, and hunting maintains a relationship to nature that we urban dwellers lack in our lives. Yet this common relationship to nature was lacking in most comments at the WCC hearing.
On one hand, a number of hunters exhibited a hostile attitude toward environmentalists as nothing but idealistic tree huggers. They showed little respect for the personal views of animal rights advocates who held a somewhat romantic view of wildlife. These hunters should read their Wisconsin conservation history. The efforts of environmental and animal rights activists have been critical in educating the non-hunting majority about the need for wildlife protection. Without their work, sportsmen's groups alone would not have been able to conserve certain species or protect critical habitats.
On the other hand, I was also disappointed by the blanket condemnation of hunters and hunting by some of my environmentalist friends. Many of them, like myself, grew up in a comfortable urban culture that frowned upon hunting as "violent" or disrespectful toward animals. I am still not sure that I could hunt a deer, but I cannot condemn someone who does. I have learned that rural people do still hunt for food, and that disrespectful hunters tend not to come from rural backgrounds.
Rural Native Americans even view animals as integrated into their cultural clan systems and religions, but see no contradiction between venerating animals and hunting them, because one life form helps to give life to another. Most traditional Native people I know identify more with non-Native hunters than with the more uncompromising of the anti-hunting groups.
Environmentalists should also read their Wisconsin history, to learn about the role of hunters and anglers in founding their movement. Thomas R. Huffman, in his Protectors of the Land and Water: Environmentalism in Wisconsin, 1961-1968, documents how sportsmen's groups were in the forefront of nature protection long before "environmentalism" was ever discussed in urban centers. Beginning with WCC founder Aldo Leopold and his colleagues in the late 1940s, the "Redshirts" led campaigns to protect natural habitat from dams, industrial pollution, nuclear waste, and shoreline development. Their deer habitat education is partly responsible for the unique patchwork of woods and fields evident in southern Wisconsin's landscape today. Their work is one reason why environmental ethics have penetrated Wisconsin society so deeply, making our state virtually unique in the country.
In recent years, fishing groups have joined with their former Native adversaries to fight the proposed Crandon mine near the Wolf River, and have led opposition to the Perrier proposals in central Wisconsin. They are joining Native Americans, environmentalists, students, farmers, and others to rally against metallic and water mining at the Capitol on Saturday, April 29, at 1 pm (for information see www.treatyland.com). This will be one event that both sides in the WCC hearing can attend together.
I say to those hunters hostile to environmentalists, and to those environmentalists who are hostile to hunters: keep it up. You're exactly where the corporations such as Rio Algom and Perrier want you. While we are arguing over doves, they can slip in and steal our natural resources (with DNR acquiescence), and cause real harm to all fish and wildlife. In the 1990s, the tribes and anglers' groups sought common ground after their treaty rights conflict, and united to protect the fishery they had argued over.
In this new decade, perhaps hunters and animal rights activists can find that their attention to wildlife gives them more in common with each other than with the majority of citizens who see animals only on TV or in a zoo. The animals do not have a voice in this debate, but they would certainly want their self-proclaimed protectors to come together.
- Zoltan Grossman is a doctoral student in Geography at U.W.-Madison. He can be reached at 1705 Rutledge Street, Madison WI 53704 or by calling 608- 265-0532 (o) or 246-2256 (h).
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