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Prepping & Survival

Activists Are Defining Hunters by One Man Who Tortured a Wolf

If there’s anything redeeming about the February incident in which a wild wolf was run over by a snowmobiler, then muzzled and paraded around a Wyoming bar before it was killed, it’s as an opportunity for hunters to define ourselves against a rising narrative that equates the wolf abuser with restrained and purposeful hunting.

That doesn’t mean virtue signaling like reminding our own community that we don’t condone the perpetrator, Cody Roberts, or tolerate people like him in our midst. That should go without saying. And it doesn’t necessarily mean calling for new regulations to elevate punishment for actions like those Roberts is accused of perpetrating. Animal-cruelty laws already exist in every state.

Instead, it’s reminding our community that our ability to hunt, fish, trap, and participate in wildlife management exists only because we have credit in the bank of social acceptance with the rest of America. Roberts, and those like him, are draining that social credit, and have an impact well beyond the scope of their own despicable actions.

If you doubt that, then consider the escalation of a grassroots movement to boycott Wyoming’s tourist destinations or the number and intensity of public comments at the most recent Wyoming Game and Fish Commission meeting. Consider the blanket censure of Wyoming wolf policy, and by extension science-based wildlife management.

One statement especially gives me pause, as it could just as easily apply to elk or pheasants as to wolves: “State wildlife managers are focused on populations of animals and often turn a blind eye to the welfare of individuals,” says Kristin Combs, director of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, a group that has erected billboards around Wyoming calling for stopping “the war on predators.”

By focusing on populations rather than individuals, Combs says professional wildlife managers “give silent permission to those who would commit acts of cruelty that it is ok to torture animals as long as it isn’t hurting the overall population.”

Since the February incident, which wasn’t widely known until late March when Jackson Hole Community Radio broke the news, the largest hunting organizations haven’t had much to say. There have been a few exceptions, such as an open letter to Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon from the current and past presidents of The Wildlife Society, the nation’s oldest and largest organization of professional wildlife biologists and natural-resource managers.

The group urges the governor to “work with state legislators to swiftly remedy the lack of statutory laws that currently render the pursuit and harming or killing of wolves and other wildlife with snow machines – or any other vehicle – legal in Wyoming.” The letter notes that Roberts isn’t a hunter, and he wasn’t hunting. “It was intentional inhumane disabling, compounded by unnecessary suffering and delayed killing of wildlife, which has no place in our system of wildlife management.”

But the relative silence within our community has allowed a narrative to thrive in which Roberts is characterized as a hunter by several large news outlets. He is being described as an archetype, one type of rural Westerner who hates wolves almost as much as they hate the federal government, which they associate with propagating and protecting predators. In this objectifying narrative, Roberts is a product of closed-minded intolerance and small-minded enablers that define small Western towns.

“I’ve spent enough time in rural western bars to easily imagine the scene when Cody Roberts arrived with a wounded suffering wolf,” writes David Stalling, one of the founders of a new group, Hunters and Anglers for Wildlife Management Reform that came on the scene just as the Wyoming story was unfolding. The group is aligned with Wildlife For All, which works toward de-emphasizing hunting as a wildlife-management tool. “The laughter, the cheers, the free drinks for Cody Roberts, the toasts to crippled wolves, the slaps on the back, the shouts of oft-repeated phrases such as… ‘Smoke a pack a day.’”

The relative silence from hunters has allowed anti-hunting groups to imply that we hunters hate coyotes, bears, and mountain lions with the same intensity we reserve for wolves. If you doubt that message has consequences, consider Colorado, where voters could decide this fall to ban hunting for wild felines. In blanket indictments, anti-hunting groups claim that hunters’ pursuit of wild animals is a “violent form of recreation” and sociopathic “thrill killing.”

In the outrage and venom that Roberts’ actions have provoked, along with the strain the incident has put on hunters’ relationship with the wider public, I’m reminded of “Cecil the Lion,” the vivid example from 2015 of the collision between hunting and the world’s perception of hunters.

America’s Cecil

It’s dangerous to weigh moral equivalencies, but I would observe that Roberts’ actions are a good deal less defensible than those of Walter Palmer, the man who shot Cecil. Palmer, dubbed “the most hated man in America” had a hunting license, hunted during an established season, and if his choice of target — one of the most recognizable and charismatic (and GPS-collared) felines in all of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park — was unfortunate, much of the world’s condemnation stemmed not from the regulatory circumstances, but from Palmer’s self-identity as a “trophy hunter.”

At the time, as an outraged public demanded to know how hunting was allowed in Africa’s national parks, the hunting community timidly offered that the high monetary and social value that hunters placed on trophy wildlife species was the only thing keeping those animals from being poached or consumed as bush meat. Correct as that is, it was a hollow intellectual response to red-hot anger over a wealthy American dentist who was described by the international press as “murdering” a regal African lion.

Interestingly, nine years on, the contributions of both regulated hunters and wildlife-viewing eco-tourists are widely recognized as important resources that support rural African communities and create advocates for wildlife. Even people who might never visit Zimbabwe acknowledge that the sanctioned removal — through hunting — of a few charismatic individuals has been good for the population.

In other words, nearly a decade after Cecil, hunters and hunting have restored some of the social contract with the non-hunting public who recognize that the contributions of hunters far exceed the expenditures. This is the story that we should be telling right now, as the wider public questions the purpose of hunting and the personality of hunters.

Renewing Hunting’s Social Contract

We need to tell the story about waterfowl hunters who pay for wetland habitats that benefit geese and ducks, but also a huge roster of shorebirds and neo-tropical songbirds and aquatic mammals like muskrats and voles. Other beneficiaries are local communities that enjoy clean water, wildlife watchers who visit refuges, and aquifers that are recharged because of healthy wetlands.

When elk hunters contribute to conservation easements to protect big-game winter range, mule deer and Bohemian waxwings and marmots and spiders and caterpillars also benefit. When trout anglers advocate for minimum in-stream flows, not only are cutthroats and native whitefish more numerous, but stoneflies and leopard frogs also benefit, along with floaters, municipal water managers, and riverside ranchers.

Our stories of the special places that we describe and defend need to include the wider societal benefits, as open spaces around fast-growing towns, as intact watersheds that ensure clean water to downstream users, and as shady oases in a warming climate.

We don’t need to talk about how we are personally enriched by hunting, or how we cherish the animals we pursue. Those are difficult concepts to communicate to people who don’t have the context or appreciation for the nuances and complicated emotions that hunting provokes.

We don’t need to convince non-hunters that they should try hunting or even agree with hunting, but that by allowing us to hunt, we invest in the things they want: more abundant and diverse species, healthier landscapes, stronger human communities, and more sustainable foodways.

The unfortunate fact is that there will be more Cody Roberts. But when the ugly, indefensible actions take place, and hunters’ social license with the wider society becomes strained, we need to do more than distance ourselves from the soulless rogues who are masquerading as hunters.

Instead, we need to remind non-hunters that we contribute more to our joint savings account than we withdraw. If we ever default on that account, then we have ourselves to blame for losing the public’s support.

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