Sunday, January 29th, 2023
Sunday, January 29th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

When game becomes vermin, hunting is diminished

There will be no fanfare this autumn when Minnesota holds its
largest elk hunt in modern history. No one will sing the praises of
elk management or boast about the population recovery (albeit
small) of this native big game animal. The fact that Minnesota now
has more elk than any time in modern history is not cause for
celebration. Instead the fall hunt will be mostly about elk
population control.

Minnesota’s elk exist on a semi-agricultural landscape where
some people have little tolerance for large hooved animals that may
develop a taste for oats, soybeans, or other crops. In order to
keep the peace between the elk and their farmer neighbors, the
state (by legislative decree) hold hunts to keep the overall
population in check.

Unlike some of our neighbors, notably Wisconsin, Ontario, and
Michigan, Minnesota has not sought places where native elk
restoration could with minimal conflict with agricultural
producers. Perhaps such a place doesn’t exist in Minnesota’s 14
million acres of forest land. Or maybe the state has chosen to
instead pander to domestic elk farmers, who ware widely scattered
in Minnesota and consider wild elk a nuisance.

At any rate, Minnesota elk are classified as big game animals,
but regarded by many as vermin. Unfortunately, this negative
attitude toward wildlife isn’t limited to just elk. I may keep
lonely company with this opinion, but one of the most troubling
developments in wildlife management that I’ve seen during my years
as an outdoor writer has been the gradual drift to toward treating
abundant game species as nuisance critters.

In Minnesota, the trend began about 20 years ago with urban
Canada geese, then gradually expanded to include snow geese,
white-tailed deer, red fox, and, for a time, black bears. In every
instance, hunting regulations and bag limits were relaxed and
hunters were encouraged to view abundant game not with respect, but
as a nuisance to destroy. On more than one occasion I’ve heard
hunters with a nuisance animal mind set refer to geese or deer as
“rats.” Wildlife conservation is not well served when hunters adopt
this attitude.

At this juncture, I’m not sure we can turn back to a mind set
where hunters respect game and take pride in their hunting methods.
We live in an era of spring goose hunts, electronic calls and
decoys, five-deer bag limits, food shelf hunting, and similar
management schemes intended to reduce wildlife abundance. We’ve
even reached a point where the State Legislature, even as the
Conservation Reserve Program comes crashing down, raised the
pheasant bag limit based on a temporary abundance of birds
following a couple of easy winters.

Hindsight being 20-20, situations that create wildlife abundance
are often abetted by wildlife management. Canada geese found that
mowed lawns near water created perfect habitat, but it was the
aggressive trap and transfer program in the 1980s and 90s that
established goose flocks in towns and cities across the state. Deer
numbers were decimated by harsh winters in the mid 1990s, but
recovering population exploded with the protection afforded by
cautious, bucks-only hunts and widespread, unregulated artificial
feeding.

Wildlife abundance is mostly measured on a scale of human
tolerance. For the mainstream, wildlife is either mostly unnoticed
or temporarily enjoyed when visiting a place like Yellowstone
National Park. Hunters often use wildlife abundance as the
yardstick to measure whether hunting is “good” or “bad.” However,
as soon as a goose poops in a backyard or an elk steps into an oat
field, the specie in question becomes overabundant and a
nuisance.

Granted, there is a world of difference between someone who is
suffering extensive crop damage from game animals and a suburbanite
who is incensed with backyard geese. But I’m not sure that pulling
the trigger is the only or best solution to dealing with wildlife
damage or nuisance issues. And I wonder if the public perception of
hunting is affected when the hunter assumes the role of a termite
exterminator and the wildlife manager is akin to the village
ratcatcher.

There are other ways to address damage and nuisance issues
associated with wildlife abundance, such as habitat manipulation
and regulation of artificial wildlife feeding. Adopting such
measures would involve positive public relations, some trial and
error, strong natural resources leadership, and political leaders
willing to seek solutions beyond following the path of least
resistance. Here in the state where the bridge fell down, at
present we have little reason to believe any of the above can
occur.

And so we will continue using licensed hunters to resolve
wildlife and human conflicts, even in situations such as the
northwestern elk cull, where hunters are actually working against
their own best interests. But we can’t blame local wildlife
managers for this unfortunate occurrence. If we want to find new
and better ways to address issues of wildlife abundance, we’ll need
leadership at the highest levels of the DNR and the Legislature
that is willing to move beyond the ultimately self-defeating
approach of raising bag limits and relaxing hunting rules.

While some game animals are more abundant than ever in
Minnesota, we are not living in a golden age of hunting. Hunting is
much more than a cheap and easy way to perform lethal wildlife
control. When hunters become exterminators, hunting and its
heritage are diminished.

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