Are Vermont hunters an endangered species? Fellow writer and hunter Matt Crawford thinks so, and his new article in Vermont Life presents compelling evidence.
Crawford notes, for instance, that resident hunting license sales in the Green Mountain State have dropped from more than 89,000 per year in 1993 to an estimated 70,000 today. The decline continues despite what he accurately terms “a generally accepting culture” that includes “the most lenient” gun-ownership laws in the country.
Why is that?
The article suggests that one factor is the arrival of newcomers—non-hunters who have moved to Vermont from urban and suburban areas. Crawford quotes me on this point:
The obvious answer to the question about the biggest threat to Vermont’s hunting culture is ‘people from away.’ There are a lot of folks like me who move here, buy land and either don’t have a connection to the culture of hunting or, in some cases, who don’t approve of it. It’s very much a tension point between new Vermonters and those who’ve spent their lives here doing things in an accepted way.
This is indeed an “obvious answer.” Some lay the blame for the decline in Vermont’s hunting culture squarely on an influx of outsiders.
But how much influence do newcomers really have on local traditions?
Some newcomers certainly disapprove. I was one of them when Cath and I moved back to Vermont in the late 1990s. (Whether I’m “from away” is open to interpretation. I grew up in both New Hampshire and Vermont, but my family is not from here: My parents grew up in Connecticut and New Jersey.)
To what, though, does such disapproval and tension lead? Does it erode local hunting culture? Does it lead to a tighter grip on tradition in the face of a perceived threat? How many kids or adults are discouraged from hunting because of disapproval from “flatlanders”?
Some newcomers learn to respect local traditions. Some of us even take up hunting. As Crawford notes in the article, the local food movement is generating new interest in hunting and new respect for rural ways of life.
There are no anti-hunting referendum votes in the Green Mountain State and there probably never will be: We don’t have a referendum system. The only public protests in recent memory were over so-called “coyote tournaments,” a practice to which some hunters also objected. And, as Crawford notes, hunting has enjoyed constitutional protection in Vermont since 1777.
Some newcomers close their land to hunting. Whether due to safety concerns, a dislike of hunting, or both, some mark their property boundaries with “No Hunting” or “No Trespassing” signs. In most of Vermont, though, it still isn’t hard to get permission to hunt private land. And there’s a fair amount of public land, too. The bigger threat to hunting access, as Crawford indicates, is land development, by native Vermonters and outsiders alike.
Maybe newcomers are a significant factor in Vermont’s hunting decline. But I’m not convinced.
I think we’re witnessing a much broader, more complex erosion of rural traditions. Crawford notes, for instance, that Vermont is experiencing a parallel decline in farming. As far as I know, no newcomers to the state are opposed to agriculture.
The decline in hunting is a complicated puzzle, long studied by the likes of sociologist Jan Dizard and anthropologist Marc Boglioli. Crawford’s article quotes Boglioli, whose outlook for the future of hunting is not optimistic:
According to the people who run these numbers and make these projections, there’s just no way we can imagine that in 100 years we’ll have hunters anywhere near the numbers we have now. I see hunting as being farther removed from mainstream society. It’ll be kind of this Sturbridge Village of leisure activity. Nobody will be threatened by it. We’ll be nostalgic about it by then.
The article in Vermont Life points to several related dangers.
One is the resulting loss in revenue for habitat conservation. (I think the current system—of funding wildlife agencies almost exclusively with hunter-and-angler dollars—is a fiscal dead-end in need of a serious overhaul, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Another danger is decline in economic activity. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates, hunting boosts the Vermont economy by $258 million annually.
My greatest concern is the third danger Crawford points to: disconnection. This is not just about hunting as a practice or even as a cultural tradition. (Despite frequent paeans to Vermont deer hunting as a tradition that reaches back into the ancestral past, the state was nearly devoid of whitetails in the late nineteenth century.) It’s about hunting as part of a broader set of activities that keep us engaged with nature.
Crawford cites Richard Louv, whose books Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle point out that people need more nature-exposure than they’re getting. Entranced by technology and distracted by busy lives, children and adults alike are spending less and less time doing anything outdoors: hiking, fishing, hunting, canoeing, bird-watching, you name it.
The risk we run—as Louv argues, and as the film Mother Nature’s Child suggests—is not only to our own psychological, spiritual, and physical health, but also to the health of the natural world. We conserve and protect what we care about. If we don’t even know what a grouse or a leopard frog or a whitetail or a jewelwing looks like, we won’t care much.
If we don’t care much, where in our hearts can a serious conservation ethic possibly take root?
© 2011 Tovar Cerulli