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The great divide

If you hunt, how can you be a conservationist?

"Details of your first duck are forever etched in your memory," shares DUC's Nigel Simms. ©DUC
"Details of your first duck are forever etched in your memory," shares DUC's Nigel Simms. ©DUC

Some people find it easy to reject hunting as barbaric.We’ve been exposed to negative images for decades. A faceless Disney character cruelly dispatches Bambi’s mother. The South Park kids are told they can shoot any animal, as long as they say, “It’s coming right for us!”

And that’s just the cartoons. There’s plenty more out there.

A typical big city guy, I rejected hunting for most of my life. I knew there were unethical hunters. I was smugly confident that I rode the high moral ground. Then something happened. I actually met some real hunters.

Rob Olson is the managing director of the Manitoba Wildlife Federation. His presence fills any space he occupies. He’s remarkably generous; infectiously optimistic. Olson and his good friends Jim Fisher and Carly Deacon took me hunting for the first time. We went to Delta Marsh in Manitoba – a bucket list destination for many waterfowl hunters – the place where I would reach a pivotal point in my life.

Details of your first duck are forever etched in your memory. The brilliant September sky. The pungent smell of the marsh. Ducks criss-crossing at breakneck speed over your head. At first I simply took it all in. Watching. Listening. Wondering if I’d shoot someone by mistake.

Eventually, a pair of low-flying ducks came over the cattails from behind. I instinctively swung the borrowed 12-guage shotgun, pulled the trigger and astonishingly watched the trailing duck drop into the water. I was forever changed. This was the moment I made a very real, very serious commitment…to conservation.

One of the most common questions posed by non-hunters is: “how can you kill something you’re trying to conserve?” The contradiction seems obvious. Olson doesn’t see any contradiction at all.

“I’m really proud of the connection between hunting and conservation,” he says. “It’s a profound thing. Once you shoot a duck or a goose or a deer or catch a walleye, they are forever entrusted to your care. You’re responsible for them forever.”

By his own admission, Olson has spent “stupid, ridiculous amounts of time and money on conservation.” He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Part of the reason is that when you hunt and you’re out there and connected to it, you see how hard it is for a duck to bring off a brood. You see the challenges facing fish in spawning areas. You know how hard it is for those things to survive. You have a real understanding of what it’s going to take to keep them around.”

Olson is certainly not alone. The history of North American conservation is defined by the extraordinary efforts of hunters, driven to make sure we still have wild things in wild spaces. Big names like Roosevelt and Leopold. Countless, unnamed others who roll up their sleeves and open their wallets to create some of the most successful conservation programs on the planet.

Winifred Kessler is a doctor of range science, a hunter and a member of Ducks Unlimited Canada’s board of directors. Kessler will happily talk for hours about the role hunters play in North American conservation. She credits “gentleman hunters” of the late 1800s as the first group to stand up against market hunting: the unsustainable harvesting of game for urban culinary or fashion demands. They supported creation of game laws, international treaties to protect migratory birds, the creation of national parks and wildlife refuges.

Kessler says the game we consider common today – elk, white-tailed deer, antelope, wild turkey and migratory birds – have all benefited from the early and continuing support of hunters. It’s a story, she says, few Canadians appreciate.

“It seems that two types of stories dominate the news: gloomy stories about the demise of some charismatic but endangered species; or feel-good tales involving animal rescues. Almost never is there coverage about the greatest advocates for wildlife – the community of hunters – and their roles in North America’s conservation history. So blatant is the omission, I call it ‘the greatest story never told.’”

Kessler and Olson are part of a long line of hunter advocates. They make decisions every day that, in some way, consider the natural world and what it means to us. They share their passion with anyone who will listen. Occasionally, it connects.

I was told that my first duck was a green-winged teal. There was a celebration, not of my shooting prowess, but of the bird. I learned what it eats, where it lives, how far it migrates south. I had never been more connected to a citizen of the natural world.

I took the teal home, along with a few others generously donated by my mentors. My family joined me for the meal, one of the most memorable of my life. It felt honest, complete.

And I became forever responsible in a way I never expected.

Nigel Simms

Nigel Simms

Nigel Simms is Ducks Unlimited Canada's national manager of communications and marketing.

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