President Obama recently got some ridicule for hastily claiming he loved skeet shooting and therefore was not against sportsmen when he wanted to tell Americans they couldn't be trusted to decide how many bullets to buy for their guns.

That he was simultaneously offering bombs and fighter jets to terrorists in Egypt while he didn't trust his own citizens with small arms ammunition was not lost on his critics.

Satire aside, the problem with his logic was that the US Constitution does not actually limit guns to skeet shooting, even if he thinks it does. The Second Amendment's right to bear arms did not have a qualifier 'for hunting clay pigeons and deer' either, any more than the First Amendment can dictate what church you can go to or on which days, or that the Federal government can enforce a 3-day waiting period before I post this blog.

The National Rifle Association also invokes hunters in its efforts to stop gun control legislation, but they would be better off just invoking rifles. For as much as we hear about 'assault rifles' - a designation basically invented in 1994 in order to define what they could ban - rifles are a tiny fraction of gun deaths each year, they are  used quite safely, and hunters are a fraction so small it isn't worth mentioning,  fewer than 20% of rifles sold each year.  There aren't many of us left these days and it is a constituency too small to be valuable to either side.

Yet it isn't the culture war between social authoritarians and conservatives that is impacted the most by the decline in hunting, it is conservation efforts.

There was a time when conservationists irrationally turned their guns on hunters. Vilifying people who obviously care about responsible land management made no sense but most conservationists spend them time in offices trying to recruit paid memberships and raise money, not actually thinking about who their natural allies are. What many conservationists did not recognize is that most of the money spent on real conservation efforts, not their dopey fundraising brochures, comes from hunting licenses.  As hunting licenses have dropped, so has money for vital animal management programs.

So the decline in hunting results in two problems: First, of course the money for conservation biology at the state level goes down, which means states will either have to raise taxes or be more reliant on the political strings that come with Federal funding; the second problem is that wildlife is going to quickly go out of control.  Instead of hunters paying to keep animal populations manageable, we will have to hire government union employees to do it, an even greater tax burden on people.

An article in Wildlife Society Bulletin discusses ducks and hunting. The duck population is booming, it should be a golden age for duck hunters - but there are a lot fewer of them out there.  Over 2,000,000 stamps were sold annually in the 1970's but that was down to 1,300,000 by 2008.  Duck stamps are a Federal license but those numbers correspond to state licenses like deer as well. Hunting is dying off.

Federal conservation money is based on knowing how many people actually use the land. Not the people who want to maintain pristine, untouched fire hazards like the salespeople at Sierra Club want, but actual outdoor enthusiasts.  

"Up to 98% of money raised by the duck stamps is used to purchase or lease habitat within the National Wildlife Refuge system," Dr. Mark Vrtiska from Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, said in his statement.   

So what does the loss of just duck hunters mean in real land conservation terms?

"If hunter levels had kept consistent with historical trends then 600,000 more duck stamps would have been expected to have been sold between 1995 and 2008 than actually occurred," said Vrtiska. "That equates to an annual loss of $9,000,000, or $126 million across the whole period. For conservation the results are dramatic as this money could have resulted in 42,495 ha of wetlands."

It isn't all just activism or kids watching "Bambi" responsible for the decline. America is far less agrarian, far less in tune with the land and our food than we were in the past.  We are, basically, a lot wealthier. 'Nature' is now a park built in a city or specially designated wilderness trails with doggie poop bag containers every 200 yards.  That's progress and there is not much reason to complain if people don't have to own a farm or land to eat.

But people who claim they want to go back to nature and how our ancestors did things are delusional. I grew up on a small farm, it was tough work. Our house was heated by wood (and that was really, really tough, because what looks like a lot of wood in September is always gone by February) and we hunted for meat. There is a reason I got a scholarship to go to college and it was to not have to do that stuff for the rest of my life.  I hated hunting then, though I do it now to get together with my family, but it is great that science has created a nation where a tiny percentage of people can produce enough food for everyone. People who criticize hunting while they buy Raw Organic Vegan Coconut Aminos and think they are in touch with their paleolithic ancestors are just goofy. Get out and kill some food if you want to appreciate it.

Natural cultural migrations are fine, I don't think we are worse off if few people write letters in longhand or use a slide rule, so we can live without hunting.  But we shouldn't be trying to drive away hunters and treat them like potential criminals or animal-hating savages, when they keep animal populations sustainable and fund a whole lot of land management.

Basically, if you claim to be a conservationist and want America to continue to increase its land reserves, get out into nature and shoot a duck.  Or a deer. It sure beats hitting them with your car on the highway.

Bonus statistic: Vrtiska says, "The waterfowl population has passed 40 million six times since 1995, something only seen nine times since records began. These should be the glory days for duck hunting."  My gosh, those numbers make me want to go duck hunting and I never hunt ducks. They are greasy, nasty things to cook and if I am tromping out into the cold and wet, it is going to be for an elk or anything big enough it means I don't have to leave the house for another year.

But that is a lot of quacking ducks, in my opinion.

Citation: Mark P. Vrtiska, James H. Gammonley, Luke W. Naylor, Andrew H. Raedeke, 'Economic and conservation ramifications from the decline of waterfowl hunters', Wildlife Society Bulletin, Feb 5, 2013, DOI: 10.1002/wsb.245