The universal trophy mentality

Doug Peacock, inspiration for Hayduke and author of the excellent Grizzly Years, has continued to solidify his place as one of the most divisive and intellectually cheap writers on wilderness issues in the 21st century.  First it was this article two years ago, conspicuously lacking in detail and conspicuously abundant in name-calling and deliberate mis-characterizations.  Now there is this op-ed for Outside, which raises several points against the proposed delisting of Grizzly bears in Yellowstone from the Endangered Species Act.  The concerns over food sources being altered by climate change, and especially the limited genetic diversity available to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem population are valid, but today, with the knowledge of hunting I’ve won in the past three years, I can’t take a person like Peacock seriously when he dismisses the integrity of state wildlife management with phrases like “trophy bear hunt.”


The phrase “trophy hunting” is itself all but meaningless, and today an almost certain proxy for “I don’t like it, but can’t or don’t care to go into specifics.”  Approximate comparisons would be calling someones writing or art derivative, or calling a person or thing crazy.  There are plenty of things in state wildlife management which can reasonably said to be objectionable, but failing to specify (why) for instance Wyoming lost the ability to govern their wolves (their hunting regs were ludicrously liberal and openly hostile to the species) one abdicates their right to critique.

If/when Grizzlies are delisted, and if/when (for example) Montana gives out too many tags in the inevitable hunting lottery, there will be grounds for objection.  The most compelling argument for delisting is that Grizzly bears have met the population target set for them, and that in the GYE said population has been stable for over a decade.  The credibility of the Endangered Species Act is dependent upon the process of protection having both a beginning and an end.  If additional what-ifs are used too often to delay what was originally agreed upon, the ESA will end up with even less support than it currently does.  Some folks will always hate the idea of the ESA, just as some folks will always want to see all large non-human predators extirpated, but living in fear of the extremes is no good guide.

But back to trophy hunting.  In the 21st century, and in the 1st world, all hunters are trophy hunters.  Even someone killing does for food will retain memories, and likely photos, that will sit on the literal and metaphorical shelf.  There is a difference of degree, in comparison with a Dall Sheep shoulder mount whose hunt cost 25,000 dollars, but not kind.  The challenge in hunting is the reward, and often that challenge is enhanced by artificial means.  In this there is little difference between holding out for a bull elk of a certain size, when many, smaller elk are in abundance, and choosing to climb a peak via the fifth class wall rather than the 3rd class ridge.  Summit photos and a loose piton serve the same function as dead animal skulls.  People tend to object more forcefully to bear hunting because bears are more human-like in their actions, and grow to a greater age, than ungulates and small game.  It’s also easier to call bear hunting “trophy hunting” because in some states (e.g. Idaho and Alaska) one is not required by law to take the meat out of the field.  Presumably Montana at least will apply the same rules they have for black bear meat, where the quarters and backstraps must be taken, to Grizzly bears.

What hunting needs to articulate is the morality of cheating trophy experiences, when doing so is acceptable, and when doing so is not.  An experienced mountaineer can probably justify the occasional use of a helicopter to shortcut the approach, and all but the true purist will use cable cars and ski lifts, when they exist, for similar purposes.  Provided one does not always use technology to avoid hiking, and has plenty of miles and summits won purely with sweat and effort, occasional discretion’s can be forgiven.  Something similar ought to be fine for hunting.  After all, the reason road hunting works is that many of our favorite hunting targets are drawn to the traces of human settlement.  Trying to divorce hunting too far from this is artificial, but at the same time hunting will always be at base a wilderness pursuit, and the many hunters and paradigms of hunting which ignore or try to consistently cheat that fact deserve nothing less than ridicule.  Just don’t dismiss it as only trophy hunting.

8 responses to “The universal trophy mentality”

  1. Well, I don’t know nuthin’ about local legislation, but as I work in population genetics I will proffer a couple of unsolicited thoughts. The first is, if anyone wants to manage a population in a proper and sustainable way there is plenty of evidence that any culling or hunting or however we want to call it needs to target (1) the young and (2) the old, because current methods do not fit the natural mortality curves. This is particularly important in those species with low replacement and even more so for those species where new dominant males kill the offspring of the previous dominant male. I personally fail to see (ok, I do see why, I just disagree) why anyone would like to lug a bigger bull out of the mountains rather than a smaller one, with better meat to boot. When it comes to predators the approach of killing ‘a given number’ without a very strict control on the age of the animals is an approach that has nothing to do with conservation. If we want to keep bear or wolves to a given number we must kill animals that have very specific characteristics, and we can only do that if we know exactly who we are killing, which means spending hours to identify who is who and then hours trying to actually do a targeted kill. I do doubt that anybody who is not retired or independently wealthy would have the time to do that. No doubt wildlife biologists could take people around and tell them what to kill, but that’s where things are at if we want to actually keep science into the picture.

    1. I appreciate the thoughts/ I presume with Grizzlies the ideal would be to hunt/kill the older, dominant males as they approach the end of their breeding potency, when their breeding fitness begins to decline? I think a lot of hunters aspire to something like that, both with bears and other species, but as you say most are just not equipped to make the distinction. Similar to why most states have dropped regulations mandating gender from mountain goat tags; it’s just too hard to tell billies from nannies.

      1. I have no ideas of the practicalities concerning Grizzly delisting and hunting (partly because I live in Finland…) but I was looking more at the ‘how can we sell it as a ethically defensible practice’. With deer/elk/moose/goat/sheep that’s easier, since these are obviously edible animals. Their management is very successful though non that natural, so we might as well ignore them (in the worst case scenario we can breed and release them with little public complaints). Large carnivores elicit the strongest emotional response, and thus I feel that, while I have no problems with hunting them in principle, in order to package the hunt as more than just ‘I want a trophy on the wall/I hate the damn wolves/bears/cougars’ we need to really stick closely to the science. And do it, even if it turn out the best practice is to cull runts, juveniles and decrepit old individuals all of which have 0 trophy value, aside from the experience value. Obviously ‘trophy hunting’ generates an income that in some situations makes it more sustainable and ethical, but these situations are a case by case, and the best examples of ‘ethical trophy hunting’ come from developing countries strapped of cash, not rich first world countries.

  2. I enjoy your opinion Dave but I think you are out of your element on this issue. All hunting is definitely not trophy hunting. I live in a small, remote community in Northern Alaska where the vast majority of people live subsistence lifestyles. The difference between the people who live here full time and the sport/trophy hunters is tremendous. There is a difference in how they approach the hunt, how they carry it out, and what occurs after. Bottom line, subsistence users are out for food. Individuals who are out for the “experience of hunting” are sport hunters. In general, there is a huge lack of respect from sport/trophy hunters. Every year people will pass through, leaving tons of animals (or meat) in the field or after removal just tossing them in the dumpster when they get back to Fairbanks. That’s not true just in this area but all over Alaska and other states like Montana. You can’t eat the antlers. A subsistence user will take an animal with larger horns or antlers because it is usually a larger animal that will provide more meat, not because of what that animal will look like on the wall. And the idea that the memory of the hunt qualifies someone as a trophy hunter is ludicrous. Spend some time around real subsistence users and you’ll notice there is a great difference.

    1. I’ll defer to you on that. AK certainly has unique issues, I’ve never hunted there but one only has to look at the seemingly odd regulations (meat out on bone) to see that very different issues are at play. From my perspective its sad that folks want to experience your area without the requisite skills and desire to manage the meat.

      Appreciate the thoughts.

    2. While I have your attention Jack, I’d be eager to read any thoughts you might care to share on this:

      The things at play up in the Arctic seem pretty far removed from hunting as I know it in the lower 48, and it’s hard to get a decent grasp on issues like the above.

      1. It’s certainly a difficult and controversial topic. Much of the decline in the Western Arctic herd the past few years hads been due to starvation from the rather warmer winters these past few years. Mid-winter rain creating ice on top of the snow obviously prevents the caribou from accessing their food. The supporting statements presented in the article are true. These communities rely to a great extent on these animals as a major food source. Buying produce is out of the question when work is intermittent at best and an apple or head of cabbage costs $8 a pop. That being said, there are certainly still problems with subsistence users and waste. In the dump in Kotzebue, you can find all kinds of meat from caribou and many other animals. Some people are just taking the choice cuts and letting the rest rot. The proposal not a bad idea in theory, but won’t necessarily work if environmental factors continue to be at play (as they will). That being said, I tend to agree with the action. For one, it is just a trial for now. If there are any means to prevent the herd from being decimated, urban interests can be sacrificed. The vast majority of urban users do not rely on the meat for their sustenance and can easily (and affordably) find additional sources of food.

        I live a bit east of there and we have similar problems with Dall sheep. We’ve had problems with rain as well but also over-hunting from the guided hunts. As the guides compete, they are essentially wiping out the sheep population in this area. But that’s a whole different topic.

  3. The ESA has been a very effective piece of legislation and there are many success stories, but the detractors are growing at an alarming rate- quite frankly some of it for good reason. When a species is listed, a solid plan laid out for it’s recovery with clear and concise objectives and these recovery objectives are met- it’s time to de-list the species, that IS the intent of the legislation. Certainly keep a very close eye on said species and insure the population doesn’t go into decline. But follow the intent of the law or those that support the ESA risk a far greater threat- no ESA. Over the course of many years Montana has met every objective, objectives that consistently changed- the bar raised ever higher with the hopes for many, not for the success of recovery, but simply no hunting of the large carnivore. It’s time to reward Montana for it’s diligent work and celebrate yet another success story of the ESA. It was foolish and dangerous thinking that killed the Golden Goose.

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