By Jillian Garrett
I am a farmer, a conservationist, and a hunter (yes, it is indeed possible to be all three things at once).
I grew up in the California of the 1980s, where Costco memberships were the norm and the suburban lifestyle was all we knew to strive for. This was the era of the “save the tiger/panda/whale/etc.” movements, a time of big wildlife conservation pushes. My parents were stalwart supporters of the movement, mailing letters to important figures and maintaining memberships in all of the major conservation-minded organizations. As you might expect, we were vehemently opposed to hunting, and owning guns was unheard of in my household (not merely frowned upon but never even talked about—so anathema to our way of mind). Years later, I learned that my grandfather owned both a BB gun and a .22 rifle, though he wisely never mentioned it to anyone else in the family. I bring all of this up so that you can fully understand my history, and why I bring a unique perspective to the current issues at hand.
As I grew up, I began to wonder where my food came from. Yes, it technically came from the big chain grocery stores, but where did it actually originate from and what processes were involved in getting it to me? These were questions that eventually led me into farming—a desire to understand my food source and to take a personal level of responsibility for what I ate. I took the regenerative approach, never using pesticides or synthetic chemicals, and doing everything in my power to preserve and maintain the health of the soil. As I learned more about the importance of biodiversity on a farm, I began to understand that maintaining a balanced ecosystem extended to the native wildlife living around me. I started farming with an eye towards preserving habitat, decreasing invasive species, and allowing wildlife to thrive on the property. Animal numbers and diversity increased over the years, and my farm was the better for it. I learned what environments were required for what animals—timber for deer, shrubby understory for grouse, parkland and pasture for wild turkeys—and worked to create and maintain those areas. As a result, plant diversity also flourished, creating food and habitat for even more species. I observed the native hazelnut trees slowly increase in number in the shady forest understory, providing a vital mast crop for the local black bear population. I watched a small sow raise her cubs every year (and hilariously photobomb my trail camera) in the cool, shady creek bed of the farm’s western forest. Even after I became a hunter, I remained passionate about wildlife conservation.
This sow and cubs stay on the author's property for long periods of time.
Now when it comes to hunting, I’ll admit I am a meat-eater. To be fair, I did try very hard to be a vegetarian for quite a few years, but it didn’t suit me (my health suffered) and eventually I gave it up in favor of choosing a more mindful method of sourcing my protein. Originally, I raised or purchased only grass-fed, organic meats, but even this path didn’t fully satisfy my desire to eat in the most ethical way possible. Unless you were able to maintain a very large acreage, domestic livestock were still hard on the land, even when organically raised. They were damaging to riparian areas and when allowed to overgraze could devastate pastureland and result in a heavily-eroded soil fit only to grow weeds. I decided that there had to be a better way to source my meat that was less impactful to the land. The thought of hunting was both terrifying and intriguing to me; it was an enormous undertaking and a daunting learning curve. I went from never having touched a firearm in my life to learning how to shoot not just a rifle and a shotgun, but a compound bow as well. I practiced constantly for many years until I felt capable of making an ethical shot. My number one goal was always as quick and humane a death as possible for my quarry. Even then, it still took me three years before I harvested my first deer. When you have to work that hard for your meat, I can promise you that absolutely nothing goes to waste. Can we say the same thing about a chicken purchased from a grocery store? According to the USDA, 30-40% of our food supply is wasted, which works out to about 133 billion pounds or $161 billion worth of waste (according to the 2010 statistics). This is mainly in part, I believe, because so many people live in urbanized areas that are completely disconnected from their food chain. Even living in a more rural area, I have had children come up to me, point to my chickens, and ask, “What are those things?” These children had never seen a chicken before that wasn’t already processed into a nugget or conveniently plastic-wrapped in the refrigerated section of the grocery store.
There is something deeply disturbing about living in a society that claims to support natural, organic living and yet stigmatizes a section of the populace who are willing to look the more sordid aspects of eating directly in the face, and who are ready to take full responsibility for what they eat. Because of this general disconnect between people and their food, there always seems to be an unfortunate stigma associated with hunting—this image of a gun-toting, un-educated Elmer Fudd type who subjects an animal to a horrible, agonizing death. I have spent a great deal of time outdoors observing wildlife, venturing out with other hunters, and slaughtering my own domestic animals for meat. From these observations, I have come to two conclusions: 1) nature is beautiful but intensely brutal, and there is no such thing as a painless death, and 2) the death of the animals that I have hunted have all been quicker and less stressful than any of the domestic animals I have killed for meat. If you don’t believe me, you should visit your local farm and observe the last chicken or cow on slaughter day. They absolutely know what is about to happen, and as a result they have far too long to think about it. That is intensely stressful for those animals. Now compare that with the death of a deer or a bear, who in all likelihood were not even aware of the hunter before the shot was fired. The outcome may be the same in both cases (and a moot point for the animal), but it’s a night and day difference with regard to the stress and suffering of the animal involved. I would rather die as a hunter-killed deer than a farmer-killed turkey.
This is the author punching her first Washington hunting tag. She was able to take her first deer in Fall of 2021!
I am a farmer. I am a conservationist. I am a hunter. The sum of this trifecta has resulted in a unique perspective and a knowledge about my food and how I obtain it. I manage my 80+ acre farm with a priority for wildlife habitat. I support science-based wildlife policy based on population statistics and behavior studies. I understand that harvesting the males of a given species—be it deer or bear or turkey—is an effective management tool, because doing so does not adversely affect populations in the same manner that harvesting females would (sorry, boys!). I support the continuation of an understanding of where our food comes from, and a willingness to look the consequences of eating meat directly in the eye. When all is said and done and hunting is gone forever, where will that leave us? A society of people who claim to love wildlife and organic agriculture but who possess no concept of what eating truly entails. How can we justify eliminating the killing of, say, a deer, but not a domestic cow? Where is the line? And once we remove the cultural and economic value of that wild animal, where is its protection then? Without the revenue generated from the sales of hunting licenses, weapons, etc. (per the Pittman-Robertson Act), who will pay for the continued conservation of these animals and their habitat?
We cannot effectively manage and conserve wildlife populations without the support of policies that are based on science. Sadly, as we become a more urbanized nation with a decreasing connection to nature and to our food source, science plays less and less of a factor in the decision-making policy. This was recently illustrated by the suspension of Washington’s spring bear season. According to the scientific data provided by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), black bear populations are currently sound and able to support the spring harvest. However, for the majority of the votes against the season, the scientific data never once factored in. Under the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, you cannot manage prey animals without also managing predators. That is essentially like leaving an unmanaged variable in an artificially-managed system: it doesn't work and will result in an unbalance (and potential collapse) of the entire system. This does not do justice to the bears or any other wildlife species. If America is a group of stakeholders in charge of managing a wildlife ecosystem, we need to take the holistic approach and manage all forms of wildlife. We no longer live in a truly natural system—humans have permanently altered the landscape, to the detriment of wildlife—and now we need to manage it like the artificial system it has become, from the top of the food pyramid and down, from the predators to the prey.
Bears come on the author's poperty and key in on the hazelnuts. It is an important mast crop for Black Bears in the NW.
I could come at this argument from so many different angles. I could tell you that I am a minority in the hunting world (a woman as well as a scientist by training) and that the continued disparagement of the scientific data pains me deeply. I could tell you that after so many years of learning how to be a successful, ethical hunter, I was finally ready to apply for my very first bear tag this spring of 2022. I could tell you that I have a fear of firearms that stems from one foggy night when an injured black bear killed my favorite llama and broke my heart, and that I have been struggling to overcome that post-traumatic stress for years. I could also tell you that that experience didn’t diminish my fascination and respect for bears. I could tell you so many different things about myself, none or all of which may sway your way of thinking about this issue. However, I instead chose to share with you my perspective on the issue of bear hunting, to better illustrate that we all come to our beliefs from very different backgrounds and agendas, but the important part is that we band together in support of what is best for the wildlife involved. As a scientist, it pains me to hear science being wrongfully discredited as a rationale to support one side’s agenda. I simply ask you this: do you know where your food comes from? Are you willing to take full responsibility for what you eat? You can be an ethical hunter and a conservationist. You can support healthy wildlife populations while also providing food for yourself. You can love and respect an animal and still desire to hunt it.