Disqualified by protest sparked by hunting photos
SALEM, Oregon––Hunters nationwide are worried over the outcome of a high-profile confrontation among ranking Democrats over who will serve on the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission.
Their side lost. This signaled a significant loss of grip in a largely rural state where for decades hunters were politically dominant.
The defeat of a hunter seeking a state wildlife commission seat because of his high profile history of legal hunting may be a U.S. first.
But even that is not the biggest implication of what was essentially a fight over what Americans want to be the face of wildlife conservation: wolves in the wild or mounted heads.
Trophy hunter, rancher, and hunting guide James Nash was nominated to fill one of five open seats on the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission by Oregon governor Kate Brown, a Democrat serving since 2015.
Based on Oregon political history and his strongly pro-hunting credentials, Nash might have expected quick and easy confirmation from the Oregon Senate Rules Committee on May 8, 2019.
Blackballed by state senate majority leader
Instead, Oregon Senate majority leader and Rules Committee chair Ginny Burdick, also a Democrat, bucked precedent––and what remains of the ballot box clout of hunters––by dropping Nash entirely from the list of Fish & Wildlife Commission candidates to be considered.
Hunters are a negligible constituency for Burdick, serving her sixth term representing the cities of Portland and Tigard. Animal advocates and environmentalists, however, are a core constituency for any successful politician in one of the nation’s “greenest” districts.
“A spokeswoman for Brown says the governor had nothing to do with [Burdick’s] decision,” reported Pulitzer Prize-winning political journalist Nigel Jaquiss of Willamette Week.
“Conservation groups decried Brown’s decision to put Nash in a position to help set state policy on wolves,” Jaquiss explained.
“A giant middle finger”
Oregon, where wolves were officially extirpated by 1947, now has 137 resident wolves, up from none as recently as 2007. Finalizing a state wolf management plan is expected to be among the major activities of the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission during the next several years.
“James Nash’s Instagram feed showed him with big game he killed [in Africa],” Jaquiss recounted, “including a hippopotamus, a zebra, a giant crocodile, a warthog and more pedestrian trophies, like the five coyotes he shot one winter’s day, until he took the photos down this month. His father, Wallowa county commissioner Todd Nash, has been the Oregon Cattlemen’s spokesman in opposition to the re-introduction of wolves into Oregon.”
Said Oregon Wild conservation director Steve Pedery in April 2019, “Appointing James Nash is a giant middle finger to the conservation community.
Guv allegedly double-crossed enviros
Pedery “applauded Burdick’s decision,” but “remains disappointed that Brown nominated Nash in the first place,” Jaquiss reported.
Assessed Pedery, after Burdick killed Nash’s nomination to the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission, “This is better than where we were, but with a draft wolf plan on the table that contemplates sport hunting of wolves, it’s still not good.”
Brown “pledged during her re-election campaign [in 2018] to protect wolves,” Jaquiss recalled, despite having previously favored removing wolves from endangered species protection, “but after winning, she picked Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission nominees favoring groups that include ranchers, loggers, commercial fishermen, and hunters whose economic interests may conflict with the desires of a majority of Oregonians.”
Opposing Nash’s nomination, besides Oregon Wild, were Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Audubon Society of Portland.
“Fading ideal of the Teddy Roosevelt hunter/conservationist”
Nash’s hunting photos “became a kind of conservationist Rorschach blot,” observed Oregon Public Broadcasting science and environment reporter Tony Schick. “Either Nash hunting big game was incompatible with governing the state’s wildlife, or he represents the fading ideal of the Teddy Roosevelt hunter/conservationist.”
But Quinn Read, northwest director for Defenders of Wildlife, apparently mindful that hunters are still an influential part of the Defenders donor base, downplayed the importance of hunting in Defenders’ opposition to Nash.
“It was easy for everyone to focus on Nash,” Read told Schick, “because of the nature of those photos and how they captured public outrage,” said Quinn Read, Northwest Director for Defenders of Wildlife. “But to focus on him is to miss the larger point, and that is that Governor Brown put forth a slate of commissioners that are going to let industry direct fish and wildlife policy.”
In other words, Defenders of Wildlife opposed Nash for a different reason from most Oregonians who voiced opposition to his nomination.
Yet, paradoxically, other Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission nominees who hunt and fish did not meet high-profile opposition from either advocacy organizations or the public.
Unlike Nash, none of the rest put photographs of themselves and the animals they killed on prominent public display.
Idaho trophy hunter forced to resign
The Nash debacle came six months after Idaho Governor Butch Otter on October 15, 2018 announced that trophy hunter and bowhunting equipment maker Blake Fischer, 40, had resigned from the Idaho Fish & Game Commission.
Fischer resigned, reportedly at Otter’s request, three days after Idaho Statesman reporter Chad Cripe exposed a smoldering controversy among other current and former Idaho Fish & Game Commission members over gruesome photographs of 14 animals whom Fischer and his wife Elizabeth killed in Namibia during early September 2018.
Fischer emailed the dead animal photos to more than 100 recipients on September 17, 2018.
Otter ousted Fischer despite having a long history of kowtowing to hunters.
In October 2010, for example, responding to trophy hunters wrongly blaming wolves for a perceived scarcity of elk, moose, and bighorn sheep, Otter ordered the Idaho Fish & Game Department to quit responding to reports of illegal wolf killing.
What Americans expect of leaders is changing
The hunting photos displayed by Nash and Fischer could not have been easily and spontaneously distributed to mass audiences a generation and more ago. Yet most of those photos probably would not have offended many people in times and places––including much of the rural U.S. today––where and when photos of local hunters with kills were and are among the staple content of small town news media.
Less than a century ago even partial human remains such as scalps, dried or pickled genitals, and even skulls were often displayed in public places, as trophies of warfare and lynching.
But the times and what Americans expect of leaders are rapidly changing.
For the first time in U.S. history, two consecutive U.S. presidents––who have little else in common––are neither military veterans nor hunters, nor even former hunters.
Current U.S. president Donald Trump’s sons Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. are prominent trophy hunters, but have even lower public approval ratings (35% at the moment) than the president himself (37%).
Hunters “aging out”
Fewer than 1% of Oregonians now buy hunting licenses, compared to 11.7% of Idahoans (among the highest rates of hunting participation in the nation) and 2.3% of Washingtonians. Altogether, there are now 723,419 licensed hunters in the three contiguous Pacific Northwest states. This is about 5.3% of the total human population of the region, approximately the same rate of hunting participation overall as for the U.S. as a whole, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service survey data most recently collected in 2016.
Adult hunting participation in the Pacific Northwest is down by about 8% since 2006; youth hunting participation by more than 20%, a trend visible nationwide.
“Nearly a third of all hunters in the U.S. are baby boomers,” observed Nathan Rott of the PBS radio program All Things Considered on March 20, 2018. “They hunted like no other generation since. But the oldest Boomers are already aging out of the sport, and the youngest, at 54, are only about a decade away from joining them.
“When put on a timeline, that cohort of older hunters looks like a wave, moving through time, that drops as it hits the age of 65.”
Fewer meat-eaters means lower potential hunting recruitment
Despite increasingly desperate hunter recruitment efforts by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies, and hunting advocacy organizations, including the National Rifle Association and National Shooting Sports Federation, the changing eating habits of the millennial generation as they move through young adulthood indicates that no amount of hunting promotion is likely to recruit many new hunters to replace those who are aging out.
Acosta’s 2018 Progressing Protein Palates, a major food industry survey, recently reported that 26% of U.S. millennials are already vegetarian or vegan. This was consistent with an earlier GlobalData finding that vegans increased from just 1% of the U.S. population as recently as 2014 to 6% in 2017.
The Mother Jones magazine and web site, surveying nearly 500 readers who had quit eating meat, found that 72% cited concern for animal suffering as their main motivation.
Two-thirds or more of millennial vegetarians and vegans are female, but in comparison to the trends of 20 and 30 years ago, when 80%-plus were female, this indicates a marked ongoing trend toward more vegetarianism and veganism among males.
People who do not eat meat rarely hunt under any circumstance––and neither do their significant others.
Potential hunters twice as likely to quit as to start
Increasing urbanization also has a part in declining hunter recruitment. Even in Idaho, a traditionally rural state, nearly two-thirds of the population now live in urban areas.
Taken together, the confluence of data suggests that the portion of the U.S. population from among whom new hunters might be recruited––mostly young rural meat-eating males––may be down by as much as half from circa 1980.
Even in states such as Idaho, where hunting remains highly socially acceptable, almost everyone who is demographically likely to ever take up hunting is already a hunter.
Potential hunters in Idaho meanwhile are two or three times more likely to quit hunting than to increase hunting activity.
Changing cultural expectations of leadership
Somewhat more subtly, but with even more profound longterm implications, the demographic changes influencing hunting recruitment are amending cultural expectations of leadership.
From before the dawn of civilization to the present, as Monster of God author David Quammen explored in 2003, and Man The Hunted co-authors Donna Hart and Robert W. Sussman elaborated upon in 2005, male leadership figures have at least partially defined themselves by whom they had killed. Killing human enemies conveyed the most status, then killing large predators, killing trophy animals, and finally killing other “game.”
The insignia of male leadership has been synonymous with success in killing, whether symbolized by military medals, mounted heads on walls, or just mass media images of aspiring political candidates shooting at ducks.
Jimmy Carter may be an anachronism
But the failure of James Nash to secure a seat on the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission, and the earlier forced resignation of Blake Fischer from the Idaho Fish & Game Commission, together signify that displays of killing prowess are no longer so widely admired as to point toward political success.
Thus the April 19, 2019 Atlanta Journal-Constitution headline “President Jimmy Carter Bags a Wild Turkey at Age 94” may have spotlighted a tradition of killer as political leader that may not long survive Carter himself.