Two New Books By Unlikely Advocates Make the Conservation Case for Hunting

A birder and a Brooklynite examine their opposition to hunting, give it a try, and—finding a deeper sense of stewardship—urge others to reconsider.
Waterfowl on a pond seen through tall grass, the end of a gun visible in the foreground.
South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks Cottonwood Lake Game Production Area. Foto: Margie Crisp

Margie Crisp was standing beside a flooded Texas rice field, admiring a gazillion shorebirds, waders, and waterfowl, when she asked herself a question that would dramatically change her relationship with wildlife: “What if I’m wrong?

An artist, writer, and lifelong birder, Crisp was one of the many environmentalists who regard hunting with disdain. And yet, here was a wetland created for the benefit of hunters that was boisterous with birdlife of all sorts—not just game species—in a region where sprawl has gobbled up habitat at a depressing rate. When a nearby birder bemoaned that this temporary haven was designed just to lure in ducks for macho types to shoot, Crisp heard something else: “There is an undercurrent of smug certainty, a breath of self-righteousness that creeps up my neck like nettles brushing bare skin.” 

Recognizing her own prejudice and presumption in the remark, Crisp asked herself that fateful question and began to wonder how her own contributions to protecting wildlife habitat would measure up against a hunter’s. And before long, as she describes in Duck Walk: A Birder’s Improbable Path to Hunting as Conservation, published in January, “at an age when most women are considering retirement,” she found herself hunkered in a duck blind, holding a shotgun.

Crisp’s conservation conversion led her not only to buying that 12 gauge—an undertaking marred, sadly if not surprisingly, by casual sexism—and venturing, camo-clad, into pre-dawn wetlands, but also to learning more about the central role hunting plays in protecting North American bird habitat. Thanks to the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, she learns, revenue from excise taxes on guns, ammunition, and archery equipment is distributed to states and territories to fund wildlife restoration and management. Over its lifetime this program has pumped more than $25 billion (in today’s dollars) into conservation and public-access projects, including a record $1.2 billion in 2023 alone. (See how much your state received this year here.) 

Hunters also fund wildlife management through their license fees. Plus, anyone who wants to hunt waterfowl has to buy a federal duck stamp, essentially another license. The duck stamp program has raised more than $1.1 billion since 1934 to protect 6 million acres at national wildlife refuges. In an age when most North American birds are declining at a sickening pace, wetland conservation funded mainly by hunters has fueled vigorous growth of waterfowl populations.

Over and over on a road trip up the Central Flyway and through the Prairie Pothole region, often called North America’s duck factory, Crisp sees wetlands and grasslands protected with duck stamp and Pittman-Robertson funds. She comes to realize that hunters’ contributions to maintaining and creating habitat are unmatched by any other group. “Birdwatchers don’t pay a tax on binoculars, hikers don’t pay a tax on boots or backpacks, and the sales of mountain bikes and ATVs don’t fund restoration or conservation,” she writes. “Without a direct funding mechanism, wildlife watchers, their purchases, and their activities may support local economies but only indirectly support conservation.” 

A woman in camouflage stands outside looking at several dead ducks lined up on a railing.
Margie Crisp with Gadwalls. Foto: Kevin Dees

By explaining these dynamics, Crisp’s book takes direct but genial aim at birders, challenging them to rethink their assumptions and do more to save habitat; not everyone needs to go out and buy a shotgun, but anyone can buy a duck stamp. And when she eventually kills her first bird, a Green-winged Teal drake, she finds that experience, too, is different from what she had assumed. “I’d expected a sense of loss, but this is not grief. I study myself. Gratitude. A sense of thankfulness burns through me,” she writes. “An appreciation so deep that I want to call it love makes me close my eyes and I stand silently at the edge of the water.”

Maybe unexpectedly, the death of an animal also provides one of the loveliest moments in another new book by an erstwhile anti-hunter who has embraced the pursuit wholeheartedly. In this case, Brant MacDuff has just shot a white-tailed deer. It’s a moment worth quoting at some length, because it encapsulates much of what MacDuff aims to do in The Shotgun Conservationist: Why Environmentalists Should Love Hunting

“Seeing that animal alive then knowing I was the one who made it dead grounded me and connected me to the earth and my food in a way nothing else ever had. There was a small element of pride, the same pride I imagine a gardener feels after uprooting a carrot they’ve grown. I didn’t feel superior to the deer. I didn’t feel I had conquered nature. I finally felt equal…I spent most of my life not understanding hunting. I felt now I’d spend the rest of my life not being able to explain it.”

That’s a sentiment far different from the common notion of hunters as bloodthirsty brutes who slay animals to exert dominion over nature. MacDuff’s book is full of such correctives, which will be obvious to hunters but perhaps illuminating to many of his fellow Brooklynites. He explains, for instance, that hunting is strictly regulated, with designated seasons and limits for each species, which wildlife managers can tweak from year to year if their research detects a dip in animal populations. And, valuably, he points out that people who ignore those limits or kill out of season aren’t hunters—they’re poachers. 

A man wearing camouflage and holding a gun smiles at the camera, in a blind surrounded by tall grass.
Brant MacDuff on a goose hunt. Foto: Ashley Bohan

MacDuff arrived at hunting primarily as a meat lover disgusted by factory farming and looking to procure food more ethically and sustainably. “To those who hate hunting and hunters and also eat meat: I was like that once. But the sheer crushing weight of the hypocrisy finally became too much for me,” he explains. “I saw the duck hunter as flawed, while my basket of twenty-five-cent wings ranneth over.” 

He comes to see hunting, even for species he personally has no interest in killing or eating, as an effective tool for restoring habitat and growing wildlife populations. And with that understanding comes insight into why many hunters feel underappreciated by other outdoor users. Only around 4 percent of Americans 16 and older hunt, yet their license fees, combined with Pittman-Robertson funds, cover most of the tab for state wildlife programs. “It gets old pretty fast to hear flowery speech about folk’s love of the outdoors while, in the same breath, they decry the hunters and anglers footing much of the bill to keep wildlands protected for everyone,” he writes.

At the same time, it can be frustrating for birders, backpackers, and other outdoor enthusiasts to hear hunters crow about their contributions; paying required fees, under a generations-old system none of us had a part in creating, isn’t necessarily a mark of virtue. And today most Pittman-Robertson dollars come from other firearm purchasers, not from hunters, raising ethical concerns about tying conservation funding to the nation’s epidemic of gun violence. 

There is no reason, though, that an excise tax on more benign types of equipment—binoculars, backpacks, kayaks, and much more—couldn’t play a similar role. The idea has been brewing for years but outdoor brands have resisted. The possibility of a “songbird stamp,” a complement to the duck stamp, has also been raised, but to little fanfare.

For now, convincing Congress to pass the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act looks like the clearest path to major new investments in on-the-ground conservation. Disagreement over how to pay for it doomed the bill in the last Congress, but it was recently reintroduced by a bipartisan pair of senators, and advocates are optimistic it’ll eventually cross the finish line—if enough outdoor-loving Americans get loud about it.

Rallying for RAWA, as the bill is known, is one way non-hunters can chip in. In the meantime, Crisp and MacDuff present a strong case that birders, backpackers, and everyone else should acknowledge the vital role hunting has played in protecting habitat—and welcome efforts to grow and diversify the dwindling ranks of hunters—even as we explore new ideas for sustaining and growing those efforts.

Birders can hunt, hunters can bird, and we’re a more powerful force for environmental protection when we get to know and work with one another. “I fantasize about a collaboration of people and groups from across the nation, ignoring partisan boundaries and joining together, as we’ve done before, to fund conservation,” Crisp writes. “A gal can dream.”

Duck Walk, by Margie Crisp, 240 pages, $33. Available here from Texas A&M University Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Shotgun Conservationist, by Brant MacDuff, 256 pages, $28. Available here from Hachette.