Words Matter. That’s the headline in a special section of a report from Responsive Management titled, “How to Talk to the Public About Hunting.” In my last outdoor news column, I told you about some of Responsive Management’s interesting research about the public’s attitudes toward hunting. Today, I’ll share their recommendations for how hunters can use that research to improve their communications with the public and build more support for hunting. And yes, we must do that. Each of us.
In the early 1990s, Responsive Management found that some people interpreted “hunting” to be tied to “poaching.” And some viewed recreational hunting as a threat to some wildlife populations. Over time, they tested and improved the words they used to describe hunting, using phrases like legal or regulated hunting. They found that “using the most complete phrase – ‘legal, regulated hunting’ – may yield the highest overall level of approval. A 2014 survey of Washington State residents that used this wording found that 88% of residents approved of hunting with 54% strongly approving.”
Another survey in Pennsylvania found that “While just 63% of residents indicated strong or moderate support for lethal methods, an overwhelming majority (85%) supported legal, regulated hunting to manage deer populations.”
Responsive Management offers guidelines for communicating with the public about hunting. In the section on “Wildlife Values” I learned that, “Messages about hunting that address animal welfare (e.g., ethical shot placement and clean, quick kills) may be most likely to succeed.”
The section on ecological values was also interesting. The good news is that, “A recent survey of New Hampshire residents found that majorities of respondents who favored an increase in the deer population were still in support of the increase even if it meant an increased likelihood of damage to gardens and landscapes, vehicular accidents, or losses to farmers or timber land owners, or an increased risk of Lyme Disease.” I’ve been concerned that the spread of Lyme Disease might lead southern Mainers to object to high populations of deer.
The down side is this, “Only 37% of respondents would support an increase in the deer population if it meant reduced deer health, while just 28% remained supportive of the increase if it meant less food or poorer quality habitat for other wildlife. Findings such as these imply that the hunting community will realize the greatest return on investment by employing communications that connect hunting to broader conservation concerns impacting wildlife and habitat.”
I was particularly interested in their findings about hunting versus hunters. “It is critical to keep in mind that attitudes toward hunting may not always reflect attitudes toward hunters. Consider that, in one Responsive Management study, 64% of non-hunters agreed that a lot of hunters violate hunting laws; in another survey, 50% of American adults said that a lot or a moderate amount of hunters drink alcohol while hunting. For this reason, programs and communications may need to separate hunter behavior from the activity of hunting itself.”
I take away from this last bit of information that we need to be mindful of our behavior, even when we are not hunting. Coming out of a store at mid-day, in fluorescent orange, with a case of beer, may convey the wrong message to nonhunters, for example. And we all need to honor the rules governing my hunts with friends: no one may drink even a single beer, at lunch, if that want to hunt with us in the afternoon. There’s a group of poachers in my area who drink beer while they hunt, and toss their empty bottles down wherever they finish them. Sad but true.
Key Considerations for Communicating about Hunting
Here are the recommendations from Responsive Management about how to talk to the public about hunting.
- Provide opportunities to connect non-hunters to hunting (positive attitudes increase as people gain direct experience). * knowing a hunter * eating wild game meat *thinking of hunting as part of the locavore/sustainable food movement * experiencing hunting * emphasizing social networks and mentoring.
- Use the term “legal hunting”
- Separate hunting from poaching (unfortunately, a segment of the population still connects the two)
- Emphasize that species do not become endangered or extinct from legal, regulated hunting
- Engage animal welfare to combat animal rights
- Emphasize the role of hunting in wildlife management and habitat conservation
- Target specific demographics with messages most likely to resonate with them (communicate to suburban residents the need to keep populations in balance in order to minimize negative interactions with wildlife)
- Consider that ecological benefits resonate better than human benefits
- Consider that approval varies based on species, motivation, and method
- Emphasize that the vast majority of hunters (95%) eat the game they kill
- Encourage hunters to share the meat they harvest
- Utilize agencies, wardens, and biologists as spokespersons (preferably in uniform)
- Connect hunting to habitat issues wherever possible
- Develop programs to address hunter behavior (hunters vs. hunting)
- Develop messages based on research
- Test and evaluate the effectiveness of programs
There is a lot to absorb and think about here. I recommend that you print these recommendations and keep them handy. Be the best, most ethical hunter, you can be. And get out there and talk to the public about hunting! Yes, you can make a difference. And it is vitally important that you do, as our population of hunters continues to diminish.