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A shared love of wild places can overcome differences
Hunter-birders and a modern conservation movement, Part 2
Everyone feels a connection with nature. Our inherent need for connection and community can bring diverse people together and help them experience nature on their own terms. This innate biophilia provides an opportunity for people to think of themselves as bird enthusiasts and conservationists. Like the seasonal migration of geese, recreational activities may shift over time—whether it be hunting or birdwatching—but that does not alter the essence of biophilia.
Acknowledging that people and the labels we assign them are both fluid and constantly evolving is a way to reframe how we think about hunters and birders. We cannot afford to allow rigid labels to confine our thinking and limit our potential. People are complex, nuanced, and ever-evolving. Our relationship with birds highlights this complexity and shifting consciousness. Since the first Christmas Bird Count in 1900, we have been on a trajectory toward a more compassionate relationship with the natural world.
It was this impulse for care and connection that early conservationists leveraged to create our first protected areas for birds and nature in general. Hunter-birders continue to play a large role in supporting the conservation movement that we have today. They have been successful in creating habitat on federal, state, and private land. Hunters pay an 11 percent tax on firearms and ammunition, and this has generated $7 billion for conservation since its inception in 1937. Waterfowl hunters also purchase 1 million migratory bird stamps every year; 98 percent of these funds go to support conservation. This has led to increased numbers of waterfowl and other wetland-dependent birds, which is a remarkable feat given the otherwise widespread decline in most other groups of birds. However, times are changing. Hunter numbers are in decline as interest in birdwatching is on the rise. Increased interest in wildlife photography is lowering the average age of birders while the average age of hunters is increasing. Birdwatchers are aging in; hunters are aging out. We need a transition to a new model for conservation that engages everyone. We need hunters and birders to work together.
A first step may be to help more birders experience the beauty of places like the Illinois River Valley. I am a hunter, and I can speak the language, yet I often feel uncomfortable when I visit our public lands. The vibe is decidedly insular and off-putting for non-hunters. Most of the public land along the Illinois River has been developed for hunters, and that is fine, but we need to engage a larger and more diverse cross-section of our population to help manage these properties and restore new areas.
Blinds for bird watching at Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge would provide year-round viewing opportunities for diverse bird enthusiasts. The welcoming blinds and the safe spaces they create would allow more people to experience this refuge as a sanctuary for themselves. Chautauqua, created in 1936, is one of a small group of premier shorebird stopover sites in the Midwest. Chautauqua’s 6,200 acres are in the middle of a network of refuges on the Illinois River, where over 250,000 waterfowl and 100,000 shorebirds rest and refuel on peak days. This tremendous abundance includes Bald Eagles. As a result, more than 100 eagles spend the winter at the refuge.
The sights and sounds of thousands of migrating birds are a spectacle that is easy to appreciate. Large flocks of birds can fill the sky over the refuge and hint at the once-former abundance that early settlers described as “miles of birds in the sky.” In addition to this spectacle, birders in blinds at Chautauqua in spring and late summer would have intimate views of shorebirds and waterfowl as they pass through on their epic migrations. An intimate encounter with undisturbed birds would bring great joy to many people. We can create the right conditions to help us observe our little joys up close. Making birdwatching more accessible in this way can help our region tap into the already flourishing birdwatching tourism industry, which generates $41 billion a year in the United States.
Welcoming new people and providing a pleasant experience are key. We need to upgrade the sparse, utilitarian aesthetic with something more holistic and beautiful, something that enhances wild beauty rather than detracting from it. We need more diverse perspectives to create welcoming spaces. Artists have an important role to play. These spaces could be enlivened with art installations that help people appreciate the beauty that is all around them. We could accentuate the essence of this wild place and allow it to nurture our sense of wonder. Wildness, wonder, and imagination would be a potent combination for change.
How can we make it work? Having birders purchase migratory bird stamps and using those funds for relevant infrastructure is one promising approach. If half of the 45 million birders in the United States purchased a migratory bird stamp, it would generate $1.1 billion for conservation annually. These funds could be used to build blinds and other infrastructure for birders at places like Chautauqua, which is recognized as a globally important bird area, a Ramsar wetland of international importance, and a site within the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. This sparkling jewel can help people connect with wetlands and gain an appreciation for what 9 million acres of Illinois used to look like. We have drained 90 percent of wetlands in Illinois, but small oases still exist on the landscape. Our challenge is to find ways to expand these oases and create an interconnected network of restored wetlands that can support biodiversity, water quality, and human well-being.
There is a tremendous upside to engaging in this process of bringing hunters and birdwatchers together. If we get them to work collaboratively, we can restore vast areas of habitat that would connect all people to the natural world. Our shared love of birds and wild places can overcome our differences and help us focus on what we have in common. We can lead with curiosity, openness, and optimism. We all have a role to play in supporting a viable modern conservation movement. A movement that transcends the artificial boundaries that we create in our minds and brings birding and hunting enthusiasts of all kinds together to nurture our common ground and to make that ground inviting for all beings.