Columnist Jonathan Tucker: Defends hunting on conservation land

In a letter published Feb. 6, the writer challenges the Gazette’s editorial supporting the city’s proposal to open portions of two conservation properties to hunting in its Open Space, Recreation & Multi-Use Trail Plan (“More land for hunting makes sense,” Jan. 30).

In doing so, the writer made several assertions that require a response. It is worth noting in advance that: 1) the city undertook a careful, well-researched, and balanced open public process in reaching its decision, and 2) that its decision allows hunting on only 290 acres, less than 10 percent of Northampton’s 3,000 acres of conservation properties.

The writer asserts that Northampton is “a city not a rural town,” and so the city’s conservation areas should be regulated for a large population of users. Yet Northampton is a “city” for historical reasons (so designated in 1883), because it had been the Hampshire County seat since 1662. The standard measure of a “city” is by population — 50,000 is a common minimum population threshold.

In 2014, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission estimated Northampton’s population at 28,535, while Amherst’s was 39,826. Northampton has a fairly large land area compared to its neighbors — 35.75 square miles versus Amherst’s 27.7 square miles, for instance.

Northampton has a modest population in a relatively large land area, 3,000 acres of which is protected conservation land. Real-world measures do not seem to support a contention of urban crowding in conservation areas, even presuming use by visitors.

The writer declares that “the number one issue is public safety,” amplifying that with an inference that the change in policy responds to a “push for more” guns. Yet, objective measures of hunting accidents or fatalities (for example, from the National Safety Council) indicate that hunting is a safer form of recreation than some of those in which the writer finds social virtue.

In 2013, there were 1,465 injuries per 100,000 people bicycling, versus only 45 injuries per 100,000 people hunting — you were 33 times more likely to be hurt or killed biking than hunting. Activities measurably more dangerous than hunting include swimming, running/jogging, tennis, water skiing, golf, basketball, soccer, baseball/softball, snowboarding, and so forth.

When hunting accidents occur, they almost exclusively injure hunters themselves, and not non-hunters. When was the last time anyone read in the Gazette about a serious hunting injury or fatality here in the Valley? There’s a reason for that absence. Despite the presence and use of firearms, hunting is a comparably safe form of recreation.

The writer asserts that if the city had “asked naturalists” they would have known that rebounding populations of predators like bobcats are restoring balance to Northampton’s conservation areas. The city did just that as part of its open, public process.

The writer declares that legal hunting of predators will upset a recovering predator-prey balance in conservation areas, removing them as wildlife reservoirs for growing populations of predators. Yet hunting seasons for native predators like coyote, black bear, and bobcat are set by the trained, degreed wildlife biologists of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, who, unlike self-appointed “naturalists,” are professionally qualified to judge the state of natural balance. And the city’s policy leaves more than 90 percent (approximately 2,710 acres) of conservation areas off limits to hunting.

The writer reveals the real heart of his objection when he declares, “I don’t care how much education hunters receive” and repeats his fear of public injury — “putting large numbers of citizens at risk because a small number of people want to enter the conservation areas with guns is unreasonable and irresponsible.” Yet it is hunter education and its promotion of knowledge, responsibility and safe practices that has made hunting a safer recreational activity than many of those of which the writer approves.

I take the writer at his word. He doesn’t really care about hunter education — he either believes there’s a real risk, anyway, or he thinks that fear of guns is an argument that will best resonate with others. But he can’t prove that hunting is a meaningful risk — compared to other activities, it clearly is not. So, what’s left?

The writer’s core argument is that an appropriate reverence (his) for wildlife and natural systems should prohibit any hunting with guns, at all, in any public conservation area, ever. This is not rooted in a reasoned position; it is an article of faith. Yet hunting and hunters have been an integral part of this nation’s conservation history, policy and practice for generations.

A significant proportion of all conservation lands were purchased using federal funds derived directly from hunters and fishers — Massachusetts received $6.5 million in such funds in 2016 — in addition to their personal contributions as taxpayers. The ranks of hunters, trappers and fishers are filled with superbly qualified naturalists, including wildlife professionals and ecologists.

In the end, the writer wants to be a gatekeeper, reserving Northampton’s conservation areas for citizens who will interact with nature only in ways of which he approves. It doesn’t matter to him that hunters are citizens and taxpayers, and were engaged with and participating directly in nature long, long before he came along. But that has to matter to those who set policy for the use of our public conservation lands.

The city’s hunting policy is the result of a responsible, well-informed open public process that considered the legitimate needs and rights of all of Northampton’s residents as well as the environmental health and integrity of Northampton’s conservation areas. It deserves the support of Northampton’s citizens. The Gazette editorial had it exactly right.

Jonathan Tucker, of Florence, is an ecologist, hunter, fisher, writer and musician.

Author: Going Green

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