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Against Trophy Hunting

A Marxian-Leopoldian Critique

Alexander Simon is an associate professor of sociology at Utah Valley University.

Contemporary North Americans hunt wildlife for a variety of reasons, whether to attain game meat, spend time with family and friends, or take part in a form of outdoor recreation.1 Others consider directly harvesting animal products from wildlife a means of rejecting factory farming and consumerist values.2 Still another motive for killing wildlife is to enhance one’s status by appropriating the body parts of dead animals for display as trophies, ostensible evidence of hunting skills. My focus here will be on some of the organizations that promote this latter practice, trophy hunting.

In the United States, trophy hunting organizations, such as Safari Club International and Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, claim to promote and defend two allegedly deeply rooted Western traditions: The popular practice of “common people” hunting, and the role that hunters and hunting organizations have played in protecting wilderness and wildlife. Jon Wemple, president of Safari Club International’s Western Montana Chapter, clearly subscribes to this narrative of hunting and wildlife conservation in the United States: “I am reminded of the importance of preserving our hunting heritage…my grandfathers’ generation left it better for my father than he had inherited at the turn of the century. This was a time [i.e., the late nineteenth century] when buffalo, elk…and other species were nearly lost.… The true conservationists (hunters) stepped up to the plate. Visionaries like Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold…put us on course for what we enjoy today.”3

These claims perpetuate a mythologized version of the history of Euro-American hunting. Contrary to their image as “true conservationists,” many trophy hunting organizations have promoted policies and activities with adverse social consequences, contributing to the environmental degradation they claim to oppose. After briefly discussing the history of Euro-American hunting, I will adapt concepts from Karl Marx and Aldo Leopold as a framework for criticizing this damaging legacy. Finally, I will argue that the contrived desire of hunters for the violent appropriation and conspicuous consumption of animal body parts should be subordinated to humanity’s common interest in wilderness preservation and to the interests of wildlife species to live in their natural states.

Euro-American Hunting

According to historian and hunter Jan Dizard, although humans have hunted for thousands of years, the desire to hunt is not an essential human trait. “Had I decided to quit hunting…I would not have been going against my nature or defying my genes,” he writes. “I would have simply…gone about my life somewhat differently.”4 Hunting, particularly for sport, is far from an ancient, suprahistorical phenomenon. From the seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries, both Europeans and North Americans considered hunting, for either sport or meat, a frivolous distraction from the serious businesses of growing crops, raising livestock, and the like. Hunting for food was stigmatized as an “inefficient” use of natural resources, providing one of the justifications for violently seizing land from indigenous peoples. Thus, like indigenous peoples—though not with the same brutal consequences—Euro-Americans who primarily appropriated animal products from wildlife were considered inferior to tradespersons and farmers.5 Although Euro-Americans routinely decimated populations of deer, rabbits, crows, and other “vermin,” the aim was to replace indigenous flora and fauna with domestic crops and imported livestock.6

By contrast, European elites have hunted for sport, and have sought to deny the general public access to game animals, for centuries.7 However, it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century, after the Industrial Revolution was well underway, that hunting became a popular form of recreation among the upper classes in the United States.8 Trophy hunting groups have correctly noted that, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, some hunters played key roles in protecting wilderness and wildlife. However, as will be shown below, the claim that contemporary trophy hunting organizations remain at the forefront of efforts to preserve biological diversity is objectively and demonstrably false.

In the late nineteenth century, elite hunters, including Theodore Roosevelt, recognized that unbridled capitalism would lead to the extinction of many wildlife species and unsustainable exploitation of forests and other natural resources.9 After becoming president in 1901, Roosevelt, with Gifford Pinchot, appointed as the first chief of the newly created Forest Service, designated millions of acres “national forests,” ostensibly to be managed for the common good.10 Roosevelt also doubled the number of acres classified as National Parks, and took actions to protect and promote the genetic diversity of the Yellowstone bison herd.11 Although Roosevelt and Pinchot’s approach to land management can be criticized as utilitarian and anthropocentric, their legacies of preserving some remaining wilderness areas, protecting species that were on the verge of extinction, and preventing the wholesale plundering of public lands, is undeniable.

Like Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold believed that hunting and adhering to game laws were means of developing self-reliance and self-restraint. Moreover, Leopold maintained that hunting for food was inherently valuable, serving to deepen awareness of humanity’s dependence on external nature.12 However, toward the middle of the twentieth century, Leopold contended that most hunting organizations were more concerned with game farming than with wilderness preservation.13 As will be discussed below, contemporary studies support Leopold’s assertion that many hunters, as well as hunting organizations, privilege an abundance of the species they wish to hunt over wilderness preservation and the overall health of ecosystems.

After the Second World War, improvements in wages and benefits—gained in part by a relatively strong labor movement—allowed members of the working class the leisure to hunt for sport in far greater numbers. Thus participation in hunting in the United States did not reach its high mark in the 1750s or the 1850s, but in the 1950s, when approximately a quarter of all adult men hunted.14 However, by the late twentieth century, urbanization and the growth of the environmental movement contributed to a gradual decline in the popularity of hunting. In 2011, just 11 percent of men and 1 percent of women participated in some form of hunting. Declining participation in hunting is likely to continue, as 55 percent of hunters are over the age of 45, and young adults aged 18 to 24 account for only 11 percent of hunters.15

Despite this decline, approximately $14 billion is spent on hunting equipment and related products in the United States each year.16 In addition, big box retailers such as Cabela’s have continued to expand, albeit at a slower rate than their corporate officers recently projected.17 These corporations actively create and promote the desire to appropriate and conspicuously consume dead animals. One of the distinguishing features of late capitalism is that it inverts the relationship between wants and production. As John Kenneth Galbraith observed, surplus production necessitates the creation of new wants via the advertising industry—or, in Marxist terms, “use value is subordinated to exchange-value.”18 With the aim of increasing demand for hunting equipment, big box retailers support trophy hunting organizations, advertise in hunting magazines and websites, and sponsor hunting television programs. According to Safari Club International CEO Phil DeLone, Cabela’s “is a perfect fit to help fight for our hunting heritage, here and around the world.”19 Thus, in the twenty-first century, trophy hunting is little more than a “contrived want,” falsely presented as a deeply rooted Euro-American tradition.

Materialist Views of Human and Natural History

Concepts from either Marx or Leopold alone could be used to criticize the adverse social and ecological consequences of the policies and practices of trophy hunting organizations. However, incorporating ideas from both provides a more complete analysis. Both Marx and Leopold were influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution.20 Both thinkers had materialist conceptions of human and natural history, and maintained that these two processes were dialectically related. Marx and Leopold saw humans as active agents who alter their natural environment, but also contended that the environment in turn affects the evolution of material and symbolic culture. Leopold explained the constant interplay between humans and what he described as “fellow-voyagers…in the odyssey of evolution” in this manner: “That man is, in fact, only a member of a biotic team is shown by an ecological interpretation of history. Many historical events, hitherto explained solely in terms of human enterprise, were actually biotic interactions between people and land. The characteristics of the land determined the facts quite as potently as the characteristics of the men who lived on it.”21

Leopold and Marx both recognized that private ownership of land could lead to environmental degradation. Moreover, both used the analogy of slavery to illustrate how treating the natural environment as merely a means to an end often led to the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. As Marx explained, “From the standpoint of a higher socioeconomic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias.”22 Likewise, Leopold noted, “When god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his household whom he suspected of misbehavior during his absence. The girls were property. The disposal of property was then, as now, a matter of expediency, not of right or wrong.”23 Thus, both Marx and Leopold maintained that living societies had an obligation to sustainably use and protect natural resources for future generations.

Despite these similarities, Marx died long before the development of Leopold’s ecocentric land ethic, and Leopold was no Marxist. Marx maintained that the necessity for capitalists to compete for market share and short-term profits inevitably caused both environmental degradation and human exploitation. Thus a socially just and ecologically sustainable economy required the abolition of private property and the rational use of land by a fellowship of associated producers, who would manage natural resources in the collective interest of current and future generations.24

As a student at Yale in the early 1900s, Leopold attended a lecture by the popular author and socialist Jack London, inspiring him to read some socialist literature, but he never defined himself as a socialist or radical.25 Leopold, who owned a small plot of abandoned farmland, as well as stock in his family’s desk factory, did not call for the abolition of private property rights or the collective management of natural resources. In his last book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold asserted that changing the ethical worldviews of individuals was the key to ecological sustainability. Specifically, he argued that to produce a sustainable economy, it was sufficient to compel people, especially private landowners, to recognize their membership in larger biotic communities and their ethical obligation to sustainably use resources—without violating what he maintained was the right of other species to exist (killing individual members of nonhuman species was acceptable). Of course, from a Marxist perspective, altering the ethical views of individuals can accomplish very little without concurrent radical changes in the social relations of production.26

It should be noted that in private correspondence, Leopold expressed pessimism regarding capitalism’s long-term viability. In a 1946 letter to Bill Vogt, he contended that “the philosophy of industrial culture…[is]…irreconcilable with ecological conservation…. Industrialism might theoretically be conservative if there were an ethic limiting its application to what does not impair (a) permanence and stability of the land (b) beauty of the land. But there is no such ethic, nor likely to be…. That the situation is hopeless should not prevent us from doing our best.”27 Thus, it appears that Leopold considered the transition to a form of capitalism that was constrained by a land ethic possible, but not probable.

Despite these differences regarding the reforms required to create an ecologically sustainable and socially just society, both thinkers maintained that humans had coevolved with other species, and that humans were ethically obligated to use natural resources sustainably. Moreover, as will be discussed below, Marx and Leopold both believed that access to nature should be an inalienable right.

Subordinating Land Health to Hunting Rights

Contemporary hunters are disproportionately middle-aged, white, male, and conservative, with higher incomes than the general population.28 As indicated above, hunters as a group tend to privilege an abundance of the species they are interested in killing over the existence of biologically diverse ecosystems.29 Therefore, it is not surprising that trophy hunting organizations such as Safari Club International and Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife seek to remove physical and legal barriers to their members’ access to game animals, even if these policies degrade or even destroy wilderness ecosystems.

For instance, trophy hunting groups tend to privilege easy access to game species over wilderness preservation. Leopold recognized that road and highway construction was one of the primary threats to wilderness. He was also aware that hunters often refuse to travel far from roads, and that many hunters demanded that more roads be built to provide easy access to game species. “He [the trophy hunter] is the motorized ant who swarms the continents…. For him the recreational engineer dilutes the wilderness and artificializes its trophies.”30 Despite the unprecedented road-building that has occurred in the six decades since Leopold’s death in 1948, trophy hunting groups are still calling for more roads. In 2011, Safari Club International joined with oil and gas interests to support a federal bill that would have allowed roads to be built on millions of acres of national forests that had previously been designated “roadless.” Safari Club International’s lobbyists claimed that road-building would grant hunters greater “access” to public lands.31

Leopold was among the first scientists in the twentieth century to assert that apex predators, such as wolves and mountain lions, create “trophic cascades” that enhance the biological diversity and stability of ecosystems. He further maintained that predators should not be removed from the landscape in order to placate hunting interest groups.32 In the past two decades, numerous studies have supported Leopold’s assertion that apex predators play key roles in maintaining the health of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.33 Yet despite the scientific consensus on the ecological value of apex predators, many trophy hunting groups sponsor wolf-killing contests, oppose wolf reintroduction in the contiguous 48 states, and support aerial wolf killing in Alaska, as well as other practices designed to severely decrease populations of apex predators. Their purported aim is to artificially manage wilderness ecosystems to inflate game species and to decrease populations of predator species.34

Other apex predators, such as polar bears and African lions, are highly valued by trophy hunters. However, these groups encourage behaviors that undermine the health and long-term survival of the species that they claim to be conserving. For instance, polar bears are listed as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In addition to facing pressures from hunting, scientists predict that climate change will lead to dramatic declines in polar bear populations during the next century.35 The Obama administration recently listed lions in some regions of Africa as “endangered” and others elsewhere as “threatened.” Despite claims by trophy hunting organizations that hunting promotes wildlife conservation in Africa, there is evidence that, in some cases, trophy hunting causes populations of African lions to decline.36 Safari Club International challenges the validity of these scientific studies, and continues to fight legal battles to allow the importation of the body parts of polar bears, African lions, and other threatened or endangered species, including tigers, gorillas, and orangutans.37

By encouraging their members to kill the largest breeding males of multiple species, trophy hunting organizations may be threatening the genetic diversity and long-term survival of many of the animals they allegedly value and respect. Unlike apex predators, which typically kill the weakest and most vulnerable members of a species, human trophy hunters often intentionally seek out the largest specimens. In the case of ungulates, the brawniest males usually have the largest antlers or horns, which, in turn, bear the highest trophy value. Thus trophy hunters often remove individuals with the highest breeding value from wildlife populations. This phenomenon has been referred to as “unnatural selection,” and has been shown to reduce antler size and body size in roe deer and horn size and body size in mountain sheep. Unnatural selection likely compromises the long-term viability of a wide variety of terrestrial and aquatic species.38

With the aim of overcoming natural limits to the number of “trophy quality” specimens that ecosystems are capable of producing, Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association support “hunting” animals that have been selectively bred and raised in captivity on game farms. As will be discussed below, wildlife were already being raised for profit in Marx’s time, but the industry has rapidly grown in the United States during the last decade. In some cases, the animals are “hunted” in pens too small to allow them any chance of evading the humans who have purchased the right to kill them. Some of the buck deer on these farms have been selectively bred to the point that their antlers impede their ability to hold their heads up and move freely. Raising wild animals in confined spaces can also result in the spread of diseases. For instance, chronic wasting disease, which is similar to mad cow disease, has been shown to spread from captive populations of deer to wild populations.39

Thus wildlife is transformed from living in a state that Leopold characterized as “natural, wild, and free” to a state of involuntary servitude, in which their bodily fluids (e.g., sperm for selective breeding), body parts, embryos, and offspring are all turned into commodities and sold on the open market.40 Although Marx did not extend his concept of “alienated labor” to nonhumans, Drew Leder has noted that in regard to meat and other commodities appropriated from animals on factory farms, “alienation from the product of one’s labor takes extreme form when the product is one’s own flesh.”41

Alienation from Nature

Both Marx and Leopold recognized that land and wildlife could intentionally be managed for the benefit of economic elites. In turn, the working masses who did not own private property or have the economic resources to purchase access to land grew alienated from nature. Marx famously described this phenomenon in his newspaper editorial denouncing the practice of denying peasants access to firewood from the forests of the Rhineland.42 However, Marx was also appalled by the practice in Scotland of managing land to produce unnaturally docile deer, or what Leopold referred to as “artificialized trophies,” for wealthy hunters, while denying propertyless workers usufruct rights to land that had previously been held in common. These artificial “deer forests,” which reportedly contained no trees, were evidently precursors of contemporary game farms. Marx noted that the deer were “demurely domestic cattle, fat as London aldermen,” bred for hunters “with some love of sport…while others, of a more practical cast, follow the trade in deer with an eye solely to profit.”43

Like Marx, Leopold opposed the use of money and private property to alienate people from nature. On a trip to Germany, Leopold was disturbed to learn that two Dresden businessmen had purchased exclusive fishing rights to a trout stream that ran through a small village.44 In regard to North America, Leopold contended, “I am trying to make it clear that a wilderness hunting trip is by way of becoming a rich man’s privilege, whereas, it has always been a poor man’s right…. Do we realize its possible effect on the nation’s character and happiness?”45

Both Marx and Leopold would have been appalled by how trophy hunting groups and private landowners, as well as state agencies, have made economic resources—as opposed to knowledge, strength, endurance, and skill—the primary factor in determining if a hunter is able successfully to appropriate wildlife. For instance, in Utah, state laws permit private ranchers to sell tags to kill wild elk—despite the fact that ranchers do not own the wildlife on their property—for as much as $10,000 each. Other groups, such as Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and the Mule Deer Foundation, auction off coveted deer tags in Utah for as much as $200,000. Miles Moretti, President of the Mule Deer Foundation, responded to critics of this practice: “Can a guy buy a tag every year for $200,000? Yes. So, it’s not fair? Well, life’s not fair. This is a way to raise money for wildlife.”46 But instead of benefiting wildlife, as Moretti claims, much of the money obtained from these auctions supports lobbying efforts to increase wolf killing in the Rocky Mountains.

Economic resources can also be the primary factor determining whether a hunter “earns” one of Safari Club International’s coveted awards, such as the “Bears of the World Grand Slam.”47 Throughout North America, it is common practice for wealthy hunters to rent the mental and physical labor of skilled guides, as well as the dead labor of machines, such as float planes, boats, and all-terrain vehicles. Economic resources thus create artificial inequality among hunters. In Alaska, one study found that the brown bear (one of the species required for the Grand Slam award) kill rate for non-Alaskans was 55 percent, while for Alaskans it was only 8.7 percent. The authors concluded that “hunters with guides were more successful than individuals who did not hire guides. Likewise, airplanes and charted boats allowed access to remote areas and also were associated with success.”48

Success in appropriating the body parts of dead animals now depends largely on personal wealth, not skill or endurance. Winners of Safari Club International’s “Africa Big Five Award” must kill at least some animals in their natural habitats in Africa. However, the lion and the Cape buffalo may be purchased, and subsequently killed, at game farms in the United States.49 A rich but incompetent hunter is more likely to receive the award than a skilled hunter who cannot afford the services of guides and game ranches. For fees ranging from $9,950 to $14,500, the Texas Hunt Lodge offers its guests the opportunity to obtain a “Texas Slam” award from Trophy Game Records of the World. This prize requires killing a Sitka deer, an axis deer, a fallow deer, and a blackbuck antelope. All of these species are bred on the ranch’s property, and potential guests are assured that “We can accommodate hunters of any age and experience level, as well as hunters which have physical disabilities or may be confined to a wheelchair.”50

Thus access to game animals, and the knowledge and physical ability necessary to appropriate wildlife, have been turned into commodities. As with other commodities, money and property, not need, skill, or merit, decide who enjoys access to these animals and the prizes they bring. As Marx observed, “Money’s properties are my properties and essential powers—the properties and powers of its possessor. Thus what I am and what I am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality…I, as an individual, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet.”51

Hunts with No Social Value

Leopold maintained that individuals should develop their own outdoor skills and not rely on guides or “gadgets.” Thus, he saw little value in the unskilled “hunting” practices encouraged by many contemporary trophy hunting organizations. Moreover, he viewed trophy hunters, whose primary goal was to kill animals using methods that required no patience or skill, as frozen in the “hog-sticking stage” of development.52

For Leopold, hunting and other forms of outdoor recreation offered opportunities for people to escape the regimentation imposed on them by modern bureaucracies by relying on their own wits and skills. On a canoe trip down the Flambeau River, Leopold encountered two male college students who would soon be entering the military to fight in the Second World War. The canoe trip was a brief reprieve between the controlled environment of campus life and the controlled environment they would encounter serving in the armed forces. He noted that there were no police officers to protect them from the dangers of the river nor did they retain a guide to shield them from the consequences of poor decisions. “The elemental simplicities of wilderness travel were thrills not only because of their novelty, but because they represented complete freedom to make mistakes. The wilderness gave them their first taste of those rewards and penalties for wise and foolish acts which every woodsman faces daily but against which civilization has built a thousand buffers.”53 The kind of freedom Leopold described cannot be found on guided hunts or by pursuing trophies through canned kills on game farms.

By the metrics employed by trophy hunting organizations, Leopold was not a very successful hunter. He maintained that wilderness experiences that were heavily mediated by modern technologies—camper trailers, automobiles, modern rifles—detracted from the value of hunting, and that “gadgets” were a poor substitute for wilderness skills. Leopold preferred the respite from daily routine offered by traveling on foot or horse and sleeping in tents. On many of his hunting trips, he hunted with a bow—far less accurate and lethal than a rifle—that he had made himself. Although, according to his journal entries, his use of premodern technologies often prevented him from killing anything on many of these hunting trips, Leopold cherished these experiences.54

In addition to a temporary reprieve from the constraints of modern society, Leopold maintained that by directly appropriating food and other resources from nature, or what Marx referred to as humans’ “inorganic body,” hunters could attain a deeper understanding of their dependence on nature. Leopold believed that this awareness need not come from killing wild animals, and that “there is value in any experience that reminds us of our dependency on the soil-plant-animal-man food chain.”55

Unfortunately, obtaining food is often a secondary goal of many trophy hunts, if it is not a goal at all. In fact, Safari Club International encourages its members to donate game meat, rather than consume it themselves, so that they may use the tax deductions to finance future trophy hunts.56 The apex predators so prized by trophy hunters are not consumed by people. On some bear hunts, e.g., all Alaskan brown bear hunts and fall black bear hunts in Alaska, hunters are not required to harvest meat from their kills. In most cases, the bear is skinned and the carcass left behind. If the primary purpose of a hunt is to obtain non-edible body parts with the aim of enhancing one’s social status, it is not likely to result in an increased awareness of one’s dependence on external nature.

It should be noted that some hunters are appalled by these practices. When a Minnesota dentist and Safari Club International member named Walter Palmer killed the Zimbabwean lion known as Cecil in 2015, provoking an international uproar, the Wyoming writer and hunter David Zoby commented: “Palmer and his ilk would most likely perish if left alone in the African wilds. They have no skill, no local knowledge, no understanding of the species they are there to collect. These ‘trophies’ are simply objects that wealthy sportsmen feel entitled to once their checks have been cashed.”57

Leopold also contended that hunting could create opportunities for people to learn patience and ethical restraint. Unlike many other forms of recreation, hunting often allows participants to violate laws and ethical codes without fear of detection. Their conscience is the only form of social control. Leopold recalled, as a young boy, waiting an entire afternoon for a duck to land in a hole in the ice of a frozen pond. On another boyhood hunt he struggled to refrain from shooting a treed partridge: “Compared with [it], the devil and his seven kingdoms was a mild temptation.”58

The policies of trophy hunting groups promote neither patience nor ethical restraint. By encouraging hunters to compete among themselves for the body parts of dead animals, trophy hunting organizations tacitly encourage acquiring trophies by the most expedient means available. Thus, they promote egocentrism, immediate gratification, and impulsive behaviors. For instance, the preferred hunting style at the game farm of another Safari Club International member, Dick Cheney, stands in sharp contrast to the patience and restraint Leopold practiced as a young boy. Cages containing pheasants were reportedly rattled to confuse the captive birds, who were then released in front of Cheney and his companions. Together they killed 417 pheasants; Cheney was credited with 70 of these kills.59 Cheney’s eagerness to kill was no doubt a factor in his decision, on a subsequent hunt, to violate several gun safety rules. Cheney famously ended up shooting one his hunting companions, leaving him wounded and permanently disfigured.60

The emphasis that trophy hunting organizations, hunting magazines, and hunting television shows place on killing and acquiring trophies may also inadvertently encourage some hunters—especially those who cannot afford guides and game farms—to violate game laws. In his interviews with game wardens, Steven Eliason found that the “Wardens…claimed that the trophy hunting industry (magazines, television programs) has exacerbated the situation [i.e., poaching] by creating unrealistic expectations for hunters, which serve to fuel the desire for trophy poaching.”61

Strong Interests versus Contrived Wants

As mentioned above, trophy hunting is a “contrived want,” promoted by corporate interests as a deeply rooted cultural tradition. This, in turn, indicates that trophy hunters have only a weak interest in being able to kill wildlife. Killing animals is not necessary for their physical survival, personal fulfillment, or cultural heritage. Trophy hunters can engage in alternative forms of recreation and conspicuous consumption. They also have the option of engaging in hunts that involve less killing and require more skill. They could, for instance, choose to travel by foot through intact wilderness ecosystems, and face the challenges of hunting animals that are more alert and evasive, due to the presence of apex predators, instead of hunting on game farms or in ecosystems devoid of large predators. While trophy hunters have alternatives, wildlife, and those who value wilderness, do not. As Leopold observed, “Wilderness is a resource that can shrink but cannot grow…the creation of wilderness in the full sense of the word is impossible.”62

As in most conflicts over environmental policies, such as attempts to mitigate the effects of climate change, it is misleading to portray the controversy over trophy hunting as a struggle among stakeholders with equally valid interests. J. Baird Callicott has applied Leopold’s land ethic to resolving conflicts over land use. He has proposed that “stronger interests…generate duties that take precedence over duties generated by weaker interests.”63 Therefore, according to this ethical model, the weaker interests of trophy hunters should be subordinated to humanity’s stronger interests in wilderness preservation and what Leopold referred to as the “biotic right” of other species to exist in their natural states.

This does not mean that all forms of hunting should be banned. For some of the species that coevolved with humans, chiefly ungulates, their Leopoldian “natural states” may include being the prey of human and nonhuman predators. In some regions, where apex predators are absent and their reintroduction is not possible, allowing humans to hunt wildlife may even be required to protect crops and natural ecosystems. However, wildlife did not evolve to be kept as domestic livestock, and to do so interferes with the evolutionary process, and can spread diseases to non-captive wildlife.


By demanding that more roads be built and that apex predators be removed from the landscape, by promoting the development of game farms, by awarding prizes for killing members of species with the best breeding value, and by encouraging their members to kill threatened or endangered species, trophy hunting organizations have become an existential threat to wilderness and wildlife. Moreover, these policies undermine the well-being of current and future generations of humans—which, of course, contravenes both Marxist ethics and Leopold’s land ethic. Additionally, trophy hunting organizations are not preserving a deeply rooted U.S. tradition. They are merely promoting a form of conspicuous consumption, in itself a barrier to a socially just and ecologically sustainable economy.

However, while it is apparent that, as a group, contemporary hunters are not at the forefront of struggles to protect the last remnants of wilderness ecosystems, the intention here is not to depict all hunters as threats to wilderness and biodiversity. In fact, some of the most outspoken defenders of wilderness and apex predators, such as the Alaskan wildlife biologist Victor Van Ballenberghe, are hunters. But though they enjoy hunting, they privilege the existence of intact wilderness ecosystems over their personal desires to harvest game. Doug Smith is the chief wildlife biologist in charge of Yellowstone’s wolf reintroduction plan and a lifelong hunter. According to Smith, “well over 95 percent of the hunters…are recreational hunters…. [Y]ou don’t need that deer or elk every year…. I greatly enjoy hunting, even if I don’t get anything…I prefer to eat wild meat, but I don’t need it.”64 Thus, not all hunters pose a threat to biodiversity and the last remnants of wilderness. The threats come from, in Leopold’s words, “the trophy-hunter who never grows up,” who, in order “to enjoy…must possess, invade, appropriate,” and from the corporate interests that promote these destructive forms of egocentrism, conspicuous consumption, and accumulation.65


  1. Stephen Eliason, “A Statewide Examination of Hunting Nonhuman Animals: Perspectives of Montana Hunters,” Society and Animals 16, no. 3 (2008): 256–78.
  2. Laura Portwood-Stacer, “Anti-Consumption as Tactical Resistance: Anarchists, Subculture, and Activist Strategy,” Journal of Consumer Culture 12, no. 1 (2012): 87–105.
  3. John Wemple, “President’s Message,” Safari Club International, Western Montana Chapter, Fall Newsletter (October 2012): 1.
  4. Jan Dizard, Mortal Stakes: Hunters and Hunting in Contemporary America (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), 14.
  5. Daniel Herman, “Hunting Democracy,” Montana 55, no. 3 (2005): 22–33.
  6. David Nibert, Human Rights, Animal Rights (New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 2002), 1–2; Jan Dizard, Mortal Stakes, 29–36.
  7. For a summary of how European and North American economic elites have exploited game laws to exclude the general public, see Stephen Eliason, “From the King’s Deer to a Capitalist Commodity: A Social Historical Analysis of the Poaching Law,” International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice 36, no. 2 (2012): 133–48.
  8. John Organ and Erik Fritzell, “Trends in Consumptive Recreation in the Wildlife Profession,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 28, no. 5 (2000): 780–87.
  9. John Sandlos, “Savage Fields: Ideology and the War on the North American Coyote,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 9, no. 2 (1998): 41–51.
  10. Curt Meine, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010), 76–78.
  11. Paul Schullery, “A Partnership in Conservation: Roosevelt and Yellowstone,” Montana 28, no. 3 (1978): 2–15.
  12. Aldo Leopold, “Wildlife in American Culture,” Journal of Wildlife Management 7, no. 1 (1943): 1–6.
  13. Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993), 33–35.
  14. Dizard, Mortal Stakes, 21-69.
  15. U.S. Department of the Interior, 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 2011), 29,
  16. U.S. Department of the Interior, 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, 4.
  17. Mike Troy, “Cabela’s Pulling Back on Store Expansion,” Chain Store Age, October 22, 2015,
  18. Sut Jhally, The Codes of Advertising: Fetishism and the Political Economy of Meaning in the Consumer Society (New York: Routledge, 1990), 22.
  19. Safari Club International, “Cabela’s Renews SCI Sponsorship,” January 9, 2015,
  20. Karl Marx, “Letters 1858-1868,” in Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 525–26; John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 189–225; Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 108–12; J. Baird Callicott, “Animal Liberation and Environmental Ethics: Back Together Again,” in In Defense of the Land Ethic: Essays on Environmental Philosophy (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989), 49–59.
  21. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 205.
  22. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1991), 911.
  23. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 201.
  24. Foster, Marx’s Ecology, 163–77.
  25. Meine, Aldo Leopold, 58.
  26. John Bellamy Foster, “Global Ecology and the Common Good,” in Ecology Against Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002), 44–51.
  27. Aldo Leopold, 1946 letter to Bill Vogt, quoted in Meine, Aldo Leopold, 478.
  28. Dizard, Mortal Stakes, 42–45.
  29. Robert Holsman, “Goodwill Hunting? Exploring the Role of Hunters as Ecosystem Stewards,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 28, no. 4 (2000): 808–16.
  30. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 176.
  31. Ben Long, “Beware of Wolves Cloaked in ‘Access,’High Country News, September 20, 2011,
  32. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 129–33.
  33. James Estes et al., “Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth,” Science 333 (2011): 301–09.
  34. Alexander Simon, “A Historical and Case Study Analysis of the Reasons Why Many Trophy Hunters Are Hostile Toward Wolves and Wolf Advocates,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 24, no. 1 (2013): 104–20.
  35. Christine Hunter et al., “Climate Change Threatens Polar Bear Populations: A Stochastic Demographic Analysis,” Ecology 91, no. 10 (2010): 2883–97.
  36. Craig Packer et al., “Sport Hunting, Predator Control, and Conservation of Large Carnivores,” PLOS ONE 4, no. 16 (2009),
  37. Lydia Millet, “Stuffed Animals with an Agenda,” New York Times, April 4, 2015.
  38. Fred Allendorf and Jeffrey Hard, “Human Induced Evolution Caused by Unnatural Selection through Harvest of Wild Animals,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106 (2009): 9987–94.
  39. W. Matt Knox, “The Antler Religion,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 35, no. 1 (2011): 45–48.
  40. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, vi.
  41. Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (New York: International Publishers, 1964), 106–19; Drew Leder, “Old McDonald’s Had a Farm: The Metaphysics of Factory Farming,” Journal of Animal Ethics 2, no. 1 (2012): 73–86.
  42. Karl Marx, “The Law on Thefts of Wood,” in Selected Writings, 20–22.
  43. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1984), 683–84.
  44. Meine, Aldo Leopold, 357.
  45. Aldo Leopold, “A Plea for Wilderness Hunting Grounds,” in David Brown and Neil Carmony, eds., Aldo Leopold’s Southwest (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1990), 156.
  46. Felicity Barringer, “Utah Hunters Criticize Market Approach to Licenses and Conservation,” New York Times, December 2, 2012.
  47. Matthew Scully, “Hunting for Fun and ‘Charity,’New York Times, April 17, 1999.
  48. David Albert et al., “Efforts and Success of Brown Bear Hunters in Alaska,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 29, no. 2 (2001): 506.
  49. Wayne Pacelle, “Stacking the Hunt,” New York Times, December 9, 2003.
  50. Texas Hunt Lodge, “Texas Slam Hunt,”
  51. Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 167.
  52. Meine, Aldo Leopold, 63.
  53. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 112.
  54. Aldo Leopold, “Gila Trip,” in A Sand County Almanac and Other Writings on Ecology and Conservation, ed. Curt Meine (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2013), 643–56.
  55. Aldo Leopold, “Wildlife in American Culture,” Journal of Wildlife Management 7, no. 1 (1943): 1.
  56. Scully, “Hunting for Fun and ‘Charity.'”
  57. David Zoby quoted in Alexander Simon, “A Western Lesson from Cecil the Lion: Trophy Seekers Aren’t Hunters,” High Country News, August 27, 2015,
  58. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 121.
  59. Matthew Scully, “Sportsmen for Bush and Kerry,” Arizona Republic, September 19, 2004.
  60. Paul Farhi, “Since Dick Cheney Shot Him, Harry Whitington’s Aim Has Been to Move On,” Washington Post, October 14, 2010.
  61. Stephen Eliason, “Trophy Poaching: A Routine Activities Perspective,” Deviant Behavior 33, no. 1 (2012): 76.
  62. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 200.
  63. J. Baird Callicott, “Holistic Environmental Ethics and the Problem of Ecofascism,” in Beyond the Land Ethic: More Essays in Environmental Philosophy (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999), 73.
  64. Doug Smith, in discussion with author, May 2014.
  65. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 176.
2016, Volume 68, Issue 04 (September)
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