Kevin Lake: Northampton Conservation Commission chairman explores assumptions and facts about hunting



Last modified: Monday, October 14, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Following recent letters and columns in the Gazette about hunting on city conservation land, I want to respond as chairman of Northampton’s Conservation Commission. I don’t know where my colleagues on the commission stand on this issue. Massachusetts’ Open Meeting Law prohibits us from deliberating other than during public meetings. I speak only for myself.

Although like most boys in the 1950s I was taught to handle a rifle, I believe that firearms should have no place other than in museums as artifacts of a time gone by. I’d like to see the U.S. lead the world in rigorous gun control. I do not hunt, and on a basic level I just don’t get it. It always seemed that only uncaring bad guys would go out and shoot Bambi’s mother. I have always resented having to wear bright colors and put them on my dog during deer season in Vermont each year.

My role as a commissioner, however, explicitly requires that I not promote regulations based on my personal opinions. This means I have to listen and learn and cannot presume that the opinions of others are wrong.

At recent meetings, people have advocated for everything from zero hunting, to limited bow and primitive weapon hunting on a single parcel, to no restrictions beyond those of state laws. I have been interested in each argument and I have done additional research. Here are a few of the things I have learned:

Argument: Hunting damages habitat that conservation lands are created to protect.

Facts: Hunting does almost no habitat damage. Hiking and mountain biking are far more damaging. Hunters go off trails in ones and twos to find a place in which to wait in a blind or tree-stand. When they are moving, they tend to make noise. Unlike hiking groups, hunters want to be silent. Whether soil compaction, erosion, damage to vegetation, noise disturbance or other damage, hunting is one of the least intrusive things humans do in the woods.

Argument: Hunting is wrong either because it produces suffering or because it depletes populations.

Facts: Animals die from predators, starvation, automobile hits and exposure. It is hard to argue that being shot involves more suffering than being torn into by coyotes or starving to death in the cold. Since humans have displaced other predators, deer populations have exploded to unnatural levels, with increased rates of starvation. These facts may argue for prohibiting hunting of predators, but not of deer.

The form of hunting we call fishing evokes wholesome Norman Rockwell images. Fishing so consistently does diminish populations that the state funds fish hatcheries to replace these populations. Shall we prohibit fishing?

If one argues that mammals are more worthy of our compassion than fish, then we have to address the fact that most of us eat mammal meat. Are we saying that as long as the mammal is killed as a captive in a pen by someone else that is more moral than facing an animal in the woods before killing and eating it? Why is this better?

Argument: Hunting is dangerous.

Facts: Throughout the U.S. each year, there are fewer than 100 hunting-related fatalities. In more than half of these, the hunter kills himself or herself. In nearly all of the remainder, the hunter kills his or her hunting partner. It almost never happens that a non-hunter is killed or injured by a hunter. European data gathered by the British government indicate that activities like scuba diving, jogging and driving a car result in one fatality for every six or seven thousand participants. For hunting, that number is one in 17,000. Last year Vermont had not a single hunting “incident” — no fatalities, no injuries, nothing. Some of this is due to the training required to get a hunting license that requires that you demonstrate competence in safety practices.

Every day, we go out on highways and trust that other people will keep their lethal tons of metal on their side of the road and not kill us. We trust this even though we know most of those people will at some point talk or text while driving. No hunter will ever talk or text while aiming. Why am I more fearful about getting shot than I am about getting smashed into?

Argument: Hunting is scary to the rest of us and prevents us from enjoying the woods as we would like.

Facts: This is the argument that makes me the most uncomfortable with my own personal reactions. For years I have assumed hunting was cruel, damaging, dangerous and unfairly limited my enjoyment of being in the woods. In going through the learning I’ve just described, however, I realize that there is little basis in fact for my feelings.

My next reaction is “OK, maybe it isn’t as bad as I thought, but it is still scary to me. It makes me uncomfortable to see hunters or just to know they might be out there. I don’t want to feel that fear and discomfort. I don’t want them out there.” Ahh ... so, am I saying that, in spite of evidence, others are responsible for my fears and discomfort and they should stop doing what they do, so I won’t feel that way?

This, I’ve come to think, is a definition of prejudice. What if my discomfort were in reaction to young men in hoodies or to people with different ethnicity and language? Why should I feel more legitimate about these feelings if they are about hunters? Through all the research I have done I haven’t found facts to justify my feelings. The majority of people may have feelings like mine which incline them to prohibit hunting. At various points in our history, majorities held prejudices about all kinds of things. The majority can be wrong.

argument: Allowing hunting will unleash all hunting in all seasons and in all areas.

Fact: Nope. We can allow as little or as much as we want. Amherst allows hunting only on four conservation areas. Hingham allows only bow and arrow hunting and only during deer and wild turkey season. If we decide to allow hunting at all, we can do what we think makes sense.

Although I am a lay person, most members of the commission are professionals in this area ... wetlands scientists, environmental science teachers, an environmental attorney. We are volunteers who spend time on this because we care about it. The people of Northampton can be sure whatever we decide is being done carefully, and after a lot of listening and learning.

Kevin Lake lives in Northampton.


 

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