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The eroding social license to hunt large carnivores

Sidney, British Columbia

A wolf walks across the beach in the intertidal zone on the coast of BC.
Photo by Steve Woods.

New research suggests killing predators like wolves, grizzly bears, and cougars for trophy is a potential threat not only to these sensitive animals, but also to hunters. Reporting in a freely available paper in the peer-reviewed journal, Conservation Biology, researchers from the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Universities of Victoria and Wisconsin – Madison illustrate how the public are increasingly revoking the ‘social license to hunt’ large carnivores. 

With case studies ranging from Cecil the Lion to the now banned Grizzly Bear trophy hunt of British Columbia, the scientists explain how the public’s values and attitudes regarding the treatment of animals do not align with the seemingly gratuitous killing involved in trophy hunting. “Large surveys tell us that the public generally shows strong support for hunting to feed your family”, says Chris Darimont, “but not to feed your hunger for status”, noting that wolves and other large carnivores are seldom eaten and instead killed for trophy.

Those opposed to trophy hunting now commonly engage in social media, with increasing effect. Their challenges can compel policy makers, politicians, and businesses to change policy about how – and if – carnivores can continue to be hunted and carcasses transported. 

A prominent case study involved grizzlies from British Columbia. Despite the provincial government arguing for decades that the hunt was sustainable, they cancelled it in 2017 following persistent public pressure, strong public polling (see permission-granted figure), and citing the role of misaligned public values in their decision. The researchers believe that similar changes to hunting policy could occur with time, including the potential banning of wolf hunting in some areas, including BC. 

Figure of public opinion polls in BC, showing opposition to sport/trophy hunting.
Public opinion polls in BC, showing opposition to sport/trophy hunting (of bears and in general).

The authors also alert hunters to the threat. “The minority of hunters who kill predators for trophy can tarnish the food-hunting majority”, notes Darimont, “potentially eroding general support for hunting and jeopardizing opportunities for hunters to partner on important conservation initiatives, including the preservation of wildlife habitat”.

“A few hunters argue that healthy populations of predators should be ‘fair game’, and that any opposition to predator hunting is somehow unscientific. That’s a misunderstanding of how resource management policy evolves,” Darimont notes, “The reality is that only values – not science – can dictate whether an activity is tolerated by society”.

Notes

  1. As indicated in the paper, given that Indigenous legal tradition and contemporary practise do not recognize wildlife as a good belonging to all inhabitants of colonial nation states, we excluded Indigenous peoples – who have inherent and inalienable rights to hunt – from consideration as “operators” like other hunters in the Social License to Hunt framework. 
  2. Neither Raincoast nor our authors on the paper oppose hunting for food. In fact, several members engage in the activity.