GREAT FALLS, MONT. — HUNTING IS a way of life in my native state of Montana, where half of all men over the age of 18 hunt. But overall in the United States, only a few enjoy this sport. In 1989, for example, 7 percent of Americans bought hunting licenses. For many urban Americans, hunting seems as distant as the nation's frontier past.
Because hunting is beyond the experience of many, hunters themselves have begun to feel like an endangered species. Urbanization has reduced wildlife habitat. Environmental regulations, which hunters mostly support, strictly limit hunting opportunities. Beset by economic pressures, ranchers and farmers increasingly charge hunting fees. Finally, animal rightists say all hunting should be banned. To them, hunting is murder because animals have as much right to live as do humans.
I am a Montanan who does not hunt. But I will defend hunting, which, at its best, serves as an important reminder of humanity's primordial relationship with nature.
In a world overrun by humans, where all natural systems are under assault, hunting must be tightly controlled so as to maintain healthy populations of animal species and biological diversity. We should never allow species survival to be endangered by hunting. For this reason we should limit or ban the hunting of certain trophy animals. We should also ban the commercial use of skins or body parts of endangered wild animals.
But my primary concern is ethical. Is it fundamentally wrong for humans to kill another sentient creature for their own sport or pleasure? This is a troubling question. The worth of the biosphere cannot be measured by its utility to humans. Even when we do reduce it to the scale of human utility, we must acknowledge that human survival requires a healthy biosphere.
But let us also recognize, as has essayist Wendell Berry, that all life must have an impact on its environment or perish. Let us contemplate this mystery: All life feeds on other life. We are wild creatures ultimately dependent on the bounty of life for our survival.
Most Americans eat meat. Not so many stop to reflect that they are accomplices to the butcher, that their own life and health depend on the sacrifice of another of God's creatures. Some vegetarians have thought about this and turned away from meat in disgust. Yet they too are accomplices. Our houses, clothes, roads and vegetable gardens have all required the displacement and destruction of other creatures that we might live.
Hunting at its worst denies our vulnerability and dependence in a brazen display of macho posturing. Hunting at its best celebrates the mystery of who we are: a wild creature which evolved as a tribal hunter and gatherer, dependent on the fruits of the land. By reminding us of our origins and limitations, and of the vulnerability and interdependence of life, hunting can help us maintain a healthy relationship with the Earth.
Admittedly, many hunters may not reflect deeply about why they like to hunt. But perhaps they should. Hunting is no longer a necessity. When we need to put meat on the table, we go to the supermarket. Apart from managing wildlife numbers, the primary justification for hunting today is as a meditation on our relationship with the living world.
So let us continue to hunt, but as we do, let us also contemplate the mystery of who we are and, like the American Indian, thank the Great Spirit and the animal for the gift of life.
James A. Humphrey, a lawyer, manages farms and ranches in north-central Montana.