A number of MeatEater fans (and a guy that I would describe as the opposite of a fan) have taken offense to some remarks that I made in the California wild hog episode. Toward the end of the show, I was talking about the notion of non-native wildlife and drew some parallels between the affects of wild pigs and cattle on the environment. Not surprisingly, some folks understood this as an attempt on my part to disparage cattle or suggest that they have no place on the landscape. This was certainly not my intention. I understand perfectly well the message conveyed by those bumper stickers that say “Cows, Not Condos.” To wit, we owe a debt of gratitude to ranchers and farmers for maintaining large and intact tracts of habitat that benefit all wildlife.
As one viewer from Wyoming pointed out:
“In Wyoming, ag lands (ranches and farms) account for over 90% of the privately owned lands and approximately 45% of the big game winter range. It is a well documented fact that a vast majority of ag lands that are sold are converted to subdivisions, which fragment habitat and can lead to a degradation of watershed quality due to increased runoff, etc. I do know that domestic cattle do have some impact on the landscape, but that impact pales in comparison to what a bunch of 10 acre tracts will do to a piece of big game habitat.”
To add to that viewer’s remarks, I’ll say that the American agricultural community has maintained a deep tradition of allowing hunters access to their lands. After all, on that episode I was hunting on a cattle ranch owned by a long-time friend of mine — a rancher who, I’d like to point out, was not at all offended by my remarks. (And who, when asked if he wished he could get rid of all the wild hogs on his land, said “no.”)
So what was I getting at when I compared wild pigs to domestic cattle? I was demonstrating just one of the conundrums that greet any discussion about the management of introduced and non-native animals — be they wild or domestic. And, in all honesty, I did not intend my remarks to accomplish anything besides opening the door to debate and wonder. As we all know, the act of hunting is more complicated than just wandering around in the woods while shooting at things and eating them. It’s a communion with nature, and a conversation with nature. If I didn’t do my part to illustrate aspects of that conversation, and to invite my viewers to participate in the thoughts that flow through my head, then I wouldn’t be doing my job. So, for that, I can offer no apology.
At this point, I forgive any reader who wants to click away from my writing in order to get on to other business. You are excused. For everyone else, I’d like to invite you to (briefly) explore two other wildlife debates that are centered around the idea of “what belongs on the land.” By doing so, you might better be able to understand where I’m coming from when I use the word conundrum. Who knows, these things may pop up in future MeatEater episodes.
I was introduced to the first debate while hunting wild hogs with some indigenous Hawaiians on the island of Molokai. At the time, they were engaged in a battle with members of the Nature Conservancy, who had proposed the idea of wiping out the wild hog population on a large tract of land that the agency had taken possession of. The hunters were deeply insulted by the notion that their favored prey would be described as “exotic,” “deleterious,” and “non-native,” especially when there’s ample evidence (including archaeological, paleontological, and oral history) supporting the theory that Polynesians first arrived in the Hawaiian archipelago along with hogs around twelve hundred years ago. The hunters were struggling to understand how they as a people could be native, with full native rights to the land, while their animals could be considered exotic and without any right to the land. At one point, one of the hunters made a joke about getting rid of all “non-natives,” and jumped at me as he went for his knife. We all laughed.
The second debate has to do with the perennial controversy over Yellowstone National Park’s buffalo herd. The animals, numbering in the low thousands, are usually content to spend the summer in higher elevation valleys well within park boundaries. In the winters, however, they tend to drift toward lower elevations and almost inevitably find themselves crossing an invisible line that separates national park land from surrounding tracts of national forest and private ranch land. Once they cross this line, they go through a mysterious and sudden transition from wildlife into livestock. That is, when the animals are in the park they are wild, native mammals that belong to us, the taxpayers. When they cross the park boundary, they become errant livestock that could potentially compete with cattle for limited grassland resources and act as vectors that might theoretically transmit a costly disease called brucellosis into privately owned cattle herds. Thus, they can legally be rounded up and slaughtered by the Montana Department of Livestock. What makes this especially puzzling is that buffalo are the only native land mammal of the American west that this set of rules applies to. Grizzly bears, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, elk, moose, antelope, are allowed to come and go across park boundaries without sacrificing their classification as wildlife. But the buffalo is different. Why? My theory has to do with the fact that American hunters nearly exterminated the species in the late-1800s. Following that episode, conservationists and ranchers worked tirelessly to save the buffalo through captive breeding programs. Every single buffalo in the United States was in some way confined. And so we got used to the idea of the animal as being somehow tame and owned rather than wild and public. In the ensuing century, it’s been hard for us to forfeit that notion. We’ve yet to get fully re-acquainted with the idea of wild buffalo.
Please stay tuned. -Steven Rinella