Men's Journal

Are American Hunters the Last Great Hope for Conservation?

Conservation International’s M. Sanjayan holds his dinner on an expedition led by the Dene people on the Thelon River in Canada's Northwest Territories. Sanjayan believes that hunting and fishing for food can teach valuable lessons in environmental stewardship.  Conservation International / Ami Vitale

There’s a climate denier in the White House, an oil executive nominated for Secretary of State, and a Congress that wants to effectively stop solar power’s progression and bring back coal. And yet M. Sanjayan, the former host of Earth: A New Wild, “the scientist” on Years of Living Dangerously, and Executive Vice President at Conservation International is (guardedly) optimistic. “When elections bring radical government changes — like in Indonesia, the Philippines, Ecuador, Brazil,” he says, "we still expect our people on the ground to continue to do their work.” In America, that work is not just the result of left-leaning, petition-signing environmentalists living on the coasts. Sanjayan, who has a home in Montana, suggests those living in the rural center of the country — many of whom voted for Trump — are potentially the last great hope for the U.S. conservation movement. “Our message, that people need nature, is even more relevant to folks who are living a little bit on the edge,” he says. One prominent group that is perhaps most in tune with this are the tens of millions of American hunters who probably know the forests, plains, and mountains better than your average camper. Here, Sanjayan talks about true Teddy Roosevelt Republicans, why hunters make good conservationists, and the role environmental nonprofits play in a government that may do away with the EPA and, at least according to much rhetoric, public lands altogether.

Hunting is gaining prominence in the White House with Montana’s Ryan Zinke as the pick for Secretary of the Interior, Trump’s trophy-hunting sons spreading influence, and a seeming nostalgia for Teddy Roosevelt Republicans. Where do modern-day hunters and conservationists see eye-to-eye?

Here in the U.S., the real reason wildlife laws are enforced is the people, not just the government. Often, if someone is doing something wrong in this country, it’s the hunters who tell the wildlife officials. The whole notion of hunting being connected to the availability of land and water — hunting as conservation — runs deep in the United States, particularly in the West. And that’s because it affects everyone. So if my neighbor goes on a hill and sees someone poaching, he’s going to call on that guy because, "Wait, this is all of our property."

And this thinking is everywhere in your home state, Montana.

Even in Missoula county (a liberal county; one that didn’t vote for Trump), a majority of the meat that people eat in the winter is what in Africa you call "bushmeat." It is meat that is somehow derived from that land. I cannot go to a party out here without being offered something that someone shot: elk, deer, bison, moose, antelope, ducks. And so hunting, really, is part of the food, part of the culture, part of what people do, and that continues to play a huge role in how the same folks keep access to public land or take measures that allow governments to buy land and water, or ensure that rivers run free. And when anyone tinkers with it, when anyone messes with it, Montanans really stand up and say no.

Do you think former Congressman Zinke is a part of this philosophy?

A part of the thing about Zinke, as far as I know, is that he’s really a bit of his own man. He makes up his own mind. He’s not afraid to speak his mind to part ways with the party line some extent. And his support for public land, for federally managed public land, for the country having national parks, for the country having land and water that the people can enjoy, can hike, or hunt, are very rooted in the way Montanans view their land — public land. Whether Montanans hunt for food, trophy, or sport, they want the ability to hunt and fish because it’s a cultural value. Here’s someone who understands the values that Montanans place on conservation and hunting and the connectedness between, because they’re both more cultural values. To have someone in a position of power who understands that is really important. In that sense, he’s an ally to conservation.

What have you learned from hunting?

First of all, I hunt for food only — I don't trophy hunt. And I’m not a die-hard hunter by any means. But when I’m out there on the land or hunting with friends, I have a very different conversation and ability to talk to people and unify them around why the land needs to be protected. It's crazy, right? Here I am, born in Asia, grew up in Africa, West Coast educated, PhD, driving a hybrid, and I have a cabin in a rural county in Montana where there are probably 3,000 voters, a massive county where a vast majority of [the population has] a political view of the world that is different from mine. Hunting and fishing is a great equalizer. It might not work for individual species or an individual issue, but at the end of the day, it allows us to protect land and water. That culture will help, if someone wants to take it away.

Is this sort of hunting culture unique to America?

Nobody has employed hunting as a conservation force as effectively as the United States and Canada. Mexico, to a certain extent, but the U.S. especially has done an extraordinary job with it. It’s not that Europe doesn’t have a hunting culture — they very much do, especially in places like Germany and France and Great Britain. The challenge is that it is still very restricted to a few people who can afford it. And the landscapes are not very big. They’re still quite, from our terms, very small and intensively managed. In North America hunting is an inclusive (not exclusive) activity — it connects more than divides — and that is a very powerful force for conservation.

What about Africa? There’s been a lot of talk about raising money for conservation through hunting all over the continent.

When you go to Africa and you look at the way in which hunting is tied to conservation, it is an exclusionary thing. There, it’s only available to those who can really afford to pay. For a lot of countries I have worked in, hunting for locals is discouraged. Mostly very wealthy people, often outsiders are coming in to trophy hunt, bringing money to conservation efforts. There are some good examples of course — Namibia I think does a relatively good job managing this. But to be honest, from what I have seen, that rarely is the case. Often, the science is sketchy, the policing is terrible, and the actual mechanism by which that money goes in to provide sustainable livelihood for people is actually pretty sad.

If Africa can show the other extreme — a forced (and failed) marriage of hunting and conservation — how do we strengthen the connection here in the U.S. between climate change, environmental protection, conservation, and this hunting culture. Or must it always be grassroots?

Look, I can only speak of the places [where] I live and hunt, so you think about the counties in Montana that I hunt in, and those hunters, people who live off the land, those ranchers who live off the land, they really do understand the impacts of climate change. They see when frost shows up, they see how late the snow can be and how it impacts wildlife. But I think there’s a lot of fear about what to do about it. That’s kind of the conundrum. 

Hunters and fishermen in Montana have really been at the forefront of every conservation issue this state has been engaged in. At the end of the day, it really is about freedom and the freedoms people want to have. They want some measure of control from the decisions they make and the things they take. And they’re not being told by someone else from far away what to do. It’s not that my neighbor hates wolves because they're paranoid about them knocking at the door and eating their kids. What they’re really worried about is losing control. They live in a world where what they’re delivering is not widely seen as terribly important. It’s not like Facebook and Google are setting up their next headquarters in rural counties. Their way of life, the one they’ve been practicing for a long time, seems very tenuous moving forward. And the thing they want is to control it, and hunting kind of equalizes that a bit. It’s a collective agreement that we the people are doing what’s in our best interest. I think that’s why it can be a very powerful unifying force.

So how does this translate to fighting the anti-environment, anti-science positions we’re seeing now from the incoming Federal government?

“Transformation without permission,” that is the mantra at Conservation International now. The big trend that I think we'll certainly see over the next year or two will be community-based conservation. So when you look around the planet, you realize very quickly [that] the biggest, widest, vastest landscapes in the country, [or] throughout the planet, are in the hands of, belong to, are managed and stewarded by local communities and business people.

There is opportunity now for indigenous communities to really have a voice. For example, my organization Conservation International works in Northern Kenya on a 7 million acre landscape where multiple tribes who historically have fought one another are now able to collaborate on governance, have enforcement of laws, protect wildlife, and have revenue sharing and enact conservation efforts. In the Amazon, we have this goal of getting deforestation down to zero by 2020. There’s no way that’s going to happen without indigenous communities. Or you go off West Papua, Indonesia and you are talking about a 22 million-hectare seascape that’s entirely, successfully community managed. You are going to see more focus on community-based conservation because it provides a great avenue for getting things done when traditional roles of government or wealthy individuals may be missing or absent.

How do you see this happening in the U.S. as well?

I think it’s happening in the U.S. as well but in a quieter way. Come to Missoula, for instance, and there are two big rivers: the Blackfoot and the Bitterroot. Look at the Bitterroot and look at the landscape around it, look at the species, look at the conditions of the river and then go look at the Blackfoot. It’s like night and day. The Blackfoot is protected because of landowners and community efforts by groups like The Nature Conservancy in Montana and Five Valleys Land Trust. In the end, local-based conservation, whether it is indigenous communities or local communities, who are unifying to protect big areas of the country because it provides benefits to them, has the best chance to stick and scale, in times of uncertainty.