Restoring and preserving an entire ecosystem is a complicated task, but it is not impossible. As we work toward that goal, we consider the network of animals, plant life, and environmental conditions. An important component of that network that is often under-recognized but never overlooked is people. That’s right: us.
Humans are and have always been active participants in this ecosystem, and one of the most historically significant roles we have played is that of the hunter.
Hunting of wildlife by human beings has been an integral part of grassland ecology in North America for at least 10,000 years. Particularly in the Great Plains, where plant-based foods are scarce and hard to cultivate, humans looked to large grassland mammals for food. In a very literal way, hunting by humans is a fundamental component of a fully functioning prairie ecosystem.
Carefully-managed hunting plays an important role in growing the prairie for the benefit of all wildlife. While we recognize that hunting can be controversial, it is an important tool in advancing our conservation efforts from both an ecological and sociological perspective.
We use the term “ecological carrying capacity” to refer to the maximum wildlife population that a habitat can support over time. Human hunters can help to keep certain wildlife species populations within the ecological carrying capacity of an ecosystem, especially in the absence of other keystone carnivores. Keeping the ecological carrying capacity balanced results in an ecosystem that is able to provide for thriving (and growing) wildlife populations.
In addition to managing for ecological carrying capacity, American Prairie is also using hunting to increase social carrying capacity. Social carrying capacity refers to the density of wildlife acceptable to people who live in proximity to, and sometimes interact with, the wildlife. While ecological carrying capacity is grounded in the physical sciences, social carrying capacity is largely determined by perceptions and attitudes.
“From many generations of Indigenous people to present day sportsmen and women, it’s a well-told story that hunters connect with a landscape and learn the life cycle of their prey, and in doing so they come to care about the species they hunt,” says Lars Anderson, a Reserve Manager who works closely with the state wildlife agencies charged with overseeing Montana hunting regulations. “This leads to them becoming advocates both for the animals and also for the land those animals call home.”
This has not always been the mindset of North American hunters. In the 19th century, the unchecked hunting of wildlife decimated species across the country, even to the point of extinction. In an effort to preserve species and restore the hunter’s moral obligation to species survival, a movement of hunter-conservationists emerged. This effort to protect our wildlife heritage gave rise to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. This model, which still guides wildlife management today, holds wildlife in a public trust and establishes science-based management and other measures meant to enhance habitat quality, preserve wildlife, and ensure hunting opportunities for the public.
“No one owns wildlife in America,” Reserve Wildlife Restoration Manager Daniel Kinka, Ph.D. explains. “Instead, we built a system around the simple idea that wildlife should be available for the sustainable enjoyment of all people, for this and every future generation.”
American Prairie takes a similar approach to hunting. The task of determining what areas of the Reserve should or should not be open to hunting falls upon an internal team of Reserve employees known as the Public Access and Recreation Committee. The cross-functional group includes wildlife biologists, recreation specialists, and land managers. When creating appropriate hunting guidelines, they look at each individual property and, using the Freese Scale for Grassland Biodiversity, they consider biology, recreation, culture, and tradition, as well as wildlife surveys conducted by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP).
Once guidelines are in place, American Prairie connects with FWP to share goals and objectives on each parcel of land deemed appropriate for public hunting. If our stipulations work with FWP’s management strategy for the specific area, then that land becomes part of the state’s Block Management program.
Though American Prairie doesn’t charge for hunting on the Reserve, opening up parcels of land to hunters does have a positive economic impact. Hunting has deep roots in tradition in the West, and this is particularly true in Montana. Nearly two thirds of Montanans identify themselves as sportsmen and women who revere hunting as a way of experiencing the outdoors, spending time with their friends and families, and as a means of providing healthy food for themselves. These sportsmen and women spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually in Montana on licenses, travel, food, accommodations, gear, and guiding services. According to a 2016 study by Montana FWP, big game hunters spent $324 million in Montana and $17.2 million in Fergus, Petroleum, and Phillips counties alone. That money has a big impact in small communities. In 2019, public hunters logged over 4,000 hunting days on American Prairie land.
“A 2017 report by Headwaters Economics showed that hunters spent $389 million in Montana in 2017 compared to $83 million for skiers,” says Mike Quist Kautz, Reserve Public Access and Recreation Manager. “That number really shows what an integral source of revenue hunting is for the state and especially for this region.”
Hunters also help to directly support wildlife conservation through the purchase of fishing and hunting licenses. Revenue generated through licensing pays for local habitat enhancement projects and provides funding for state and federal agencies that manage public land and wildlife.
At a fundamental level, hunting also provides healthy food for people. When managed properly, it can serve as a sustainable source of nutrition in addition to filling an ecological niche.
“I had the hunt of a lifetime on American Prairie Reserve, and I feel extremely lucky to have had that opportunity,” Montana hunter Lloyd Hettick says. “The organization’s commitment to public access is huge for Montana, and it’s just so important for regular hunters like myself to be able to have quality hunts and fill the freezer with healthy wild game meat. American Prairie Reserve is the best thing to happen to this area in a long time.”
If you’re interested in learning more about hunting, these resources are a great place to start:
- Hunting American Prairie: American Prairie offers over 79,000 acres of public hunting through the Montana FWP Block Management program. This web page details hunting opportunities on the prairie and further outlines our approach to hunting.
- “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold: Leopold’s seminal work appeals for an awakened relationship with nature and a new land ethic focused on the interdependence of humans and the natural world.
- “Beyond Fair Chase” by Jim Posewitz: An essential treatise on the ethics of hunting and hunters’ moral obligation to wildlife.
- Meat Eater Podcast with American Prairie Founder Sean Gerrity: Host Steven Rinella and Sean Gerrity discuss American Prairie and hunting in Montana.