As anglers and hunters, we like to pat ourselves on our collective back about what great conservationists we are. We do that because state fish and wildlife management is funded primarily by license fees and the excise taxes that we pay on the fishing and hunting equipment we buy. Those hundreds of millions of dollars annually benefit all species, not just those we like to catch and hunt.
But contributing to conservation is not the same as being a conservationist.
That realization came to me recently when I saw a post from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) on its Facebook page, thanking those whose comments "led to a vote to oppose the release of wolves in Colorado."
I also saw other comments that leave no doubt that many hunters want the elk for themselves. Here's just one: "I hate wolves and I hate the people who love them, too."
Additionally, I saw the above poster, explaining "why hunting is conservation."
No it's not. Hunters and anglers contribute to conservation. And, yes, some of them are conservationists, including me. I write about my conservation lifestyle in "I Am a Steward," an essay in Why We Fish.
Also, elk, bison, whitetail, and turkey all are thriving once again because of financial contributions made by hunters, through license fees, excise taxes, and great organizations like RMEF and the National Wild Turkey Federation.
But many hunters are not conservationists. They are hunters. Period. And, like selfish children, they don't want to share.
That's what prompted me to leave this comment on the RMEF Facebook page:
"RMEF has done great things to bring back the elk, and I am grateful for that. But I do wonder how large the elk population was long before 1907, before greedy commercial hunters nearly wiped them out, along with bison and wolves.
"And I am troubled by the anti-wolf rhetoric here. Those who want the elk back but not the wolves are not conservationists. Rather, they are not a whole lot different than those commercial hunters who didn't want to share either. They wanted all the elk for themselves.
"Wolves are just as much a part of the wilderness as elk and to deny them that place is not conservation. It's game management for the benefit of hunters, who, like other predator species, do not want competition.
"With proper management, we can have both species and a wilderness that once again is truly wild."
I don't want to leave anglers out of this sermon either. Yes, many practice catch-and-release, and, most times, that's good conservation. But for some, it also leads to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality. In other words, the logic goes, "If the fish swims away, then I've done my part."
Never mind that far too many fish die of delayed mortality because of mistreatment prior to release.
And whether you hunt or fish, you should leave the places you frequent better than how you found them if you call yourself a conservationist. Pack out not just your own trash, but that left behind by others.
Respect the land and water, as well as all of the fish and animals that live there, recognizing that each is a integral part of the natural system. Asian carp, Burmese pythons, and other harmful exotic species are notable exceptions. Introduced into systems with no natural limits on their numbers, they destroy the balance, just as commercial hunters did more than a century ago.