BOOKS: Nature’s Keepers

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1999:

Nature’s Keepers: On the Front Lines
of the Fight to Save Wildlife in America
by Michael Tobias
John Wiley & Sons (605 3rd Ave., New York, NY 10158), 1999.
238 pages, hardcover, $24.95.


Poachers were the undisputed heroes
of cops-and-robbers with a wildlife motif for
at least the first 700 years they existed as a
genre. Only late in the 20th century has the
Robin Hood image of the poacher tarnished,
to the point that recent renditions of the Robin
Hood legend––like the animated version from
Walt Disney Studios and the live-action version
starring Kevin Costner––have utterly
ignored his reputation as a deerslayer, gillnetter,
and master of the snare.

The literature of poaching has been
transformed by the first-person exposes of
anti-poaching activists John Nichol, Judy
Mills, Michael Day, Stanley Breeden and
Belinda Wright, among others; biographical
works featuring game wardens as heroes, following
Game Wars (1991), by Marc Reisner;
and the Rachel Porter mystery series by former
wildlife beat investigative reporter Jessica
Speart, whose Gator Aide (1997), T o r t o i s e
Soup (1998), and Bird Brained (1999) are the
episodic saga of a Nancy Drew-like character
employed as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
special agent.
One might get the notion that Robin
Hood’s descendents are suddenly in deep
“sign.” And they are, in the court of public
opinion. In the field and courts of law, however,
poachers still hold the edge––as Michael
Tobias documents in Nature’s Keepers.
There are many times more poachers
than wildlife agents; they often have more
money and better equipment; and they have
influential friends in Congress, where some
actual convicted poachers hold office, to the
extent that they have recently secured the virtual
repeal of the longstanding prohibition on
shooting waterfowl over baited fields. This
prohibition, routinely violated by up to 70%
of all waterfowlers according to USFWS surveys,
had repeatedly embarrassed influential
persons including members of Congress, who
argued successfully that they should not be
prosecuted in instances where wildlife agents
cannot prove they knew before shooting that a
field was baited.
That wildlife agents are outnumbered,
underbudgeted, and politically
betrayed are, however, familiar aspects of the
genre––and of most cops-and-robbers stories.
Michael Tobias may be the first of
the many chroniclers of the situation to point
out the paradoxes that the culture of wildlife
law enforcement is itself dominated by hunting,
and that most poaching is actually the
continuation of traditional hunting practices,
often fully legal when the poachers learned
them from fathers or grandfathers, and still
legal if used by the many hunters and trappers
who work for USDA Wildlife Services, formerly
called Animal Damage Control.
“All they talk about and think about
is hunting, hunting, and more hunting,” former
USFWS and California Department of
Fish and Game special agent Carroll Cox said
of his former colleagues in a 1997 interview
Tobias echoes that observation,
pointing out the near-universal belief among
wildlife agents that declining hunting participation
is their biggest problem, not poaching
per se, because wildlife law enforcement is
largely financed by hunting license fees.
Responds Tobias, “Believing that
hunters should be the ones to finance preservation
of other life forms––whatever the conservation
gains accomplished by some hunting
organizations––is not practical. From an ethical
point of view, it strikes me as rather obvious
that reliance on hunters for protecting
other animals is about as clever as entrusting
drug rehabilitation programs to crack and
heroin dealers.”
But “most disturbing,” Tobias continues,
“is the response of state Fish and
Game agencies.”
As he quotes Humane Society of the
U.S. staffer Susan Hagood, “Instead of seriously
seeking alternative sources of funding,
and management that emphasizes non-hunted
species, they are trying to increase hunter
numbers so that they don’t have to change.”
Tobias observes that, “Among the
many new tactics being applied by the states is
an emphasis on initiating children into the
hunting culture,” much as drug dealers try to
get youngsters hooked.
“Montana, for example, will now
sell a trapping license for $3.00 to any sixyear-old,”
Tobias recounts. “In North
Dakota, the state has adopted a ‘Pathway to
Hunting’ charade by which a 14-year-old is
guaranteed a license to go out and kill a deer
or a Canada goose. New Jersey’s Fish and
Game Department has a ‘youth-only pheasant
hunt’ for kids 10 to 15. And in Pennsylvania,
the state encourages 12-year-olds to kill deer
and geese during Christmas breaks by deliberately
timing the release of those animals into
specified areas where the children will be sure
to slaughter them.”
Such distinctly unsporting conduct,
in which children are taught not only to kill
for fun and adult approval but also that they
have a right to easy kills, is the origin of the
poaching mentality. Our wildlife agencies are
teaching poaching.
Only when the hunting culture is
extirpated from those agencies will the effort
to stop poaching really stand a chance.

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