Is Hunting Sustainable?

Thirty years after Home on the Range was written, buffalo, deer, and antelope were nearly gone from Kansas. Is hunting sustainable now?

Thirty years after Home on the Range was written, only 500 buffalo remained in the United States. In Kansas — Higley’s home state — deer were gone and antelope practically non-existent. Their habitats largely destroyed by human development, these iconic game animals were hunted out of existence.

In an era where ‘eco-friendly’ is the hip phrase of the day, new hunters and the hunting curious are more frequently asking if hunting is sustainable. Could I take up hunting, they wonder, as an environmentally-conscious means to eat? Is hunting better for the earth than buying meat at the grocery store? Should we all just revert back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to ‘save the planet’?


The phrase ‘sustainability’ conjures myriad associations, from serious environmentalism to half-hearted greenwashing. We often label things as sustainable when they’re simply better than the environmentally destructive status quo. But in the strictest sense, sustainability refers to the ability to be continued indefinitely without detriment to environmental integrity.

Can Hunting Sustain Itself?

Hunting is a practice that relies on the health of the wild. When I consider the sustainability of hunting, I ask — can hunting persist into the foreseeable future without harming the very wild upon which it depends?

In his book Bloodties, Ted Kerasote writes, “As a farmer you reap what you have sown; as a hunter-gatherer you reap what the land provides from her pagan solicitude.” The essence of Kerasote’s point is well taken, but what wild land provides boils down to much more than pagan solicitude. While hunters don’t usually reap what we individually sow, hunters do reap what we collectively sow. The degree to which we, as a group, conserve and harvest now helps determine the populations of wild plants and animals in the future.

My ability to find and kill wild animals for food depends on natural cycles far greater and richer than I am able to enumerate. With reproduction, growth, death, and decay the earth recycles itself. When I take a mule deer buck or a pair of jackrabbits from my local desert, I influence that cycle.

Left unmanaged, hunting would be — and was — unsustainable. In the 1800s, wild animals seemed like a limitless resource to many hunters. But by the early 1900s, before the advent of hunting regulations, things had changed. Habitat loss, mostly from clearing forest to create farms, and over-hunting had left most game populations in a sorry state. Wild turkeys were nearly wiped out. Duck numbers plummeted. Whitetail deer were uncommon in places like Connecticut and extirpated in Kansas. As Mark Schlegel writes, “We were plucking America bare.”

Western hunters circa 1900, when many American game species were on the brink of collapse. Is hunting sustainable?

Western hunters circa 1900, when many American game species were on the edge of collapse.

Thankfully — after pushing many species to or over the brink of extinction — hunters lobbied for restrictions on hunting. Eventually federal Wildlife Restoration acts, new state fish and game agencies, and taxes on weapons and ammunition helped protect remaining wild animals. With regulations, money, and political willpower, many states went to great lengths to restore decimated animal populations. Turkey in Missouri, sage grouse in North Dakota, and elk in Tennessee tell the American restoration and conservation success story. Many hunters have cherished sustainability and practiced ecological stewardship for decades.

Hunting, fishing, and trapping are now professionally managed. Wildlife biologists monitor populations and set quotas for the number of animals to be harvested in a given season. The money paid for hunting licenses, tags, and stamps is fed back into the conservation system. Taxes on firearms and ammunition provide hundreds of millions of dollars for wild lands each year. And while illegal hunting (poaching) still exists, by and large the regulatory system seems to be working. Hunting can sustain itself. And assuming the number of hunters remains stable and current trends of land protection, habitat restoration, and population management continue, hunting will be sustainable into the future.

Hunting for Sustainable Food

Is hunted venison more environmentally friendly than beef from the supermarket? Is wild quail a more ecologically responsible culinary choice than factory-farmed chicken? Almost certainly. Industrial meat production is riddled with environmental ills, from high levels of carbon emissions to air and water pollution.

Large scale industry makes cheap meat possible, but at what cost to the environment? Could hunting be a viable alternative? Is hunting sustainable?

Large scale industry makes cheap meat possible, but at a cost to the environment. Could sustainable hunting be a viable alternative?

By contrast, no extra energy is used to raise wild animals. We don’t have to grow grains with pesticides to feed and fatten them. Forests and sagebrush do not need to be cleared. Their waste nourishes, rather than taints, the earth and water. Wild game isn’t treated with antibiotics and comes fully unprocessed. As long as wild animals haven’t been eating from a contaminated environment, they are truly ‘organic’ meat. Compared to their industrially raised counterparts, elk and quail have a relatively small environmental footprint.

Does that mean hunting is the future of sustainable meat? Should everyone start hunting?

The simple truth about responsible wildlife management is that not everyone can hunt and harvest animals. In the United States we have too many people and not nearly enough wild animals to feed everyone. If all Americans tried to replace their current industrial meat consumption with wild game, they would quickly realize the impossibility of their quest. Demand would far overwhelm supply. Most people would not be able to acquire big game tags due to limits set by biologists. Daily bag limits would need to be cut. Season lengths would need to be reduced.

Unless we want to overturn massive portions of developed land back to the wilderness, only some people will be able to hunt for their food. If we want to preserve wild animals for perpetuity and feed all of America, universal hunting is not the answer.1 Hunting as a sustainable practice is simply not scalable.

There are other do-it-yourself sustainable alternatives to the industrial meat industry that are much more feasible. For example, everyone in America with a backyard could raise chickens or ducks. Sure, some cities and homeowners associations would have to change their rules, but it would be fairly easy to implement and scale. Realistically, small-scale conscientious local farming and ranching will play the biggest role in the quest for widely available sustainable meat.

From field to freezer to fork, my local organic venison. Sustainable hunting can be a small part of the local food movement.

From field to freezer to fork, my local organic venison.

This doesn’t mean hunting can’t be a part of the sustainable food movement. And it doesn’t mean there’s no room for new hunters. For every newcomer who learns to hunt, dollars are fed into the U.S. wildlife conservation system. Each new hunter can contribute another voice to groups of sportsmen and women advocating for our wild lands.2 How much hunting can grow will ultimately be determined by the health and productivity of our forests, plains, and streams. I don’t think hunting has reached the limit of its growth yet.

The Eco-Friendly Hunter

For new hunters looking to minimize negative impact on the environment, take heed. There are more and less eco-friendly ways to go about harvesting wild animals.

In line with the locavore food movement, one way to reduce your environmental impact is to hunt close to home. Long distance car travel requires burning fossil fuel. Plane travel requires burning far more of it. Unfortunately, for many hunters, pursuing local animals is difficult or impossible. Private land and city regulations can close off nearby opportunities. If you’re new to hunting, I recommend spending some time researching huntable land in your county or state. Our article, Where Can I Go Hunting may be of some assistance.

Is hunting sustainable?

Hunting can also be fairly gear-intensive. From an environmental standpoint, the production of that gear requires a lot of energy and other natural resources. If you’d like to go a more sustainable route, take a more minimalist perspective to hunting gear. Buy good quality to start, buy only what you need, and resist the urge to always have the latest-and-greatest. Used gear is a great option, too. Many online outdoor and hunting forums have ‘classifieds’ where users can buy or sell gear. Nick and I have acquired a fair chunk of our gear this way, which has saved us a lot of money over the years.

Lead bullets are a contentious topic, but the truth is that excess amounts of lead are not great for ecosystem health. There are non-lead options that are less toxic, but even those aren’t perfect. Check out Nick’s review of non-lead bullet options, if you’re interested.

Finally, you may consider choosing your quarry based upon local environmental needs. Do you live in an area where over-abundant deer are eating too much of the local plant life? You could prioritize hunting deer. With natural predators wiped out in the eastern and Midwestern U.S., hunting is a very important and cost effective method to keep whitetail deer under control. Does your state have a serious wild pig problem? Maybe now is a good time to learn to hunt pigs. The more your hunting goals align with game management plans, the better for environmental health and sustainability.

Is hunting sustainable?

Conclusion

So is hunting sustainable? It is in some, but not all ways. As a source of food, wild game has a relatively low environmental footprint compared to industrial meat production. But unfortunately, universal hunting and gathering as a primary means to eat in modern America is simply not feasible. Hunting will likely be only a small part of America’s local and sustainable food movement.

The wild is a precious and limited resource. Animal populations can be maintained for future generations thanks to decades of regulatory and conservation efforts from sportsmen and women. As a new hunter, you can be a part of this important stewardship. Hunting can sustain itself through our continued efforts.

As a closing note, Karl Malcolm, a member of Backcounty Hunters & Anglers, recently wrote an incredibly poignant and thoughtful piece on hunting and environmentalism. It’s called An Admirable Identity: Helping the Hunters’ Legacy Resonate in an Era of Change. If you haven’t read it already, I urge you to do so now.

What are you thoughts on the sustainability of hunting? Let us know with a comment below.


  1. This is particularly the case in light of America’s love for meat. The average American — including babies and children — consumes about 135 pounds of beef, poultry, and pork per year. If the U.S. population is about 319 million, then as a nation we consume roughly 43 billion pounds of meat each year. Just to put that in perspective… if you get about 50 pounds of meat off an average sized deer, Americans eat the equivalent of 860 million deer per year. There’s an estimated 30 million deer in total residing the U.S. right now. Approximately 6 million are harvested by hunters each year, totaling only 300 million pounds of meat. 
  2. There are numerous conservation and hunter advocacy organizations in the U.S. that do excellent work. Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), Pheasants Forever, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), the Mule Deer Foundation, and Ducks Unlimited are examples. If you haven’t already, I recommend becoming a member of one of these organizations. 

11 Comments

  1. I have lots of Thoughts on this. I’m not really at a point in my life (in a lot of ways) where I could be eating the way I’d like to. Even in my late 20s, I don’t earn enough to feel comfortable paying extra for organic and free range meats.

    I cut a decent bit of meat out of my diet. Breakfast is always vegetarian, lunch is really light on the meat and sometimes vegetarian, and then I have small portions of meat with dinner. And then we hunt. But every time we drive to where we hunt, I think about our carbon emissions.

    And then there’s the way hunting regulations are managed. I live in Wisconsin. Our deer harvest this past season was down 25% from the 2013 season, which in turn was down 18% from the 2012 season. High tag sales and a few harsh winters in a row, and boom. Deer population is really pruned down. I’m told by people who have hunted here longer that you used to be able to sit in your stand and watch deer more or less all day. I’ll go entire weeks without seeing a deer. We still manage to get one or two each year, but usually not until rifle season; this past year, it wasn’t until the end of muzzleloader. I (and many other hunters) wonder who was pushing hard for the reduction in deer numbers. Yeah, they say CWD was the deciding factor, and I’m sure that was part of it. But insurance companies have a strong lobby here, and Wisconsin has more deer-car accidents than lots of places. Why not keep a closer eye on the game farms that ship deer here, there, and everywhere, that spread that disease? It probably could have been prevented. But then, that’s a big money business, too.

    Don’t get me wrong, I deeply appreciate regulated hunting. I mean, there were no wild turkeys in my part of Illinois until I was a kid in the early 90s. But I’m suspecting that those regulations are sadly more subject to politics than many people realize. How sustainable can any population of animals be when the people deciding tag numbers are not wildlife biologists? They will, in all likelihood, bounce back (they did reduce the number of tags last year), but it’s still worrying in the mean time.

    • Very interesting perspective, Amber, thank you for commenting! You bring up a good point — what goes on behind the scenes in the world of hunting regulations and quotas may not be as transparent as we’d like. It’s hard to know how biological/ecological and other factors are weighed. Your comment further reinforces the notion that that we (hunters) are certainly not the only ones with a stake in the wildlife management and public lands policy. I hope you guys are able to find a good balance for deer numbers in Wisconsin. Keep us posted!

  2. Regulations, and more specifically management practices are far too often taken away from Fish and Wildlife Departments and their qualified biologists and given to the people (ballot initiative) or the legislature.

    Of the states I am familiar with, the term “social tolerances” is a key component of management plans. For example, in Montana HB42 stripped Fish Wildlife and Parks of their authority to manage elk based on biology and must manage them to “social tolerances” (read landowners not wanting elk on their property….unless they are trophy bulls). A great bit of comedy here when overlayed with the cries of elk nearing extinction due to the reintroduction of the wolf. Even if wolves were gone tomorrow in Montana, state law mandates that there are still too many elk in Montana.

    In California similar rules for ammunition and pursuit of bears are hot issues as of late.

    Regardless of how we feel about the result of these actions by legislatures or voters, we should be very concerned by the mechanism. Removing or limiting the authority of qualified biologists to make sound wildlife decisions should be a concern for all.

  3. I would not hold out high hopes for deer hunting in Wisconsin. You may soon find yourselves in the same boat as Texas; a place where deer hunting requires money or land. If you own your own land, you’re fine, but you better feed those deer and high fence it before your neighbors do the same and coax the herds off your land. If you can afford a grand or two per gun to hunt a few deer each year, you are fine because all of those high-fenced ranches are willing to see you a deer or two.. Otherwise, you don’t deserve to hunt. Oh, yeah, there are a few small chunks of huntable public land, but the high fences surrounding them and the pressure of the hunting proles like me make success rates almost zero. This is intentional, as public game management and public hunting are seen as communism by the powers that be. The idea of The Commons and the public stewardship of the land and its animals is seen as suspect. The attitude towards game management by the likes of Doctor Deer, James Kroll, has made Texas into the least hunter friendly place I have ever been, and his model is seen as an aspirational goal by many, especially Wisconsin.

    http://www.deeranddeerhunting.com/blogs/dr-deer-wisconsin-report-will-high-fence-hunting-bias-skew-final-plan

    http://www.texasmonthly.com/story/which-side-fence-are-you

    • I agree about Kroll. Also wildlife management in Wisconsin is becoming more and more political.

      With that said there are still incredible public land hunting opportunities in Wisconsin. Also, despite what the majority of Wisconsin deer hunters say, there are plenty of deer in the northwoods. You just have to put in more work to find them. Hunt where others don’t is my advice (this often means hunting areas where you can’t put a tree stand as most deer hunters only will hunt from a stand)

  4. I think it’s worth noting that prior to the early 20th century, much of the US was still allowing market hunting. Rebounds in game came when we transitioned to sport hunting, which is far more sustainable and designed to protect game numbers. There’s an important distinction and market hunting has long been illegal.

    Changing your cooking techniques puts more meat on the table as well. Instead of throwing away upland game bird legs and thighs, learn how to cook them. Or consider the use of organ meats. Challenge your food perceptions.

    I think you raised the correct point – augment your meat with locally raised meat. We’ve raised chickens and pigeons for years. We rarely buy meat, even in lean hunting years. Learn to raise and butcher your own meat. Or eat less meat. It’s that important.

  5. Mark, exactly.
    Every time I see someone breasting out doves, I cringe. So much meat is wasted. Small meat, but tasty meat. No one wants to take the time to pluck game anymore, making whole, fried birds impossible, What a tasty waste.

    But in order for all meat eating to be sustainable, Americans are going to have to decrease their (our!) meat intake. That is happening, but there is still a long way to go. Our food sensibilities have to change. Why is the heart seen as a strange organ meat? Tongue? These are muscles, exactly like what people now WANT to eat. Kidney, thymus, liver . . . these all have different flavors and textures and won’t become common fare until the muscle organs become accepted.

  6. Boy, there is a lot to consider here. The topic of hunting raises ire in many circles, let alone advocating the idea of sustainable hunting. I own a small hobby farm in Montana. We produce some pork and poultry, raise goats for milk and cheese, and grow a hoard of vegetables; however, I have an insatiable passion for the outdoors and have lived most of my life in pursuit of what nature has to offer. The meat stocked away in our freezers comes primarily from my hunting (okay, we have one small freezer that is chock full of pork, turkey and chicken too).
    My wife and I decided to “go organic” when our first child was born 10 years ago. We wanted the kids to be raised on game meat and no gmo’s. By and large, we have succeeded in our efforts. Certainly there is always a need to supplement food supplies from the grocery store (and it’s always a treat to get a pizza for the family or go out for burgers), but we have eliminated our dependency on feed lot produced meats, factory farms, and hormone laden milk products. Our typical grocery bill each month runs between $100 – $150 (including toiletries and cleaning supplies). But as you can imagine, this is not the true cost of our survival.
    The financial breakdown of a hunting season is a complicated thing. I hunt both the bow season and rifle season for big game. Resident licensing and tags (for deer, elk and antelope) typically run somewhere in the ballpark of $250.00 to $300.00 (Montana is pretty inexpensive) and the process of applying for the appropriate licenses is a year-long ordeal; if you miss the application deadline, you don’t get the tag.
    Base cost of equipment: bow and rifle – you can spend as much as you like here; however, I found good dependable, moderate cost, utility grade equipment – rifle and scope for $900.00 and bow for $500.00. Binoculars, rangefinder, arrows, bullets, knives, bear spray, pack, boots, clothing, cold weather gear, saw, and survival equipment upwards of $2,000.00 (this is conservative). Most of these are” one-time” purchase items and pay for themselves over time (I don’t include most of these in the annual cost of meat per pound).
    Cost of fuel: This one can ruin your price per pound. There are countless hunting opportunities at 300 miles and given the time and effort, most people can fill their tags – extensive travel for sustainable hunting is not recommended. My primary hunting spots are 10 – 30 miles from the house. I drove to scout or hunt roughly 60 – 70 times in 2014 and estimated my fuel costs at around $1,000.00 (a lot of 4 wheel drive on mountain roads).
    In 2014, I hunted about 45 days during the big game season and harvested two elk and three deer and figure the meat cost between $4.50 and $5.00 per pound. In comparison, the pig we raised cost $3.70/lb. This was one of the more expensive seasons I have had for a while – in 2011, I harvested an elk and three deer for a cost of $1.25/lb, in 2012, one elk and 4 deer for $2.35/lb and 5 deer in 2013 for $3.50/lb. The meat typically lasts 9-12 months, but again, we supplement with what is raised on the farm. A couple of notes here: 1) I butcher all of my game meat and we use a processing facility for our pork (for the traditional cuts and curing – bacon and ham). 2) My success is based on years of hunting/outdoor experience and the willingness to hike into the back country in the worst weather conditions nature has to offer.
    Though I cannot imagine getting our groceries any other way, its hard work and there are a lot of unpleasant situations encountered during the course of a hunting season – it’s definitely not for everyone.

  7. One of the reasons why I got into hunting is due to the 100 Mile Diet book by an ex-vegan couple Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon a year after it was published. Of course, the locavore trend became trendy and I was a blind adherent of it.

    Until someone published a study how much land is required to feed the city of Vancouver, British Columbia which amounts to a third of the province. Since only 5% of the province is arable, it presents a problem for the locavore model, especially when most of the meat-rearing is well outside the 100 mile radius since most of the cattle are free-ranged in the interior of the province and not along the coastline.

    Then I found out how in Montana and other western states, the populations of elks is literally dictated by how much government grass is allocated to free-range cattle. So, this made me question the sustainability of range-raised meat. The more cattle, the less wildlife; and the less cattle, more wildlife.

    But to be honest, I don’t know a lot of hunters in the United States which rely on wild game all year around without supplementing. There are plenty of examples in remote locations of Canada and Alaska, but it’s very difficult to find cases in the Lower 48 unless it involves regions which have serious deer-overpopulation problems like in West Virginia where liberal tags are given; or if an invasive species grew out of control, like boars in Louisiana.

    That being said, I do feel fortunate enough to live in a region where there is more than enough game for everyone to stock the freezer with. They may not always get the tag they apply for, but if one fills out the application for 8 different game species, there is always something and sometimes that mean learning not to be choosy and how to eat really gamey-meat like bears.

    I can’t really the same thing about regions which humans exceeded the carrying capacity.

  8. Thank you for writing this and for doing your part to provide a fresh perspective on the topic of sustainable eating through the harvest of your own food. This premise was the very first that sparked the inspiration — to consider what would be required of me — to begin harvest my own food.

    As a brand new bow hunter, and as the son of very liberally inclined parents I grew up seeing through the perspective of their eyes; looking with distain and judgment at outspoken individuals like Ted Nugent as the official brash, outspoken, bombastic spokesman for Hunting (“are they all like that?”). In addition, my parents also held a common misconception that gun rights activism is directly correlated to hunting, and all hunters must be gun-toting, blood thirsty barbarians. But, other than the stories I read in Field & Stream, and the occasional Fred Bear adventures I watched I did not have many (any) positive influences. It wasn’t until much later in life (late 30’s) that I finally realized and became uncomfortable with the great gap between me and my families food.

    I am chronicling my experience to becoming a bow hunter with the mission of dispelling the negative light that hunting has had unrightfully cast upon it. And since I’ve begun sharing with them, my parents are beginning to consider alternate points of view.

    I hope to continue to make great connections with folks like you as together we create a mind-shift towards a more rational and balanced approach to reaping and sewing; a new approach for a better world. This isn’t the answer to everything, but it’s certainly isn’t a bad a start. I’ve included my website in the comment field and would love to hear from you.

  9. Hi Robyn/Nick

    I discovered your site a while ago and have been back to read a few times – thank you for writing and sharing it. Nick’s post about his journey from farmed meat eater to vegetarian to vegan back to hunted meat eater is precisely the thought process I’ve been through over the last couple of years.
    But my worry has always been what you’ve addressed in this post: that not everyone can ethically hunt and harvest animals. There’s just too many people in the world and not enough wild spaces to support this.

    My long term plan is to buy enough land to create a food forest on and hunt on (which isn’t hopefully going to be prohibitively expensive where I live – NZ) so I think it will be possible for me and any future family, but it does make me sad that it’s not a solution for all and that I have to be selfish (and realistically quite priveleged) to make it work.

Please share your thoughts!

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