Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Unarmed but dangerous critics close in on hunting.
While nonprofit groups like Ducks Unlimited or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have sharply defined positions on hunting, most environmental groups - composed of both avid hunters and anti-hunters - waffle somewhere in the middle.
Hunting is an issue most environmental groups choose to ignore, even though many groups, such as the Wilderness Society, were started by "hook and bullet" users to protect diminishing habitat. Others, such as the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club, trace their roots to founders sympathetic to animal rights.
Staffers from most groups, when asked if they had an official position on hunting, seemed perplexed: "Uh, I'll have to call you back on that." But once cajoled into taking a position, most repeated the same refrain: "It doesn't matter whether you like to hike, bike or hunt on the land, we're all in this for the sake of habitat conservation."
To the horror of many animal rights advocates, most environmentalists say the individual suffering of animals is secondary to the health of the species.
Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States concedes that most groups have other priorities, but he doesn't see habitat protection and animal rights as inconsistent goals. "Obviously, they're not in the business of cats or dogs or farm or lab animals. It's a misplaced concern to criticize them on that front, but the humane treatment of wildlife must be a consideration."
An article in E magazine's October issue echoes that criticism: "The concern (for wildlife) is that much more real when the individual face of an animal is attached to it. Environmentalism's distant "ecosystem" approach sometimes lacks visceral appeal." The article also points out that while animal advocates generally call themselves environmentalists, "environmentalists tend to see the animal movement as hysterical, shrill and 'one note.' "
Despite philosophical rifts, politics can make for strange bedfellows. Animal rights activists sometimes find themselves aligned with those they consider heartless killers. A few years ago in Hawaii, members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals successfully stopped the Nature Conservancy from using wire snares to kill feral pigs that were destroying rare native plants. PETA nicknamed the Conservancy the "Torture Conservancy" and joined forces with local hunters who wanted to hunt and eat the pigs. Now, dogs chase down the pigs and a hunter stabs the animal in the throat.
It's not the most humane solution, says David Cantor of PETA, but the suffering lasts minutes, rather than days or even weeks as with wire snares.
Although staffers at most environmental groups say they have more in common with hunting organizations than with animal-rights groups, several environmental groups joined the Fund for Animals to lobby for the creation of a national park - and not a preserve - in California's Mojave Desert. Because hunting is outlawed in most national parks, the National Rifle Association lobbied on behalf of bighorn sheep and mule deer hunters who wanted a preserve.
"The NRA took it on as a symbolic fight," says Melanie Griffin of the Sierra Club. "They said: 'You can't keep our guns out.' " At Mojave, the guns won.
But in another case, sporting groups joined environmentalists to oppose New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici's grazing bill. Both groups were angered that the bill placed grazing above all other public land uses. And consensus isn't only with the sporting groups; Pacelle of the Humane Society adds that his group often works with environmental groups on ballot initiatives banning "cruel" hunting.
In fact, alliances between environmentalists and groups on both sides of the hunting questions are getting stronger in the face of an environmentally hostile Congress, says the Sierra Club's Griffin. "It wasn't clear why we needed each other before," she says. "But when Congress started attacking our basic environmental protections, we overlooked smaller differences."