In its effort to gain support from Americans whose connections to the natural world have become less direct and more emotional, environmentalists made a deal with a devil that is coming back to haunt them.

The devil in question is the animal-rights movement. For nearly four decades, it has skillfully manipulated the media to propagate a vision of the natural world that is dishonest, misleading and ultimately disastrous for wildlife.

Their message is one of a Disneyesque world in which animals are little humans in fur and feathers. Zealous animal-rights advocates reject scientific notions of balance, holding capacity and cataclysmic cycles of life and death. Instead, they portray a mythical world of peace and constant abundance where the only threat is man and the only environmental concern is the individual animal.

They reject nature in favor of Bambi. One example is the odd notion that the level of an environmental commitment is inversely proportional to the amount of meat one eats. This is demonstrably false, since the growing of grain and other food crops continues to be be one of the great engines for environmental destruction to our land and water.

Policymakers at the major environmental organizations recognized what was happening two decades ago. They saw the choice facing them: to confront the animal-rights juggernaut or turn a blind eye and take advantage of the passions it stirred.

Most chose the latter course. In a country where most people have become increasingly remote from the natural world, it was simply easier to play to our emotional attachments to cute animals. It also generated contributions. So the environmental movement mostly remained silent, letting the media blur the distinctions between dubious animal-rights doctrines and sound environmental policy. Unfortunately, this decision is proving to have hidden and very expensive costs.

The first cost was the opening this created for anti-environmentalists to drive a wedge between sportsmen and the environmental movement. Hunters and anglers helped found the environmental movement and have been the backbone of conservation efforts for most of the last century. To this day they remain the only segment of American society that voluntarily taxes itself to provide the vast majority of funding for habitat preservation and restoration, environmental research and wildlife conservation.

Yet in the 1980s, when hunters expected the environmental movement to support them against the attacks of the animal-rights extremists, they heard only silence.

Most hunters and anglers got the point, and came to view the environmental community and the animal-rights community as the same thing, and no longer colleagues working toward the same objectives.

The irony is that in selling out the sportsmen, the environmental movement traded millions of committed hunters and anglers, who for the last seven decades devoted hundreds of billions of dollars to habitat and conservation, for a far smaller animal-rights movement that devotes nothing to habitat and conservation. What’s worse, they don’t even get the point.

As costly as this split was, it has not proven to be the highest cost that the environmental movement has had to pay for their deal with the devil. The animal-rights bias -- that animals to which we have an emotional attachment are more important than less charismatic species, or the health of whole ecosystems -- is condemning entire species and ecosystems to death.

In many communities around the country, advocates for homeless feral cats have bullied local authorities into permitting them to artificially support populations of these hyper-efficient and non-native predators, despite their deadly impact.

Whole populations of songbirds, small mammals, and reptiles have been eliminated by these decisions. In California, efforts by various animal rights organizations to end the use of leghold traps have limited the ability of wildlife managers to control predators around the few remaining nesting sights for species of endangered shorebirds. In essence, California voters chose the extinction of native bird species to avoid the trapping of a relatively small number of coyotes, foxes and cats.

The animal-rights folks have worked hard to turn environmentalism into a popularity contest for cuddly or charismatic species. In failing to speak out against this anthropomorphized view of nature, the environmental movement has narrowed its appeal and narrowed its base. The longer the environmental movement panders to the animal rightists, the higher the cost will be.

David Gowdey is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the former director of the Arizona Wildlife Federation and lives in Williams, Arizona.