Preventing extinction requires correct identification of major threats and effective
interventions to abate them (Salafsky & Margoluis 2003; Sutherland et al. 2004). If
the scientific community wants the world to heed warnings of ecosystem collapse (Ripple
et al. 2017), it should be aware of past warnings and current misunderstandings. A
century ago, similar alarms sounded over extinctions of wild animals taken for commercial
meat markets (Roosevelt 1916). The near extinction of American bison (Bison bison)
and other populations that were averted in the early 20th century provides useful
contemporary lessons (Fig. 1). Then, overhunting threatened the persistence of multiple
species, and the public‐policy intervention replaced unregulated commercial extraction
with strict regulatory systems. Regulatory systems seem to have saved many wild animal
populations from extinction by regulating methods and limiting participants and quantities
taken by hunters and trappers. Yet, this view that regulation saved wild animals of
western nations is persistently misrepresented and replaced in the scientific and
management literature by an interpretation that hunting itself was the intervention.
A pile of American bison skulls (mid‐1870s) waiting to be ground for fertilizer. Public
domain photo (credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Market_hunters#/media/File:Bison_skull_pile_edit.jpg).
The misrepresentation of the history is that the act of hunting, rather than regulation
of hunting, saved commercial species from extinction. This misrepresentation was illustrated
recently in a 19,000 word review aimed at “[f]inding effective ways of conserving
large carnivores …” (Redpath et al. 2017). In this article, 19 prominent conservation
scientists wrote, “…many predator populations thrive in the presence of hunting/trapping
programs (hereafter just referred to as hunting) supported by local people…” (Redpath
et al. 2017:2158). Without evidence that the populations are thriving, the authors
condense hunting and trapping programs into simply hunting without considering permits,
regulations, and enforcement and imply carnivores thriving with hunting is not unusual.
Going back decades, one finds agencies and prominent institutions advocating hunting
as a conservation intervention (Clark & Milloy 2014). For example, assertions that
hunting is an effective conservation intervention in and of itself, without accompanying
evidence of positive outcomes for the hunted populations, have been published or promoted
by The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, The Wildlife Society, the
Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife
Agencies, and the Wildlife Management Institute (Jackson 1996; Batcheller et al. 2010).
Similar claims are made by academics penning titles, such as, “Why Lions Need to Be
Hunted” (Howard 1988) or promoting trophy hunting generally (Di Minin et al. 2016).
To be clear, we are not disputing the common and well‐substantiated claim that hunters
and their organizations have contributed financially and through other indirect means
to conservation (Holsman 2000). Nor is the problem we detect one of advocacy—all people
prefer asking and answering certain questions and interpreting data in a particular
way. Instead, we discuss how the lack of evidence supporting that advocacy misrepresents
the intervention that protected animal populations in the past.
Hunting never directly saves the targeted animal. To our knowledge, there is no evidence
that hunting has ever saved an animal population or species from extinction. By contrast,
restrictions on hunting have certainly stemmed extinctions and extirpations (Wilcove
1999). These superficially obvious statements help to point the way to scientific
evaluation of hunting as a conservation intervention. Specifically, hunting alone
could only indirectly protect nontarget individual animals (Treves 2009). The conservation
community needs incisive experiments to disentangle the hypothesis that hunting itself
protects animals from the competing hypothesis that regulating hunting protects animals.
No one to our knowledge has tested whether regulation or another aspect of modern
hunting or trapping programs was the effective intervention in the early 20th century.
Was overexploitation by hunters and trappers prevented by the enforcement of quotas
and bag limits or prevented by other factors related to organized hunting? Asserting
that an action is an effective conservation tool without scientifically evaluating
population‐level outcomes of that action, risks misleading the public and policy makers.
The history of fisheries contains many such examples (Finley 2011). By analogy, scientists
would cry foul if public health organizations touted eating to fight cancer, rather
than touting a healthful diet (i.e., regulated eating). Touting hunting rather than
regulated hunting can create a risky misconception. As Platt (1964) predicted, scientific
fields in which researchers do not effectively identify and test opposing hypotheses
will advance slowly, if at all. Only when claims about hunting are framed as opposing
hypotheses will the field progress and the many claims about hunting as a conservation
tool be falsifiable.
We see 3 pernicious consequences of omitting regulation from scientific treatments
of conservation interventions. First, a lack of transparency about regulation prevents
the objective evaluation of it as a help or hindrance to conservation efforts. For
example, some might believe that regulation saved public hunting itself because a
society might have banned all hunting when commercialization threatened the public's
wildlife. Others might believe that regulation is a hindrance to hunting as a conservation
instrument. By omitting mention of regulation, the implicit notion advances that regulation
is unnecessary. Indeed, one must beware of omitting regulation from the narrative
about hunting as a conservation intervention, especially given the potential for financial
conflicts of interest created by powerful, moneyed interests seeking unlimited exploitation.
That leads us to the second pernicious consequence of discounting regulation. When
authorities ignore or underemphasize the importance of regulation, perpetrators of
environmental crime, such as poachers, may feel emboldened or immune to prosecution.
This idea was seemingly advocated by Kaltenborn and Brainerd (2016), who contend poaching
acts as a release for rural resentment over national restoration of controversial
wildlife. Treves et al. (2017a) reviewed 4 other cases in which inaccurate measurement
of poaching led governments to downplay the major threat to endangered gray wolves
(Canis spp.). Predators in particular seem to be targets for the idea that hunting
itself is a conservation intervention (Fig. 2); the common hypothesis is that predator
populations benefit indirectly when people kill a minority of them because then people
tolerate the survivors better or revenue flows to direct conservation (Loveridge et al.
2007; Treves 2009; Treves & Bruskotter 2014; Chapron & Treves 2017; Macdonald et al.
Cougars killed for market. Public domain photo (credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/30/Market_hunting_of_cougars.jpg).
The third pernicious consequence of forgetting the importance of regulation relates
to the paucity of evidence about how regulated hunting works to prevent local extinctions.
Given this paucity, our criticism of hunting as conservation might be seen as opposition
to hunting itself. We do not, however, view hunting as incompatible with conservation.
Confusing our work with antihunting advocacy would once again confuse hunting with
the scientific evaluation of its effectiveness for protecting the hunted population.
To prevent extinctions, scientists must identify interventions that improve outcomes
for populations. Decision makers must be transparent in their value judgments about
human activities they permit (Treves et al. 2017b) and the evidence they use to allocate
natural resources (Artelle et al. 2018; Batavia et al. 2018). Failure may contribute
to ongoing extinctions and the erosion of public confidence in science.