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May 22, 2008

Bear Facts on the NRA

Gray wolf
© USFWS

Yesterday, I wrote about the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance (USSA). The group is all hat and no cattle. It has very few rank-and-file hunters as actual members, and it is a front group for economic interests with a stake in commerce related to specific hunting practices. That's why the group never finds a form of hunting that it won't defend—whether aerial gunning of wolves, bear baiting, contest shoots of prairie dogs or coyotes, live pigeon shoots, canned hunts, or trophy hunting of endangered and threatened species. Keeping these practices legal benefits the industries and individuals that profit from these repugnant practices. With no real members to check these excesses, there's no accountability.

The NRA is a different sort of beast. It does have real members and those members are the primary source of its political strength.

Yet, the NRA still adopts the same extreme positions as USSA—despite the fact that every time rank-and-file hunters are surveyed on these issues, they don't support the cruel and extreme practices that The HSUS campaigns against. A large majority of hunters oppose canned hunts. Most oppose aerial gunning and baiting.

Hunting in our age is premised on the balance between freedom and restraint. The modern system of wildlife management has built-in controls such as daily bag limits, prescribed hunting seasons, protection of certain species, restrictions on the use of certain weaponry, and a variety of other limits on killing. Layered on top of legal rules and regulations are ethical standards that have become norms for participants, such as utilizing animals ("you eat what you kill") and sportsmanship ("the animal should have a fair chance to escape").

What The HSUS attempts to do in the hunting arena is hold the hunting community to its own professed standards, and to put a stop to hunting practices at odds with the core notions of fairness and particularly inhumane or wasteful killing.

Ironically, we are often more in line with hunters than either the NRA or the USSA, which claim to support the modern system of wildlife management, but in practice oppose the imposition of any new limits or restraints. The current debate in Congress over a modest bill called the Bear Protection Act is perhaps the archetypal example of this principle. The Bear Protection Act was written to ban the interstate and international trade in bear gall bladders. Gall bladders are used in traditional Chinese medicine, and poachers target American black bears for their bladders to supply the trade.

Black bear in flowers
© iStockphoto

There are no legitimate sportsmen who kill bears for their internal organs. In fact, the whole idea of killing bears for their bladders runs counter to the modern system of wildlife management, which seeks to promote hunting for private use and personal consumption of the carcass, not for commercial sale in the international wildlife trade. Poaching is not only a threat to America's black bears, but to all of the other bear species throughout the world. The bear gall bladders are indistinguishable from one another and the presence of a legal gall bladder trade jeopardizes all bear species.

So how does the NRA get away with so abysmally failing to represent the true interests of hunters and for deviating so far from the ethical standards in the hunting world? First, the NRA's primary activity relates to the right to possess firearms and ammunition for recreation, personal safety, or hobby collecting, or simply appreciation of guns. It is this appeal on notions of freedom and private property rights that is the primary draw for people to join the organization. Most NRA members have no idea that the group defends terrible wildlife abuses.

Second, the NRA—and it does this on gun control issues as well as hunting—plays the fear card. It says that any attempt to restrict any form of hunting is part of a scheme to end all hunting. That's a convenient way to sidestep the discussion of the issue at hand. If their slippery slope thinking had truth to it, then the hunters and conservationists who were advocates of bag limits and season lengths were also scheming anti-hunters. It's a bit of sophistry and Americans should be able to see through it.

Third, the NRA often does not defend these practices publicly. On Capitol Hill, for instance, the NRA has lobbied against the Bear Protection Act. But it has not called on its members to fight the bill. If it did, I am quite sure many of them would disagree with the idea that an anti-poaching bill is at odds with NRA principles.

The long and short is the NRA is led by extremists, and they are pushing an agenda often out of sync with its members. It's been able to get away with it, but this sort of unethical behavior is something that will, at long last, catch up with the organization—with lawmakers increasingly having the courage to defy the knee-jerk and poorly grounded positions of the organization and NRA members ultimately not renewing their memberships and taking their support elsewhere.

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