Friday, December 7, 2012

Hunting as classed? classless? classy?

This story by Felicity Barringer in the New York Times last week-end was a revelation for me--a revelation about the complex linkages between class and hunting.

Barringer's story is ostensibly about how the state of Utah doles out hunting licenses and manages wildlife, so I figured I'd write a post for Legal Ruralism about those issues.  As I read the story, however, I was struck by the fact that hunting is not only a working class pursuit--as it has been popularly perceived in recent years.  Remember Bittergate during the 2008 presidential race?  If not, refresh your recollection here and here, and mull the title of Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting with Jesus:  Dispatches from America's Class Wars.  Indeed, Barringer's story pits those one might think of as "regular Joe hunters" against rich hunters, which means people of all socio-economic strata hunt, albeit with some different motivations, trappings, and prey.  (I don't think those paying big bucks in the Utah auction are after the squirrels Ree shot in Winter's Bone to feed her younger siblings).

Barringer writes:
More than any state in the West, Utah has expanded hunting opportunities for the well-to-do and has begun to diminish them for those seeking permits directly from the state.  
Essentially, "those with means can buy public licenses through private outlets, paying thousands of dollars to move to the head of the line."  While Utah officials acknowledge this, they say their "increasingly free-market model" results in more revenue they can use for conservation.

The Utah system uses two market-oriented means to allocate hunting licenses, while apparently maintaining the standard lottery for inexpensive permits--though fewer of these are available than in the past.  One aspect of the Utah system essentially co-opts ranchers, who formerly complained "bitterly to state officials about elk and other game eating forage meant for cattle." Now, however, Utah entices "ranchers with an allotment of vouchers for lucrative hunting licenses that they can sell for thousands of dollars as part of a private hunt on their land."

Doling out these vouchers for hunting licenses, as Utah has done for the past decade, has created incentives for private land owners--the ranchers--to "nurture big game on their land and not get frustrated with ranching and sell their land to developers."

A smaller and even more controversial aspect of Utah's scheme "allows private nonprofit groups to auction off a few hundred licenses to the highest bidder or run their own drawing in exchange for supporting conservation projects."  Utah's wildlife officials say the schemes are resulting in "more wildlife for all."

Hence the schemes are good for the wildlife census but, as Barringer suggests, not necessarily for "social welfare," which I take to mean relations among the classes.  To illustrate her point, Barringer's story features Todd Huntington, a dentist from central Utah.  Where I come from (the working class, in rural Arkansas), dentists are fat cats--they are among the privileged.  But this dentist is complaining that he can't compete with the rich(er) for the opportunity to hunt.  Though he recently secured a $35 permit to shoot a male deer, he had failed to garner a license in the prior two years' random drawing.  Barringer quotes Huntington:
When I was a teenager, anybody could buy a tag down to the hardware store and away you went. Now you have to have a degree in wildlife-speak to work your way through all the regulations to be able even to apply.
And so I return to the class angle on all of this--specifically, class as both cultural and material.  Of course, I've long been aware of private game reserves and other upmarket and exclusive hunting opportunities for the super-rich in places like Africa and Alaska.  But it's interesting to me that even in places like Utah (whose game I, as a novice, may be under appreciating), hunting has become the province of the more affluent who are able--with the state's help--to price the "little guy" out of what some see as the market for free meat.  All of this is more complicated still, class-wise, when you consider the trend among the Mark Zuckerberg set to kill their own meat.  Read more here, here and here.  And the way Presidential candidates and other politicians have used hunting outings to bolster their street cred among the "everyman set"is yet another lens on who hunts and why.  Read more here and here.

So much for the Deer Hunting with Jesus-type depiction of hunters "having no class." Clearly, some hunters are "classy" (and rich!).

Now that I think about it some more, Barringer's story shouldn't have surprised me after all.  The great outdoors--including wildlife--have become just another place where urbanites' interests trump those of the rural (think the rural prison building boom and toxic waste dumps in rural locales) in ways that often also mean the interests of the wealthy trump the interests of those who have less money and power.  Wildlife now represents another "product" that urbanites and the wealthy (e.g., George W. Bush, John Kerry, Mark Zuckerberg) consume, leaving scraps for the rural and working class.    

Read earlier posts about hunting trends here, here and here.  Here's one called "Privatizing bison," which raises some of the same access and public-private issues as Barringer's Utah story, but in the context of Montana and Yellowstone National Park.

Cross-posted to ClassCrits

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