Letters from the West

Rocky Barker: Hunter’s stupid act in Africa masks benefits of trophies

Cecil the lion pictured in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.
Cecil the lion pictured in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. Wildlife Conservation Research Unit via AP

The killing of a beloved lion by a Minnesota trophy hunter on the edge of a Zimbabwe reserve produced worldwide outrage Wednesday, the same day Idaho officials were picking the winner of a lottery tag for hunting a bighorn sheep in the state.

You would have to have been deep in Idaho’s backcountry this week to have missed the story of 13-year-old Cecil the lion in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, killed when he was illegally lured out of the park by an apparently unscrupulous outfitter and adjacent landowner. Minnesota Dentist Walter Palmer paid $55,000 to shoot the lion with a crossbow, saying he did not know anything was illegal.

The outfitter and the landowner have been charged with poaching; Palmer has not, but his role also is under investigation. Palmer’s judgment already has come into question when he was put on probation in 2008 for admitting to making a false statement to a federal agent about shooting a black bear in the wrong zone in Wisconsin.

People who universally condemn hunters because of Palmer’s act don’t understand the critical role hunters play in conservation. The Safari Club, which promotes trophy hunting and conservation, suspended Palmer’s membership Wednesday, along with that of the guide.

The lottery held by the Bighorn Sheep Foundation and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game on Wednesday raised $62,000 for wildlife research. An Alabama hunter was the winner out of 5,855 $20 tickets for the chance at a bighorn sheep, a once-in-a-lifetime hunt.

Another hunter paid $100,000 to the national Wild Sheep Foundation at its banquet in Reno for an Idaho tag, which also benefits conservation. And another $100,000 was raised this year at the Idaho chapter’s banquet.

Of course, hunting a bighorn is different than a lion or an elephant, the killing of which even many hunters can’t imagine.

Hunters are among the most active conservationists I have covered over the past 30 years in Idaho. They were on the front lines of the fight for protection of the Owyhee Canyonlands and are among the small group of sportsmen I see annual lobbying of the Idaho Legislature in support of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and habitat protection.

Despite the constitutional amendment that passed in 2012, ensuring that hunting is a right in Idaho, hunting is a privilege in this country. When it’s not tied to conservation, it becomes hard to defend. Trophy hunting, where the game is killed for its size, rack and skin but not its meat, has always faced a higher bar.

But trophy hunters remain important allies for wildlife conservation in Africa. The Idaho Statesman sent me to Zimbabwe in 1998 to examine the parallels with conservation programs in Idaho, especially village-based conservation.

There I met Graham and Brian Child, whose remarkable conservation efforts are central to the survival of large animals such as lions and elephants in Zimbabwe. Graham, director of national parks and wildlife management there both before and after the 1980 revolution, came up with the idea of the Campfire program, which allowed villages to sell tags to kill wildlife as part of an overall management plan and then spend the proceeds to benefit their community.

Big game hunters would pay tens of thousands of dollars to kill trophy animals. That provided an incentive for the village to protect the animals that otherwise were seen as threats. The village would spend some of the proceeds to hire guards to protect game against poachers, and the rest went for everything from wells to soccer fields to doctor’s clinics.

Those mourning the death of Cecil the lion should know that legal hunting is not a threat to the large animals we all love in Africa and around the world. Development and the crowding of people into the animals’ shrinking habitat is the real threat. If people want to make a difference for the future of lions, they should work to protect their habitat, not broadly attack hunters who are equally committed to their survival.

Idahoans share the world’s revulsion to illegal hunting and bad hunter behavior. Remember Ernie the elk? When the popular East Foothills elk was killed by a hunter in 2009, Boise residents reacted much as the world has to Cecil’s killing. And remember the reaction to the bloody picture of a wolf in a trap with the trapper grinning in North Idaho in 2012?

Hunters always will be held to a high bar when it comes to their behavior. As we should be.