The Power of Words

A pesky little conjunction left me wondering if the conservation community will ever come together with a united front

By Rob Breeding

Your word is your bond. I get that on good authority from Melania Trump … or was it Michelle Obama? Sometimes it’s hard to keep these things straight.

Words – both big and small – also have meaning. It matters the way we string them together into phrases, sentences and paragraphs. If we don’t choose words carefully, we alienate those we need to bond with in the shared mission of wildlife conservation.

I ran headlong into a word being used in the wrong context the other day. I was at the Outdoor Writers Association of America annual conference in Billings, and one panel discussed the models used to fund wildlife management. The panel’s conclusion: The model that has served us so well for so long – hunters and anglers funding wildlife management through license fees and excise taxes on guns, ammo and fishing gear, the so-called user-pays system – still works.

The problem was that they followed up that conclusion with the wrong word, a pesky little conjunction that steered the discussion off course and left me wondering if the conservation community will ever come together with a united front. And what was that troublesome word?

But.

Those of us of a certain age remember “Schoolhouse Rock” and one of its most popular episodes, “Conjunction Junction.” That Saturday morning cartoon taught us that the function of conjunctions was “hooking up words and phrases and clauses.”

And that’s what the panel was doing, hooking up a century-long wildlife success story with the challenges of maintaining that progress in a new century.

If they had just chosen the right word.

“But” indicates contrast, and the word served as a pivot point in the discussion. By their word choice, the panel suggested that the future might be different, that the work of hunter conservationists in the 20th century might not be necessary in the 21st. Wildlife management reformation was required, we were told, and the folks who’ve been at the management table for the last century better prepare for some company.

I welcome the help. Hunters and anglers have been on the hook for the cost of wildlife management since, well, we started managing wildlife. Additionally, we’ve had to endure the endless sniping from the anti-hunting crowd that cares little about what it takes to keep wildlife populations healthy and vibrant.

I also welcome the money of newcomers. Antis in organizations such as PETA and the Humane Society of the United States might even gain a shred of credibility if they would buy a hunting and fishing license each year. They don’t have to use them, but they would at least have some skin in the game.

The folks on that OWAA panel should have used another conjunction. The word they were looking for is “and,” as in, “The model is still working, AND we want to build on the success of hunters and anglers to find new funding for the complex wildlife issues in the future.”

It bears repeating that the restoration of wildlife in this country in the last century is the greatest example of ecological restoration in the history of the known universe. That restoration was based on a newfangled thing called science, implemented by trained wildlife professionals, and was funded by hunters and anglers. It’s called the North American Model and it resulted in the restoration of the continent’s elk, deer and other game animals, as well as the rousing success of wolf recovery in the lower 48, which worked only because we first restored the prey animals wolves eat.

Is there more to do? You bet. Just don’t start that discussion with a three-letter word that suggests you might discard the system that made this restoration so. Hunters and anglers are rightfully proud of their legacy of conservation.

Conservation: it’s more than a word to hunters and anglers. It’s a bond that can’t be broken.

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