If Government Wildlife Numbers Are Routinely Overestimated, Should Trophy Hunting Be Outlawed?

Candice Gaukel Andrews November 12, 2013 27

According to a recent study, most British Columbia grizzly bear population estimates come from computer models or expert opinion—not on-the-ground surveys. ©Eric Rock

Today around the world, with government conservation monies dwindling and severe staffing cutbacks, it stands to reason that wildlife management entities desperately need the funds that recreational hunters provide—not only to keep population numbers of certain species at healthy levels for their sport but for wildlife-watchers, as well. But recently, a new study out of British Columbia is causing people to wonder whether hunting quotas set by government agencies are routinely overestimated in order to generate more income from the sale of hunting licenses.

Six biologists from Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation conducted the study, published in the Public Library of Science (PLOS). The B.C. government estimates that there are about 15,000 grizzlies in the province and that hunters kill about 300 per year, which they contend is a sustainable harvest. After analyzing 10 years of government data, from 2001 to 2011, the researchers, however, report that there are serious problems with that conclusion.

Adding to that, Simon Fraser University biologist Kyle Artelle says that in half the grizzly population groups around the province where hunting is permitted, more bears have been killed than government targets allow. In at least one regional population, hunters killed 24 bears over the local quota.

So, if kill rates are higher than legally permitted and government population estimates are inaccurate, should recreational or “trophy” hunting be allowed to continue? Who is monitoring the wildlife monitors?

Getting an accurate count of B.C. grizzlies

Official B.C. grizzly bear population numbers have become suspect. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

In the case of British Columbia, on-the-ground surveys of grizzly bears have only been done for about 15 percent of the province, which means that most population estimates come from computer models or expert opinion. Because of the wide range of potential errors in those kinds of estimates, the PLOS study authors determined that the hunting quotas might be too lax.

Columnist Stephen Hume, writing in The Vancouver Sun, states that B.C. “grizzly estimates seem to be whatever it takes to justify trophy hunting. In 1979, there were 6,600 grizzlies. Then, when trophy hunting was on the agenda, there were almost 17,000. Presumably, this is why the government is comfortable saying wildlife managers don’t share the new study’s conclusions before they’ve even analyzed its evidence—although, of course, they promise to review it. These studies gather dust not because the evidence is unconvincing but because provincial politicians are not interested in evidence-based decisions. They want justification for providing feedstock for a hunting industry that’s in steep decline. Thirty years ago, there were almost 175,000 licensed hunters in B.C. Today, hunters’ numbers have fallen by more than half. The response of provincial fish and game management has not been to adapt to change, but to promote hunting in the face of falling numbers. Its service plan calls for the selling of an additional 20,000 hunting licenses by 2014.”

Sustainable hunting has wide appeal

According to Hume, most British Columbians don’t oppose the sustainable harvesting of wildlife for food. Opposition is to killing for personal vanity of a threatened species that has already been extirpated from most of North America.

Here in the United States, whether you’re an avid sportsman or purely a wildlife-watcher, it’s a fact that the animals, birds and fish you most wish to see are “paid for” mostly by hunters. Those who engage in hunting, fishing and trapping are the major contributors to conservation funds in almost every state. Surprisingly, the monies animal-viewers and birdwatchers donate to conservation efforts rarely add up to even a third or a half of what hunters put into department of natural resources funds—even though watchers greatly outnumber them.

In Wisconsin, hunting licenses—mostly for deer—largely fund all wildlife management. ©John T. Andrews

In my own state of Wisconsin, more than 90 percent of funding for fish and wildlife conservation efforts comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. Hunting licenses and permits generated $29.2 million in revenue for the department of natural resources in 2011. And in most years, an excise tax on hunting equipment provides an additional $10 million to the state for wildlife management.

The problem is, however, that the number of hunters—along with anglers and trappers—is declining. And it promises to keep decreasing as the population ages. Too, social values are changing with the times. Today, anglers embrace the catch-and-release method, and there’s a growing sense among the general populace that animals have rights and should not be hunted unless it’s absolutely necessary to survive.

Under such stressors, then, is it any wonder that government agencies have an interest in supporting the hunting industry by estimating wildlife numbers toward the high end? And if this is so, who is going to monitor wildlife population counts to make sure they are accurate?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Deanna Loretta January 16, 2018 at 5:16 am - Reply

    Hunting is barbaric.

  2. jacob Eagleshield March 13, 2015 at 9:30 am - Reply

    Kill to conserve is an oxymoron,and would not even have to be debated if man had not disrupted the balance of nature with his overkill mentality. Kind of reminds me of George W. Bush’s ‘Healthy Forests initiative’ save all the trees by cutting them all down. NO TREE LEFT BEHIND

  3. dave bowen January 27, 2014 at 10:15 am - Reply

    Passenger pigeons,heath hens,prarie chickens,auks,dodos,European red stag all gone Wood Bison,none south of Canada. Jaguar,none north of Mexico Arizona Grizzly,last on shot in 1932. Prarie Bison,Pronghorns,Whooping Cranes,Florida Panthers, would all be extinct now save for a few people with heart.

  4. John Robbins December 1, 2013 at 9:38 am - Reply

    Of course the numbers should be as scientifically accurate as possible. But the issue is really how to fund conservation. Hunters and fishermen have footed the bill for years–and while it certainly would introduce problems, it’s time for “wildlife watchers” to pay for the habitat and research and management that supports the wildlife they watch. Missouri has a small sales tax that all citizens pay–it greatly helps conservation but has not given anti-hunters “the voice at the table” that some fear. And I have hunted all my life without understanding what “trophy hunting” is. Depending on your values, it can be a nine-foot grizzly rug or a full body mount squirrel. Hunt grizzlies if and only if the population will sustain it. Same with lions, elk, wolves, and on down the line. It’s hunters who brought back the deer, the elk, the turkeys, the wood ducks, the antelope…but in terms of funding, it’s time for everyone to pay their way.

  5. Vivienne Mackie November 20, 2013 at 6:24 am - Reply

    I personally am totally opposed to trophy hunting—looks what’s happening to African wildlife numbers now> Started with trophy hunting and now it’s extended to rampant poaching

  6. Mike Norton-Griffiths November 15, 2013 at 12:29 am - Reply

    Here in Africa the debate between the strict preservationists (no hunting or consumptive use of wildlife) and the more pragmatic conservationists rages on, with the international animal welfare lobby solidly behind the former. But let the data speak for itself. In the mid ’70s Kenya and South Africa both had roughly the same number of wildlife, roughly one million. In the mid ’70s Kenya banned all consumptive use of wildlife, shooting, cropping, ranching, live capture etc. while in South Africa wildlife were made fully fungible (in the de Soto sense). 35 years later Kenya has lost 80% of her wildlife primarily because over the great majority of their habitat (95%) there are no economic returns to be had so wildlife present solely a cost to landowners and users. In contrast, 35 years later in South Africa there are 20 million head of wildlife, and rising, including large populations of some of the most endangered wildlife species. More details on my website http://www.mng5.com.

  7. Deborah Thompson November 14, 2013 at 9:31 am - Reply

    Absolutely, Candice. I think trophy hunting should be outlawed regardless of the numbers. Is it really necessary for this generation to indulge in the peanut-brain, chest-thumping traditions of early cave men? The fact that this is still considered acceptable and a “sport” is more than sad.

  8. Mari-Vaughn Johnson November 14, 2013 at 9:29 am - Reply

    from whence will you derive your conservation dollars if the hunter inputs are stopped?

  9. Wm. Hovey Smith November 14, 2013 at 9:27 am - Reply

    The take of big game animals is best governed by the best wild game populations numbers that are available from public agencies who are closest to the ground. To assert that these numbers are intentionally slanted to favored hunters without accurate counts of the animals to back it up (a practically impossible thing to do in most cases) is slanderous and unsubstantiated. The local game officials do the best that they can with the resources they have. They set the hunt take of these animals and the money contributed to the local economy and through fees for licenses is vital for the preservation and better understanding of the species. My answer to this question is emphatically NO. Sport hunting should be allowed to continued even if some, without any solid supporting evidence, claim otherwise apparently based on the fact that there may be some economic benefit to someone somewhere and on this basis alone feel that the hunt quotas must be rigged.

  10. Thomas Sawyer November 14, 2013 at 9:26 am - Reply

    The term “trophy hunting” is in itself disturbing to begin with (a.k.a. as “bragging rights”), but when there is insufficient data to support such an immoral and arrogant concept, it becomes all the more distasteful. Discovering the right balance between economics, ecology, politics, conservation, nature, and the rights of the hunter and hunted is to say the least, very challenging, but at the same time should be fair, moral, and strategically planed, not just a haphazard or knee-jerk reactionary approach. “Trophy hunting” should be immediately discontinued until such time a better management system is in place and a prudent and proven data collection system employed and implemented. Am efficient and effective management system should be based on sound logic, conclusive research (and resources), factual evidence, alternative solutions, problem-solving techniques, and unbiased decision-making. Then and only them will such a system be fair to all.

  11. YK Lahir November 14, 2013 at 9:25 am - Reply

    Wild animals should not be hunted as there is natural mode of keeping check on their population. Let nature do its job without anthropogenic interferences.In spite of the research and other developments man as such is still an infant in the lap of mother nature.Our efforts should be to understand the ecological inter-relation ship and if possible help to maintain the natural conditions.

  12. Art Rochester November 14, 2013 at 9:24 am - Reply

    Even the word “Trophy” implies that it is the largest, fastest, most illusive, healthiest animal in the forest. By hunting for these “Trophy” animals, only the slow, sick and old are allowed to reproduce. This weakens the herds and is liable to allow diseases to gain footholds. In my humble opinion, if hunting is to continue, there must be new rules applied to protect herd integrity. Hunters always preach that they are the closest to nature and understand what is necessary to maintain healthy biodiversity. So far, human game management has not been as successful as Mother Nature left alone. Chernobyl has become a haven for animals. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcAEpCt1MdU#t=90

  13. Philip Wells November 14, 2013 at 9:22 am - Reply

    Ignoring the moral issues related to trophy hunting, clearly if the licensing authority is using a model that is not robust leading to an allowable harvest greater than is sustainable then they need a new model and/or system that correctly accounts for expected errors and uncertainty (in-effect precautionary). This is easier said than done if the licensing body can be lobbied by interested parties or the body itself is dependent on the income derived from the trophy hunting in some way. Outlawing per se is not necessarily an ideal solution but as legislative threat may be just what the authority needs to drive it to find a sustainable solution.

  14. Lawan Bukar Marguba November 14, 2013 at 9:20 am - Reply

    If wildlife numbers are routinely overestimated, it means there’s great uncertainty for wildlife management. Therefore, trophy hunting may not totally outlawed, but there is need for greater caution in issuing out licenses.

  15. James "Jim" O'Donnell November 14, 2013 at 9:18 am - Reply

    As an occasional hunter myself, I find trophy hunting to be appalling no matter the numbers. I don’t support it at all.

  16. Sarel Van der Merwe November 13, 2013 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    Candice, I guess you refer to case-specifics and not global?

    This is what crystallized from research and personal comments from about 100 scientists and some hunters/hunting organisations/filmmakers/photographic safari operators over the past about five years: In some countries, mostly African, but also the USA, UK, etc. opinions vary from extremely skeptical towards governmental/government agency hunting quotas, to strongly in support of such quotas. Hunters blame scientists for being non-hunting biased, and photographic operators of causing much damage to nature, such as leaving designated roads (in some cases jeep tracks), illegally gathering firewood, littering, making noise after hours, harassing wildlife, leaving vehicles illegally to take pictures or simply playing daredevil by approaching wild animals. Similarly, some scientists blame hunters for unscrupulous behaviour, being drunk while hunting, shooting under-aged animals, over-hunting (knowingly), etc., etc. Some photographic safari operators even claim that hunters/concession holders/PH-es harass them and their personnel, gathering firewood from safari campsites, making it difficult for them to operate in such areas. One filmmaker claimed that some shots were fired at his light aircraft.

    Interestingly, the anti-hunting group tends to produce smaller figures than the pro-hunting group – although I must add that that is generalized and does not apply to ALL scientists, safari operators, hunting organisations, concession holders, PH-es, etc. There are still a sizable number of honest people in this world.

    I agree with the authors that the solution is seated in the use of independent researchers, but we KNOW that most governments ignore figures of even independent researchers, and I suggest some kind of transparent process must be in place for every country globally where hunting is permitted. And the only transparent process I can think of is the internet. Make it compulsory that annual scientific surveys and quotas be made available on the internet, with a direct link to the independent researcher’s email address/website, and room for comments. I can only pray for the webmaster/manager of such website:s/he will have to answer hundreds of questions, opinions (by far mostly uniformed and emotional) and counter-survey results, too often thumb-suck.

    But in the end, despite all the fighting, by far most of all the above-mentioned people/organisations/businesses are conservation-orientated. They just cannot wean their personal preferences from harsh, real facts. A perfect recipe for disaster.

  17. Chuck Noble November 13, 2013 at 10:12 am - Reply

    I agree with Kevin, as a wildlife photographer and hunter I do not find the numbers that far off. Most folks opposed to hunting will not spend the time to really involve themselves in finding the facts unless they agree with their agenda. Case in point, In CA in the 70’s I was in the mountains taking photos when a group came up 15 strong to do a mountain lion survey. The local ranger told them where they might sight a lion. He even offered to take them to where a recent kill was stashed. They refused any advise or help and walked around for two days in a large group and came back and stated that they had seen no sign of any lions and they were going to recommend that they be put on endangered list. I live in lion country and do not see many but I see tracks and signs of recent kills all the time and I know we have a lot of lions in our local mountains. This is just an example of how things are sometimes done.

  18. Linda Heslegrave November 13, 2013 at 10:11 am - Reply

    Trophy hunting should never be permitted.

  19. Mauverneen Blevins November 13, 2013 at 10:10 am - Reply

    In my mind ALL trophy hunting should be outlawed. Hunting for food is one thing but trophy hunting? Yay. You get to hang a dead animal on your wall.

    • dave bowen January 3, 2014 at 2:57 pm - Reply

      Killing animals for sport is just killing! Where is the “sport” in shooting a deer with a high powered rifle and a scope? What is sporting about using an automatic weapon? Where is the sport in sranding in a field at daybreak and shooting doves off utility wires? If you are worried about increased deer populations or that of other species,here is a thought stop murdering all tyhe predators,and nature will take care of the overpopulation,as she always has.

      • Doug Brown September 10, 2016 at 7:20 am - Reply

        Letting nature take care of over population isn’t possible anymore. A long time ago when their was much more land and much fewer humans on the planet life took care of itself. Today, there is many more humans and very little land for animals and so over population happens because the animals are condensed into a small area. Sadly we must deal with over population or have these animals in our back yard making food of our children. There is no “good” way of doing it.

  20. Kevin Pack November 13, 2013 at 10:09 am - Reply

    Any study is only as good as the data entered, and only as long as ANY agenda is left at the door.

    Having been intimately involved with the reintroduction and delisting of 3 endangered species I know first hand what problems occur with studies and how they can be tailored to meet ones agenda or view point. I know full well how studies are manipulated to either raise or lower numbers, how not all the information available can be left out “by accident” to achieve one’s desired results.

    To try and ban something you dislike based on numbers that can easily be challenged is not a smart thing. Personal differences aside, you may not like hunting, but I know environmentalists that would ban photographers from the wild because it disturbs the animals, and then you will find yourself on the wrong end of a study and your passion banned.

  21. MJ Graham November 13, 2013 at 6:46 am - Reply

    Frankly, I believe all trophy hunting should be outlawed. It is a counterintuitive practice serving no ecological purpose but instead only artificially boosts human ego. If one wants to argue economics, much more money can be generated through eco-tourism because the vast majority of humans do not participate in trophy hunting.

  22. Venkatasamy Ramakrishna November 13, 2013 at 6:45 am - Reply

    I find the idea of generating income from the killing of wild animals revolting. If we really and sincerely wish to protect wild animals there are numerous ways of raising money. We decide which animal to kill, but do we ever give that animal wishing to die a chance to express that wish? It is also sickly how some people are so much interested in trophies…even human trophies at times.

  23. Jenifer Horn November 12, 2013 at 1:51 pm - Reply

    I agree, the population of wildlife can not be determined by someone sitting behind a desk looking at a computer model. The only real way of finding the truth is to get out in the field and physically take count. Too many things are done with models these days and not enough with actual figures.

    • Gavin Masterson November 14, 2013 at 4:17 pm - Reply

      I understand where you’re coming from Jenifer, but to “physically take count” of all animals requires a large investment of time and money – and both are a scarce resource in conservation sadly. It is virtually impossible to count each individual in a population, and we know that counts always underestimate population numbers. Hence we need models that correct for our ‘under-counting’ bias.

      In my research I spend much of my time hard at work in the field, but I also have to make use of models to account for how successful I was during my surveys. Models that are based on field data each season are definitely to be preferred in my opinion. Models that are based on estimations of growth rates, last years population estimate and reported off-take via hunting or natural death etc., and that are not ground-truthed in any way, are definitely a problem.

  24. Ella Jeans November 12, 2013 at 1:43 pm - Reply

    I’ve always been 100% against killing for fun.

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