Auburn Speaks
Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development

As Organic as it Gets

Written by Stephen S. Ditchkoff and Mark D. Smith

Wildlife as a Source of Food

Hunting stirs up mixed emotions in today’s society, yet we often forget that hunting serves as a significant source of food for many families in Alabama, the Southeast, and across North America. White-tailed deer, squirrels, quail, turkey, cottontail rabbits, and other game species provide a significant source of meat to families that choose to take advantage of nature’s bounty.

Game birds such as turkey and quail make outstanding table fare for the fowl lover. Waterfowl (ducks and geese), doves, and other migratory species are high-dollar delicacies in many five-star restaurants, and rabbits and squirrels have traditionally been incorporated into recipes that are passed down from generation to generation in rural America.

Auburn leads the way in research on the management, economics, and preservation of wild game. Here we explore some of the historic, economic, and nutritional aspects of hunting in the state.

The Historic Roots of Hunting

Our earliest ancestors whunterere hunters, tapping into local wildlife populations to meet their protein needs. Aboriginal populations in North America were dependent on local animal populations for survival. Native Americans on the Great Plains eagerly anticipated the arrival of vast herds of bison each year, while Inuit populations along the Arctic coast survived almost solely by hunting whales, seals, caribou, and other species found north of the Arctic Circle. Native Americans residing in Alabama consumed a wide array of wildlife species, including species that are common hunting game today, such as white-tailed deer, game birds, and squirrels, but they also tapped into the plethora of other species available such as turtles, alligators, and other less typical table fare. Early settlers in all parts of North America were also dependent on their ability to successfully provide for their families through hunting, particularly during winter.

Although hunting has a significant recreational component to it nowadays, thousands of Alabamians (and millions nationally) take to the woods each fall to reconnect with the wonders of nature and to add wild game to the freezer. While some nonhunters view this activity as a bloodthirsty ritual where defenseless wild animals are slaughtered or exploited as trophies, the reality is far different. Hunting for most is a means of meeting dietary requirements for their families and serves the same role as planting a garden or farming. The only difference is that this food moves.

Hunting and the Economy

Hunting and other wildlife-related activities are major contributors to Alabama’s economy, particularly in rural areas of the state. These activities generate around $4 billion in Alabama each year, ranking third in importance in Alabama’s natural resource industries behind forestry and poultry. The approximately 430,000 hunters in Alabama (9 percent of the state’s population) in 2011 spent approximately $1.2 billion during the year on hunting. This included traditional hunting purchases such as firearms, ammunition, and other hunting gear.

Each year, expenditures on travel for hunting (gasoline, lodging, food, etc.) increase, and in 2011, some 50 percent of expenditures for hunting fell into this travel category. Additionally, it is estimated that deer hunters in Alabama spend approximately $2-3 billion dollars each year on food plots for hunting. However, these expenditures, which include seed, fertilizer, and diesel fuel, are currently considered agricultural inputs to the economy. Altogether, the economic expenditures toward hunting in Alabama are a major contributor to the state’s economy each year.

Nutritional Aspects of Wild Game

For many people, wildlife serves as a healthy alternative to more common sources of food available at the grocery store. Meat from wildlife species is typically leaner than meat from domestic species and lower in cholesterol. Domestic beef, chicken, turkey, and pork have a high fat content compared to their wild counterparts. Game birds such as wild turkey, quail, ducks, and geese compare favorably to domestic poultry in terms of fat content, and wild pigs are extremely lean when compared to domestic pork.

White-tailed deer, which is often substituted for beef by hunting families, is a very lean meat, and nutritionists consider it healthy. A single deer can provide between 20 and 40 pounds of meat that can be substituted for beef in just about any recipe. In Alabama, between 4,000 and 4,600 tons of venison are consumed each year. That’s enough venison to provide a hamburger to each resident of the state of Alabama for seven days–with some left over.

Another positive aspect of wild game as table fare is the organic nature of the meat. Today, we pay a premium at the grocery store for certified organic meats. Our desire to reduce consumption of hormones, genetically modified foods, and other impurities has led to a rapidly growing demand for these products. The cost of those foods, however, is considerably greater than their non-organic equivalents. The cost to families who want “true” organic meat (in the form of wild game) is considerably less, and the meat comes with the satisfaction that it was self-harvested. Those families consuming meat obtained through hunting can be sure that their dinner is as organic as it comes.

Hunting and Endangered Species

White-tailed deer and other game species serve as prime examples of “success stories” for what is described as the North American model of wildlife management. Although you may find it hard to believe, in the late 1800s, much of the wildlife we value today was spiraling toward extinction because of unregulated commercial harvest. Interestingly, it was hunters themselves who rallied against these commercial interests to put a halt to the destruction of our nation’s wildlife. Through the fortuitous passage of laws and other legislation, the North American model of wildlife conservation was born.

Founded on the premise, and subsequent law, that wildlife is held in the public trust and should be managed in the best interest of current and future generations, our nation’s unique approach to wildlife conservation rests on the production and sustainability of adequate populations of game species for hunting purposes. However, this conservation movement now includes all wildlife, including those species that are not hunted. Wildlife agencies were tasked with ensuring that wildlife populations were maintained at harvestable levels, and hunting was a sustainable activity. To pay for these management activities, which included monitoring of wildlife populations, enforcement of hunting laws, and enhancement of wildlife habitat, state wildlife agencies sold hunting licenses. This economic revenue was essential to the sustainability of wild game populations and hunting.

The Pittman-Robertson Act

hunter 2The greatest boost for wildlife conservation came in 1937 when Nevada Senator Key Pittman and Virginia Congressman Absalom Willis Robertson sponsored a bill to reallocate an 11 percent excise tax on the purchase of firearms and ammunition from the U.S. Treasury Fund to the Secretary of Interior to distribute to states for the management of wildlife and wildlife habitat. That same year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill known as the Pittman-Robertson Act. Money generated through the Pittman-Robertson Act is allocated to each state wildlife agency using a formula based upon the area of the state and the number of hunting licenses sold in that state. In 2011, a total of $384 million was allocated to state wildlife agencies, and Alabama received $9.4 million.

Today, the money generated from Pittman-Robertson allocations is used for wildlife habitat enhancement, wildlife population monitoring, and wildlife research, among other things. In the early years, the majority of these funds were directed toward management of game species, due to the significant emphasis on sustainability of game species for hunting purposes. However, as wildlife management agencies and the general public became more aware of the peril of many threatened and endangered species, an ever-increasing percentage of Pittman-Robertson dollars has been allocated to conservation efforts for non-hunted species and, more importantly, to habitat conservation, which supports both groups of species.

Because there is no direct manner in which to generate money that can be allocated towards conservation of non-hunted species (the reality is that most people are very interested in conserving the diversity of all wildlife, but few are willing to pay to do it), Pittman-Robertson resources have become a critical component in the fight to conserve all wildlife species and the habitats they are dependent upon.

What this means is that hunting, via taxes on hunting equipment, is a major contributor to efforts of state agencies to conserve the abundant wildlife that many take for granted. In other words, hunters–who are often seen as having a negative effect on wildlife populations–are actually the group leading the charge for wildlife conservation efforts in North America.   Because of the economic revenue generated through hunting activities, and the popularity of game species such as white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and waterfowl, hunting serves as the foundation for wildlife management and conservation in North America, a source of healthy and readily available table fare, and an important driver in Alabama’s economy.

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