Amherst Magazine

The Hunting Professor

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Professor Jan Dizard hunts feathered prey with his bird dog, Dee.

Fall means more to Jan Dizard than a return to teaching. For Dizard, the Charles Hamilton Houston Professor in American Culture, autumn also signifies another hunting season. It means weekends spent in the woods of New England and beyond, accompanied by his bird dog, Dee, stalking feathered prey. An expert on hunting trends and the author of several books and articles about hunting, guns and attitudes toward nature and the outdoors, Dizard recently talked with Amherst magazine. Here is a condensed interview:

Q  Will the economic downturn have an impact on hunting?
A  I suspect that, at least in rural areas, poaching will go up, just to put meat in the freezer to ease the pressure on the family budget. I suspect that fishing will be similarly affected. If you’re laid off and have time but not much money, then you go hunting or fishing.

Q  What trends might be observed in the alliances—perhaps uneasy alliances—that exist between hunters and environmental organizations?
A  Until the late 1960s or thereabouts, sportsmen, at least in their organized representation through groups like Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited and the Isaac Walton League, were usually on the same page with environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society. But then a rift developed. In part that was because, after the first Earth Day in 1970, there was a huge increase in environmental concern among Americans who had no interest in hunting. The Sierra Club and other organizations began to argue more strenuously for preservation. The rift was never explicit—no one slammed the door. But there was a divergence that I think weakened the environmental movement.

Q  Has anything changed?
A  The rift is now being patched back together. For example, there’s a new group, the American Hunters and Shooters Association, that is supporting gun rights and hunting rights but is anti-NRA, because they see the NRA as an organization that uses hunting and guns as a kind of stalking horse for a reactionary anti-environment agenda. There is also an increase in trade union support of environmental legislation.

Q  I’ve read that, as peoples’ lives become busier, they’re not passing on the skills of hunting to their children.
A  There are multiple factors contributing to this. They certainly include divorce, two-worker families, less spare time, the extraordinary number of diversions available to children—from organized sports to computers—and the increasing remoteness of areas where it is safe and easy to hunt. It takes a significant investment of time and money to go hunting these days.

Q  What are the implications of this?
A  A huge amount of money spent annually for habitat improvement and research on wildlife is funded by a value-added tax on fishing and hunting equipment. That amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars annually. If the number of hunters sinks, then this revenue begins to dry up. Hunters and fishermen and -women have been a major source of funding for basic research and habitat protection.

Q What do you hunt?
A  Birds: pheasant, geese, ruffed grouse, woodcock, quail. The season in the fall is short.

Q  How rare is it for a professor at a school like Amherst to be a hunter?
A  I think I’m the only faculty member at Amherst who hunts. There are some who have hunted but don’t now. When I joined the faculty in 1969, there were a number of faculty members and administrators, including the dean of admission, Bill Wilson, who fished and hunted.

Q  Is hunting beneficial?
A  Ironically, the code of ethics—the ethic of fair chase and restricted bag limits—was put in place when game had been overharvested and scarce. The restraint of taking only bucks rather than does, taking only male pheasants rather than female pheasants, paid off within a couple of years. Game populations began to recover, so the ethic was self-reinforcing, and scarcity drove home the message that we had to be conservationists if there was to be anything left to hunt. Now, the problem is not scarcity but overabundance—too many geese, too many deer, and we’re at a point in Massachusetts where there are probably too many bears for the available habitat.

Q  It seems as though you’re implying there should be more hunters. How can that come about?
A  So much of the ethos is about father-son, and now, increasingly, father-daughter, but very little attention is paid to how adults can be recruited to bolster the number of people who hunt. By the way, women are the fastest-growing segment of [the population participating in] hunting and shooting sports.

Q  How did you get into hunting?
A  I grew up around hunters, but my father didn’t hunt. I didn’t have an adult who taught me. I waited until I was an adult myself. I was always intrigued by it, then I got bird dogs and I was hooked.

Q Have your colleagues ever challenged you about your hunting?
A Every once in a while there’s a wry comment or a “How could you do that?” I invite them over for a pheasant dinner, and that usually solves that problem.

imageListen to the full audio interview.

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Photo by Samuel Masinter '04