Fall means more to Professor Jan Dizard than a return to teaching, grading, advising and other academic tasks. 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 birddog, Dee, stalking feathered prey such as ruffed grouse, woodcock, pheasants and wild turkey.

A noted expert on hunting trends and the author of several books and articles about hunting, guns and attitudes towards nature and the outdoors, Dizard has been hunting virtually all his adult life. Although he shared his hobby with other faculty and administrators when he arrived at the college in 1969, he believes he is now the only faculty member at Amherst who hunts.

He recently sat down with Peter Rooney, director of Public Affairs, to share his thoughts on hunting, conservation and the reaction from colleagues about his hobby. Their conversation was in turn featured on the Boston Globe’s Brainiac blog.

Read the the interview, listen to it using the embedded audio player below or download the file

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Jan Dizard and Dee

You have a longstanding interest in society’s views on hunting in particular and the outdoors in general. Is there any particular relevance to that expertise this fall?  For example, have budgets cuts at the state level and the economic downturn in general had an impact on hunting?

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.

Do you think there’s a sense that people can get away with poaching because the warden might not be around as much?

Even when times were relatively flush, the warden coverage has been thin. The remarkable thing is that poaching is as low as it is. The risk of getting caught is low.

Are there any interesting trends you might be observing in the alliances—perhaps uneasy alliances—that exist between hunters and environmental organizations, like Sierra Club, for example? They share some common goals, but it would seem that they’d also have some conflict points.

That’s a very good and important question. 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 and began growing. In part that was because, after the first Earth Day in 1970, there was a huge increase in environmental concern among Americans who had either no interest in hunting or reservations about hunting. The Sierra Club and other organizations began to argue more strenuously for preservation, keeping consumptive use away from wilderness. The rift was never explicit—no one slammed the door or anything like that. But there was a divergence that I think weakened the environmental movement.  

That rift is now being patched back together. It’s an interesting phenomenon. 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 really reactionary anti-environment agenda. There is also an increase in trade union support of environmental legislation.

I’ve read that, as families become more non-traditional, or as peoples’ lives become busier, they’re not passing the skills of hunting on to their children, and that in turn has environmental ramifications. Is that something you’ve noticed?

Your characterization is right on the button, and there are multiple factors that are 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 computer games—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

That has a number of implications. Most people aren’t aware that a huge amount of the money spent annually for habitat improvement and for 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.

Do you hunt, yourself?

Yes, I do.

What do you hunt?

Birds: pheasant, geese, ruffed grouse, woodcock, quail. The season in the fall is short.  It makes my fall a crazy time.

Is it somewhat rare for a professor from such a prestigious academic institution to be a hunter?

I think I’m the only faculty member at Amherst who  hunts. There are some who have hunted but don’t now. When I first 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.

I imagine that to you the issue of whether to hunt or not is quite nuanced. For example, can the argument be made that hunting is beneficial?

Ironically, the code of ethics—the ethic of fair chase and restricted bag limits—, was put in place when game had been overharvested and really was scarce. The restraint of taking only bucks rather than does, taking only male pheasants rather than female pheasants  paid off within a matter of just a couple of years. Hunters could actually see that 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 actually 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.

It seems as though you’re implying that there should be more hunters. How can that come about?

When I talk to hunter education groups, one of things I talk about is ways they might attract adult hunters. So much of the ethos is about father-son, and now increasingly father and daughter, but very little attention is being paid to how adults can be recruited to bolster the number of people who hunt. By the way, that number of hunters would be much lower were it not for the fact that more women are hunting. Women are  the fastest growing segment  of [the population participating in] hunting and shooting sports.

How did you get into hunting? Is this something you grew up doing?

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, but I was always intrigued by it. Then I got bird dogs and I was hooked.

Have you ever been challenged by your colleagues about your hunting?

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.