03/22/2012 02:53 pm ET Updated May 22, 2012

Hunting Through the Thicket

The Trump boys are in the news, posed with big game animals they've shot in Africa. It happened some time ago, but someone leaked photos, and PETA is now making sport of them to deliver its anti-hunting message. The Trumps say their hunts benefit poor communities; PETA says they're bloodthirsty and cruel.

The debate over hunting is as intense as it is new. Hunting is at the heart of the human interaction with nature. It is a rare museum of antiquities that doesn't exhibit artifacts of hunting, wildlife art and their intimate connection to us. The caves at Chauvet contain the oldest paintings known to human history, beautiful images of hunted animals. The Moghul emperor Akbar was said to have a thousand cheetahs in his hunting retinue. José Ortega y Gasset wrote lyrically about the hunt, as did American conservationist Aldo Leopold. Audubon was a hunter, as were many progressives of the Roosevelt era.

Big game in Africa is the most radioactive element in the debate, because of the great losses of wildlife there and the sympathetic view (non-resident) humans have of individual animals. Elephants, for example, are remarkable animals, and their plight is a difficult one. While poaching runs rampant in the Congo Basin and parts of East Africa, and the last of Chad's Sahelian elephants are all but gone, shooting elephants as a conservation practice requires a lot of thought and information, neither of which seems to inform the PETA-Trump debate. Conversely, some well-considered hunting programs have returned great value to human communities in Africa; gainsaying those from a distance seems arrogant.

Sending up the Trumps can only detract from an important debate. The twentieth century dawned on a scene of lawless wildlife slaughter in the US, during which bison had been virtually annihilated for hides, bones and tongues; cranes and other large birds had been shot out for the plume trade; terrapins had been vacuumed up for urban dining tables; mountain lions and wolves had been extirpated as nuisances; and white-tailed deer had been virtually eliminated from much of the Eastern US for meat. But the most durable efforts of wildlife managers embraced practices that have included hunting since the 1930s. Science-based conservation organizations and the land grant university cooperative fish and game research service help wildlife managers, academics, public officials and public agencies in population management for conservation.

The marriage of hunting and conservation may be troubled, but it is not time for divorce. The 'hook and bullet' crowd is important to contemporary conservation. Private hunting- and fishing-based organizations contribute to habitat preservation. Ducks Unlimited alone reports spending more than $80 million per year directly on US conservation. Hunters spend many times the amount of money of other elite outdoor sports, an estimated $23 billion in the last federal survey (2006). Revenues from hunting and fishing provide something like half the funding for wildlife conservation agencies throughout the United States.

Surveys also report that most Americans see hunters as forces for conservation, buying licenses and defending wild areas and diverse game populations. Communities without hunters as game managers struggle with overpopulation by deer, bear and other traditional prey of hunters. Without predation, white-tailed deer populations have exploded from a scant 500,000 in the early 1900s to 20 million today. New York alone has more than a million white-tailed deer (up from 20,000 at their lowest), and hunters cannot keep up with growing populations. Recent national estimates of crop losses and road accidents exceed $2 billion, and road kill has grown to such a scale that New York has built a state Department of Transportation deer composting facility. Add in disease, and human attitudes toward deer veer sharply negative.

It is strange, then, that hunting as part of a comprehensive, tailored conservation strategy earns such strong negative reactions. Is it due to the loss of hunting traditions in an urbanizing world? Perhaps the acrimony stems from a difference in orientation -- the individual animal for animal rights advocates and the overall population for conservation biologists, public lands managers and hunters. In any event, the fault lies not in the Trumps but in ourselves, and the lack of sweet reason in our dialogue.