I was born and raised in Point Reyes Station, and spent much of my youth frolicking on the ranches that dot West Marin. I saw cows shot and hung for butchering, pigs split open, and chicken heads axed off. For many years, I would turn away and ignore the sounds of death, preferring to enjoy my hamburger or bacon in peace. Not until I axed off the head of a chicken myself did I truly grasp how meat got to my table.
I spend every free moment exploring the amazing abundance of public lands we have in Point Reyes- anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I am likely to found be searching for the bird that has most recently enchanted me or foraging for a delicious patch of miners lettuce. My happiest moment in recent memory involves waking up with the excitement of a child on Christmas morning to visit a local pond at first light, with fingers crossed. The joy of finally seeing my first wood ducks- two beautiful and regal drakes amongst a flock of noisy widgeon- was lost on my friends, who were still enjoying their Saturday morning slumber.
There are other mornings that I wake up early, with mixed feelings of excitement and sadness. Those are the days that I go fishing or hunting. Slipping a boat into the fog and silence of Tomales Bay with the intent of tricking a fish to take my bait brings mixed emotions. Thinking back to the volunteer hours of habitat restoration work, or assisting the trapping, measuring and release of delicate Coho smolts, I always remind myself of what precious and threatened creatures lie under those waters, and how much respect they deserve. My boyfriend, a partner in crime for volunteer work as much as hunting or fishing, quizzes me about how to tell a Coho from a King before every trip, and makes me explain why the fish on the deck is something we can keep.
Earlier this year, my very first salmon swallowed my bait and was hooked in the belly, not in the mouth. She rolled quickly and easily to the boat, not putting up a fight. We pulled her up as fast as we could and thunked her on the head, knowing she was in pain. When we ate the salmon later that night, I never have appreciated or felt more responsible for the passing of another life to feed me. I would rather feel the weight of that responsibility squarely on my shoulders, while taking a measure of solace in the fact that my salmon was not confined to a pen, snagged in a gill net, or left to flop and flounder on the deck of a commercial trawler.
That desire to take responsibility for my food, combined with my overwhelming desire to be connected to the land, is why I took up hunting this year as well. In October I shot my first bird, a surly rooster pheasant. I took the rooster down cleanly with my first shot, and when the dog brought it back to me, the incredible heat of its body but empty, lifeless eyes made me well up. That bird, only moments before, was nestled in the grass, enjoying its day. In a matter of seconds, it was dead and in my hand. What is more cruel- to take the life away from a free and roaming animal in an instant, or to breed, feed and slaughter a bird in confinement, as part of a food production machine? Maybe it is less about cruelty and more about respect- I respect and cherish the opportunity to take responsibility for my food, and I am thankful for what must be sacrificed for that animal to go from field to table.
I have never hunted in the Tomales Bay Ecological Reserve (TBER), and perhaps never will. However, I am thankful that the opportunity to hunt is provided on a public land that is so close to my home, where people can hunt a healthy, burgeoning population of waterfowl that have made our backyard a stop on their grand journey. I consider wildlife, and especially migratory birds, to be a public treasure, that no one person or entity can claim them as their own. Their journies span not only states, but nations and continents. The current debate about hunting in TBER has prompted me to seriously consider the ethics of hunting on public land-specifically refuges- and to explore what my notion of “public” means when weighing the privilege of hunting against the rights of other people.
According to Action Tomales Bay, an organization dedicated to ending waterfowl hunting in TBER, “It is also clear to us that the purposes of the Giacomini Wetlands and Fish & Game’s TBER hunting zone at the gateway to the wetlands are completely incompatible,” but the organization does not provide additional reasoning to support their claim. Instead relying on the linguistic association of “reserve” with preservation, Action fails to consider the concepts of managed conservation, harvestable surplus or the possibility that hunting often plays a role in wildlife management.
According to the National Wildlife Refuge System Act of 1966, hunting is allowed on refuges and reserves, “when it is compatible with the purposes for which the refuge was established and acquired.” The Act further specifies that: “wildlife-dependent recreational uses involving hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation, when determined to be compatible, are legitimate and appropriate public uses of the Refuge System; that these compatible wildlife-dependent recreational uses are the priority general public uses of the Refuge System; and a requirement for preparing comprehensive conservation plans.” Finally, the NWR states that, “habitat that normally supports healthy wildlife populations produces harvestable surpluses that are a renewable resource.”
Action Tomales Bay counts two local, for-profit outdoor adventure companies amongst their supporters. Point Reyes Outdoors and Blue Water Kayaks are both wonderful businesses that contribute to our community in a variety of ways- I recently enjoyed a nighttime bioluminescence tour with BWK. Both companies operate tours in the restored Giacomini Wetlands, the Tomales Bay Ecological Reserve, and Tomales Bay, and I am happy that the tax dollars, donations and hard work have benefitted their businesses as much as anyone else. However, I do not believe that a for-profit wildlife tour operator’s interests should be weighed more heavily than my own interest in having a publicly managed and publicly accessible refuge to legally recreate, whether it be through hunting, birding, hiking, or any other legally permitted activity.
A core argument of Action Tomales Bay is that hunting poses a serious safety risk to other recreational users of TBER, the Wetlands, and Tomales Bay. I admit that when guns are involved, there is always a question about safety- that is why hunters are licensed and have to prove their ability to safely use a weapon. Gaining better knowledge about the mechanics of a shotgun, and the way waterfowl are hunted might bring more peace of mind to people imagining long-range rifles on stands, and high caliber bullets whistling over their heads. This is simply not the way it works, and taking the responsibility to educate ourselves about the realities of hunting could do nothing but good. Birds are shot with bird shot (little pellets packed into a shell), not with bullets, and the maximum effective range for my 12-gauge shot gun is no more than 50 yards, though I never shoot at birds that far out.
On a personal level, the most bothersome argument featured on Action Tomales Bay’s website is echoed through the following comment, posted in their “Speak Out” section:
“I wake to the sound of gunshot in the early hours of a dark November morning and pull my head under the pillows to block out both the noise and the image of roughnecks in waders and fur lined caps firing on defenseless waterfowl. It’s an image from an ancient novel that doesn’t belong here.“
What doesn’t belong “here” or anywhere is judgmental, uninformed name calling. By painting the “enemy” as simply a roughneck in a fur lined cap, we lose baring not only on the reality of the situation, but paint one community as less civilized than another- in my mind, this is antithetical to the liberal, inclusive values that I thought we hold dear in West Marin. When we use prejudicial language to characterize someone we don’t even know, we justify our constructs of what is right, moral, or ethical without engaging in a real, worthwhile debate.