By Casey Sill
There’s a long history of conflict on U.S. public lands ranging from trivial to deadly, though the vast majority of issues lean toward the former.
Learning to coexist with other hunters, as well as non-hunting recreational visitors, is a basic tenant of the public lands system — yet the stories never end. The list of examples is as long as it is egregious, and some days it can seem overwhelming. There’s not a sub-culture in this country better at pitting themselves against one another than hunters and fisherman, but a soapbox never solved anyone’s problems.
Curbing all poor behavior on public property isn’t a realistic goal, so the more poignant question may be, “how should we react when facing conflict due to poor ethical behavior on our public lands?”
Paul Sickman is a conservation officer with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. He’s been with the DNR for over 20 years and said resolving conflict between competing groups of hunters is an increasingly common part of the job.
“The pandemic didn’t help. People were locked up, but they could go outside,” he said. “So there’s just more people outside in general — whether they’re hunting, fishing or just non-consumptive users like hikers.”
While the northernmost reaches of Wisconsin are filled with large tracts of public land, the rest of the state is a patchwork of comparably small pieces of publicly accessible property bordering farms, housing developments and semi-urban areas. This scenario is repeated across much of the eastern and central U.S. — less land with more people, equals higher rates of hunter conflict. One of the most common issues Sickman responds to are hunters being squeezed by another group, with upland and waterfowl hunters being the most common offenders.
“It creates that user conflict, even though they’re not doing anything legally wrong,” he said. “It’s just bad ethics, and trying to teach someone ethics is easier said than done.”
The easiest way to solve a problem is to not create one. We all know the sinking feeling of turning the corner on the home stretch to your favorite hunting spot and seeing the reflection of your headlights on a truck in the parking lot. Everybody gets beat once in a while, and Sickman said the ethical decision in this scenario is to move along.
“If there’s vehicles in that lot, keep moving,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Obviously that doesn’t always happen. Until the end of time there will be groups of hunters with the table manners of poorly-trained golden doodles, roaming WMAs and county forests everywhere in search of someone’s day to ruin. And while setting up 50 yards from another duck hunter or pushing in on a group of pheasant hunters feels like it should warrant a citation, there’s very little conservation officers like Sickman can do when those situations arise.
“I can have that talk with them about doing the right thing for the right reasons, but I can only enforce violations of the law,” he said. “I can’t enforce ethical standards.”
This leaves the resolution largely up to the hunters themselves, and Sickman recommends employing an ancient, long-lost art form to subdue the tension.
“Just go talk to them,” he said. “No one likes to talk to each other anymore, but that’ll solve almost every one of these issues.”
Sickman believes the hesitancy of hunting parties to interact in recent years stems from more deeply rooted cultural issues in the US. The whole country is more on edge, less trusting and quick to anger.
“Any issue,” Sickman said. “Religion, politics — it all becomes a factor depending on what side of that pendulum you fall.”
It’s easy to carry the distrust that’s so pervasive in today’s world into the outdoors. We’ve all grown accustomed to changing our personalities to fit our politics, rather than our politics to fit our personalities, and this makes us retreat to our tribe with swords drawn whenever faced with the unknown. The chest puffing that happens so often when groups of hunters come across one another only furthers the tension created by ethically ambiguous behavior. If anyone remembers the scene in Tombstone where Doc Holliday meets Johnny Ringo, that sums up the scenario pretty well.
“Reminds me of…me. Yep, I’m sure of it — I hate him.”
Sooner or later we’re all going to run into a tense situation on public property. When it happens, it’s easy to let tempers flare. But a positive resolution hinges almost entirely on remaining calm and cordial. Louisa Hext is a conflict resolution professional based in Minneapolis, Minn. who specializes in person-to-person and family mediation. She’s also a regular user of public lands, and said the tactics to help deescalate conflict between hunters are the largely the same as those she teaches on a daily basis.
“Typically the person who initiates the conversation is likely the one who’s been infringed upon,” she said. “And the power lies with that person to inflate the tension or relax it.”
Hext offered four key factors to help deescalate issues between hunters on public land.
A first impression is a lasting impression
Before you even open your mouth the opposite party is forming an impression of you, and Hext said appropriate body language can help soften that impression. Initiating eye contact early on is a great way to show the person you care what they think. Maintain a neutral posture, close enough to the person to be engaged without making them uncomfortable. Always face toward whoever you’re talking to rather than turning away or to an angle, and try to avoid crossing your arms.
Find common ground
There’s always something we can agree on, so start by bringing up some common ground. If it’s been a slow day, bond over that rather than jumping directly into a criticism of the person’s behavior. The key to this lies in understanding the opposite party’s experience, and being sympathetic to it even if you don’t agree with them. Oftentimes hunters confront another group angrily, only to find out the offending party is a group of young people who’re brand new to the outdoor world and might not understand why what they did was in poor taste.
Take care of yourself
This might be the most revelatory tip Hext has to offer, and it’s something hunters almost never think about. The worse shape we’re in physically, the easier it is for us to lose our temper and become aggressive. When you’re cold, tired and hungry, you do things you normally wouldn’t — It sounds like a Snickers commercial, but it’s true. So often hunters wake up early, drive hours on end and walk all day with little to eat. Hext said that’s a recipe for a short fuse. If you have to confront another group of hunters, take two minutes beforehand to sit and relax, pour a cup of coffee from your thermos and eat a granola bar — It’ll immediately affect your mindset.
Live to hunt another day
The most important rule of all for Hext is to pick your battles. If you go out of your way to be kind, but the offending party still gets combative, it’s best to take the high ground and walk away. There’s a very small portion of people out there who simply aren’t to be reasoned with, according to Hext. When we’re not seeing any of our efforts reciprocated — eye contact, posture, empathy — the right thing to do is pack it in and find another spot to hunt, even if that means giving up your honey hole.
That last tip is a tough one to swallow. After all why should the skybusting spot-jackers get to shoot their limits while we drive around aimlessly looking for a new place to hunt? There’s not really a good answer to that question, but we’re mistaken if we think the natural world owes us something because we’re more ethical than the guy next to us. All we can do is double down on our commitment to our craft. The more invested we become, the less we want to violate the sanctity of our passion. And that makes it a lot easier to just shrug our shoulders and move along when some jerk outflanks us to a field we got to first.
Casey Sill is the public relations specialist at the Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever national headquarters in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.