As a youngster growing up in the southeastern Ozarks of Missouri, I knew lots of people who liked to hunt and fish.
Most of those folks did their best to follow the hunting and fishing seasons and regulations, and they practiced an ethical code of conduct while afield. But there were a handful of poachers who didn't play by any rules. They hunted deer at night, gigged game fish, killed turkeys before the season, and didn't mind trespassing on neighborhood farms. They seemed to lack respect for others, and for the rules designed to conserve wildlife for everyone.
Conservation agents around the state still encounter folks with that kind of attitude. Fortunately those people represent a minority of a conservation agent's contacts.
Conservation agents are spread very thinly across the state, usually only one or two per county, and each is required to cover several hundred square miles. They cannot control wildlife violations without a lot of help and support from citizens, including a generally high level of voluntary compliance with the rules.
Hunting and fishing are often solitary activities. Aldo Leopold once said that a peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter (or angler) ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than by a mob of onlookers. We hope and expect that hunters and anglers will adopt a personal code of behavior and have the self discipline to police themselves.
I believe our attitudes and ethics are shaped at a very early age. Families and teachers with good values help youngsters develop a good personal code of conduct. Most people who hunt or fish relied on someone in their early years for ethical guidance.
One deer season, I checked a vehicle that held several deer hunters. The driver seemed nervous. As I asked questions, a little boy in the back seat proudly pointed to his uncle and said "Uncle Dave got one!"
It turned out Uncle Dave, the driver, had killed a doe illegally and had stored the venison at a relative's house. I've often wondered if that little boy got in trouble later, for having told the truth. I prefer to think his uncle learned a valuable lesson from the experience and not only developed a better code of conduct for himself, he also became a better mentor for his nephew.
I recently attended a public meeting on conservation in Kansas City, where I heard Jim Hawes, a volunteer at Burr Oak Woods Nature Center, say, "We must educate children so they develop a personal respect for nature."
Jim said his love of nature began because he "had a creek" as a child, and someone to teach him about the out-of-doors. I think all children need a creek, and someone to teach them about it. They also need someone who can show them the right way to respect our wildlife, and the laws that govern hunters and anglers.
Dennis Steward, Protection Division Administrator
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