Climate Change

Can This Man Turn Hunters & Anglers Into Climate Activists?

April 29, 2015

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Todd Tanner, hunter and climate activist

Todd Tanner sees 37 million American hunters and anglers, and he sees a force that could actually get something done for climate change.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. I know what you’re thinking, especially if you’ve followed climate communications at all: We’ve heard this before.

After all, getting new audiences to care about climate change has been a priority – some might say obsession – of environmental organizations for a very long time.

And for good reason: meaningful action on climate change won’t happen without much broader support.

Climate, after all, needn’t be a political issue (and it’s not in many countries).

So why not expand the tent to include people who care about stewardship and land and water? Why not make climate change relevant to hunters, to evangelicals, to conservatives, to parents?

And yet, for all that seeming promise, all that endless strategizing, in the end climate change remains a politicized and polarizing issue.

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

I’ve seen such outreach efforts fail, sometimes firsthand. I’ve attended gatherings of hunters and anglers – I’m a lifelong and enthusiastic sportsman – where an environmentalist attempts to address climate change.

So often, the talk begins like this. The speaker proudly proclaims some sporting credentials. And it’s often something like: I went fishing once. With my grandpa. When I was ten. I totally understand your passion.

At this point, I bury my face in my hands. Please stop.

Too late. The room has turned cold. Eyes roll. I know exactly what everyone’s thinking: No. No, you don’t get us at all.

And who can blame them?

Writer and climate activist Todd Tanner has seen this, too. Frequently. And he wants to change the dialogue.

“When environmental groups try to raise the climate issue with hunters and anglers, their messaging and framing are actually counter-productive,” he says. “They don’t sound right; they’re not part of the tribe. So sportsmen and sportswomen simply tune them out.”

Tanner represents a different kind of messenger. The question is: Can he, and others like him, make a difference?

Angling for Climate Change Activists

Tanner lands a steelhead on the Dean River.
Tanner lands a steelhead on the Dean River.

I first encountered Todd Tanner on the pages of outdoor magazines, far from the realm of climate change communications. He writes reliable, solid pieces on rivers and hatches and gear. If he recommends a fly rod, I know I can trust it.

Then he founded Conservation Hawks, an organization dedicated to getting hunters and anglers involved in climate change.

I was impressed – the “hook and bullet” magazines wouldn’t touch this issue, nor would most of their writers.

Tanner knows the political clout that the sporting community carries, especially in rural areas and “red” states.

Hunters and anglers have a long history of conservation and political action – but they have been largely absent when it comes to climate change.

Tanner leapt in with a passion, perhaps for the same reasons that draw many of us to be climate activists.

“I am not a doom-and-gloom guy, but I realized if things kept on this trajectory, there would be no hunting and fishing in a 100 years,” he says. “I’ve always felt like we have a moral duty to act as stewards and caretakers. When my son was born, though, it took things up a notch. Those ‘future generations’ we all talk about suddenly had a face and a name.”

As an accomplished fly fisher and avid big game hunter, he also felt he could make headway where others have failed.

“Hunters should talk to hunters, evangelicals should talk to evangelicals, military should talk to military,” he says. “Groups should focus on their base and not stray too far afield.”

Common sense? Perhaps. But so often large environmental organizations believe they can partner with anybody. Easier said than done.

Climate change affects big game migration patterns. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
Climate change affects big game migration patterns. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Tanner knows the terrain here. He writes stories on climate change for outdoor magazines. He’s at outdoor conventions and industry trade shows. He meets with some of the biggest names in outdoor sport, but also spreads the message along trout streams.

To an environmentalist, some of Tanner’s tactics can seem, well, unconventional.

I once moderated a panel where he spoke to a crowd comprised of avid hunters. When the time for questions came, the inevitable climate change deniers hogged the podium.

Then Tanner stood up and offered a new shotgun to anyone in the room who could produce peer-reviewed evidence to back up the denial.

He makes this offer frequently. He has yet to pay out.

The hunters paid attention.

“Lay people want to understand scientific concepts, but at the same time they want those concepts to be clear and concise and free from caveats and qualifiers,” he says. “My job is to translate for them – to share information in a way they can understand.”

He has an array of evidence that hits at what sportsmen and sportswomen care about: Rivers getting warmer. Water levels getting lower. Shifting duck migrations. Altered big game patterns.

But not polar bears. Definitely not polar bears.

In fact, Tanner wrote a piece for Forbes calling environmentalists to task for making the polar bear a symbol for climate change, and sticking with that symbol regardless of audience.

“I am not going to point towards the Arctic if I want hunters and anglers to care about climate change,” he says. “There are plenty of examples that they can relate to every time they go afield.”

Generic Messages Won’t Cut It

Todd Tanner and his son at Glacier National Park.
Todd Tanner and his son at Glacier National Park.

Even within the realm of hunting and angling, Tanner recognizes that there can’t be a one-size-fits all message.

While environmentalists may lump this community together, its participants recognize sub-groups and sub-sub-groups and points of difference.

Visit a Western trout stream and a bass tournament and the difference may become apparent. Deer camp is not a duck blind. Tying flies is not mixing catfish stink bait.

To the outsider, this all may seem trivial. To insiders, these differences are vitally important, the fodder for endless discussion and debate in magazines, internet forums and campfires.

There are nuances and overlaps, of course, but the bottom line is this: to talk to this community you have to understand all this.

Tanner’s own strength is his respect and credibility among the fly fishing community. Granted, some might call fly fishers the low hanging fruit of this realm.

Fly anglers have often been highly involved in wilderness designation and clean water regulations and other environmental issues. They are often members of non-angling environmental organizations.

Still, the increasing support of fly fishers around climate change is impressive. Last week, the film Cold Waters, a film about how anglers will feel the effects of climate change, featured some of the biggest names in the industry.

Just as important, many of sport’s biggest companies signed on: Orvis and Patagonia and even the industry’s trade group, the American Fly Fishing Trade Association.

“All of us who care about climate change have to recognize who we can reach,” says Tanner. “I am not going to reach evangelicals. I can reach fly fishers. I know this community, and they know me. They’re going to give me the benefit of the doubt. And we need this for bass anglers and bird hunters and lots of other groups.”

“Generic climate messages are not going to cut it,” he adds. “We need people who know the science but can speak to their tribe.”

You can’t fake this. You can deliver all the messages you want, but unless you speak to peoples’ passions, those messages land like a badly-cast fly.

When I listen to Tanner, I’m no longer an employee of an environmental organization. I’m a hunter. I’m listening to one of my people. He’s telling stories that matter. To me and to the future I want for my own son.

And I think: here is someone who gets it. No: Gets us.

Matt Miller

Matt Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matt

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2 comments

  1. I am a hunter, fly fisherman, photographer, birder and a Christian conservationist. I have no argument that climate is changing but I do take exception with those who say humans are the only cause … climate change is far more complex than most can imagine and we sometimes give ourselves to much credit for impacting it … but the flip side is, and it is a big side, if we can do something to help ameliorate the effects of a warming climate on the fish, birds and other animals including us humans then the question becomes why not? I work on this issue on a regular basis within my church congregation … we are not evangelical since we are “old fashioned” Lutherans but I am always surprised to see what a little conversation about what can be done to help critters does when the issue is not politicized.

    1. Ken, I too am a fisherman/hunter/photographer/birder and Christian conservationist. But, I have one question for you,

      “Where do you hear responsible, science/fact-based/educated people say ‘humans are the only cause’ of climate change?”

      I have been involved in climate/resource/conservation for over 30 years, and I have never heard anyone meeting that description, even intimate such a notion. Let alone state it as fact.

      If this is your only ‘hang-up’ with the current ‘climate change’ conversation, then you should have no problem at all.

      Because, the people who would say such a thing are either ignorant, uneducated, agenda-laden, egotistical, greedy and definitely not interested in living a caring-life as a true follower of Christ; or a deadly combination of the lot.

      The people who ARE educated, responsible, caring for the future of both the earth and life on it, recognize that the only anomaly that could cause such a rapid and destructive alteration to earth’s climate; that has occurred over the last 150 years; has been .. US: Humans.

      The geologic record shows that large abnormal changes – anomalies; like tectonic upheavals and asteroid collisions; have lead to major climatic shifts and resulting catastrophic loss of biologic life and system order.

      Explaining these same kind of changes, with the data gathered over the last 30 years; knowing such radical changes only occur in the presence of large anomalies to the natural rhythm of geologic, atmospheric and biologic forces; requires us to admit, that HUMANS are, that anomaly.

      So yes, it is not only possible, it is true. We, humans, can and do have that much clout on a closed, finite system. There is no other rational explanation. None.

      If humanity had had the will (read: Integrity) to listen and humbly admit, that many (read: Most!) of the pursuits undertaken -by ALL of humanity- over the last 200 years, have NOT been in the interest Of.In.For —
      a) the natural world,
      b) peoples of lesser status,
      c) interests we did not share,
      d) ego,
      e) greed,
      f) outright dishonesty

      THEN .. we would not be having this discussion.

      You cannot blame the current, rapid alterations of our earthly climate system on natural occurrences of the wind, water, microbes, predator, prey, volcanoes or meteorites.

      It is as the little comic opossum from the Great Dismal Swamp said, “I have seen the enemy and he is US.”

      US .. is humanity. Humanity is HUMANS. The PROBLEM.

      The only question left to answer is simple: “Will we (Humans) also chose to be a SOLUTION?”