Overview: Hunting refers to the pursuit of living animals for food, sport, or trade. Hunting may also involve the elimination of pests, such as rodents and rabbits, in order to control a pest population or prevent disease. Animals that are hunted (usually mammals or birds) are known as game.

Poaching is the illegal killing, trapping, or capturing of an animal and is not considered hunting. Fishing and trapping are also considered separate from hunting and are not discussed in this monograph.

Game classification: For practical purposes, game is divided into several categories, including big game, small game, furbearers, predators, upland game birds, and waterfowl.

Big game typically consists of large animals such as white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose, elk, reindeer, bears, bighorn sheep, alligators, and boars. Hunting for big game usually requires the purchase of a tag for each animal.

Small game consists of small animals such as rabbits, hares, squirrels, opossums, and raccoons.

Furbearers include red foxes, minks, pine martens, muskrats, and bobcats.

Predators include coyotes and cougars.

Upland game birds include grouse, turkeys, pheasants, bobwhite quails, and doves.

Waterfowl includes ducks and geese. Hunting for waterfowl requires a duck stamp and is typically restricted by both a bag and a possession limit. Hunters older than age 16 must purchase duck stamps in order to hunt migratory waterfowl.

Early hunting: Archaeological evidence suggests that early man depended on larger animals for subsistence.

Hunting was a crucial component of hunter-gatherer societies before livestock were domesticated. Hunter-gatherer lifestyles were important in both North and South America and Sub-Saharan Africa until the arrival of the Europeans. Cave paintings, dating as far back as the Upper Paleolithic Era about 40,000 years ago, have recurring themes of animals. Some experts argue that the paintings may be an inventory of how many animals were killed or a record of animal migratory patterns.

In primitive societies, hunting may be a right of passage. For instance, during the Stone Age, spear hunting was the most common form of hunting, and the hunters were among the most highly ranked members of society. Rite of passage for a man involved leaving the community for a few days, and finding and killing his own food.

Even after the development of agricultural societies, hunting continued to provide supplemental meat and materials to many societies.

Hunting moved from a subsistence activity to a social one and became an important sport for the upper social class. In medieval Europe, the upper class could obtain sole rights to hunt in specific areas. In time, hunting became a sporting activity for the middle class as well.

Development of the bow and domestication of the dog show diversification in hunting techniques.

Current hunting traditions: In India, much of society is not in favor of hunting. Many people in India practice Hindu, which strongly encourages nonviolence toward animals. The belief in the nonviolent treatment of animals may influence public opinion on hunting. The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 banned the killing of animals in India and established protected plant and animal species. Hunting and harvesting of these species was outlawed. However, the chief wildlife warden may determine that a specific animal can be hunted if the animal is dangerous to human life or is diseased or disabled beyond recovery.

In the United Kingdom, fox hunting was particularly popular and began originally as a pest-control method. During the Victorian era, fox hunting with hounds became popular among the upper class. However, in 2004 the Hunting Act made it illegal to hunt wild mammals with dogs in the United Kingdom. The Act bans what were considered "cruel sports" (such as chasing foxes with hounds), but permits activities that are needed for land managers. Land managers handle the use and development of land and resources, including determining how to eliminate pests. This exception allows land managers to hunt rats and rabbits that are pests. There is much debate about the language of the Hunting Act, including what is and is not allowed under the law.

In the United States, hunting was a part of many pre-Columbian Native American cultures, and Native Americans are exempt from some laws, including the Eagle Feathers Law and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Eagle Feathers Law allows individuals who have certifiable Native American ancestry to obtain eagle feathers for religious or spiritual uses. Alaska natives are exempt from the Marine Mammal Protection Act and are allowed to hunt marine mammals for food.

Hunting in the United States is regulated primarily by state law, while federal environmental laws regulate migratory birds and endangered species. Feral dogs and cats, rats, starlings, English sparrows, and pigeons may all be hunted without a license.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2001 suggest that six percent of Americans hunt. According to one national survey conducted by Responsive Management, 78% of Americans support legal hunting. Responsive Management is a public opinion and attitude survey research firm, specializing in natural resources and outdoor recreation.


General: There are a number of different hunting techniques. Hunting techniques vary based on the animal that the hunter is pursuing. Furthermore, hunting laws in the United States vary by state, with the exception of migratory birds, which are subject to federal control. Hunters may be required to obtain special licenses for protected species.

Baiting: Luring an animal with a decoy or scent is known as baiting. Molasses, frosting, and meat are all examples of bait used in bear hunting.

Blind/stand hunting: Waiting in a concealed or elevated position for animals is known as blind hunting. Hunters can purchase stands and other cover devices to enable them to go undetected by animals. These structures can stand alone or can be built in trees and are used to hunt deer.

Calling: Attracting or driving animals with the use of animal noises is known as calling. A variety of animal calls can be purchased in hunting shops, particularly to attract deer.

Camouflage: Dressing in clothing or using a scent to blend in with surroundings is known as camouflage.

Dogs: Dogs can be used to help herd, drive, track or locate, pursue, or retrieve prey. Retrievers, flushing spaniels, and pointer breeds are traditional gundogs that are used to aid hunters. Other dogs that may be used by hunters include hounds, terriers, curs, and feists. Herding animals toward another hunter is known as driving and can be accomplished with the aid of a hunting dog and may be used to hunt deer. Driving is typically used if the game has hidden in an area that the hunter cannot enter or shoot.

Glassing: Using binoculars and other optical tools to more easily locate animals is known as glassing.

Netting: Throwing either cannon or rocket nets on top of prey to trap them is known as netting. Cannon nets involve the use of a projectile and can capture a large number of animals. Nets can be used to catch deer, kangaroos, wallabies, and birds.

Persistence hunting: Pursuing an animal until it becomes exhausted is known as persistence hunting. Persistence hunting may have been one of the first forms of hunting practiced, although it is rare today. Hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari Desert and Tarahumara peoples of Mexico may still use persistence hunting to chase antelope.

Safari: In the early 20th Century, a safari hunt described a hunt for big game that lasted several days to weeks. The meaning of the word safari has changed and now refers to a trip to see wildlife in their natural habitat. Modern safaris are common in Africa.

Scouting: Scouting encompasses a variety of techniques used to pursue prey, such as looking at the hunting area to learn about the game. Information collected from scouting includes when and where the game moves, eats, and rests.

Spotlighting/shining: Using artificial light sources, such as flashlights or headlights, to find animals is known as spotlighting. This technique is commonly used to hunt animals at night.

Tracking: Examining tracks or trails left by animals to gather clues about their movements in an area is known as tracking.

Trapping: Using traps, cages, or other devices to capture or kill an animal is known as trapping. Trapping is commonly used in wildlife management or pest control. There are a variety of traps available, including foothold traps, body-gripping traps, deadfall traps, snares, and trapping pits.

Foothold traps: Foothold traps are made up of two jaws with a trigger in the middle, and trappers may use some kind of bait to lure the animal. These traps may result in soft-tissue injuries as well as simple or compound bone fractures. These traps are used to catch beavers, mink, river otters, muskrats, and coyotes, but they may be indiscriminate and trap other animals such as dogs, cats, and endangered animals.

Body-gripping traps: Body-gripping traps are usually square-shaped, spring-loaded, and designed to kill the trapped animal. When the animal activates the trigger, the trap springs shut on the neck and fracture the spine. These traps are used for raccoons, skunks, squirrels, woodchucks, muskrats, minks, and mice.

Deadfall traps: Deadfall traps involve setting up a horizontal bait bar that is attached to a large object, such as a board or a large rock. When the animal takes the bait, the trap is triggered, the large object falls down on the animal, and the animal is crushed. The object used must be larger than the animal, making this trap difficult and dangerous for a hunter to set up.

Snares: Snares are nooses that are commonly used to catch foxes, rabbits, or coyotes. Snares trap an animal by either the body or the neck, restraining it. These traps are both inexpensive and effective.

Trapping pits: Trapping pits are large pits dug deep into the ground and are used to catch animals without causing harm. Pits were commonly used in Scandinavia to capture elk, reindeer, wolves, and bears.

Gun regulations: Gun usage varies by state and is usually regulated based on game category, area, and season. Regulations for hunting big game may specify a minimum caliber or muzzle energy. Muzzle energy is a measure of the speed of a bullet as it exits the firearm, with higher muzzle energy indicating greater destructive power. If an area has high population density or is small, rifle use may be banned for safety reasons. Additional regulations may limit or ban the use of lead and may specify bow-only seasons.

Other regulations: Hunters who prefer to use crossbows must also abide by state laws. State laws vary, and there may be a specific archery season or crossbows may be allowed during the general firearms season.


Wildlife management: Hunting may help manage wildlife populations by reducing competition within a species for the same resources. Decreased competition between animals for food, water, and shelter may lead to decreased illness and ultimately decreased mortality in these animal populations.

Some environmentalists argue that introducing predators would have the same effect on population control without the negative effects of hunting. The negative effects of hunting may include a decline in the number of "trophy" animals (e.g., those with larger horns, antlers, or heads). Hunting may also disrupt the natural male-to-female ratio. For example, deer naturally have about a 50:50 ratio. Laws typically allow hunting of a greater percentage of males than females, offsetting the natural balance as much as 30:70 male-to-female.

The purpose of wildlife management is mainly to manage the number as well as the size and age of a species to ensure a sustainable environment. Wildlife species are maintained by using bag limits, possession limits, closed seasons, and archery-only seasons. The maximum number of a specific species that a hunter is allowed to harvest on a specific day is known as a bag limit. If someone hunts for many days, the number of species they can have is defined by both bag and possession limits. A possession limit defines the maximum number of a specific species that a hunter can have at any time. A closed season is a time period when it is illegal to hunt a particular species. Typically the closed season occurs during mating season, when animals are the most vulnerable.

The compensatory mortality hypothesis suggests that animal reproduction, survival, and population growth are determined based on the harvest of animals. Good health and stability are suggested by kitten survival, emigration and immigration rates, female population size (based on the natural male-to-female ratio of 70:30), and overall age of the population. This hypothesis is the basis for wildlife management for many species. The hypothesis is that a more heavily harvested population may reproduce more. However, a recent study in Washington State comparing a heavily harvested Puma population to a lightly harvested Puma population does not support this hypothesis. Using five years of data on the respective populations, investigators found that the lightly hunted population had better kitten survival, increased emigration, an increased female population, and an older overall age structure compared to the heavily hunted population. Researchers concluded that wildlife managers should take this information into consideration before using the compensatory mortality hypothesis to set hunting guidelines.

Data suggest animal populations in Africa and the United States that are the most heavily hunted, such as African lions and cougars, have experienced the steepest declines in population. Steep population declines may be due not only to hunting but also to infanticide in some species. The rate of infanticide is increased by hunting adult males.

Evolutionary consequences: Trophy hunting is the selective hunting of game, usually for antlers, horns, or a large animal head to be displayed by the hunter. This type of hunting may have a negative impact on a species' ability to adapt over time. Eventually, hunting animals with these specific characteristics may cause a decrease in heritable trophy traits. Trophy hunting may result in unnatural selection, which may ultimately reduce the frequency with which a species has a desired characteristic.

Researchers suggest that wildlife managers develop new harvest strategies and improve monitoring to detect and prevent exploitation-dependent selection. Data suggest that targeting lesser-quality yearlings may help maintain the quality of desirable traits in a species (such as large horns and antlers).

Conservation: Many hunters are aware of the importance of conservation in order to preserve their sport. Hunters often work closely with local and federal government to ensure that wildlife is protected through legislation.

The Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 placed an 11% tax on all hunting equipment. Under this act, about $700 million is generated annually exclusively for the establishment, restoration, and protection of wildlife habitats.

President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, which requires the purchase of Federal Duck Stamps for migratory waterfowl hunters older than age 16 to purchase or lease wetlands for protection, into law in 1934. More than $700 million has been raised for the purchase of 5.2 million acres of habitat by the sale of these stamps. Nearly 87% of the purchases have been made by hunters.


Injury: People may become injured while hunting. Researchers studied the risk of injury from falling from a tree stand while hunting. Data were collected over a 19-year period from accredited Pennsylvania trauma centers. The researchers found that injury rates significantly increased from 0.59 in 1987 to 7.08 in 2006. Furthermore, rates of injury significantly increased with age. The overall case-fatality rate was 1.4%.

Falls are not the only cause of injury in hunters. Another study investigated hunting-related shooting incidents in Pennsylvania over a 12-year period. Researchers found that hunters' injury rates varied depending on the species being hunted. Poor skill was the leading cause of hunter injury when deer were the prey. Poor judgment was the leading cause of hunter injury for other species. The study also suggested that hunters younger than age 20 had the highest injury rates.

According to data from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, about two non-hunters are killed in hunting accidents per year.

Environmental impact: Recently, environmentalists have begun to raise concerns about the amount of lead entering the environment as a result of hunting. Research conducted in North Dakota studied the association between blood lead levels and wild game consumption. Investigators found that after adjusting for potential confounders, persons who consumed wild game had 0.30mg/dL higher lead than persons who did not. Furthermore, consumption of wild game and consuming larger portions of wild game was associated with higher blood lead levels. Lead has no functional purpose in the human body, and while low levels of lead may not impact adults, infants and children may experience lead toxicity. Lead toxicity may result in intellectual or cognitive development deficits. Researchers determined that the lead came from eating game that had been killed with lead bullets.

Other research conducted in Canada compared blood lead levels of participants before and after they participated in the traditional spring harvest of water birds. The researchers found that blood lead concentrations increased significantly. Researchers also found that those who used shotguns during the harvest had higher blood lead levels than those who had not used shotguns.

In terms of the impact upon the species being hunted, trophy hunting may result in unnatural selection, which may ultimately reduce the frequency with which a species has a desired characteristic. Data have shown that targeting lesser-quality yearlings may help maintain the quality of desirable traits in a species (such as large horns and antlers).

Excessively hunting one particular species may also contribute to animal extinction. For example, the passenger pigeon was considered a delicacy in the 19th Century, and it was ultimately hunted to extinction in 1914. A number of animals are in danger of becoming extinct due in part to hunting. Currently, the large flying fox (Pteropus vampyrus) found in Southeast Asia is listed as a threatened species due to overhunting. The Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), found in both Africa and central India, is in danger of extinction due to the use of the animals in trade. The number of tigers in the world has declined by about 95% in the last century, in part due to the demand for tiger bone in China.

Religion: A number of religions, including Hindu, Buddhism, and Jainism, encourage a vegetarian lifestyle. Hindu encourages nonviolence toward animals in order to avoid negative karmic influence, and the slaughter of animals for food is a topic discussed both in Hindu scripture and in religious law books. Vegetarianism is not mandatory, and food habits vary based on community, caste, and regional tradition. Buddhism, like Hindu, does not mandate vegetarianism. Buddhists may distinguish between the act of killing and eating meat and may eat meat if they have not participated in the slaughter of the animal they are eating. Jainism mandates that followers are vegetarians and forbids the use or consumption of products obtained from animals. The views on nonviolence toward animals in each of these religions may relate to a lack of interest in hunting in these cultures.


Studies have suggested an association between the consumption of wild game killed with lead pellets and an increased blood lead level. Additional research in this area may help determine if the use of lead-free pellets may reduce the risk of increased blood lead levels in people who consume wild game.

Research that suggests a decrease in animals with the biggest antlers and pelts may help wildlife managers determine the most sustainable way to harvest animals.

Hunters have played a large role in conservation efforts in the United States. The Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 placed an 11% tax on all hunting equipment. Under this act, $700 million is generated annually exclusively for the establishment, restoration, and protection of wildlife habitats.

President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, which requires the purchase of Federal Duck Stamps for migratory waterfowl hunters older than age 16 to purchase or lease wetlands for protection, into law in 1934. More than $700 million has been raised for the purchase of 5.2 million acres of habitat by the sale of these stamps. Nearly 87% of the purchases have been made by hunters.

Hunting deer, bears, wild pigs, elk, and antelope with lead bullets in areas that are designated as part of the California condor range is prohibited by California state law. The California condor was becoming extinct due to lead poisoning from the consumption of animal carcasses that had been killed with lead bullets. The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a lawsuit to issue a similar ban on federal lands around the Grand Canyon. However, in October 2009, the National Rifle Association filed to intervene against such a ban and is attempting to prevent further action limiting the use of lead ammunition. California's Fish and Game Commission have found 99% compliance of hunters with the lead ban.

Conservation efforts are focusing on the declining numbers of many species, including polar bears, penguins, tigers, lions, apes, and primates. Conservation efforts are also focused on environmental concerns, including climate change, as some animals may become extinct due to the loss of their habitat.


This information has been edited and peer-reviewed by contributors to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration (

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