If you’re like me, you may have an uncontrollable nostalgia for things that impacted your childhood. On Thursday, March 5, I picked up my iPhone to read my morning news alerts and saw the headline, "Ringling Bros. eliminating elephant act.”  

It took a few moments for this to sink in. When it did, I realized a special childhood memory of watching elephants march down Main Street in Pine Bluff, Arkansas and seeing my first circus show with my grandfather would never be one I would share with my sons, at least not in the same way.  I also realized animal rights extremists had just landed a blow to my family and me I hadn’t seen coming.



Sadly this news likely went unnoticed by the majority of Americans, or those that heard it mistakenly may have thought that the decision to retire elephants is cultural progress and an actual victory.  

Who knows what may be the next target of these groups, which would rather see an elephant die from poaching than be cared for by a circus or zoo.  

Think again -- as a lifelong conservationist and hunter that has been blessed to be on the front lines of shaping conservation policy for over two decades as a Congressional staffer, presidential Appointee, and lobbyist for several national conservation organizations, I know firsthand the devastation these extremists have had on America’s conservation legacy.  

Well-funded, politically active groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) use any means necessary to put an end to the traditions we cherish through the use of frivolous lawsuits and judicial action.  

They use the courts instead of relying on science-based wildlife management to advance their agenda. 

It's worth noting that Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros., has fought a number of these frivolous lawsuits, winning every one and receiving $25.2 million in settlements from animal rights groups.

Until now I have associated these extremists' impact on my life as being limited to my love of the outdoors as a hunter, and my concern with my ability to pass those traditions on to my children.  

For years I’ve watched the devastating effects of their propaganda machine as it seeks to criminalize hunters, eliminate access to favorite public hunting grounds through endless legal challenges and tie the hands of public land managers and state wildlife officials, forcing them to forgo science and in turn deterring sportsmen and their future personal investments in conservation. The number one reason for the decline in hunters is the lack of access.

Taking a moment to put things into historical perspective, the idea of conservation “protecting wildlife" in America began with members of the hunting community, who introduced game laws and programs to protect our natural resources, eventually leading to the creation of state and federal wildlife agencies. This same community led the charge in passing taxes to fund our conservation system, which serves as a model for the world. America’s 13.7 million hunters contribute over $38.3 billion annually to the U.S. economy, and create over 681,000 jobs.

Despite extremists claiming that they’re “speaking for” the interest of animals, the record shows that they are doing nothing more than lining their pockets and restricting our interactions with wildlife. 

Year after year extremist groups like HSUS get C and D grades from the American Institute of Philanthropy for spending as little as 55 percent of money raised on their stated mission. 

HSUS raises over $110 million annually, yet only spends $40,000 on African elephants grants. The same holds true for the Asian elephant--rather than spending their budget to help animals, they're spending it fighting groups like Ringling Bros. and sportsman’s groups like Safari Club International that are actually investing in conservation.  

For example, in Tanzania hunters invest over $20 million annually in conservation efforts and wildlife management, and Ringling Bros. is credited with successfully raising more endangered Asian elephants than anyone in the Western Hemisphere and establishing partnerships in Sri Lanka to save Asian elephants in their native habitat.

I fear this misguided work by extremists will ultimately lead to these animals leaving our lives at the circus, zoo, or in the field, destroying opportunities to make memories and connections with animals in person. 

Weakening the connections between humans and the animal world will only hurt future investments in the conservation of wildlife. These interactions are what elicit sympathy and interest in faraway places like Africa and Asia that are facing staggering levels of poaching and loss of habitat.  

It’s time we all wake up and realize our American traditions are under attack, and recognize the dangers of accepting “victory" when a circus is forced to remove elephants from their show or another acre of land is closed to hunting due to the efforts of the propaganda machine and non-stop frivolous lawsuits. 

Who knows what may be the next target of these groups, which would rather see an elephant die from poaching than be cared for by a circus or zoo.  

It's time we take a stand and decide our future, or say goodbye to many of the species we hold dear and the American system of conservation and hunters that contribute enormous numbers of jobs, taxes, and funding for on-the-ground habitat conservation.  

I hope, before it's too late, that the American public unites with the sportsman conservationist community, companies like Feld Entertainment and Ringling Bros. and others that have been under attack from these extremists for far too long. Anything less is a concession to these groups so eager to claim victory at any price.

Barton James has nearly two decades of experience in conservation policy, as a former Congressional aide, political appointee in the Small Business Administration and conservation advocate with Ducks Unlimited and the Land Trust Alliance.