1. Carnivores are difficult to conserve because of direct and indirect competition with people. Public hunts are increasingly proposed to support carnivore conservation. This article reviews scientific evidence for the effectiveness of public hunts of large carnivores in attaining three common policy goals: stable carnivore populations, preventing conflict with carnivores (property damage and competition over game) and building public support for carnivore conservation.
2. Sustainable exploitation of stable wildlife populations has a solid, scientific foundation but the theory and its predictions must be adapted to complex patterns of carnivore behavioural ecology and population dynamics that demand years of landscape-level monitoring to understand fully.
3. A review of the evidence that hunting prevents property damage or reduces competition for game reveals large gaps in our understanding. Reducing the number of large carnivores to protect hunters’ quarry species seems straightforward but we still know little about behavioural and ecological responses of the contested prey and sympatric meso-predators. For reducing property damage, the direct effect – numerical reduction in problematic individual carnivores – presents numerous obstacles, whereas the indirect effect – behavioural avoidance of humans by hunted carnivores – holds more promise.
4. Scientific measures of public support for carnivore-hunting policies are almost completely lacking, particularly measures of attitudes among hunters before and after controversial wildlife is designated as legal game species. Moreover, illegal killing of carnivores does not appear to diminish if they are designated as game.
5.Synthesis and applications. Sustainable hunting to maintain stable populations is well understood in theory but complex life histories of carnivores, and behavioural changes of hunters and the carnivores they stalk may result in unsustainable mortality for carnivores. The direct impact of hunting on carnivore damage to property is unclear and even doubtful given the inability or unwillingness of hunters to remove specific individuals selectively. However, hunters may indirectly deter carnivores from people and their property. The assumption that hunters will steward carnivores simply because they have in the past helped conserve other game species requires more study as preliminary results suggest it is incorrect. Policy-makers may achieve support for policy if they mesh utilitarian and preservationist values held by the general public. A number of opposed hypotheses should be disentangled before researchers confidently inform policy on sustainable hunting to prevent conflicts and build public support for carnivore conservation.