Monday, August 5, 2013

Why I Hunt: Thoughts from a Wolf-Loving, Elk-Killing Tree Hugger

"When the buffalo are gone, we will hunt mice, for we are hunters and we want our freedom." -- Chief Sitting Bull, Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux, 1831-1890.

I'm a wolf-loving tree hugger and I hunt. I kill and eat wild elk.

Does this seem contradictory? It's not if you consider our Nation's conservation heritage, and see that most of our conservation heroes--including Theodore Roosevelt (who created national forests and wildlife refuges), Aldo Leopold (author of the conservation classic, "A Sand County Almanac") and Olaus J. Murie (founder of The Wilderness Society)--were all hunters.

I can understand people's disdain for hunting. As Edward Abbey (himself a hunter) once wrote, "Hunting is one of the hardest things even to think about. Such a storm of conflicting emotion!" I can't speak for all hunters, but will try and explain why I choose to hunt.

I love elk. They are a magnificent, mysterious and powerful animal. I spend all the time I can in elk country, year-round, hiking, backpacking, backcountry skiing and snowshoeing, observing and admiring elk. And yet, each year during bowseason I head into elk country with the intent to kill one. Why? Partly because I can think of no more ecologically-sound way to live in my part of the world. I cherish wild elk meat; it's healthy, and it's derived from healthy, native grasses and forbs in the wilderness near my home.

I like to think I'm a vegetarian of sorts, living off the the wild grasses, sedges and forbs that grow near my home. Most these plants are not directly palatable to humans, so I let elk convert them to protein for me. Perhaps someday I can travel through the digestive system of a grizzly and fertilize the vegetation that elk eat: Seems only fair considering all the elk I've killed and eaten.

We're all part of this land.

I hunt to experience and celebrate a fundamental connection with nature, because we must all kill to eat, and eating elk nourished on native grasses and forbs has as low an impact on the environment as any of the alternatives. Even eating soybeans and soy-based products supports an agricultural industry that displaces and destroys wildlife habitat to grow a non-native plant, requiring irrigation, pesticides, herbicides, fossil fuels, trucks, roads and industry to be shipped around the country. Not to mention the thousands of deer and other wildlife killed to protect valuable agricultural crops. Most people are not aware of the impacts of their lifestyles and actions, or they choose to live in denial. Aldo Leopold wrote: "There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace."

We all kill to eat.

Everything we do has consequences. Whether we choose to eat vegetables or meat, store-bought food or homegrown, cattle or venison, we all contribute to the death of animals so we can eat. I choose to eat the wild meat of elk, mule deer and antelope. And the money I spend in pursuit of these wild animals, through license fees and excise taxes on hunting equipment, helps protect the wild places that sustain them and sustain me. It's the most efficient, environmentally sound and sustainable way I know to live in this somewhat arid western landscape we call Montana. And the countless days and hours I spend pursuing elk and mule deer through the rugged mountains in the wilderness area where I hunt have provided me with a keen understanding and awareness of these incredible animals and their habitat, which has fueled a passion for the protection of wild elk, deer and other wildlife, and the wild places they roam.

North America's system of wildlife management, of which regulated hunting is an integral part, is a tremendous achievement. The value of wild elk and deer to hunters supports the protection and enhancement of wildlife habitat for an array and abundance of wildlife, including large predators and threatened and endangered species, and supports ecologically-based research and management. It's a sustainable system that gives many hunters a stake in wildlife, and fuels public understanding and concern for conservation.

I am growing increasingly angry over the ongoing loss of crucial wildlife habitat from human subdivision and development; the people who want to mine and drill our last remaining wild places; the people who deny and evade critical topics such as climate change, and the people -- and a society -- that seems to put greed, profit and money above all else. Throughout the West, homes are rapidly replacing critical elk and deer winter range, calving and fawning habitat and migratory corridors. Not only elk and deer suffer, but all wildlife that depend on that habitat, including everything from ducks and trout to grizzlies and pine martens. My love for wild elk and deer provokes a strong desire to protect their habitat; That desire is fueled, in part, by my passion for hunting and the meat that sustains me.

Hunting has a large ugly side, to be sure, which seems to be growing larger. I sometimes feel like an anti-hunter who hunts. Far too many hunters reveal a disturbing lack of knowledge of, or concern for, wildlife and wild places and actually promote efforts -- and support the politicians and organizations who push for efforts -- to erode and degrade our wildlife and last remaining wild places. They are as detached from the wilds as as most Americans are, and increasingly replace knowledge, skills and effort with technology and other short cuts; They selfishly do everything and anything they can to boost their egos and overcome insecurities by killing other creatures; They fear and hate wolves, they fear and hate grizzlies, they fear and hate wilderness, they fear and hate the wilds; They fear and hate to actually hunt. They just love to kill.

Several national surveys have shown that only about 10 percent of hunters fall within a "naturalist" group of hunters who seek an intimate bond to the wilds and cherish and fight to protect wildlife and wild places. Having worked for Trout Unlimited's Sportsmen Conservation Project and the National Wildlife Federation; Having served two terms as president of the Montana Wildlife Federation (Montana's largest and oldest hunter-angler conservation association); Having helped found Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, and being a part of a great dynamic group called Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, I am fortunate to have met and worked with many dedicated, conservation-minded hunters working hard to protect our fair-chase hunting and angling heritage and the wildlife and wild places we all cherish. I'm also grateful to live in a place like Missoula, Montana, where even hippies hunt and fish.

I can think of no better lifestyle than roaming wildlands as a participant of nature, taking responsibility for the deaths I cause, and securing my own sustenance. In his essay, "A Hunter's Heart," Colorado naturalist and writer David Petersen summarizes it nicely:

"Why do I hunt? It's a lot to think about, and I think about it a lot. I hunt to acknowledge my evolutionary roots, millennia deep, as a predatory omnivore. To participate actively in the bedrock workings of nature. For the atavistic challenge of doing it well with an absolute minimum of technological assistance. To learn the lessons, about nature and myself, that only hunting can teach. To accept personal responsibilities for at least some of the deaths that nourish my life. For the glimpse it offers into a wildness we can hardly imagine. Because it provides the closet thing I've known to a spiritual experience. I hunt because it enriches my life and because I can't help myself . . . because I was born with a hunter's heart."


42 comments:

  1. Dan - what a thoughtfully well-written post on what your soul feels on hunting. I completely agree with the lines "They fear and hate wolves...they fear and hate to hunt..." Many don't even realize they have these thoughts and feelings. But its easy to spot.

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  2. Well done David. The culture of hunting and angling in American society has suffered catastrophically from a silence of voices such as yours. Without strong, morally founded leadership neither ours or any other tribe can escape the destiny foretold by Yeats: ". . . Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand; . . ."

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    1. Thank you. And strange coincidence: Just yesterday, while reading about climate change I thought about how the world seemed to be unraveling, I thought of the line "the centre cannot hold," from Yeat's the Second Coming, which I had not thought of for many years, and so I looked it up and re-read it. And here, today, you leave this comment. But then again, I have a hunch we're not the only two to be thinking of Yeat's words in today's crazy world.

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    2. David,
      Again, your words return me to the mountains. Currently I reside in northern MN, and have teemed up with the non-profit Howling For Wolves to help stop the wolf hunt in MN. I am offering 50% of sales from my book to support their efforts, because the wild would not be as wild without their calls. I would like to send you a free copy of my book, THIS SIDE OF A WILDERNESS, to repay the favor for which you have given me with this blog. If interested, email me a mailing address.
      thanks, and best fishes...
      -DJR

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  3. David, I am so glad to see you writing for Montana again. You have an amazing and passionate perspective which Montana sorely needs. Loved the quote from Petersen, just finished reading his, "On The Wild Edge." "I know no better teacher than hunting. And what hunting has taught me is hardly restricted to the ways of wildlings and woods."

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  4. I enjoyed that....very well written...

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  5. Great article David, I really enjoyed reading it and it definitely resonated with me. Thanks!

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  6. This is exactly how I feel and yet I have never been able to express myself as eloquently as you have done in this piece. From one tree-hugging, wolf-loving, hunter (in south-central, MT) to another...Thank you!

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  7. Spot on sir. Thank you for elegantly placing your feelings and morals.

    It's good to know that there are others out there who still share these values.

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  8. Very nicely put. I am not a hunter but appreciate those who hunt to eat. This is a far better method than the mass raising of cattle, who are frequently left to fend for themselves in a harsh environment. Which method is more pro-conservation? If we all had to rely on a hunter to provide our food might we not be more aware of what, and how much, we consume? And as for your comment regarding those who kill what they fear, I truly agree. I hope more of the ethical hunters will speak out against those who would destroy all manner of wildlife, using any method, yet call themselves conservationists.

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  9. Thanks for writing this, David. Hunters who take the time to think and to consider their roles in wild places must also take the time to articulate their underlying philosophies and ethics as you have done so often. This is particularly so because we are certainly hearing from those who think that hunting and shooting are the same thing or that subscribe to the s/s/s attitude with absolutely no idea of their role or the role of wolves in the broader ecological landscape. Please keep writing these pieces as they give hunters who have taken the time to develop natural philosophies and a respect for nature hope about the future of hunting.

    Bob Ferris
    Cascadia Wildlands

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  10. As a female hunter, and the only hunter in my family, I have deep appreciation for this article. Thank you so much for writing this. What a pleasure to read! I'm forwarding the link to other members of my family.

    Gena Hamilton
    Cherokee, Iowa

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  11. I have a great fondness for ethical hunters. I speak out against trapping and trophy hunting. I love to hear stories from hunters who appreciate the lives of the animals they are hunting and have a use for the meat. I think they should have an organization of their own. I know a hunter who didn't shoot the largest bull elk because he was so taken in by it's beauty and just sat in the woods and watched it, leaving it unharmed. If there is hunting this is how it should be.

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  12. THANK YOU!

    As a hunter who frequently feels at odds with all of the other hunters around me; you have put into words exactly how I feel.

    Rob Wilkinson
    Virginia

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  13. Thank You for sharing your experience. I believe you are a real hunter, such one , who respect the game and use it for need. I think that born with a hunter's heart, is an ancient caveman in us all by one way or the other.

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  14. What a beautiful and profound post. I am so honored to know that there are men out there like you! You are an elder and it is *so* important for you to train men and younger men about the important relationships you see in nature and your role in it. Many thanks for this insightful and wise post!

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  15. I'd love to know more about that survey that found only 10% of hunters are "naturalists." I was surprised to read that stat--seems much lower than those groups you mention would have people believe. Can we connect the other 90% since they are such a huge majority? Feels daunting.

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  16. So glad to see this article. I am against what you have clarified as, "killers". They are different from "hunters" and should not be coupled in the same class. I hate the "killers" of our wolves, bears and other wild animals and birds. Raised in the country and brought up by a Dad who hunted, only for food for his family. We spent many hours like you say you do, in the country woods as a family, near the streams for fun and only hunted when we needed food. Never wasting anything, always putting to use all of what we killed and always learning about the cycles of Nature. If we or others did not need it, we returned the remainder back to nature in a proper manner. Thank you for speaking up. I do hope folks take the time to learn the difference between a real hunter and those who are just "killers".

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  17. I am not a hunter... I have nothing against hunting for food. Animals that most people consider food. I disdain people who hunt wolves (or any animal) for the *THRILL OF THE KILL * and nothing more...

    God Bless all who Hunt humanely.... and for survival.

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  18. Well stated. We hunt to fill our freezer for the winter. The beef processed is not natural or healthy. From my garden we eat sufficiently along with fish caught and wild game. We hunt to live not live to hunt

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    1. I'm vegan janab, but I wanted to comment on your comment because I thought this was really amazing. I just love that you can feed your family like this - with what you hunt, catch, and what you grow in your garden. I really respect your lifestyle. It's very naturalist! I was so impressed and wanted to let you know.

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  19. Hunting for food... I understand. Hunting for "sport"... I don't understand.

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  20. "naturalist" hunters.. Wow, I didn't think such a thing existed. I'm heartened to know it could be as high as 10%! And I live in the heart of elk country in New Mexico. I am not familiar with this type of hunter.
    In an otherwise wonderful essay, I have to object to the idea that money from hunting helps wildlife. Maybe that was once true. But today it is helping to de-wild wildlife by insuring wild carnivores are kept to bare minimums often by the most brutal means so the agencies can make as much money as possible keeping hunters happy with targets- ever more herbivores. That money mostly funds payroll, infrastructure and law enforcement, not wildlife. It would kill me to pay our NM Game and Fish any money when I see what they do to native carnivores and the suffering of ecosystems that results when there are too many elk.

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    1. You're statement, " I have to object to the idea that money from hunting helps wildlife" is a reality. It is something that I wish would be expanded to include all participants of the outdoors. So many people like to try to dictate how our wild lands are used yet neither they, or the organizations they belong to put any money into actual conservation efforts. Every piece of hunting and fishing equipment has special taxes tied into it to be funneled back into conservation. My personal belief is that any outdoor related piece of equipment should have those taxes on it as well...and there are two reasons for that. One, our wild lands could use the extra money. I'd like to see more land secured for conservation and public use. The second reason is that it gives all of the other users a valid say in how it is managed.

      As far as naturalist hunters go, read any book by David Peterson to understand what one is. Yes, there are a few of us out here and although we feel as though we are "islands" in the sea of the majority of hunters; we rejoice when we find one of our own. I'm overjoyed that Casey Anderson posted this on FB; I have found someone who is a like-minded soul.

      Once again, thank you David for writing this!

      Rob Wilkinson
      Virginia

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    2. Rob, General tax dollars do support wildlife. What funds the Forest Service and BLM? This is the habitat. Moreover, people who don't hunt also fund it with their purchases of firearms and ammo: law enforcement, target shooters, people who want personal protection along with gang bangers and drug dealers. I wouldn't mind some kind of excise tax on cameras or binoculars- don't get me wrong. But I don't like it when hunters say the wildlife belongs to them because they paid for it. That is wrong. Other users have a valid say now, but aren't allowed to excercise it.

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    3. "But I don't like it when hunters say the wildlife belongs to them because they paid for it" - I don't either, and I am a hunter!

      Our Wild lands belong to everybody however, when you have special excise that targets a certain portion of the population, it implies "ownership"...right or wrong. This is a banner that has been waved for a while now and it will continue to be waved until the taxes are either removed or expanded. With the current state of politics in this country, good luck to either of them happening.

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  21. Thanks for posting this.
    I'm a vegan. I consider myself to be non competitive, non-egotistical and generally non-violent person, (that's a lot of Non's) i can appreciate this article. Because contrary to what i just mentioned- I do practice and enjoy MMA (mixed martial arts fighting). I don't do it for the brutality of it, or even the competitiveness of the sport- but what excites me are the technical skills, as well as the perseverance involved in winning a one on one bout with an equal opponent. It's having the heart of a samurai - One who respects his opponent, but also realizes that the biggest challenges he will face is himself, by testing his own limits. In MMA though we don't kill our opponents- as we have no intention to eating them. ;)
    I find that a lot of hunters enjoy hunting as a blood sport, to hurt or kill an unequal opponent for no reason other than to feel superior, and the thrill that comes with it. In MMA, we have that type too. Big ego's and people with a lot of anger issues, mental problems- but learned the technical skills necessary to get into the sport. These types are bully's, and sociopaths. Although i don't care to hunt, or hunting in general- i can respect your reasons for why you hunt. I should also add that I think it's better than purchasing meat from a grocery store, both from a health and ethical standpoint.

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  22. I am not really for most hunting but hunting of prey animals is okay with me. I just cannot take a life, its hard for me to even eat out of supermarkets sometimes. Also, every time I eat meat I think of the pig or the cow and who they were and how they lived. Guess I am really sensitive to all living things. I think we need to leave predators alone though, as we are predators ourselves. I love wolves and watching them hunt and kill animals even makes me sad but they have to eat and I feel most connected to wolves than any other species. I just respect all life I guess.

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  23. I've shared this far and wide. I have relatives who hunt for the same reason that you do. We were all raised with such a healthy respect for the land and the creatures living on it. I veered way off the path and am vegan, but I can completely respect your choice. I really enjoyed reading this post. It reminded of conversations I've had with my brothers and cousins. I often wonder if I lived closer to nature (I'm in L.A.), would my lifestyle choice be different? Would I be eating what I can catch and kill rather than just what I grow and buy? Thank you for sharing with us.

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  24. STOP KILLING ANIMALS YOU SICK FUCK

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    1. That was a thoughtful post.

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  25. Great writing, Dave. I hope you get out this fall.

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  26. You sir, are a real man! Thank you for having the courage to step up and tell it like it is!

    Steve Cody, Roswell, GA.

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  27. My hat's off to you. you are as well balanced as they come.Though I no longer hunt, I respect sustanance hunting. Idiots who hunt prarie dogs,crows,wolves etc just for trophys, or just to kill something, gives all of us a bad name. I deer hunt with my pick up truck (Redneck). No, I feed a couple of wolfdogs, roadkill. The ones who shoot from airplands, or their hummer make me sick. If only more people like you were in the world, it would be a better place. Good luck living with all those Idiots around you. Jerry Collins

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  28. Every time that I post a picture of an elk I have killed I get bombarded by the non hunters and grass eating friends and I go on to explaining why I do it. This year someone posted your blog and I can't think of a better way of saying it than you did. It's hard to explain to people that we actually love and respect elk and Nature and you did a great job. Thank you.

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  30. Not a hunter but certainly not opposed to it either. Great post. Agree with you 100%.

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