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Hunting: Carving a Path in the New West
In this changing West, the tradition of hunting is coming under increasing scrutiny, Jason D.B. Kauffman investigates its history, ties to wildlife management and what the future holds for one of the nation's oldest and most popular pastimes.

Photos by Elizabeth Belts Kauffman and Jason D.B. Kauffman

The unmistakable challenge rises clear from the depths of the steep-sided mountain valley. Somewhere below, in the heavily timbered draw ringed by overhanging cliffs, a large Rocky Mountain bull elk is sounding its bugle for all to hear.

It’s a haunting melody generations of hunters search the hills and draws for. For those who tread in high places with rifle or bow in hand few sounds resonate as deeply as that spine-tingling autumn bugle.
On this particular late September day, as thin tendrils of misty, low-hanging rainclouds dance on the tips of densely packed Douglas fir that cling to the north faces of the narrow valley, a camouflage-clad bowhunter sits motionless, back against the rough-barked trunk of a solitary ridge-top tree.

Seconds after the old bull’s bugle is plucked away by the steady breeze, the hunter raises an elk call to his mouth, inhales slightly and gently releases his breath through pursed lips. As a lungful of air passes over a reed hidden within the cylindrical call, another pitch-perfect bugle rises up.

For a moment, the counterfeit cry hangs heavily in the moist fall air, unanswered. But then, low and deep at first, a third bugle—more agitated than the first—rises up in answer. Soon, the still-invisible bull screams another challenge, this time closer to the waiting hunter. Senses heightened, the hunter notches an arrow and waits. Will the bull show itself near enough for a shot?

The hunter will soon find out.

Scenarios like this play out every fall in the mountains of Idaho. Today, more than 100,000 elk roam the state’s backcountry, thanks in large part to modern big game management supported by the sale of hunting tags and licenses.

But changes are sweeping the West, brought about primarily by hundreds of thousands of new arrivals drawn by the landscape and its expansive amenities. Many of these modern-day homesteaders have no understanding of hunting’s heritage and historical significance, and the question of whether this marriage of conservation and hunting deserves deeper scrutiny is being raised more frequently.

Blaine County is a microcosm of this conflicted modern West. In the southern half of the county, the hunting tradition still dominates. But in the more northern towns of Ketchum and Sun Valley, the percentage of people who still call themselves hunters is declining rapidly. Many celebrated figures in Sun Valley’s early days—including Ernest Hemingway—were avid hunters. The same is not the case today.

Gone are the days when a hunter could roll into town with a dead buck strapped to the hood of a jeep or pickup truck without offending someone. Far worse for ethical hunters is the poacher who knowingly breaks wildlife laws. Neither of these does anything positive for the image the nonhunting public has of hunters, said Chris Burget, a resident of the Big Lost River Valley northeast of Sun Valley. The enthusiastic hunting evangelist runs a website dedicated to fostering positive discussions about the ethics of the sport (www.bullsandbeavers.com).

All of this ultimately raises the question: What role will hunting play in the future of wildlife management decisions in the West?

The fight to save America’s wildlife

The origins of the modern North American wildlife conservation model and its ties to hunting are rooted in a terrible personal tragedy borne by one of America’s great leaders, Theodore Roosevelt.

On Valentine’s Day, 1884, Roosevelt’s wife, Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt, and his mother, Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, both died in the same Manhattan house within two hours of each other of different diseases. Deeply hurt by their deaths, Roosevelt journeyed west to Medora, North Dakota, to ranch.

For the next three years Roosevelt lived the life of a Westerner, which suited him well. An avid hunter, the future president of the United States embarked on hunting trips across the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming. There he took stock of the wholesale slaughter that unrestricted market hunters were inflicting on the nation’s big game herds, which once seemed without end.

Returning East a few years later, Roosevelt helped found the Boone & Crockett Club. Named after famous frontiersmen Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, the club would set out to stop and reverse the carnage. “What he saw was the waste of our natural resources. He saw the decimation of our wildlife through market hunting,” said Tony Schoonen, chief of staff of today’s Boone & Crockett Club.

The club’s goal was a daring one for the time: convince a public brought up on the idea of inexhaustible resources that the nation was dangerously close to driving many of its wildlife species into extinction. The incredible declines of once-vast bison herds and the extinction of passenger pigeons in 1914—flocks of which once blackened the sky—helped its cause.

The first meeting of the Boone & Crockett Club was December 7, 1887. Among those gathered were Gifford Pinchot, a close friend of Roosevelt who would be named the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, and George Bird Grinnell, the well-known naturalist, writer and editor. “They were influential folks,” said Schoonen. “Visionary people.”

The club—to which Roosevelt gave his characteristic zeal—lobbied hard over the coming decades for the creation and enforcement of wildlife protection laws and the establishment of protected public lands.

In the late 1800s, Boone & Crockett helped convince Congress to expand and give greater protection to Yellowstone National Park. A few years later in 1900, Congress passed the Lacey Act, making it a federal offense to transport illegally killed wildlife across state borders. This effectively ended the era of market hunters.

Over the coming decades, more federal conservation laws were passed, including the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act. Funded by taxes on the sale of sporting arms and ammunition, the act provides federal dollars to states for wildlife management and restoration.

During this time state wildlife agencies came into being. Among them, in 1899, was the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. By 1903, Idaho’s first license fees were set ($1 for resident males—women did not need a license at first—and nonresidents $5). In 1938, voters approved a ballot initiative creating the modern Idaho Fish and Game Commission and establishing commission districts. The first infusion of Pittman-Robertson dollars to Idaho funded the trapping and transplanting of beaver. “In essence, the sportsmen taxed themselves to fund wildlife management,” said Schoonen. “As a hunter you can point to the North American (wildlife conservation) model and say, ‘I’m helping to fund that.’”

Millions of elk are believed to have roamed the North American continent prior to settlement. But by the late 19th century, those great herds were no more. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, elk numbers reached a low point around 1910, when an estimated 50,000 existed in all of North America. Similar trends were also seen among many other species of wild game.

Idaho’s dwindling elk herds were augmented with transplants from herds in Yellowstone National Park in 1915. Similar Yellowstone transplants, with the elk transported by rail car, occurred throughout the West. Efforts to transplant other species like bighorn sheep and mountain goats to their former ranges are still ongoing. Hunters have funded most of this work.

The model of having hunters fund the majority of states’ wildlife conservation efforts still predominates among fish and game agencies, including here in Idaho. As in many other states, Idaho does not provide general fund tax dollars to Fish and Game, though some would like the funding model to be revised to give nonhunters a greater say in state wildlife management.

Ralph Maughan, a Pocatello conservationist who retired from teaching political science at Idaho State University in 2007, thinks state wildlife agencies concentrate their efforts too strongly on the popular game species like elk and deer at the expense of other nongame species. Formerly a hunter himself, Maughan said that it is in large part because fish and game agencies are still mostly funded through hunting license and tag fees.

Though the Idaho Department of Fish and Game does receive a small amount of funding from fees generated by the state’s wildlife liscense plates for vehicles, Maughan would like to see other ways of generating funding for wildlife management apart from game license and tag fees, particularly for the management of nongame species.

Does hunting equal conservation?

It’s debatable whether Roosevelt would recognize the West if he were alive today. Where only sporadic ranching, mining and timber towns existed within horizon-to-horizon views, now millions of people coexist. But thanks to the foresight of Roosevelt and others, large stretches of the West are owned by the public and managed by federal agencies like the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service.

On these lands, one of the greatest conservation successes of all time has played out in the century since their preservation. In Idaho alone, there are now an estimated 103,000 elk, 300,000 mule deer and 200,000 whitetail deer. They’re joined by 15,000 moose, 11,500 pronghorn antelope and 2,900 bighorn sheep.

Hunter success rates also illustrate this comeback. In 2009, Idaho hunters killed 42,189 deer and 15,813 elk statewide. Though those figures are lower than the early- to mid-1990s, when the state’s elk population levels reached their modern peak, it’s still higher than just about every year from the mid-1980s back.

Few would disagree that modern big game management in North America has been a resounding success. Roosevelt would be proud. Unregulated market hunting is now seen only in history books, not on the high plains or in the forests. Healthy herds of elk, deer and other wild ungulates populate just about every square mile of habitat available to them. “We have more elk than we’ve ever seen in some of these areas,” said Chris Burget, a bowhunter. “Because of game management.”

Of course, for many years, game management typically meant managing certain wildlife species for the ultimate benefit of hunters, a counterintuitive idea to those not brought up in a culture that valued hunting. It’s only in recent decades that governments have focused their attention on conserving all wildlife, especially after the passage of the federal Endangered Species Act in 1973.

In a remarkable shift away from widespread anti-predator policies of the past, black bears and cougars roam the West’s open spaces, managed by fish and game agencies just like other big game species. Only the gray wolf remains temporarily outside of state control, and that’s largely due to ongoing controversies over how and at what levels they should be managed.

In some states, especially in the East, wildlife conservation has been so successful that big game managers are faced with having to cull populations of species like whitetail deer that have exceeded the carrying capacity of the land. In Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, officials are struggling to cope with abundant elk herds and their decimation of aspen stands. State wildlife managers point to examples like these to argue that hunting remains a valuable tool in the new West.

But is hunting really necessary for managing wildlife? Or put another way, do you have to kill wildlife to preserve wildlife? In some cases the answer is yes, Maughan says. “I think it’s important to have (hunting) around at some level,” he said. “The natural world has been modified so much.”

But what about people who have never hunted and can’t imagine ever doing so? Ketchum wildlife artist Lori McNee is one such person. When she moved to Idaho some 25 years ago, she was startled to learn just how ingrained hunting was in the local culture.

McNee isn’t opposed to hunting, she points out. What she believes is that hunters need to come to their activity with a reverence for the animal they intend to kill. Her love for wildlife is evident in her intricate oil paintings and illustrations for organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and the Wolf Education Research Center (www.lorimcnee.com). Like Maughan, she believes the habitat pressures brought on by humans require carefully controlled management. “I understand there’s a place in this world for hunting,” she said.

Do the same core values that guided Roosevelt the hunter and politician in the early 20th century still matter today? Are Idaho hunters and their brethren aware of the conservation legacy they’ve inherited from their forefathers? Avid elk and deer hunter Jim Unsworth, deputy director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, thinks so. He argues that hunters are conservationists first. It was their dollars that helped jumpstart the remarkable turnaround of wild game herds, both through the funding of salaries of wildlife conservation professionals and the preservation of state wildlife management areas (200,000 acres at last count), among other things.

And, at a time when more people are considering where their food comes from, there’s no more local or healthy source of food than wild game, Unsworth points out. A deer sustained on the bounty of Mother Nature puts a whole new spin on the term organic. “It’s an amazing thing to gather your own food, prepare it with your own hands and then see it become a nutritious meal for your family,” he said.

It’s probably worth thinking back to the ethical hunting code originally developed by the Boone & Crockett Club: the fair-chase ethic. Hunting was defined as “the ethical, sportsmanlike and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild, native North American big game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals.” It was this code that Roosevelt and others believed would separate modern hunters from market hunters of the past.

No type of big game hunter demonstrates this fair chase ethic better than today’s traditional bowhunters. Armed with nothing more than a recurve or longbow and arrows they may have carved and fletched themselves, they attempt to stalk within as few as 10 meters of alert elk and deer. Bowhunting is an implicit rejection of the new technologies that enable hunters to take longer and longer shots, said Jeff Fealko, president of Idaho Traditional Bowhunters, an organization of about 400 members. But the bowhunter is still dwarfed by his rifle-toting comrade. In 2009, Idaho rifle hunters bought 118,251 deer tags, bowhunters just 15,207.

Though success is obviously harder to come by as a bowhunter, relying on traditional methods gives Fealko a greater connection to the natural world. “It’s more fun to see how close I can get to an animal,” he said. “I’m in the field and enjoying nature longer.”

The origins of the North American wildlife conservation model began with the public trust doctrine, a principle of English heritage that holds that certain resources should be preserved for public use, and that governments are required to maintain them for the public’s “reasonable use.” Wildlife is among these resources. Roosevelt and others didn’t want to see the country’s wildlife controlled by the elite.

Idaho’s healthy populations of ungulates and the opportunities regular Idahoans have to connect with them—whether as a hunter or just simple observer—indicates they succeeded. Next spring, the state’s elk herds will shake off the cold of winter and begin foraging on the lush green growth of the warm season. Over the summer, the next generation of newborn elk calves will benefit from preserved public lands, which hunters helped create.

Next fall, the stirring bugles of bull elk will once again ring out in the mountains.


Idaho’s Big Five
The most popular game species

1 Deer
2 Elk
3 Blackbear
4 Pronghorn antelope
5 Moose

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