As a native Midwesterner, the hunting I did growing up focused mainly on filling one's tag and enjoying the camaraderie of deer camp. We hunted mostly public land for whitetails in the forests of northern Minnesota. I don’t have to try very hard to remember a small A-frame cabin and its smells of fried side-pork, coffee, and wood smoke. Some of my most treasured memories are of standing near my father and his friends as I listened to them talk the talk of adults around an evening fire...wondering if one day I might stand among them as an equal. Their conversation was of work and politics and hunting, things I did not always understand well. But one thing came through clearly to my young and forming mind. When we hunt we must work hard, we obey the law, we are ethical, and we are reverent. Every animal taken - young or old, buck or doe - is a “trophy”. They are gifts of the land.
I now proudly reside in the open space of Wyoming. I stand around a fire each fall with fine friends and enjoy good conversation, while my little boy sits quietly near by listening. The gratitude I feel for this good country is profound. This is an area with more big game animals than people, and a place where the hunting traditions run deep. Come each October, school days are cancelled, and families gather in mountain valleys that have served as hunting camps for generations. Strangers talk with each other of mountains and animals and bad roads as they fill up with gas in the chilly predawn darkness. It is an excellent time and place to live.
However, the hunting culture has changed in the last couple generations, and brought with it trends I find distressing. It seems the opinion of many that unless the harvested animal has substantial antlers or horns it isn’t worth killing, that is unless you are a young person or are female. Furthermore, a small spike is still considered somehow better than a legal doe or cow that might actually be larger in body size. I have taught hunter education for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for 8 years now and get the opportunity to discuss hunting with a variety of people on a nearly daily basis. Over and over, I hear my fellow hunters say things like, "all I got was a doe" or "I don’t want his first elk to be a lousy cow". Despite this, recent surveys by the National Fish and Wildlife Service indicate most hunters are not primarily trophy seekers. There is something of a discrepancy here that is puzzling. Are we afraid to admit to one another we find as much fulfillment in harvesting a doe as we do a buck? Maybe or maybe not, and I would not presume to tell my fellow outdoorsmen how, what, or why they hunt. But I would suggest it is time for us to start reexamining what we are really trying to get out of our hunting experiences.
Many of my friends and family are part of the 94% of America’s population that do not hunt. They do not oppose hunting, but they have no desire to participate in it either. The one thing they seem universally curious about is why we hunters seem so obsessed with killing the healthy dominant male animals in a population. Why not the young, tender ones? Why not the old and barren females? Why not the old buck who is unlikely to survive the winter? The answer is that under field conditions it is very difficult to be that picky. But then the non-hunting public often seems to think the killing of a game animal is a simple undertaking. These same people wonder why hunting programs on television talk about the kill, but not the use of the animal? They incorrectly, yet perhaps understandably, infer that the guy in orange who kills the big buck simply cuts off its antlers and lets the rest rot. Hunters know differently, and I have tried to explain many times that hunters always use the animals we kill, even if we do not seem to talk about it much, as it is not only the law but also something we look forward to. Clean white packages of healthy game meat awaiting use in the freezer, is a very important reward of the hunt. But this information is sometimes lost in the blizzard of images and stories put out by some in the hunting media who bombard us with pictures of huge bucks and bulls meeting their end at the hands of some guy obsessed with antler mass and tine length. I wonder if this the message we want the non-hunting public to hear?
Let me be clear, I do not think it is wrong to harvest a large male game animal and then hang his mounted head in your home. In fact, I have a couple of animals in my den right now. But I do feel strongly that if we are to truly be hunter-conservationists we must closely examine why we hunt, what we get out of it, and be able to explain it when teachable moments arise with those who are curious about our lifestyle. In my experience, the non-hunting public understands, or at least seems ready to grudgingly accept, the idea of hunting as a way to control game numbers, make money for local economies, and to put meat on a person's table. However, they seem to find the hunter who only shows minor interest in the conservation and sustenance his efforts provide highly distasteful. To tell the honest truth, so do I.
I believe the time has come for hunters to redefine what they perceive as a "trophy". Not because I think hunters need to justify their actions, but because hunting is not, and never has been, a competitive sport. For example, Kristina my wife recently harvested her first elk. Kristina is relatively new to hunting and this event was something very special to her. She practiced with her rifle all summer and became a competent shot. She scouted her area, made a plan, hiked and hunted hard, and after several days of effort finally tied her tag to the leg of a big cow she took with a single well placed bullet. I was there. The effort involved in this success brought us closer together, created memories and stories we will relive a thousand times, and put healthy and delicious food in our freezer. The cow she killed lived in an area struck by drought, and unless the herd size was decreased they certainly would have over-grazed their range, impacting not just their own well being, but the health of many other game and non-game populations dependent on that habitat. Kristina is having that cow mounted and even though others have snickered over it, including the taxidermist doing the work, we make no apologies. Every time I look at that cow hanging in the den, I will be able to drift back to the time we shared. The memory is precious to me. Had she not harvested her elk, and I had, would I have mounted my animal? Probably not, as I have been blessed to take many elk in my hunting career. But my first elk, many years ago, was also a cow and I admit I wish I had mounted it now, even if it meant I would suffer criticism over doing so.
My father taught me that killing an animal should never be taken lightly. When I take a life I must be reflective, or I may become callous and develop into a killer rather than a hunter. I risk forgetting the life I took was a gift of the land, and when receiving a gift it is distasteful and rude to criticize or refuse it. When I am in the mountains I am not shopping, but hunting. I take the animal offered to me with a grateful heart, as I suspect any other predator might. Whether that animal is a cow or bull, buck or doe, calf or fawn I do not care. I hope the young and forming mind of my little boy will grasp all of that as he sits around a campfire with my friends and I in hunting camp. I will do my best to help him understand what “trophy” really should mean.