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

by David Stalling, Guest Blogger, August 2013

“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.”

to read more of David’s blogs visit http://thoughtsfromthewildside.blogspot.com