Stewardship and the Hunt

The following is a talk given by Dr. George N. Wallace at Colorado State University's (CSU) College of Natural Resources Fall Seminar Series on "The Culture of Stewardship", December 9th, 2004. George is an active BHA member and retired CSU professor.

george wallaceI know that the number of fishery and wildlife biology students that hunt has declined and are perhaps now a minority. I am going to propose that hunting can contribute to land stewardship and foster a commitment to land health as it has for many noted conservationists - though it does not always do so. My point of view here is that of a hunter and eclectic conservationist and not that of an ecologist, sociologist or other scientist who studies this topic. My evidence is anecdotal, sometimes subjective but developed over a long period of time with a questioning mind. I trust how I feel and what I think I have learned at this point. I have begun to answer questions that I struggled with in earlier articles published in the 80s. I will tell you how the hunt has influenced my own attitude toward the land and that of others I know. I will also talk briefly about forest and ecosystem health, the politics of conservation and how current land use decisions have made it more difficult to integrate hunting and stewardship.

Hunting and the Land Ethic When I was growing up in Colorado the hunt was a given and there wasn't much guilt or questioning about whether it was the right thing to do. It came with living in a large landscape with low human density that was plentiful with game and fish and in a culture that still had relatively close ties to the land. For a young person, it was a time before the boom in commercialized outdoor recreation. There was a little downhill skiing, snowmobiles were rare, mountain bikes non- existent and climbing was mostly what you did to help you get somewhere so you could do other things. Everybody I knew worked, even in high school. When you had time off, your either played sports or went hunting and fishing – probably both. The western landscape was friendlier. Everybody knew somebody with a farm or a ranch and had access not only to public wildlands but to pastoral lands as well. Our family had a ranch on Brush Creek south of Eagle. At the time, there were only four other ranches from Vail Pass until you got to Eagle. My uncles ran the ranch and one was also a forest ranger. Forest service employees would help when it was time to gather and brand.

During hunting season, most people stopped working for a while and the men went hunting while the women packed lunches and readied the kitchen for the canning of venison and making of sausage. Teachers excused students who went hunting. In many places you could crank a shell into the chamber about 200 yards from the back door. Later in the Fall, or on weekends we would head North of Ft. Collins or to Northeastern Colorado to hunt pheasants, geese, ducks or rabbits on farms that we knew or by knocking on doors. In those days, you could pretty much go where you wanted on foot or horseback if you checked in where you left the truck and then shut the gates wherever else you went. It was a good idea to leave some fish, game, or a jar of jelly with the landowner or tenant when you came back.

My main agenda in those years was to grow up and learn how to do a lot of things that others around me could do and spend as much time as I could in wild country. I chose a number of my friends and they me based on what it was like to be in camp together or on the trail with a heavy pack or what they knew about horses. I also spent many hours alone on foot or horseback for work and for pleasure. These were intimate hours - fixing fence or hauling salt, looking for missing cattle or doing mistletoe surveys for the FS or the field completion of topo maps for the USGS. After work, I would head off trail. In most places the land was healthy and provided for frequent encounters with wild things. One summer at cow camp, being the youngest of 7 pool riders, in addition to my other work, it was my job to keep a steady supply of trout and venison on the table for the, others. The boss's wife told me that I wasn't to shoot any tough old bucks. Being 15 at the time, I secretly enjoyed the job they had given me because I could find game even though my cowboy skills did not match those of the older riders.

One of the things I learned as the years passed was that game frequented certain combinations of vegetation, water and topography – places that provided habitat for feeding, hiding, escaping, socializing, reproduction and protection from the weather. Animals look for the right combination that fits their needs at any given time. As I came to understand this I would hunt for the right kind of land first and then find the game. This is to say that I learned to "hunt ecosystems" rather than parcels. Some places always had wildlife because the soils, slope, aspect, and hydrology produced healthy vegetative communities. Such places provided higher levels of nutrition and filled a diversity of other needs. Other places provided these things but required a larger landscape to do so and access to it. While hunting, I learned about landscape mosaics, trophic levels, structure and function before I had names for them. I knew many such places and began to be emotionally attached and to care about them. I owned no land yet, but had "territories" all over the place. I felt possessive about them. I began to pay attention to land health not just because it made for good hunting or fishing but also because you could find a diversity of other species, and because such places were interesting, inspiring and hopeful.

These haunts were not just wild mountain or canyon lands but also multiple use lands used for timber and, grazing. They were pastoral places for growing corn, wheat, and milo. Farmland in those days was also more diverse and interesting ecologically. There were lots of fence rows, abandoned homesteads and wild corners full of forbs and grasses, wet swales, drainage ditches and old tree claims. I especially liked the farmland on the edge of badlands, sand hills, or marshland where the White Tail deer, Ring Neck pheasants or Sharptail grouse that flushed from the edge of a cornfield could disappear and be safe. I wanted them safe so that I could always find them, see them, know that the world was still provident, perhaps hunt them and later feel good about the hunt.

So it was that I came to one of the rules that still guides me on this issue. If the land is healthy, it's alright to be a part of it and to hunt. If it is not, don't hunt there unless it is for the purpose of restoration. I began to feel obligated to spend part of my time making some land healthy.

In retrospect I am sure that the many hours afield, and the intimate encounters with wild things in places not experienced by most hikers and backpackers did contribute to a mid-life decision to return to graduate school so that I could work in the field of conservation. Those times help me now during the "office years" with their long hours, never-ending meetings, late research reports and not enough time to prepare for teaching. They motivate and shape my teaching style. - But there is more than that. I really enjoy the hunt and all that accompanies it. In a recent article, my friend and hunting partner Rick Knight quotes E.B.White who said something like "when I get up in the morning I don't know whether to try and save the world or savor it. It makes planning the day more difficult"

Obviously we must do both – a lot of the former but some of the latter. As the stories I have written attempt to do, let me try and give you a personal account of the other aspects of the hunt that create a strong attachment to land and motivate people to later work for land health. First of all for me the hunt is still to savor the natural world as a participant, not just an observer. When I hunt, I switch to a form of viewing the world that is more atavistic and very old. For some hours during the day, my attention giving is completely voluntary (which I believe is rare in today's world) and my perceptions are heightened as if my own well being and that of my tribe depended on it. If I am hunting with a companion who may be on the other side of the ridge or waiting at the head of a draw, we share that attention and cooperate on one of the world's oldest social endeavors among species not born with fang and claw. Because we have monthly paychecks, we can also take delight when an animal outwits us during a momentary lapse in attention giving.

If our judgments about how to approach the hunt are sound, or if we are just plain lucky, we may be rewarded. - In either case, we are rewarded with Gary Paul Nabhan says is the most basic of life's gifts – good food that comes from a place and people you know well. After the kill, there is a short and mystical time before the animal is transformed to meat. Thoreau described it as being so close to some "hard matter in its home, large warm and smelling grand" After the passing of this life force the way to honor the animal and the mountain is by caring for the meat and wasting none. Processing and transporting the carcass to camp is hard work and may take two people the better part of a day. Later in camp, there are the shared rituals. We traditionally eat heart and liver first or we may pepper a backstrap and lay it on the griddle with bacon and onions and considerable reverence. Before the first bite someone usually offers an ecumenical thanks to the mountain. After dinner, while others are buying individual drinks in smoky taverns, we pass a single bottle of sprits around the tent and recount what we saw that day. All this has been done by societies for millennia and now it is our turn. Before going to bed, you stand silently with the horses in real terrestrial darkness giving them an extra ration of grain in their nose bags for the work they will do tomorrow. Standing between their warm bodies in the cold night you look up and see a Milky Way so clearly that it arcs from one black horizon to the other. Every ten years or so if you are lucky, the northern lights will grace your vespers. Our horses and mules seem to wait for and enjoy these hunt as well. We age together.

It is interesting to me that although most of the days of our lives pass quickly and the details are soon forgotten, the days one spends hunting seem to linger clearly in mind. Hunting stories are repeated for years to come because they are at once so contrastingly uncivilized, timeless, focused and vivid. Ortega y Gasset in the classic Meditations on Hunting describes the true hunter as the "Alert Man" with blood throbbing in his temples and who is alive in an unforgettable way. The survival of early peoples depended on this focus, this "not forgetting". Leopold speaks of the hunt throughout Sand County Almanac. He too notes that the hunt provides the keen delight and a heightened perception that connects one with the land and links the present with the past in a way that enables us to better judge what "progress" really means. Franklin Kalinowski in a paper on "The Significance of Aldo Leopold Being a Hunter" proposes that Leopold's land ethic "unites these ageless and primitive passions with intellectually expanding moral boundaries". As I look around our tent at the 5 members of our party, I see the director of a natural areas program, 2 protected areas management specialists, a former NP FS ranger, 2 whose farms or ranches provide for wildlife, 3 who sit on community boards and commissions that work on a variety of conservation issues. We didn't plan it that way - it just is that way among kindred spirits.

The type of hunt I am describing to you – one that is linked to a healthy landscape and to people for whom the hunt is much more than the kill, is delicate, easily disrupted in today's world and perhaps not the norm. There are many hunters that do not make this connection nor do they make any further commitment. Yet there are increasing numbers of hunters who join groups like The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited and who give time, money and political support to habitat improvement assisting public and private land conservation and fighting against unethical hunting practices. For most of these hunters, there are many things that can break the spell including motorized hunting, walki talkis, range finders, recorded elk bugles and bragging about trophies. These are the hunters who lobbied strongly and caused President Bush to remove Montana's Rocky Mountain Front from the list of places opened to frantic oil and gas exploration. These are the hunter/stewards who help buy easements on ranches with good habitat or spend hours planting native shrubs and grasses on farms in eastern Colorado. This is not new. It has been hunters who have directly and indirectly given us back the wildlife that market hunters squandered. The have willingly financed our National Wildlife Refuge System, our state divisions of wildlife and helped fund the systems of wildlife management that we have today. Like all NR agencies, many mistakes have been made and lessons learned within those agencies. That brings me to another point.

Contributions to Ecological Sustainability The December 1st edition of the Wall Street Journal had a front page story entitled: "Deer wreak havoc on nation's forests". It references studies (one done by Milford Pinchot, grandson of Gifford) that show that when deer densities reach 10-15/ square mile that impacts to wildflowers and nesting birds become evident. Populations of over 20/sq. mile begin to impact forest regeneration as deer begin to eat high numbers of seeds and seedlings of oak, hickory, ash, birch, beech and black locust trees. Many areas actually have populations of between 30 and 70 deer/ square mile and the result is that there is no reproduction of most forest species. Deer are determining the long term future of whole forest ecosystems. Humans have long been the natural and most notable predators of deer but the declining number of hunters, the increasing number of anti-hunting groups means that harvest is way below any sustainable level. Biologists say that 35 – 45% of the females in a deer population must be harvested annually just to maintain herd size. The aging of the traditional hunting population, the lowered recruitment of young hunters, the tradition of hunting bucks and rural sprawl that produces habituated animals has allowed deer populations to explode in the eastern half of the US.

Rural people in the east have a long tradition of hunting too but now farms and forested areas are being sold to second or third generation suburbanites who buy them for hobby farms and weekend retreats or permanent homes to commute from. Most of these new residents do not hunt and post their properties creating exurban refuges where deer habituate to development and thrive on all the ornamentals orchards and gardens available to them. They kill many of their protected deer anyway with their own SUVs. To counter this in part, an increasing number of public, NGO and privately managed protected areas that formerly prohibited hunting have now opened their areas to hunting as part of their native forest and ecosystem restoration programs. All of the island system Protected Areas that I have worked in have enormous problems with introduced mammals and now must employ intensive hunting programs to try and save threatened endemic species. Galapagos NP spends 70% of its budget on its hunting program.

National Parks in the US which prohibit hunting and which are too small or close to developed areas to rely on a higher levels of natural predation have ecosystems that are increasingly unnatural. Witness what the elk in Rocky Mountain NP have done to willow and aspen communities. Habituated now to urban and residential areas they lose the elusive wild qualities that gave them grace, majesty, dignity and the ability to thrive in healthy wildland ecosystems. We lose respect for them and they become vulnerable. In the larger Yellowstone ecosystem, however, where wolves hunt in packs the elk spend less time in riparian areas where they were more susceptible to predation. The result seems to be that riparian vegetation is recovering, the beaver are back, the beaver dams have raised water tables and that in turn has restored many other natural vegetative communities. Few areas are as large as Yellowstone so in my mind even in the National Parks, humans at least bow hunters should be allowed to resume their natural role as predators and help restore badly degraded ecosystems and return elk, deer, sheep and other large mammals to an increased state of wildness. Do we really want to sterilize elk instead?

The loss of wildness and the habituation of wild things has always bothered me. I would like to read an excerpt from an article I wrote in HCN some time ago. In the first part of the article I tell the story of the geese that have been lured down out of the migratory flyways by well-intentioned but faulty management practices. These are the habituated city geese that draw the ire of golfers with white shoes. Later in the story I go on to describe the country geese who are semi- wild and frequently utilize our farm. In the last part, I describe an encounter with wild migrating geese – the sight of which has inspired awe in humans for centuries. These are the high flying long skeins of geese in Leopolds "Goose Music", and which are still found passing through the open plains of SE Colorado.

My brother-in-law Rich hunts geese and, I think loves them at the same time. He hunts, as I do, partly because it forces us to see the world from a different angle – usually from the viewpoint of a gopher or muskrat. He digs his pit in the great grain fields of southeastern Colorado in the middle of the night and sets out 200-300 decoys in patterns that only he, the geese, and the wind understand. The pit is always flush with the ground, perfectly camouflaged, and he locates it where the geese were feeding the preceding afternoon. He can talk to geese too, not with a goose call, but with his voice, and they talk back to him. The geese he hunts are northern geese, migratory, and wild as the wind. There are only a handful of people who can fool them as well as Rich can.

When you first see the lines of geese, they may be miles away. If you are of a certain generation, it may seem like being an infantryman in a trench watching waves of bombers approach. That all changes as they get closer. Rich hears them before anyone and starts to talk to them. Those of us less experienced in the pit must crouch low and see the geese by watching his eye movements and listening to his long, sharp honks. We could tell they were coming closer. Our head gander talks to theirs. His calling becomes more intense as they come within a half to a quarter of a mile. They are deciding whether to come by for a look. They are very high at this point and may begin to circle if nothing alarms them.

If they do circle, Rich's call changes to a more rapid, somewhat softer and self assured calling, as if to say, "Come on down! The eating's good." Geese land into the wind and into the decoys if they are properly arranged. When they decide to land, their final approach is the moment of peak experience. There is a riot of goose music as they come gliding in, wings set. Rich's calls are quick now, and we are permitted to mix in feeding sounds. With a great flapping and braking and one of the most incredible sounds in nature, 300 to 500 geese come milling down from heaven to cover us up.

Then, if you allow it to happen, there is an amazing three to seven seconds of quieting as the geese puzzle over this solemn group of wingless comrades. The smartest goose then realizes something is wrong and bolts and the whole amazing process is reversed. The ground comes alive in a roar of wings as two tons of energized down, feathers and gooseflesh climb skyward like leaves sucked up by some giant whirlwind.

I would be content to just watch, but Rich yells, "Now!" One man reacts to cultural imperative. Although his belly is full of glazed doughnuts and truck-stop coffee, he must kill to show his worth to friends. Another long-time companion who just lost his job swings and shoots – more as a learned motor response to Rich's verbal stimulus. A third man moves from a deeper sense that dates back tens of thousands of years through millions of hunts – the game moves, the hunter pounces. I decide to watch.

The geese are five miles east now – all but four of them. A moderate take, and only six shots were fired. I was watching for cripples, which sometimes sag and collapse a half a mile away. I saw none. Rich and Scotty are walking back and looking at a goose that has been banded. Scotty holds the aluminum leg band close and strains in disbelief at something. "Russian!" he exclaims. "This son of a bitch flew all the way from Russia!"

Later that day it occurred to me as I looked at this animal, while drawing and plucking her, that I held in my hands something that gives meaning to words like freedom, strength, endurance, and sureness. She gives substance and expression to qualities that seem to guide us daily and to which we all aspire. Wild things – the eagle, the wild goose and, in lesser degree, country and city geese – are symbols, paradigms, that sum up and draw together important ideas. We can look at them and partially describe ourselves. They are standards that help us determine whether we see those same qualities in the other things in out lives.

I hoped that the death of these four had somehow contributed to the naturalness, the wildness of the many that escaped, that they would be even wilier and more reluctant to come close to us next time. We respect that which eludes us.

Back Home For the last 32 years, we have been restoring a once barren and degraded farm in Northern Larimer County. We have leveled the cropland developed and irrigation system, planted shelter belts, wildlife habitat in a variety of places. We have started to restore 50 acres of wetlands, fenced out riparian, pond and spring areas, developed a rotational grazing system, eradicated a fair portion of the exotic vegetation and reestablished many native species. Slowly the land and water come to life if you stick with it. A considerable diversity of wildlife has returned to this combination of pastoral and wild tissue and others use it temporarily. Two weeks ago a gift from heaven for the years of work. The place looked hospitable enough that three Trumpeter Swans glided in and stayed for 5 days. Almost as good as having grandkids who live nearby.

Part of stewarding this 220 acres is hunting to manage when need be and occasionally for pleasure. (save and savor) In addition to crops we have on the place a large garden, orchard, hen house horses, mules, cattle in the winter, dogs and a cat. Because the habitat has taken hold, we now have the full array of red fox, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, whitetail deer and even porcupines that sometimes do damage. Although we leave dens alone, and enjoy having some of them around, we sometimes kill coyotes, foxes, coons, skunks and muskrats when populations are excessive or if individuals begin to raid near our dwellings. We use electric fences around the chicken yard and garden to reduce the need to do that. We also have a diversity of bird species, waterfowl, wading birds and marsh birds. We kill some exotic avian species like starlings and collard doves that displace or otherwise affect the natives and neo-tropical migrants. As providers of grain and cover, we feel justified in putting one or two pheasants, ducks or geese on the holiday table but keep good track of annual populations before we do.

As many of my favorite hunting and fishing territories have shrunk, been fragmented or eliminated by development, new owners, or poor land health, I find myself spending more time on the farm, and elsewhere doing restoration and related activities. I would like to close my talk by reading the post-script from an essay that I wrote that was included in the book Hunters Heart edited by David Peterson. I think it may summarizes some of the things I have said here about the relationship of hunting and stewardship. I wrote the original article "If Elk Would Scream" in 1981 for High Country News and this postscript in 1995:

Postscript, 1995: The heart of the (this) hunter looks for a piece of Eden. It feels right to hunt in a place where the land is healthy. When the buck is sneaking from his daybed, he should not at once have to jump a fence, cross a road, and be exposed by our activities on the land. He should be able to slip unseen, if he can, into wild tissue. The covey of quail that explodes from beneath the thicket of wild plum should have several other thickets to choose from in the remotely sensed seconds that follow. If arroyos or wetlands should lie in between to confound the hunter's route, so much the better.

It is in the wild and healthy places that nature can both protect and occasionally spare us one of her wild creatures. Entering a healthy landscape we can allow the predator within us to stretch its legs and claim rightful membership as part of that ecosystem. The more we eliminate the wet and wild places from our farms and ranches, the more we dice and cut, spreading out homes and business deals over first the farms, then the hills above them, along all the lake shores and streams and into the forest, the less we will be able, in good faith, to pick up the shotgun or rifle and take to the fields that are left. Even if we do find relict patches that look healthy, we must know that the game we seek is cut off and more vulnerable to our presence now. We must wonder, at some point, if we still have the right.

The hunt described above took place in 1981. Since then, I find myself leaving the gun in the rack more often, choosing instead the shovel and a bundle of seedlings to carry afield. Still hunting, I cradle the spade across my arm and quickly bring it to my shoulder when the rooster flushes. Still stalking, in the commissioners' hearing room, I listen to the sprawl-boosters talk about yet another proposed development in the wrong place and feel the predator in me stir, looking for a way to defend its territory of ten thousand years.

About Caitlin Thompson