In The Heart of the Savage Man

by Tom Reed

In a little more than two weeks, I will saddle a good mountain horse at the edge of one of Wyoming’s largest wilderness areas. My hunting partners and I will load four pack horses with ten days of food, a wall tent, sleeping bags, and hunting gear. We’ll work with an unspoken ease, a familiarity born of repetition and remembrance. This will be our eighth year at this trailhead and memories will be carried with us as easily as these good graceful horses will carry us up this trail. On the way in, perhaps as we have every year, we will cut a track deep in the mud along the creek, a track that says wilderness to us, the track of the grizzly. For us, this great bear defines the wildness of the country. We know that we are in his home.

For more than a week, we’ll hunt for big timber buck mule deer, and listen to bull elk bugle in the black forest above the meadow where our horses graze. We’ll walk quietly and cautiously, for this is griz country and we know the danger of a spooked grizzly bear in the elk woods. If we have done everything right, if we’ve prayed to the elk gods with the proper amount of reverence, if we’ve been hunters, true wilderness hunters, perhaps we will be hanging a good bull or buck from the meat pole. But even if we return to the trailhead with our packhorses unburdened, we will have hunted, of that you can be sure. We will have seen few people. We will have walked in the track of the grizzly. We will have listened to the bugle of the bull and watched the gray fading of a buck mule deer in full retreat. And we will have hunted. Hunted.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll climb behind the wheel of my pickup, a worn vehicle with more than two hundred thousand miles on the odometer. Grouse season is open in Montana and I’ve got two young bird dogs outside in my camper right now, just dying to drink in the west wind. If I’m lucky, I’ll find a rancher who will let me hunt a swath of native prairie bench, or a coulee choked with snowberry. I’ll put the dogs on the ground and watch as they spin out before me into the wind, following their noses. I’ll follow them, even though they are young setters with no experience on these spooky sharptail grouse, but I’ll trust their instincts, their breeding. There’s a place I know not far from here where the prairie swells before your shotgun, rising and falling at the edge of the last un-dammed Western river. Perhaps I’ll spend a day out there, a full day with my bird vest filled with water for the dogs and a candy bar for me. In the evening, I’ll come home to the camper where I can kick back and read a good book and sip something cold. Perhaps my game pouch will be filled with grouse too, but perhaps not. But I will have hunted.

Two very different experiences, two very different places. Their differences are obvious. One takes place in what we modern Americans define as public wilderness, complete with immense pine forests, large predators, and charismatic big game. The other takes place on a fragment of native prairie held privately and used for agriculture. Their similarities?

These are two wilderness hunting experiences.

How, you might ask, is a hunt in a chunk of prairie within the sight and sound of a highway or a farm house anything like a wilderness experience? How can you say that this hunt, with dogs and trucks and campers and comforts is anything like a hunt in the Wilderness—and this word is spelled with a capital W—of Wyoming?

The answer is simple, and yet somewhat complex. A wilderness hunt for me has several crucial elements. One is a minimization of technology. Another is physical exercise. A third is free-ranging native species in native range. Let’s look at these things and let’s ask ourselves, are we making any more true wilderness hunters? And, what is hunting anyway?

“No one,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt in his 1893 classic, The Wilderness Hunter, “but he who has partaken thereof, can understand the keen delight of hunting in lonely lands. For him is the joy of the horse well ridden and the rifle well held; for him the long days of toil and hardship, resolutely endured and crowned at the end with triumph. In after years, there shall come forever to his mind the memory of endless prairies shimmering in the bright sun; of vast snow-clad wastes lying desolate under gray skies; of the melancholy marshes; of the rush of mighty rivers; of the breath of the evergreen forest in summer; of the crooning ice-armored pines at the touch of the winds of winter; of cataracts roaring between hoary mountain masses; of all the innumerable sights and sounds of the wilderness; of its immensity and mystery; and of the silences that brood in its still depths.”

It would be easy to point out what has been lost in the one hundred plus years since Roosevelt wrote those words. Too easy. Let’s forget that Roosevelt, to get to his ranch not far from here, had to take a train for several days, then a wagon, then a horse. In Roosevelt’s day, the wilderness was all around him. In our day, that kind of wilderness has disappeared, and yet, this is not a discussion of what has been lost, but what we still have and what the hunter, the true wilderness hunter of this century, not the one before that or the one before that, can still enjoy.

Let’s look at the words of another hunter, those of oft-quoted Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset. “When we leave the city and go up on the mountains it is astounding how naturally and rapidly we free ourselves from the worries, temper, and ways of the real person we were, and the savage man springs anew in us. Our life seems to lose weight and the fresh and fragrant atmosphere of an adolescence circulates through it. We feel (it is usually said) submerged in Nature. But the strange thing is that, although Nature is not our native or habitual environment, when the hunt places us in it we have the impression of returning to our old homestead.”

Gasset, like Roosevelt, hunted in a time that was much different from ours, a time when the American wilderness was a much different thing than today. Today, the modern hunter has a much smaller piece of the pie for escape and the modern hunter must redefine his hunting grounds and must, most importantly, shape his ethics carefully and unencumbered of too much technology. Yet Americans have a propensity to make life easier, to invent gadgets and devices to make our lives a little less strenuous.

The activity of hunting has not escaped this cultural philosophy. No, the average hunter today must make hard choices to not take advantage of technology, for as the number of toys increases, the ability to really truly hunt declines. Why learn how to read tracks and understand animals habits when one can merely set up a motion detecting camera on a game trail to see when and what type of game happens by? Why learn how to judge distance and take safe shots at quarry when one can purchase a rangefinder that will tell you distance to within a handful of yards and allow you to turn a dial on your rifle scope to correctly adjust for that long shot? Why walk when you can ride an ATV? Why read a map or learn woodsmanship when you can buy a GPS and plot your course with satellite technology? And yet to embrace all of these things and to embrace them fiercely, one lets go of the actual concept of hunting.

Once you have substituted mechanics for such things as common sense, or even the senses themselves, you have taken one step farther from the wilderness hunter and one step closer to the shooter, the harvester, and, in my mind, the slob hunter. Today’s ethical hunter, who believes in the true sprit of the hunt, of, to paraphrase Gasset, becoming the hunted by thinking, looking and acting like it, must exercise self control to avoid walking down this very path.

Here is another concept to which I am clinging harder and harder these days. When I began hunting as a boy on my grandmother’s ranch in southeastern Colorado thirty years ago, hunting enthusiasts were fond of saying the slob hunters were the rarity who screwed it all up for the majority. This was before the invention of the all terrain vehicle and before the invention of a thousand different gadgets all designed to make hunting, or should I say shooting, easy. Today, I’m not so sure that the slob hunter isn’t the majority and the ethical hunter, the true wilderness hunter, a minority. So here is the concept that I have begun to carry with me, my mantra if you will:

In order to be a hunter, you need wilderness. Let me say that again. In order to be a hunter, you need wilderness. In other words, the very act of hunting needs to have a wilderness component. Without a wilderness component, the hunter becomes a shooter, a harvester.

So what is this wilderness that makes a hunter? Is it the wilderness of northwestern Wyoming, which, many would argue is the only true wilderness left in the Lower 48 because it has all components of the pre-European settlement, from the great bear to the wolf, to the bison? The answer is yes, but it is also “yes and a lot more.”

For the modern wilderness hunter, wilderness is where you find it. Wilderness begins where you shut the motorized vehicle off and start the physical exercise. Wilderness begins for the hunter where technology is left behind.

Is sitting in a south Texas deer stand on a ranch where the whitetail deer are completely fenced in without the possibility of escape a wilderness experience? Absolutely not. Remember I said free-ranging native species, not captive native species. Is it even hunting? I think not. It is harvesting. It is shooting, and oftentimes not shooting very well at all, not Roosevelt’s “rifle well held.” The deer inside this fence have been genetically engineered as much as the purest Angus bull and taking one of them, while they may be faster than cattle, is little more than shooting your milk cow, a fast cow, but a cow nonetheless. I saw one of these hunting shows the other day, and I’m putting hunting in quotations, that had an advertisement for a game call. Now game calls have been used since time began to attract all kinds of wildlife, from predators to big game. But this one actually made a sound similar to the sound of feed dropping into a feed trough. I’m not making this up. A game call that sounded like feed being dropped into a feeder. Not fair chase, by any measurement. And certainly not wilderness hunting.

But is carrying your .22 squirrel rifle into a 40 acre woodlot in southern Missouri a wilderness hunt? Native species, native range, physical exercise, technology essentially left behind. I contend that yes, the 14 year old boy who shoulders a rifle and walks the deep woods is hunting and that woodlot is his wilderness. Is walking the coulees on the backside of Lake Sakakawea wilderness hunting? By these parameters of the modern hunter, not the shooter, not the harvester, this is absolutely a wilderness hunting experience.

The average hunter in the 21st century is little more than a harvester. You open Cabela’s fall master catalog, a book thicker than the phone book for Wyoming’s capitol city, and you’ll see any number of gadgets designed to help you kill game. The unwritten implication, of course, is that these technologies will make it easier for you to take a game animal, to conquer the wilderness instead of learning wilderness skills and living within the natural rhythms of nature. Add a few hundred dollars worth of gear and you’ll be hanging meat in your hunting lodge at the end of the day. You’ve got to have that fifteen hundred dollar nitrogen-filled, three-to-nine power rifle scope—in RealTree camo—or you just aren’t properly armed, my friend.

The quarry, of course, are animals that are still relying on their noses, their eyes, their ears and their legs, to survive, the same “technology” that they had in Roosevelt’s day, and yet to pursue them, we have tried to find substitutes for our eyes, our noses, our ears and our legs. The quarry is still playing by the same rules, but we have donned a whole shelf full of gear to try to gain the upper hand. And here’s another irony: there’s more game now than there was then and yet we still feel at a disadvantage. Why? Because we are hunting an animal that spends its entire life in the woods, in the wilderness, while we spend our lives completely disconnected from the natural world. What’s more, the harvesters slash shooters want to spend even less time in the forests and on the prairies and they turn to technology to do it.

Do we really need infrared hunting goggles and tree stands cloaked in fourteen different kinds of camo to take a whitetail deer? Do we really need to bait in these same whitetail deer with Mac’s Mega Buck Deer Feed, or set up a motion-detecting camera on a tree so we can photograph the times, dates and places a deer travels in the woods and, as a result, spend less time in the woods? Isn’t the whole point to spend more time in the woods, to learn woodcraft, to unleash Gasset’s “ savage man” within us?

Does this mean I’m advocating going back to wearing skins and hunting with hand-chiseled lances? Do I shirk all modern technology? Absolutely not. I heartily embrace that old Dodge truck that takes me to the road head, the high tech socks I wear on my feet, my synthetic long underwear, my rifle and its scope, my graphite fly fishing rod. What I am advocating, however, is to use a little common sense. The wilderness hunter takes what he can into the woods and leaves behind much, for he seeks not only that beautiful six point bull elk or that wary sharptail grouse, but also a release of his savage man, and the escape from the very things that brought him to the trailhead and especially an escape from the geegaws that have smothered our pastime in the last twenty years.

One activity that has remained relatively pure and free of some of the gadgetry is that of trapping. The reason for this, I think, is that a trapper needs to know so much about animal behavior to be successful. Trapping has certainly gotten a bad rap in the last few decades, but it’s hard to make the argument that a good trapper isn’t one hell of a woodsman. It’s one thing to go into good elk country and watch an open meadow with a rifle that can shoot accurately to more than three hundred yards. It’s quite another to go out into the woods and to set a trap that makes a mink step foot in that one little spot in all the woods. Sure there are baits and scents involved, but there’s also a tremendous amount of craftsmanship, of outdoorsmanship. Technology has been a greater temptation to the hunter, perhaps because this force of hunters is so much larger than those few who trap any more. I think that hunters could take a page from the trapper’s bible, to learn the woods and the ways and habits of those creatures we hunt.

It would be hard to talk about wilderness hunting without talking about one of the fathers of the American concept of wilderness and one of the last century’s great wilderness hunters, Aldo Leopold.

Leopold was born in the same year that Roosevelt founded his Boone and Crockett Club, 1887. In many ways, he followed in Roosevelt’s footsteps, for he found himself astride a good horse in open country in the early years of the last century. In that time and in the years that followed, he became one of the most influential conservationists and hunters this country has ever known.

Leopold was an avid hunter, a man of passion for the sport, a minimalist, a wilderness advocate and a man driven by hunting ethics.

He was so driven in fact, that he early on shunned modern day firearms for bow hunting. This is not the kind of bow hunting we know today with compound bows, cross bows and modern technology, but instead this was instinctive shooting with the straight bow. For years, Leopold hunted deer almost exclusively with the bow.

Leopold was the epitome of the wilderness hunter, learning the ways of the woods and the ways of the animals that lived there. There’s something he said that I think could be applied to the average modern hunter of today. Leopold had four categories for people in the outdoors: “Deer hunters, duck hunters, bird hunters and non-hunters. These categories have nothing to do with sex or age, or accouterments; they represent four diverse habits of the human eye. The deer hunter habitually watches the next bend; the duck hunter watches the skyline; the bird hunter watches the dog; the non-hunter does not watch.”

I think we could spin that a bit today to say the technology-burdened, motorized hunter of today does not watch.

Let me tell you a story. A couple of years ago, I was hunting blue grouse in the Wind River Mountains of western Wyoming. It was elk season, so I was wearing blaze orange and my white dog also had a blaze orange collar. It was a good day. I think we had a couple of grouse in the bag when we decided to rest for a while beside an old four wheel drive trail. It was then that two guys on four-wheelers came along, driving with their rifles slung over their shoulders. So here I am, not twenty feet from them, sitting there with my white dog in my blaze orange and they don’t even see me. They just ride right on past without even looking beyond the road. Here I am dressed like a pumpkin sitting next to a bright white dog and they don't even see me. Incredible.

The motorized hunter does not watch.

Which brings me to the second thing that a wilderness hunter needs to have: physical exercise.

Here’s Leopold again: “The disquieting thing in the modern picture is the trophy-hunter who never grows up, in whom the capacity for isolation, perception, and husbandry is undeveloped, or perhaps lost. He is the motorized ant who swarms the continents before learning to see his own back yard, who consumes but never creates outdoor satisfactions.”

He wrote those words in 1938.

Let’s look at what has happened to our world, to our hunting world in just the last few decades. Since 1990, sales of all terrain vehicles, ATVs, have quadrupled, with approximately 600,000 units sold in 2000. That means there’s 7 million ATVs out there and most are being used for recreational purposes, not for farming or ranching. The unethical use of ATVs are the number one complaint among hunters in many western states. Moreover, like those hunters who passed me by those few years ago in Wyoming, just riding ATVs up and down a trail is not much of a wilderness experience, and in my mind, not much of a hunting experience.

Cody Beers, my predecessor at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department wrote an editorial on ATVs that drew more reader response, pro and con, than any other issue we had ever tackled. Here's some of what he had to say to the unethical ATV user:

"You're messing up my hunting, and you're messing up future hunting opportunities for my two sons too. Personally, I can handle your irresponsible behavior, even though I hate and despise it. But when you start messing with the future, especially my sons’ futures in the outdoors, I get mad.

“Armed with all-terrain vehicles and four wheel drive pickups, a disregard for signs and few to no ethics or personal pride, some of you are leaving tracks in places where they have no business.

“I don’t own an ATV, and I won't. I've ridden ATVs on roads and on my family's ranch. Used properly, they are useful. ATVs really aren't the problem though. Unethical, lazy Wyoming hunters are the problem.”

That editorial drew a lot of fire, as I said before. It also drew a death threat to Cody and his family. This is nature of things among the motorized hunting crowd. The issue is extremely polarized. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game recently did a survey of hunters about ATVs. The results, if anything, showed how polarized the issue really is. Those who owned ATVs and used them for hunting were generally completely opposed to regulations restricting their use on and off road. Those who hunted without ATVs were in favor of restricting ATVs. I guess there's really no surprise here. But the fact of the matter is that ATVs seem to raise the idiot quotient. I've often felt that the sound of an ATV engine was actually the sound of a human's brains being sucked out.

As Tracey Trent with the Idaho department told me, the ATV has taken the idea of motorized hunting to an entirely different level. "Hunters were afoot for thousands of years. Then came the horse and that gave them some advantages. Then came the motor vehicle, and you can include trains in there, and all of the stories of hunters shooting out of trains at the buffalo herds. But the really big quantum leap was when the ATV was invented. It essentially became the motorized horse, a go-anywhere vehicle that could get there in an incredibly fast time."

The issue, of course is fair chase. No longer can the antelope rely on its legs and eyesight to escape danger. If an unethical ATV hunter can see an antelope in open country and race to a far ridge to cut it off and get a shot ten times faster than he could of on foot or horseback, is that an advantage that is fair?

Trent worries about the image that is being presented to the vast majority of the non-hunting public by the use of ATVs, and so do I.

"ATV use is going to harm hunting," Trent told me. "If the general public sees that fair chase is being compromised and in many instances, it is, then they will react and all hunting will be in trouble."

The simple fact is, there's no substitute for physical exercise in earning a right to be afield with an animal such as an antelope. One learns the ways of the land, the ways of the antelope, the rhythms of the natural world. You don't do that from the seat of a motorized vehicle, any motorized vehicle. One needs to shut the motor off in order to find his savage man.

So I’ve talked a bit about some of my concepts of wilderness hunting, of the need to leave as much technology behind as possible, of the need to shut off the motor and start walking. What of this third concept, that of free-ranging native species in native range?

I’m a die-hard chukar partridge hunter. For those of you who don’t know what a chukar is, it’s a little game bird that was imported from the Middle East to this country in the Forties and Fifties. The chukar was especially fruitful in states with a climate similar to its native range in Turkey and Afghanistan. Today’s best chukar hunting exists in the canyons of Nevada, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. They live on public land in some of the roughest, most god-forsaken land on the planet. Some of it is designated wilderness, some of it is not. But by any measurement, chukar hunting is hard physical exercise and cannot be improved much by any addition of technology. On most levels and on the parameters I’ve outlined, chukar hunting in the wilds of Nevada could be considered wilderness hunting. Except, it’s not a native species in its native range. Nor is the Chinese ring-necked pheasant, another game bird that I dearly love to hunt and which I’ll venture some people in this room love to hunt as well. But not a native species on a native range.

This is the hardest to grasp concept of my wilderness hunter, my savage man. It’s a concept that beats deep within the heart and is not as easy to buy off on as the need for minimal technology and physical exercise.

But why isn’t hunting chukar partridge in really rough wild country in the West a wilderness hunt? Because it’s not a native species? That seems kind of silly. And I’ll admit it’s certainly purist, but that’s what this discussion is all about. Pure ethics. Pure wilderness hunting.

For me, it’s a concept that harks back to the days of Roosevelt, Gasset, and then Leopold. Let’s face it. The pheasant and the chukar partridge and a few other species of game were placed on this continent for our sporting pleasure. And, no matter how many generations removed they are from those original releases, they still are feral birds, not wild birds.

But ah, the sharptail grouse. The blue grouse. The ruffed grouse. The greater prairie chicken. The elk. The moose. The whitetail and the mule deer. These are species that were found here from the very beginning. These species have adapted to a country for thousands of years. Pheasants and chukars and other birds have only been here for a hundred or less.

What’s more, our favorite feral birds thrive in a manipulated environment, a countryside that has been changed by man and his work. Pheasants are obviously birds of grain crops and good cover, and their numbers fluctuate in direct correlation to how much of both they obtain. But it’s certainly not native prairie that makes pheasants thrive, but corn and sorghum and sunflowers and wheat. Chukar partridge thrive in areas of the West that have been so badly overgrazed by our livestock or burned by our out of control wildfires, that an exotic weed, cheatgrass, has sprung up in abundance. Ironically, cheatgrass is virtually unpalatable to our livestock and chukar love it. We have lost a chunk of native range the size of Utah and Colorado combined to cheatgrass.

So both of these species of great game birds are not native, nor are they giving the wilderness hunter a wilderness hunting experience. They are providing great sport, and one that I thrive on. But not a wilderness hunt. Here’s Leopold one last time: “Hunts differ in flavor, but the reasons are subtle. The sweetest hunts are stolen. To steal a hunt, either go far into the wilderness where no one has been, or else find some undiscovered place under everybody’s nose.” This is what I’m getting at when I say wilderness hunts need not have the vast country of Roosevelt’s day.

Let me return to the statement I made early on. In order to be a hunter, a true hunter, you need wilderness. And I’ve taken a little bit different spin on the definition of wilderness. Mine is not the definition that guides the 1964 Wilderness Act, but rather a looser definition of what can be a wilderness experience to a modern hunter even in a state that has no designated wilderness. But in order to be a hunter, you need wilderness. And for this wilderness to exist, one needs to shut off the motor, get out of the pickup, grab a day’s worth of provisions, a good straight shooting rifle, and follow the track of the savage man.

Thank you.

About Caitlin Thompson