Friday, January 4, 2008

Shoot a wolf, save an elk?


As I write, I hope the words will come that can describe the here and now, this moment in time, the journey and life's lessons that have brought me to this day. There are questions in my mind that make me wonder if I have done all that I can, or am doing all that I can to stand up for my beliefs and the love I have for the wild places and the creatures within it.

As a hunter, I am saddened at times by the actions of those that may call themselves hunters. Hunting is a desire, a calling, almost an instinct, that I know all too well. But some have forgotten that it's more than the hunt itself. It is life beyond the hunt: the before, the after, the knowledge, respect and intimacy of the game pursued. I may share these hunts with friends, relatives and even the other predators of the wild such as the wolf, mountain lion and the bear. Are they my enemy, my competition? Some may think so, and that is what troubles me. They are the kind of hunters who believe that they are superior to the other predators they share the forest with. I see greed and hatred in the eyes of many of them: Those who feel the wolf is solely to blame for their own inability to locate game in the same areas of years past, and people who pass on stories or theories to friends of how the wolf is wiping out elk and deer herds. These are statements that have no base in fact, but are mostly brought on by fear and lack of understanding. These are the same hunters who pursue their game not by foot, but by plane, truck, ATV, with radios, motion cameras and other gadgets. Sometimes the game is shot from several hundred yards away with a rifle, often leading to the shooting of unintended game such as their own hunting partner or painfully wounding the animal instead of killing it instantly. Where is the connection, the feeling of sportsmanship or the lure of the hunt? It's all but gone.

I am well aware that there is much more to the equation here. These issues are political and personal. There are ranchers, sheepherders, outfitters and even the general public that have their own set of issues with predators and wildlife. I grew up in a logging and ranching community where hunting was a way of life. I've seen everything from bear baiting to hound hunts. I've been in an armed standoff over a trophy buck, witnessed numerous shots at deer from over 600 yards, watched coyotes and foxes get run down by snowmobiles and witnessed many other senseless killings of wildlife. I've lived through the spotted owl uproar and felt the rage it created in people. This is the same rage I see manifesting over the wolf. People blamed the spotted owl for the loss of jobs and saw it as a threat to their very way of life, much like hunters and ranchers are pointing the finger and blaming the wolf now. Obviously, and unfortunately, neither the spotted owl nor the wolf has had a say in their positions. They are just living the only way they know how and still end up being held accountable.

My beliefs are the same now as they were many years ago. I will not kill a predator because it makes my pursuit of wild game more difficult, especially if it is causing me no physical harm. I only hunt what I am willing to eat. For the sake of its own livelihood, the wolf usually pursues the weak and old. This is unlike the majority of hunters who take the healthy trophy bucks and bulls, only weakening the herd. In all my years of hunting, I have never killed a wolf, mountain lion, bear or even a coyote.

However, I do have an easier time understanding the ranchers' point of view. I can sympathize with them. They are trying to protect their livestock. Still, there are non-lethal ways to deal with wolves killing livestock, whether it's using electric fences, dogs or rubber bullets. There are always risks with living and ranching so closely to wild animals, and I'm sure most of them are aware of it. If livestock is lost, ranchers are fully compensated. The biggest problem here is the encroachment on wildlife habitat and wintering grounds. Animals have nowhere to go. They do not interact with us by choice but are forced to live closely with us because of the loss of wide-open spaces.

We humans have created our own dilemmas: whether they be animal encounters or global warming. Nothing is perfect and it never will be. All we can do is to try and correct the problems we have created. It is up to each one of us to do our part and make it right. Killing is not the answer. For example, the mass killing of wolves, buffalo and even the American Indian was how people dealt with these issues. Even today, if something is in the way, we eliminate it by lethal means or capture it and ship the problem elsewhere. What have we learned?

I know there are more people who feel the way I do. It's not easy to stand up for what is right. I am not afraid of the challenge or afraid of failure. If I do or say nothing I have already failed. I preach as if I am perfect, but I am guilty of many things. I too have made choices that I am not proud of. Those are in the past, and I cannot change them. I have to focus on the here and now. I have learned from my mistakes. I hunted with a rifle for many years and always felt guilty about killing. The rifle was all I knew because it was what I was taught. I didn't argue or question it for fear that I might be thought of as an outcast by other hunters or my friends and family. Over the years, I have created my own set of ethics and beliefs. I do not own a gun. I hunt with a traditional bow and arrow. I shoot instinctively. I use my senses more than ever: looking, listening, smelling, tasting and feeling all that surrounds me in a wilderness that has been a large part of my life for so long. I feel. I am a better person because of it. Before the hunt, during the hunt and after the hunt, I always remember that it's the journey, not the destination.

In a world of chaos and disconnection, I can only hope that I will still hear the howl of a pack of wolves when I go hunting or camping. For without the wolf, the wild in wilderness will forever be lost. I am a hunter and an activist. It's in my blood and I'm grateful to be a part of it, and it of me.


Gary Tickner is a Ketchum resident.

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