Last fall I traveled to my annual caribou-hunting grounds in the central Alaskan Arctic. I took the trip in mid-October, though I usually like to go about six weeks earlier, when air temperatures climb into the fifties and sixties during the day and then drop toward freezing at night. That makes for perfect hunting weather: It’s warm enough for biting insects, which annoy the caribou and keep them moving and visible, but cold enough to prevent large quarters of meat from spoiling (so long as they’re kept dry beneath a tarp and propped up on a bed of willows for air flow). As I found out, though, mid-October is a whole other story.

A landscape that I generally think of as pleasant and mild had become hostile and ruthless. Rivers I’m accustomed to traveling by canoe were completely frozen over. Ice fogs hung in the air for days on end, making it impossible to see more than 40 or 50 yards. Firewood in the treeless tundra was hard to come by, and every night my two buddies and I lay shivering in our sleeping bags while we waited for sunlight that became more scant every day. A trip that might have lasted just a long weekend—enough time to kill and butcher five or six bulls, under good conditions—stretched into its tenth day. By then our food was about gone. We ate the couple of mouse-gnawed packages of ramen noodles we’d found near an abandoned winter camp, and we were down to a quarter block of cheese and a few ptarmigan—quail-size birds you can eat like popcorn without ever getting full—that we’d shot. When the sky finally cleared one morning and I saw a herd of caribou coming at us over the horizon, it was like that rush you get when your most intimate loved one steps out of the airport terminal after a long, faraway trip. The animals came off a snowy bluff and plunged toward the frozen river, steam rising off their bodies, and I felt with crystalline clarity the answer to a question I often ponder: Why hunt?

I’ve been pursuing big game for 22 years and small game for four or five years longer than that, and hardly a month has gone by when I haven’t asked myself that elusive question. I’ve come up with a lot of different answers over the years, but at the core of each lies a deep reverence for nature and a simple appreciation for wild foods. Not only do I like knowing where my food comes from, I also like understanding the minute, practical details of how it’s transformed from animal life into human sustenance. I like the way my hunting lifestyle has guided me to the wildest places in America, where I have spent weeks and months living by ancient practices that have sustained mankind for tens of thousands of years. I like knowing how to render the fat of a black bear over a fire; how to extract the nourishing marrow from an elk’s femur; and how to predict where a pheasant will flush from a patch of wild rose. I like knowing how to call a squirrel out of its hiding place in the upper reaches of a beech tree; how to kill a spruce grouse with a rock; how to preserve meat with smoke; and how to keep a grizzly bear away from a fresh kill. I like the way hunting has guided my two brothers, Matt and Danny, into their professions—not surprisingly, their appreciation for wild game became an appreciation for wilderness, which in turn led to their work as ecologists. Now their job is to scientifically justify and defend the protection of our remaining wild places.

I meditate on these things so often, I suppose, because I don’t find much commonality between myself and the folks who all too often represent hunters in the popular mind. In fact, there seems to be a pervasive disconnect. I think of a buddy of mine who recently worked for an outfitter, guiding trophy moose hunters in western Alaska. Explaining that his clients generally aren’t interested in eating the animals they kill, the outfitter told my friend to remove the meat from only the upward-facing side of the skinned carcasses to trick game wardens flying overhead into thinking the animal was properly butchered. And then there are other, more public instances of dubious hunting, such as the two famous Hogzilla cases—the first from Georgia, in 2004, and the second from Alabama, in 2006. These alleged thousand-plus-pound, man-killing boars reportedly terrorized the American South until two bold hunters gunned them down in what was spun as self-defense. The hogs and the gunmen became Internet sensations—at least until it was revealed that both Hogzillas were actually corn-fattened pets being masqueraded as wild animals for the sake of a joke and a little notoriety. Far from being funny, though, the spectacles only managed to highlight the brash hucksterism of a handful of wannabe hunters who have unwittingly succeeded in taking the rest of us down a peg or two in the nation’s eyes.

Hijacking hunting for politics

I wish I could say that hunting’s controversial reputation is the result of just a few dimwitted trophy guides and bloggers who embarrass the majority of legitimate hunters. But in fact, the problem has much more calculated and malicious sources that run deep into American politics. That is, a number of high-profile individuals and organizations have intentionally and systematically hijacked hunting in order to use its ancient moral legitimacy as a shield to protect and justify less honorable practices. The two examples that most readily come to mind are canned hunting and assault rifles.

Basically, canned hunting is the shooting of animals confined within fenced areas. These enclosures, often known as game farms, are sometimes no bigger than a hundred or so acres. There are more than 1,000 such establishments in 28 states; patrons pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to buy the animals from the game farms and then “hunt” them inside the fence. In some cases, the quarry of these hunters is delivered by trailer just a day or two before the hunt, which means the animals go from handled livestock to hunting trophy in a matter of hours. Besides the obvious ethical concerns they present, canned hunting operations routinely cause pathogen outbreaks to spread from domesticated animals into the wild, free-ranging herds that many fair-chase hunters rely on for sport and food. Yet, in almost every instance where canned hunts are threatened by hostile state legislation, lobbyists portray the battle as an attack on “the heritage of hunting” rather than an attack on the dubious, irresponsible actions of people looking for a quick buck (pun intended). This ploy sometimes works, but fortunately, there’s a limit to its effectiveness. In 2000, the state of Montana, which has the highest per capita rate of hunters in the country, overwhelmingly passed a state referendum banning the licensing of any new canned-hunting operations.

What kind of person participates in canned hunts? Vice President Dick Cheney is easily the nation’s most notorious and recognizable example. In 2003, he and some associates killed 417 out of 500 ring-necked pheasants, in addition to an unknown number of mallard ducks, that had been raised in pens and released from nets on a Pennsylvania game farm. The establishment’s gamekeeper estimated that Cheney personally killed 70 birds, or about 35 times as many as the average bag limit for your typical hunter of wild pheasants. Cheney’s ventures are usually billed in press releases as hunting trips, so it’s hardly surprising that during the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, many hunters posted Sportsmen for Bush bumper stickers on their trucks. Then, as the Bush Administration worked to dismantle the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, tried to strip away protections for roadless wilderness areas where wild birds live, and attempted to gut the Endangered Species Act, those same misguided Sportsmen for Bush folks took solace in the idea that Cheney would help them by putting a public face on hunting.

Gun-control issues present another factor of hunter manipulation. Hard-line pro-gun organizations routinely target hunters during fundraising drives. These groups attempt to radicalize any and all gun owners with notions about how the government will turn against hunting guns just as soon as they ban assault weapons or automatic pistols. This type of rhetoric engenders a false impression that the most immediate threat to hunting isn’t habitat loss, declining biodiversity, or environmental degradation, but rather a loss of guns. So people who hunt to connect with the natural world or to procure a healthy, sustainable source of food, have been persuaded for decades into financing the legal defense of a type of weapon they’ll probably never own. What adds to the irony is that assault weapons are perfectly impractical for most hunting. In fact, they’ve been effectively banned from use in hunting even in states where their possession is still allowed. (Regulations for hunting weapons are distinct from general gun ownership laws and are set on a state-by-state basis by local wildlife agencies. It should be noted that reverberations from the recent Supreme Court decision that overruled an overarching handgun ban in Washington, DC, will have no impact on the guns allowed for legal hunting. )

I have nothing but respect for critics of hunting who are categorically opposed to the killing of animals. But for anyone who does eat meat, or who accepts the inevitability of animals dying at the hands of humans, it’s important to realize that the motivations and spiritual mindframe behind our actions are as important as our methods. Hunting with traditional weapons and pursuing wild, free-range animals does more than just enhance our skill. It also delivers the hunter into intimate communion with wilderness. It’s a relationship that requires quiet observation of and concentration on nature, plus an ability to endure moments of intense physical exertion between hours of utter exhaustion and boredom. For those of us who dare to venture in search of our own food, these experiences engender a deep love for the natural world.

Keeping the debate honest

In any debate among hunters, whether it hinges on guns or ethics, you’re bound to hear someone talk about the need to preserve hunting. Many believe that a wide-reaching coalition of all hunters and gun-owners would be the most effective way to do it. That the coalition would be corrupted and abused by unethical practices doesn’t seem to concern them that much. They’d simply rather accept hunting’s negative reputation as the inevitable cost of preserving the practice. In an op-ed I wrote for The New York Times, I suggested that it’s counterproductive for hunters to purposefully antagonize nonhunters by flaunting assault-style weapons, shooting exotic fenced animals, and publicly throwing around Ted Nugent-esque slogans such as “Whack ’em and stack ’em.” After it ran, I received a dozen or so e-mails from seriously pissed-off hunters. They informed me that I was aiding and abetting the enemy (antihunters) by suggesting that hunters should modify their behavior in some way to appease the public. There’s security in numbers, one guy explained to me, so we should offer carte blanche acceptance to anything that anyone does in the name of guns or hunting. Furthermore, this guy said, he doesn’t care if a person hunts with a spear or a bow or a machine gun, he’ll stand behind him. He closed by saying that I was a couple orders of magnitude worse than an antihunter. I was so flummoxed by the irony of having my credentials and motivations attacked by a guy who admitted to hunting inside what he described as “high-fence ranches” that I couldn’t mount an effective rebuttal.

It’s in moments like these that legitimate hunters need to have the necessary courage to reflect on ourselves and our lifestyles with a bit more self-consciousness and honesty. And we need to be vocal. This has the potential to be painful and divisive, for sure, because it demands that hunters be willing to turn their backs on some of those once thought to be allies. But there’s a lot to gain from drawing a clearer set of divisions, a set the public can evaluate and make educated decisions about. Just consider the case of farming, a subject that is perhaps even more complex and contentious than hunting. Rather than taking refuge beneath an umbrella that condones any and all agricultural practices, progressive food producers have awakened the food debate by promoting organic, locally produced, and sustainable farming practices over genetic modification, industrial slaughterhouses, and the consolidation of small farms into giant, faceless corporations. By doing so, the localism movement divided the agricultural community and created a clear division between what is right and wrong with our food. Has the push for local food suffered from this division? Of course not. Do the biggest, most egregious agribusiness conglomerates wish that it would go away? Sure they do. Will it? Nope.

In the long run of human history, hunting predates agriculture by umpteen thousand years. Hunters are the original locavores, no doubt about it, so we needn’t feel bad about borrowing from the locavore playbook. By coming out more clearly against practices and stances that are bogus and ill-conceived, we can go far beyond simple negativism. We can destroy the public’s one-dimensional image of hunters, which too often gets usurped by the wrong people. And we can replace that narrow view with a broader public understanding of what it means to be a true hunter: Hunting opens a direct line of communication between man and nature, it reconnects us with forgotten practices and distinctly local foods, and it offers perhaps our greatest direct incentive to promote the sustainable conservation of our remaining wild places and wild animals. If hunters learn to accentuate those issues and distance themselves from others, we can easily offset the influence of a few Hogzilla scams and some unscrupulous trophy guides. And we’ll still have energy to take on the special interests and unsavory practices that cloud our moral clarity in the name of a bogus solidarity. Let those people go find their own history and their own terminologies, and see if they’ve got legs to stand on. My feeling is that they don’t.

Story by Steven Rinella. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Big game hunting in America
Are big game hunting and environmentalism compatible? This huntsman says yes.