There is a side to me I don’t share with everyone. It’s certainly nothing I would mention on a first date. I often feel self-conscious about it and worry others will not understand and will judge me harshly based on stereotypes.
I am a hunter.
I can understand people's disdain for hunting. As the environmental writer and activist Edward Abbey once wrote, "Hunting is one of the hardest things even to think about. Such a storm of conflicting emotion!"
I love elk. They are magnificent, mysterious, and powerful animals. I spend all the time I can in elk country around my home in Montana, year-round, hiking, backpacking, snowshoeing, observing and admiring elk. And yet, each year I head into elk country with the intent to kill one. I like to think I'm a vegetarian of sorts, living off the wild grasses, sedges, and forbs that grow near my home. Most of 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.
In an indirect way, I became a hunter because I am gay. From a young age, I found comfort being alone in very remote, wild places. In the wilds, there are no societally created norms, expectations, and judgments — everything is what it is. A grizzly might judge me as a possible threat or feast, but doesn’t care who I love and sleep with. The more time I spent in the wild, the less I wanted to be just a visitor, and the more I wanted to be intimately connected to the wilds. So I pick and eat wild huckleberries. I catch and eat wild trout. I kill and eat wild elk.
I hunt to experience 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 nonnative 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.
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 wild elk. 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 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 and the wild places they roam.
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 matters such as climate change; and the people and society that seem to put 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 wolves and trout to grizzlies and pine martens. My love for wild elk 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 antihunter who hunts. Far too many hunters reveal a disturbing lack of knowledge of or concern for wildlife and wild places and actually promote efforts to erode and degrade our wildlife and last remaining wild places. They are as detached from the wilds 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.
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."