Hunters close ranks, and minds
"To continually brand all criticism as anti-hunting rhetoric and all critics as anti-hunters only serves to paint us into an ever smaller corner," wrote ardent hunter and Colorado bear biologist Tom Beck in a commentary on hunting black bears over bait. The piece, titled "A Failure of the Spirit," was adapted for the September 1996 issue of Outdoor Life from a pre-publication copy of A Hunter's Heart, a collection of essays compiled and edited by David Petersen. "How fulfilling is it to shoot a bear with its head in a barrel of jelly-filled doughnuts?" read Outdoor Life's subhead.
Having once had the job of translating into people-talk what fish and wildlife biologists write, I was flabbergasted by Beck's piece. It was not at all the sort of thing I'd come to expect from his profession. It sang. The prose was eloquent and lean, the arguments clear and compelling.
I'll even take some of the credit for steering the piece to a wider readership, since I had tipped off Petersen that huge changes were under way at the 99-year-old magazine.
Out was the old editorial regime, which had seen an "anti-hunter" behind every glacial erratic, which believed that there were certain facts that Outdoor Life's 1.3 million subscribers shouldn't know, and for which "conservation" meant tooting around the nation in a 29-foot gas-guzzling "Pledgemobile" entreating the unenlightened and, of course, unsubscribed masses to mouth an ancient mantra called the "Outdoor Life Conservation Pledge."
In were editor-in-chief Stephen Byers and executive editors Will Bourne and Bob Brown, smart, tough journalists who understood the real threats to fish and wildlife, who wanted to teach sportsmen how to help themselves, who were committed to challenging readers to thought and action even if it meant making them mad.
"You don't lose readers by pissing them off," Byers told me. "You lose readers by boring them."
If you are now rummaging through the September 1996 Outdoor Life for "A Failure of the Spirit," you'll not find it. The essay was pulled by a bureaucrat at Times Mirror Magazines, publisher of Outdoor Life, on July 24 at virtually the last possible instant. According to The New York Times, the bureaucrat was senior vice president Jason Klein, but Mr. Klein declined to speak with the The New York Times reporter, and Outdoor Life's publisher, Michael Rooney, referred all calls to Mr. Klein.
Times Mirror had been frightened into its decision by the Ohio-based Wildlife Legislative Fund of America, a group claiming to defend hunting and wildlife management. The Wildlife Legislative Fund had accused Beck of revealing facts sportsmen shouldn't know and expressing opinions sportsmen shouldn't hear. And it had prognosticated that his comments on bear baiting would be useful to the vile and ubiquitous "antis." It told sportsmen to complain to Outdoor Life.
Sportsmen responded as if they had been invaded by body snatchers, deluging Byers with faxes, letters and e-mail messages, all of which he showed to his superiors. "I thought sitting on them would be deceptive," he says.
So Byers and Bourne resigned from Outdoor Life, protesting Times Mirror's beta-wolf tradition of licking the muzzles of paranoid readers, then rolling on its back and urinating on itself (HCN, 10/28/96). I was refreshed to see outdoor editors with integrity. They reminded me that hook-and-bullet journalism doesn't have to be an oxymoron.
Of course, the Wildlife Legislative Fund had never read what Tom Beck had to say. But Beck, a hunter and a professional wildlife manager in Colorado, was known to harbor incorrect and seditious ideas.
For example, he had dared to question the moribund sport of garbaging for bears, arguing that there can't be much thrill of the chase if there is no chase. He had suggested that the sport itself - not criticism of it - is fodder for the antis who are forever holding it up as an example of all hunting. He had revealed that spring baiting results in orphaned cubs. And he had opined that baiting at any time of year trains bears to lose their wildness and self-sufficiency, transmuting them into trash-can-bashing, beehive-smashing vagabonds.
In Beck's own censored words for Outdoor Life: "I firmly believe that baiting creates "nuisance" bears. Black bears are naturally wary, instinctively avoiding close contact with humans. But large amounts of tasty food, easily obtained, defeats this wariness. By baiting, we create lazy bears who have been rewarded, not punished, for overcoming their fear of humans."
According to the Wildlife Legislative Fund, Beck had helped poison the minds of his fellow Coloradans, who in 1992 voted three-to-one to ban bear baiting. Then he had expressed his dangerous opinions in Idaho, where 45 percent of all bear hunters oppose baiting. Clearly, argued the fund's directors in Ohio, he needed to be silenced.
I would have appreciated Beck's essay even if I'd disagreed with it. The value of such writing is that it gets sportsmen thinking and exchanging ideas, something Outdoor Life readers hadn't done a whole lot of before the new editors took over.
The late Canadian angling author Roderick Haig-Brown's critique of the mass-circulation hook-and-bullet press is, if anything, more applicable today than when he wrote it a generation ago: "Its faults are timidity and conformity. It dare not shock or extend its readers, it must not frighten them with abstract or deeply considered ideas, it must somehow catch and hold even the dullest mentality - or risk a reduction of the advertising rates. With so much at stake (articles) are mainly staff written or else edited into inoffensive inanity."
Equally applicable are Aldo Leopold's words, older still: "The sportsman has no leaders to tell him what is wrong. The sporting press no longer represents sport; it has turned billboard for the gadgeteer."
Even in 1981, when Gray's Sporting Journal sent me to Maine to observe one of the last hunts in the state's last spring bear season, there was no clear consensus among sportsmen about garbaging for bears. Hunters were united only in the strength of their opinions, most saying, "Hell, yes!" and "Hell, no!" A reader poll by The Maine Sportsman, the state's leading hunting-and-fishing publication, had just revealed that 52 percent of the respondents opposed bear baiting in spring or fall.
Back then managers liked baiting lots more than they do today and lots more than hunters ever did. The "concluding comments' of participants of a bear-management conference at Kalispell, Mont., read as follows: "Because bear habitat is thick woods, cedar swamps, etc., and the black bear is elusive, bait hunting is a necessary harvest method. Without this method in remote areas, successful hunting would be very difficult."
Imagine how that line of reasoning would have set with the late dean of Atlantic salmon angling, Lee Wulff, who, in pursuing the most challenging of all game fish, purposely handicapped himself by using tiny dry flies and wispy trout rods: "Because Atlantic salmon habitat is thick woods, cold, wild, hard-to-get-to rivers, etc., and the Atlantic salmon is elusive and apt to shun flies, spearing it is a necessary harvest method. Without this method in remote areas, successful fishing would be very difficult."
So that I would not be accused of unfairness, I sought out the bear-baiting outfitter with the best reputation - Jack Hegarty of Jackman, Maine, a gentleman and a conservationist. During his gun-safety pep talk to his clients, Hegarty produced a huge pair of skivvies with a hole in the exact center of a skillet-sized circle of dried blood. The hole had been excavated the previous year when the former owner of the skivvies had accidentally discharged his holstered .45 automatic.
When Hegarty found him, he was standing wide-eyed in the road, swaying. "I think," declared the hunter, "that I have shot myself."
Hegarty asked for and was granted permission to have a look. "He had a fat ass," mused Hegarty, superfluously. "And I grabbed one of the cheeks and pulled it up, and I said, "Hey, you did shoot yourself! ' 'The bullet hadn't hit anything important.
So Hegarty got a doctor to sew up the new hole in the guy's gluteus maximus, and he was back watching garbage the next morning.
For five hours and 16 minutes I watched garbage with an 18-year-old hunter I'll call George, from Paeonian Springs, Va. Besides 500,000 black flies, the only wildlife I saw was a red squirrel. George, who only heard it, thought it was "a bear for sure." George had saved his money for this dream hunting trip, and all he got to see of the storied north woods was one acre around an onion sack full of rotten meat hanging from a tree 80 feet from a dirt road.
According to the Wildlife Legislative Fund, this is hunting, and anyone who says different is abetting the antis and needs to have a sock jammed in his mouth.
What astonished me about the Outdoor Life fiasco was not the demagoguery of a group that purports to speak for hunters, but sportsmen's reaction to it. They made cyberspace resonate with outrage, disgust and amazement, as if this were somehow aberrant behavior. It wasn't. The Wildlife Legislative Fund does this sort of thing all the time. When New Mexico banned spring bear hunting four years ago, the fund spewed shrill action alerts, warning that "the antis were successful in their efforts to influence the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to drastically curtail bear hunting" and that "the antis are busy doing what they are good at - knocking down the wall, one brick at a time."
Not a word was true. Still, it generated an Outdoor Life piece in which hunting editor Jim Zumbo warned readers that states are abolishing bear-hunting opportunities "under unremitting pressure from animal-rights organizations."
There was "unremitting pressure" all right, but it was coming from enlightened wildlife professionals worried about the resource. As Bill Montoya, then director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, wrote the fund: "(Your) article is a great disservice to the sportsmen of our state and to all of your readers ... We have strong indications that hunters were removing bears faster than bears were being recruited into the population as yearlings. That cannot be allowed and our concern is not new ... Some individual hunters opposed the changes, but sportsmen as a group understood the need and recognized the necessity for reduction in bear harvest ...
"Significantly, during the entire months-long route the recommendations took through these hearings, none of your imaginary "antis' were present or heard from ... Your article, however, has done more for the cause of the "antis' than any adjustments we could have made to the bear season. Without their saying a word or lifting a finger, you have given them complete credit for eliminating a season when in fact they were not involved ... We have observed the groups you purport to oppose using demagoguery to increase membership and raise funds, but are very disappointed that the fund apparently is using the same tactics of paranoid disinformation."
Montoya's admonition produced no change in behavior. When Mollie Beattie, the late director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, settled a lawsuit brought by the National Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society and other environmental groups by signing an agreement to end such incompatible activities on national wildlife refuges as jetskiing and waterskiing, the fund told sportsmen to send it money so it could stop her from also banning hunting and fishing.
Like corpses in Night of the Living Dead, sportsmen, including many of my fellow outdoor writers, marched to their checkbooks and word processors. This, despite the fact that hunting and fishing weren't even mentioned in the suit, and no one at the Fish and Wildlife Service had ever dreamed of banning these legitimate, compatible uses.
Playing Howdy Doody to the fund's Buffalo Bob, Vin Sparano (Byers' predecessor at Outdoor Life) editorialized that Beattie's refuge stewardship "puts hunting, fishing and trapping in danger on 100 million acres' but that "all is not lost" because groups like the fund are pressuring the Fish and Wildlife Service "to continue hunting and fishing programs within the National Wildlife Refuge System."
When Mollie Beattie opened 15 additional hunting programs and six additional fishing programs - something she had planned to do all along - the fund bragged that it had "bloodied" the service and had "forced it to shelve its plans to restrict hunting on the national wildlife refuges."
Outdoor writers by the drove interviewed the pooh-bahs of the Wildlife Legislative Fund. I asked Refuge Division chief Rob Shallenberger - the person in charge of America's 510 national wildlife refuges - how many outdoor writers had talked to him.
"I would say less than half a dozen," he told me. "And I had to do some of that on my own. I used to write articles for outdoor magazines, and I have a lot of friends in that community. And I frankly was disappointed in the rapidity with which outdoor writers sucked up all the material they got. They didn't ask for clarification or comment. Some of that stuff that got printed was almost inexcusable. A lot of us were personally affronted by that. Wait, folks, at least give us the courtesy of a phone call."
Even if the fund's supporters don't have a problem with the organization trying to shut up an honest journalist, they ought to have a problem with it wasting their money on a fool's errand. At least since the time of Socrates, the attempted silencing of presumed heretics has only amplified their voices. So it has been with Tom Beck. People who never even thought about bear baiting - readers of The New York Times and High Country News, for example - are now tuned in.
Meanwhile, I have not quite given up on Outdoor Life. Fortunately, Bob Brown remains on the staff, and he prevailed on Times Mirror to let him publish Beck's essay in the November 1996 issue. With it appeared an opposing view by Craig McLaughlin, a respected bear biologist from Maine with credentials almost identical to Beck's and who had neither seen A Hunter's Heart (now in print) nor been shown Beck's Outdoor Life piece. It's not that Times Mirror found courage; it's just that the bad press frightened it even more than the gas and wind from the fund.
The incident has even helped forge a policy statement by the American Society of Magazine Editors, stipulating that editors "need the maximum possible protection from untoward commercial or other extra-journalistic pressures' and that when they are pushed around by outside interests the society's board will investigate and possibly suspend the publication from the National Magazine Awards.
So, for all the wrong reasons, Times Mirror finally made the right decision. At least on one issue, the result will be dialogue, an exchange of ideas, a challenge to thought and action. Maybe it will be the start of something new.
Ted Williams, a hunter and former information and education specialist for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, has been writing on environmental issues for 27 years. A longer version of this essay is available online at Joe Reynolds' Outdoors Network magazine, http://www.outdoors.net.