Last November, I joined Nez Perce tribal biologist Timm Kaminski on one of his difficult "hunter education" trips into the southern Bitterroots on the Idaho-Montana border.
His job: to walk into tents of heavily
armed hunters and tell them about the possibility of wolves showing
up in the woods. He has to ask hunters questions such as: Are you
aware that wolves are protected from hunting under the Endangered
Species Act? And he must fill out a survey while trying to allay
fear and dispel myths. Then, hopefully, Kaminski gets to walk out
of camp rather than run.
But first we needed to
fly over the study area - the Selway/Bitterroot and Frank
Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The weather was questionable,
and as we took off the pilot said we might not be able to find a
I have a phobia about flying, especially
in single-engine planes. Last year, before going into the Alaskan
bush, I counted all the takeoffs and landings - 12 each - then
checked each of them off in my mind as the flight continued, in a
sort of morbid countdown.
I mention my fear that
morning as we swooped along the Bitterroots because it was minor
compared to my fear of having to go into the hunter camps: Kaminski
had already told me stories of being chased out by wolf-hating
My anxiety was compounded by my
stereotype of hunters, made rigid by years of growing up in a
non-hunting household, studying environmental ethics in college,
being a strict vegetarian, and accepting - hook, line and sinker -
the environmental movement's rhetoric.
way I had also somehow let my hair grow long and had my ears
pierced and studded with precious metals. I had mutated into a
liberal - so I was wary of parading myself before elk hunters from
Kaminski and I dropped our gear at the
ranger station and continued on to Paradise, a camping area for
hunters. It looked like a town of canvas tents, just as I imagined
the mining camps of the 1800s, but with the addition of large
pickups and horse trailers. There were two long rows of tents with
a muddy road running down the middle. It was beginning to snow
lightly when we showed up near dark. As we stepped from the
official Nez Perce Tribe's Suburban, we heard laughter above the
creek's gurgling, and smelled horses and wood smoke and
Reluctantly I followed Kaminski down the
muddy street toward a man smoking alone outside one of the tents.
He was looking at the sky, but turned and studied us as we
said as we neared him. "I'm with the Nez Perce Tribe, working with
wolves. I was wondering if I could talk with you for a minute or
Before the hunter could utter a response,
a booming voice erupted from within the
"Sure, we can talk with
you, Mr. Wolf Man. Get your ass on in here."
Kaminski gave me a quick, reassuring look, shrugged his shoulders
as if to say, "Well, here we go, for better or for worse," and
parted the canvas doors to enter.
Inside we were
surrounded by 11 men who fit perfectly my stereotype: each with a
beer in hand, scruffy from 10 days either on horseback or in the
tent, all wearing cowboy hats or baseball caps bearing messages
such as CAT: Diesel Power or Red's Bar and Grill. A long table was
littered with Doritos and beer and bottles of whiskey and decks of
cards, and around the table, serving as a bench, were bales of hay.
The silence was awkward until the leader, or at least the loudest,
pointed at some meat cooking on the stove and said, "I got some
wolf for you boys, cooking right over there."
Everybody laughed, even us, just to break the
"Sit down over here,
Mr. Wolf Man," said X. "I'm going to give you a good ass-chewing."
"Well," answered Kaminski
without flinching, "if you're going to give me an ass-chewing, it
might as well be over a whiskey."
And with that
the ice was broken. We were handed glasses of whiskey and beer and
soon the hunters were gathered in a semicircle around us as the
tribal biologist fielded their questions and spoke to concerns
about fewer elk because of wolf depredation and the shortening of
their hunting seasons.
farm for six months straight, right up until November, then have
two weeks to come out here and get our elk. We've been doing this,
coming to this same place, for 40 years. And we just don't want to
be shut out. How do you think the wolves are going to affect my
children being able to come here just like my grandpa did?" asked
one man in his early 20s.
Many of them had
similar worries. They were spud and beef farmers from Burley,
Idaho, and they considered their hunting camp a sacred place where
boys become men by killing elk. In the tent that night we met three
generations of farmer-hunters.
their questions gracefully, at times relating his own experiences
of growing up on a cattle ranch. As the whiskey began to flow more
freely, we began to spar more openly with them, and by the time
they had served us venison for dinner they were slapping our backs
and saying, "You guys are OK for a couple of goddamn tree-huggers."
At one point in the long evening, well past
sobriety, one of them came up to me, pulled my hat off my head and
said, "Now just what the hell is this thing growing off the back of
your head? You know, you look like the kind of guy that probably
rides a mountain bike."
Yes, I conceded, I did,
and drunk as I was I ripped into him about judging by stereotypes.
We proceeded to talk about stereotypes and how they divide our
communities, making it hard for people to find common ground.
Certainly we weren't very articulate, and yes, it is sad that it
takes three bottles of Jack Daniel's for hippies and rednecks to
communicate. Nevertheless, it worked, at least for that
The next morning we all sat gloomily
around the mess tent, drinking coffee and nursing our headaches.
Some of the tension had returned, and mostly we sat in silence.
Kaminski offered the possibility of taking some of them on a future
flight over the wolf reintroduction area, and some of them took his
It is difficult to explain the impact of
that night on me. I haven't become a carnivore. I still don't hunt.
What has changed might be compared to the feeling I've had while
visiting another country: My tunnel vision collapses and I'm forced
to see the world in a new, sometimes horrifying, sometimes
Now, when I hear the word
"redneck" I cringe. I can't help but feel that we're all born into
a life by chance. Had I been born into a family of Idaho spud
farmers, I'd probably be spitting chew and driving a Chevy. Had one
of the hunters I met been born into my family, with my tree-hugging
father and macrobiotic mother, he'd probably be wearing
Birkenstocks and studying Zen Buddhism. In the end, this somehow
gives me hope: We are all limited by what we've been taught; but we
can learn, too.
I doubt if any of those good old
boys are going to shoot a wolf. I don't know why, but I have a
writes in Missoula, Montana.