Lee Metzgar took up hunting as a youngster, as soon as he could handle a rifle. At first he hunted mostly birds; then he moved west to teach ecology at the University of Montana and, as he phrases it, his hunting got serious.
For the next 22 years, stalking in the Rockies, Metzgar bagged deer, elk, antelope, black bear, mountain goat, bighorn, moose, filling his garage with antlers and horns. Yet he began to catch himself in the field during hunting season, "wandering around and not shooting anything and wondering, 'Why am I carrying this rifle?' "
As growth in the region caused his stalking ground to become relatively crowded, he couldn't shut his eyes to what some hunters were doing. "I was forced into contact with more and more unethical hunter behavior - callous, even cruel behavior," Metzgar says. "I saw wanton shooting - people opening up from 400 yards away with semiautomatic weapons, firing large amounts of rounds into herds of deer and elk."
While on the board of the Montana Wildlife Federation, he was shocked that some hunters' organizations opposed the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret. They worried that hunting for varmints such as prairie dogs would be restricted because the ferrets would need varmints as prey.
"It took my breath away," says Metzgar, who lives in Missoula. "These hunters called themselves conservationists and they wouldn't restrict their hunting to accommodate the survival of North America's most endangered mammal."
He says he could no longer ignore "the central moral dilemma."
Five years ago Metzgar quit hunting. He got rid of his collection of antlers and horns. "I've found," he says, "other ways to be spiritually connected to the animal world."
Today, opposition to this or that hunting method comes not only from heavyweights like the Humane Society of the United States - 2.5 million members and contributors - and the Fund for Animals - 200,000 members - but potentially from more than 100 other animal-welfare organizations active in this country, including the Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Feminists for Animal Rights, Jews for Animal Rights, Actors and Others for Animals, and the Coalition for Non-violent Food.
Concerned about "blood and tongues hanging off trucks," university biology students two years ago petitioned the Colorado Wildlife Commission, seeking to prohibit hunters driving around with unconcealed carcasses.
"All you have to do is put your deer or elk in the back of your pickup truck, cover it with an $8 tarp and bungee it down," said Ralph Cinfio, a spokesman for the students, who were the Colorado State University chapter of the Wildlife Society, the professional organization of wildlife biologists. On the other side of the state, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel ran a cautionary headline, "Don't carry your kill as a hood ornament; Public perception of hunters suffers by showoff displays." Conceding there was a problem, state officials decided they didn't need another regulation to enforce, and would instead address it through hunter-education courses and brochures.
So many people have developed an urge to harass hunters, every state has passed some type of law against it. Yet around the West the public has begun to overrule wildlife agencies that primarily serve hunters. The most effective weapon is the grassroots initiative.
Four years ago, California voters banned sport hunting of mountain lions. Two years ago, Colorado voters banned bear-baiting, banned the use of dogs in sport hunting of bears, and banned any type of bear hunting in springtime, when cubs are vulnerable. Last year, Arizona voters banned for-profit trapping on public land, and Oregon voters banned bait and dogs in the sport hunting of lion and bear.
"The successful initiatives have all been in the West, but now you're going to see them spreading east. It's going to be a tool more and more, taking these issues to the general public," says Heidi Prescott, director of the Fund for Animals, which gave money to local activists who pushed the initiatives. Their success, she says, "has terrified the legislatures, politicians and wildlife agencies. It circumvents the power they've always had over wildlife management. The agencies are starting to realize that non-hunters and anti-hunters make up a large part of their constituency and they have to answer to us."
The backlash also scores in court. In 1991, for instance, the Fund for Animals sued Montana and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and stopped the hunting of grizzly bears. Now the group is pressing a suit against the U.S. Forest Service, seeking to ban bear-baiting in all national forests.
That hunting method - using food scraps, even slaughtered horses, to lure bears to stationary hunters - is too "efficient," says Eric Glitzenstein, a Fund For Animals attorney. Bears can't resist bait, it perverts their behavior, and too many fall victim, he says. "There is an impression that hunting in all its forms is environmentally benign, and in this case, the opposite is true."
The suit gets publicity in the debut of a journal that speaks to the times: Animal Law.
At one extreme are the people who want to ban every method of lethal hunting. Some imagine that wild-animal populations will instead be managed by Big-Brotherly birth control: Low-impact "bio-bullets' will be fired into one wild deer after another from the close range of 40 yards, delivering contraceptives. The politically correct bullets will be biodegradable, of course. Already scientists are at work on such methods.
A spokesman for the other extreme, invited to appear last fall at the annual Governors Symposium on North America's Hunting Heritage, is Ted Nugent, a pony-tailed rock-and-roll star and chest-beating bowhunter.
Nugent stages bowhunting parties in the Rockies and his bumpersticker has become a pro-hunting classic: WHACK'EM AND STACK'EM. He insists that the human race stays healthy by doing the "gut-pile boogie." "If Elvis Presley had been a bowhunter," claims Nugent, "he'd probably be alive today."
Everything about hunting seems debatable now. "Is it morally enriching to use animals as mere objects, as game pieces in macho contests where the only goal is to outcompete other hunters?" asks hunter and environmental philosopher Ann S. Causey (see sidebar at left). "We must attack and abolish the unacceptable acts, policies and attitudes within our ranks ... Heel-digging and saber-rattling must give way to increased sensitivity ..."
Judging by the number of licenses issued, hunting in this country peaked in 1982. The sport had increased in popularity almost without interruption up to that year. Since then, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the sport has gone from a peak of 16.7 million licensed hunters to last year's 15.3 million. And for a much longer period, the percentage of the total U.S. population that hunts has been shrinking.
Short supply is not the cause. Herds of most game animals are large enough, and kill-rates remain attractive: More than 300,000 deer were taken last year in the West alone.
Perhaps the decline of hunting has more to do with who we are and where we're headed, as civilized Americans and as a species.
In the course of human evolution, the time when everybody's mutual ape-like ancestors swung to the ground and started walking erect was a crucial transition. Hunting probably had a lot to do with it.
Since then, the popular history of hunting goes like this: Prey animals thrived when everything was a wilderness and the top of the food chain was the aborigine who had a reverence for all forms of life. The abundance supposedly lasted in this country until Native Americans had to give way to other races and nationalities that were not so reverent toward wildlife.
Then came the era of exploitation, profiteering, the repeating rifle, punt gun and mesh net. By the early 1900s there was crisis, with some species of elk and and sheep and birds hunted to extinction, and others, including deer, pronghorn, turkey, buffalo, beaver and wood duck, on the brink.
At that point, hunters got their act together. They pushed for laws that ended the hunting of wildlife for profit; they spurred regulations, licenses and seasons that protected their prey while ensuring a constant supply to be hunted. They created a climate for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling which held that even wildlife on private property is owned by the government - and thus the public. And if a hunter lacked the necessary permit he or she became a poacher.
Hunters, apparently the only people ever to seek a direct tax on themselves, lobbied Congress to pass the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, which since then has added 11 percent to what hunters pay for their gear. The tax goes for habitat improvement and other projects that benefit the desired wildlife. Through the tax, license and permit fees, hunters now shell out more than $700 million a year, which cycles through agencies and goes mostly for habitat projects.
As a result, populations of almost all the hunted species have recovered from the historical lows.
The amount hunters will pay for their sport is awesome. Once a year, Western states auction small numbers of permits for animals such as bighorn sheep and mountain goats. Winning bidders are only guaranteed a chance to hunt, and the proceeds go to habitat projects. This year, somebody paid $233,000 to hunt desert sheep in Arizona; somebody else paid $225,000 to hunt sheep in Canada. The highest bids have come from Jerry Fletcher, who runs a chain of tire stores in Arizona. Fletcher paid nearly $600,000 over the past two years to hunt bighorn sheep in Montana and finally bagged one - a magnificent ram - this season.
Wolves, mountain lions and the other competing predators that are treated as enemies would have a different view of the two-legged hunters, of course. Hunters' conservation measures have almost entirely emphasized game animals.
"So you have a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, but not a Rocky Mountain Bluebird Foundation," says Dan Pletcher, head of the wildlife biology department at the University of Montana.
Yet columnist Thomas McIntyre's claim, in a recent Sports Afield, is familiar: Less than half of Americans now "spend so much as a single day in a year" involved with wildlife in the field, he says, while the average hunter spends 17 days a year in the field, learning the ways of wildlife.
He says that Henry David Thoreau, the pioneer ecologist who held that "in wildness is the preservation of the world," was once a hunter. Among Thoreau's early writings is the opinion that we "cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected."
The image of hunters as conservationists has always suffered an inherent contradiction.
It's apparent within the influential hunter organization, the Boone and Crockett Club, which was conceived during an 1887 dinner party in the New York home of Teddy Roosevelt. Named after the nation's two most folkloric hunters, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, the club has pushed all the major hunter-conservation measures, and its members included not only Roosevelt - who bagged grizzly bears and other big game in his expeditions around the West - but also Aldo Leopold, Gifford Pinchot, George Bird Grinnell, and generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan.
Sheridan, in one example of power, led the U.S. Army to dispatch troops to Yellowstone National Park during the 1880s, to protect the park's herds of elk, pronghorn and bison from outlaw commercial hunters.
The concept of "fair chase" arose from the club's founding statement and by-laws. At first, fair chase meant no taking of cougars or bears by trapping, no taking of any animals that were swimming, and no "crusting" (donning snowshoes to hunt moose that were foundering in deep snow).
Over the years, "fair chase" has been expanded to no pursuing game from motor vehicles, no spotting from airplanes, no use of radio-collar tracking or walkie-talkies, and only limited use of dog packs.
Fair chase is an increasingly difficult concept, since there is even an ethical question in the newest magnum bullet that can travel 500 yards and reliably hit within an 11-inch circle.
Other developments to be pondered include the polyethylene-foam lifesize deer decoy with press-into-place antlers and adjustable ears, the tree perch with aircraft-aluminum frame, the Moonlight night-vision scope, and the Max IV all-terrain vehicle: "Six Wheel Drive and Amphibious! It really floats."
"It will be interesting to see the response to the musk ox story in the Winter '95 issue," Larry C. Munn writes in a letter to the editor of the Boone and Crockett club's magazine, Fair Chase. "My view of the ethics involved will hinge upon (questions such as): Do the hunters shut off the snowmobile engine immediately upon sighting the quarry (which, against the snow background, is visible from miles away) and begin a stalk on foot, or do they drive a little closer? ... Is this at all different than chasing after elk on a snowmobile, which is illegal in most, if not all, states? Is bringing a musk ox to bay with a sled-dog team different than treeing a mountain lion (with a dog pack)? Is treeing a lion different than relying upon the instinct of a quail to set tightly for a pointer?"
An editor's note responded, "As more and more advanced technology becomes available and is applied to sport hunting, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a fair-chase policy which covers every possible unsportsmanlike way of taking a big game animal. ... These ethics are dictated by (the) hunter's conscience."
As the ethical and moral issues of hunting grow murky, the biological ones become clearer.
Hunting pressure by humans, who tend to go after antlered prey - the trophy mentality - skews big-game populations. When the hunting season ends, in many elk and deer herds the ratio of survival is as low as five males to every 100 females. Herds are "managed" to produce as many antlered males as possible, but not many survive beyond three hunting seasons. Bucks and bulls that are fully mature, five to nine years old with mega-antlers, have become relatively scarce.
"It's one of the major issues that I don't think we even begin to understand," says Bill Alldredge, a professor of wildlife biology at Colorado State University.
"We're not harvesting what would have died naturally." He cites an ongoing study in Colorado, in which all the bull elk that hunters have killed in the study area had branching antlers, but none were older than three years.
"We're learning that we (the game managers) can grow antlers faster than we thought. But what have we gained?"
Nobody understands the genetic impact of year after year removing most males just as they begin to mature. Reproduction rates within herds do not seem to be affected, so there hasn't been a lot of attention to such deeper questions.
"The management strategy," says Metzgar, the ecologist and ex-hunter, "is to produce as many moving targets as possible."
It's generally believed that the older animals carry cultural and social information - such as migration routes and wintering spots - that might be slowly lost over the generations that are hunted. "In deer society, if you're not living long enough to see your grandchildren, then the whole social organization gets blown apart," says Allen Rutberg, senior biologist for the Humane Society of the United States.
Also, with the older bulls removed, the younger males breed, where otherwise they would not. "It's possible that inferior males do more of the breeding," Metzgar says.
Cow elk don't like to breed with the younger bulls, so they hold out longer. Research is beginning to show, Alldredge says, "When the subadult males breed, the females tend to give birth later in the spring, and the fawns are younger and weigh less as they go into the next winter. So the fawns have less chance of survival." The effect of having weaker fawns is likely pronounced during bad winters, and might help explain dramatic swings in big-game populations.
"The overall effect, when hunters always take the biggest and best, is degradation of the species," argues Anne Muller, president of the Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting, which is based in upstate New York and claims 10,000 supporters nationwide.
"It's a debate I have with trophy hunters," says Bob Hernbrode, head of the "watchable wildlife" program of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, and an experienced hunter. "To me, the ultimate kill would be a yearling cow elk lying in her bed. It would be better meat (than an older cow or a bull) and I would have hunted well enough to get that close. To me, that's a trophy."
So what's the modern, ethical hunter to do?
Valerius Geist, retired head of the environmental science program at Canada's University of Calgary, says the Scandinavian countries devised one answer. Beginning in the 1960s, in Sweden, Finland and Norway, moose hunters have been offered the unusual choice: Shoot one adult female or two calves.
Before then, the harvest ran 20,000 to 30,000 moose a year, including a large percentage of bulls. Today the harvest runs 150,000 to 170,000 a year, with calves a large percentage. Moreover, Geist says, among the herds of surviving moose, "There are lots of wonderful, big old experienced females and magnificent bulls."
All because people began to hunt like wolves.
"The biologicially correct animal to take is the young of the year," Geist says. "I'm a hunter myself, particularly for whitetail deer, and the fawns are big enough to take by fall. If you have a license to take an antlered deer, most places you can take a fawn.
"Imagine if we all adopted the same strategy. You wouldn't be able to get a buck license, say, until you'd handed in the jaws of 10 fawns. When you went out hunting, you'd see magnificent bucks everywhere, and you'd bring home a fawn, some of the finest eating meat in the world."
Ray Ring writes in Bozeman, Montana.
The following sidebar articles and related essays accompany this feature story: