It's 4:45 in the morning and I'm the passenger on an all-terrain vehicle going like hell. Except for the mild thrill of defiance - -no passengers," the ATV manufacturer commands - it's difficult to find anything I like about this ride in the dark. ATVs are loud, jarring, and intrusive.
decided, in fairness - and also sloth - to try them several times
this fall while elk hunting. Three other hunters and I were trying
to beat a lifting fog. The thick mist permitted a rare opportunity
to approach a skittish elk herd. We would stalk on foot, but the
ATV, I reasoned, would get us to the edge of our hunt quicker.
It didn't matter. The fog rose, the elk were
gone and I, trying to figure out what constituted ethical use of an
ATV, was none the wiser. It took me the rest of season to sort the
In the end, I saw that using ATVs
as tools for predation - and that includes scouting - turns the
hunt into a harvest.
especially elk hunters, have incorporated new gadgetry into their
bag of tricks. As four-wheel drives, bigger rifles and more
powerful scopes came on the market, hunting magazines ardently
endorsed the stuff. Kill rates soared. Few publications asked the
essential question: At what cost do we raise the individual success
rate for hunters?
Most national forests are
riddled with roads, which make for easier access. Elk have fewer
places to hide. More access equals more kills. In order to keep
viable populations, game biologists mandate a decrease in licenses.
But elk concentrate in shin-bruising, ankle-twisting secure pockets
of timber. Hunters, increasingly on ATVs in pestiferous numbers,
follow their quarry, and elk, pushed out of their secure areas,
move off public land onto private ground.
think only of a single positive contribution made by ATVs to
hunting: fetching the
"I hate these things.
I just hate them," said one guide/rancher as he drove his ATV down
a trail with a cow elk strapped on the back. "But they're a tool
and can be very handy." This dyed-in-the-wool horseman said saving
time is what made him finally buy an ATV. "I can go get a client's
elk and have it hanging in the barn in the time it takes me to rig
up my two packhorses."
Lest you think this
guide is forsaking tradition and ritual for convenience, consider
that outfitters often have six to eight hunters in camp. These men
- and most of them are men - have paid thousands of dollars to be
there. They want their kill treated well.
sort of ethical violation is there in a hunter dragging his animal
to an existing four-wheel drive trail in a non-restricted area and
fetching it whole, not quartered, on an ATV? It saves the hide,
which is often disregarded entirely when quartering an elk.
And, it saves time. Given that most guides
arise at around 4 a.m., two hours saved in retrieving an animal
means two hours more sleep. Don't accuse me of whining until you
try it. Sleep deprivation is OK for a few days, but after two weeks
of it, when you're trying to stalk and maintain composure, glassing
hillsides until your eyes burn, in the company of enthusiastic,
inexperienced hunters packing large rifles - well, sleep gains
Still, I don't like ATVs, and the real
reason is simple: "Harvesting" will never replace hunting for
If I'd been astride an ATV, I would never
have had the experience of being caught in the middle of an elk
herd. It happened while I was walking back from an unsuccessful
hunt, the wind in my face. The darkness around us began producing
shadows with legs. Then came mews and cow calls: the high-frequency
lyric of elk talk. My partner and I lay down on a hummock and soon
elk were on both sides of us. Two cows, not 30 yards away, barked
at us like a pair of suspicious rottweilers.
Ultimately, keeping on foot keeps the land in proportion. ATVs, as
one Montana hunter said, "make the country small."
Sam Western lives and
writes in Big Horn, Montana.