All-terrain vehicles aren’t good or bad in themselves; it’s all about context. When my son was lost for an entire night in the mountains of northeast Oregon, search and rescue volunteers from Union County showed up on their ATVs and set out to bring him home. I was never so glad to see machinery in my life. They helped find him later that morning.
Then there are those other occasions. A few years ago, I was slogging through deep snow near the Malheur River east of Juntura, Ore., in search of chukars -- Eurasian partridges -- when I heard the distinctive growl of ATVs. I looked up to see two of them cresting a hill above me.
I had a bad feeling about their presence in a place with no established trails. My concern was proven justified a few minutes later when I cut across their track. The two machines had simply driven straight uphill from the river, taking advantage of the deep snow to drive on top of sagebrush and bunchgrasses. The weight of the machines crushed the sagebrush, leaving a trail of shattered branches and trunks. Where the snow was shallow, tires had cut through to the soil, gouging it out and spraying it across the snow.
By the time I headed back that evening, the ATVs were gone. They had, for the most part, followed the same track down the hill. At least they hadn’t carved a new track across the virgin desert, but their second trip completed the destruction of the sagebrush, breaking it down so completely that when the snow melted, it would no longer be high enough to prevent ATV travel. Predictably, ATV drivers began using the track regularly, and now it is a deeply rutted scar from which hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds of dirt washes directly toward the Malheur River.
Another time, after I had killed an elk near Enterprise, Ore., and was hiking back to my vehicle to pick up a backpack to begin hauling the meat, I met the rancher who owned the land on which I’d been hunting, and he offered to help bring the animal out -- an offer I quickly accepted. We hauled the elk up to an established trail, loaded it onto his ATV trailer and pulled it back to his house. The rancher and his machine saved me four roundtrip hikes of three miles each. It would have taken me a long, exhausting day.
Last year was a different experience. I was hunting chukars on the Owyhee River down in southeastern Oregon. I came up out of the canyon far from any road and worked along the rim into the wind with my pointer, Sadie. The dog became almost immediately “birdy” and began moving slowly and carefully. Her careful approach didn’t help. A covey of 25 birds flushed almost 100 yards away and bailed off into the canyon. Bad luck, I thought. Two hundred yards later, a second covey of similar size flushed wild, this time nearly 125 yards away. Over the next mile the same thing happened again and again.
Then I found the cause: ATV tracks running along the canyon rim. Hunters using ATVs were busting through the desert, creating their own trails so they didn’t have to walk while they hunted some of the best chukar ground in North America. And it was flat! What incredible laziness! The birds had been harassed into a level of paranoia I’d not seen anywhere else in the state, even where hunter numbers were much higher.
It’s true that most of the habitat damage done by ATVs isn’t caused by hunters, but by a small percentage of recreational riders. Their concept of the outdoors is a warped desire for a place where they can go fast without regard for laws or for anyone else around them. But hunters are far from innocent. Far too many have made the unethical use of ATVs the linchpin of their hunting experience, and instead of confining their driving to established trails as the laws require, they’ve succumbed to the lure of the easy way.
“The hill is too steep, I’ll just make my own trail.” “I’ll just ride along until the dogs point the birds. Then I’ll get out and walk.” In following rationalizations like this, they damage both the game animals they pursue and the land on which wildlife depends.
In their slimy devotion to laziness, these hunters make one thing crystal-clear: The only thing worse than an unethical hunter is an unethical hunter on an ATV. And hunters like that are too stupid to know what they have lost.
Pat Wray is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is an avid hunter and outdoor writer who lives in Corvallis, Oregon.