What’s worse than an unethical hunter?


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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Oct 25, 2007 06:36 PM

Amen!!!  I too have had outdoor experiences ruined by illegal off-roaders.  It is an absolute epidemic in southern California and southern Utah.  The public land management agencies need huge increases in their enforcement budgets to combat this.

Oct 26, 2007 12:15 PM


Good points and observations!!

Even though I totally disagree with the previous comment on additional increases in budgets (read that as little more than additional taxes to pay for it) I also understand that as our govt has grown ever larger so has so many other problems as well. Basically throwing taxpayer dollars at any problem doesnt fix it, and even seems to escalate the problem.

Land use is a tough topic today and many times a heated one. Its also a nationwide issue as well, but there does seem to be some answers that allow everyone to enjoy their desired activities with as limted amounts of problems, damage or confrontation as possible.

I know many have become tired of hearing it, but education combined with planning and well thought ideas on management etc seem to have the best results across the country. Its not an easy thing keeping everyone happy (many times not even possible) but with some effort all concerned can benefit.

First issue that it seems is missed so often is the "stupid effect" and thats about how many people are just not understanding how their actions effect others. It could be a rider who just didnt know any better, or a hunter being lazy etc but I know from experience when you put the correct info right there in front of them they rarely realize what was actually happening, and most would not be acting how they did if they had known previous.

There is also another problem directly related to offroad vehicles of any kind (dirt bikes, atv, 4x4 trucks etc) in that though their owners have a right to enjoy their chosen hobby etc the knowledge of where to or where not to ride them, and the fact that many areas dont have large enough areas to address the actual ownership numbers only contributes to the problems like you have described.

I know from personal discussions that the majority of off roaders etc not only enjoy the natural lands they encounter but that just about all of them would prefer to protect it, and would gladly use a designated trail system or take the route of least damage etc.

Of course there will be problems with the same types the police tend to be kept busy with on traffic and other violations, but I am discussing the typical adult or respectful adolescent etc., and not the rebel or bad apple.

Actaully you may not know it but your lucky in that you see as little problems as you do since the more populated areas of the country have even more problems from increases in numbers, and additional uses not yet discussed here.

Especially in some of the more densely populated states (DE, NJ, NY, CT ETC) the problems and amounts of them are greatly incresed. One thing that seems to be for sure is that the more trees you plant the more bad apples you tend to find, and therefore there is a even greater need for level heads, planning and education.

Its also apparant that the non offroader offenders increase as well, and in the more regulated states with the least planning they seem to have the biggest problems as well.

So consider working with the various hunting, riding, and other groups in your area to educate them the right way, and put a honest effort into finding solutions. It will absolutely benefit all in the long run.

Lastly just in case anyone was curious I actually participate in all the activities mentioned, and have worked with groups on most sides of this at one time or another. Its not easy fighting to keep natural lands natural and undeveloped one day, and then to be working on creating riding or public access areas another, but if level heads dont prevail I fear the only real loser is nature.

Jun 09, 2008 12:35 PM

Relax.  Take a deep breath.  These riders are in the minority.  You sound like an anti who hates all hunters because he found an eagle that had been shot!  Don't create infighting!