It started over the long Labor Day weekend and went on from dawn to dusk -- the constant report of gunfire echoing against the Organ Mountains here in southern New Mexico. Another dove-hunting season had descended upon us, and all lovers of wildlife could do was wait for it to end while so-called hunters blasted into smithereens as many birds as their permits allowed --15 per day, 30 in possession at any one time. As I listened to the barrage of gunshots, I must admit I wondered about the mental stability of those shooters.
I know that many responsible hunters exist. Members of my father’s family, who live in upstate New York, were avid deer hunters. They owned a hunting cabin in the Adirondack Mountains, and trophy heads featuring huge antler racks were proudly displayed on the walls. But they also utilized everything they could from those kills, making hundreds of pounds of venison steaks and roasts, and, according to the stories, using the intestines to make sausage.
I’ve been a hunter, but never that kind of devoted hunter. It only took one incident to convince me I was not a killer for sport. I was a teenager when I shot a cottontail in the woods of northeastern Ohio, but when I went to pick up the dead rabbit, it was gone. The wounded animal had dragged its bloody body into a dense thicket where I couldn’t reach it. Although I’d never intended to skin the rabbit to bring it home for dinner, the idea of leaving an animal to suffer and die in the underbrush made me feel sick. I decided then that if I wasn’t going to kill for food, I couldn’t be a hunter.
The naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch once said, ”When a man wantonly destroys one of the works of man we call him vandal. When he wantonly destroys one of the works of God we call him sportsman.” I may not be that radical in my assessment of hunters, but I’ve begun to think that hunting doves brings out the worst in people.
A few days after the season began, my dog and I went for a hike in the desert behind a mountain outside of Las Cruces. The first thing I saw was what looked like a tornado of turkey vultures – 15 or 20 birds spiraling at various heights above the desert floor. Then, not 20 yards off the paved road near a new subdivision called Tierra Escondida, we came upon hundreds of 12-gauge shotgun casings, an empty 24-pack of beer and a dozen assorted wings and other body parts of decimated doves. Whoever had hunted here had blasted away, relishing something other than the taste of succulent dove meat.
That’s what’s unsettling. How do you educate these people? And what can be done about them? If officers from New Mexico Game and Fish had made contact with these shooters, the hunters could be cited only if they failed to possess valid licenses and stamps for that specific area. If game wardens returned later and found that the site had not been cleaned properly, the hunters could be cited only for littering. But short of having psychologists doubling as conservation officers, there’s no way to determine a hunter’s motivation. Even if an officer could cite somebody for an illegal motive, what would it be -- taking too much pleasure in the kill?
Perhaps if the requirements for getting a license were more stringent, some of these miscreants could be weeded out of the system. Maybe if all applicants were required to take the hunter education class, which is mandatory for potential licensees under the age of 18 here in New Mexico, people would balk at the inconvenience and lose interest in dove hunting. Or perhaps we need a more draconian measure -- banning dove hunting in the state, as Michigan did in 2006 -- to reduce drastically the number of shooters who kill doves for target practice. But as it stands now, anyone 18 or older can go to a local Wal-Mart and buy a license.
I favor a ban on dove hunting, but there is no chance one would ever pass in this gun-loving “land of enchantment.” All I can do is wait out another September-December hunting season, and pray that my dog and I don’t happen upon too many other scenes of slaughter.
Robert Rowley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a freelance writer and photographer in Las Cruces, New Mexico.