What happens when two tree-huggers meet a tentful of hunters

  • Nez Perce biologist Timm Kaminski examines wolf tracks

    Courtesy Timm Kaminski
 

Last November, I joined Nez Perce tribal biologist Timm Kaminski on one of his difficult "hunter education" trips into the southern Bitterroots on the Idaho-Montana border.

His job: to walk into tents of heavily armed hunters and tell them about the possibility of wolves showing up in the woods. He has to ask hunters questions such as: Are you aware that wolves are protected from hunting under the Endangered Species Act? And he must fill out a survey while trying to allay fear and dispel myths. Then, hopefully, Kaminski gets to walk out of camp rather than run.

But first we needed to fly over the study area - the Selway/Bitterroot and Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The weather was questionable, and as we took off the pilot said we might not be able to find a way in.

I have a phobia about flying, especially in single-engine planes. Last year, before going into the Alaskan bush, I counted all the takeoffs and landings - 12 each - then checked each of them off in my mind as the flight continued, in a sort of morbid countdown.

I mention my fear that morning as we swooped along the Bitterroots because it was minor compared to my fear of having to go into the hunter camps: Kaminski had already told me stories of being chased out by wolf-hating hunters.

My anxiety was compounded by my stereotype of hunters, made rigid by years of growing up in a non-hunting household, studying environmental ethics in college, being a strict vegetarian, and accepting - hook, line and sinker - the environmental movement's rhetoric.

Along the way I had also somehow let my hair grow long and had my ears pierced and studded with precious metals. I had mutated into a liberal - so I was wary of parading myself before elk hunters from Idaho.

Kaminski and I dropped our gear at the ranger station and continued on to Paradise, a camping area for hunters. It looked like a town of canvas tents, just as I imagined the mining camps of the 1800s, but with the addition of large pickups and horse trailers. There were two long rows of tents with a muddy road running down the middle. It was beginning to snow lightly when we showed up near dark. As we stepped from the official Nez Perce Tribe's Suburban, we heard laughter above the creek's gurgling, and smelled horses and wood smoke and hay.

Reluctantly I followed Kaminski down the muddy street toward a man smoking alone outside one of the tents. He was looking at the sky, but turned and studied us as we approached.

"Hi," Kaminski said as we neared him. "I'm with the Nez Perce Tribe, working with wolves. I was wondering if I could talk with you for a minute or two."

Before the hunter could utter a response, a booming voice erupted from within the tent.

"Sure, we can talk with you, Mr. Wolf Man. Get your ass on in here."

Kaminski gave me a quick, reassuring look, shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "Well, here we go, for better or for worse," and parted the canvas doors to enter.

Inside we were surrounded by 11 men who fit perfectly my stereotype: each with a beer in hand, scruffy from 10 days either on horseback or in the tent, all wearing cowboy hats or baseball caps bearing messages such as CAT: Diesel Power or Red's Bar and Grill. A long table was littered with Doritos and beer and bottles of whiskey and decks of cards, and around the table, serving as a bench, were bales of hay. The silence was awkward until the leader, or at least the loudest, pointed at some meat cooking on the stove and said, "I got some wolf for you boys, cooking right over there."

Everybody laughed, even us, just to break the tension.

"Sit down over here, Mr. Wolf Man," said X. "I'm going to give you a good ass-chewing."

"Well," answered Kaminski without flinching, "if you're going to give me an ass-chewing, it might as well be over a whiskey."

And with that the ice was broken. We were handed glasses of whiskey and beer and soon the hunters were gathered in a semicircle around us as the tribal biologist fielded their questions and spoke to concerns about fewer elk because of wolf depredation and the shortening of their hunting seasons.

"We farm for six months straight, right up until November, then have two weeks to come out here and get our elk. We've been doing this, coming to this same place, for 40 years. And we just don't want to be shut out. How do you think the wolves are going to affect my children being able to come here just like my grandpa did?" asked one man in his early 20s.

Many of them had similar worries. They were spud and beef farmers from Burley, Idaho, and they considered their hunting camp a sacred place where boys become men by killing elk. In the tent that night we met three generations of farmer-hunters.

Kaminski handled their questions gracefully, at times relating his own experiences of growing up on a cattle ranch. As the whiskey began to flow more freely, we began to spar more openly with them, and by the time they had served us venison for dinner they were slapping our backs and saying, "You guys are OK for a couple of goddamn tree-huggers."

At one point in the long evening, well past sobriety, one of them came up to me, pulled my hat off my head and said, "Now just what the hell is this thing growing off the back of your head? You know, you look like the kind of guy that probably rides a mountain bike."

Yes, I conceded, I did, and drunk as I was I ripped into him about judging by stereotypes. We proceeded to talk about stereotypes and how they divide our communities, making it hard for people to find common ground. Certainly we weren't very articulate, and yes, it is sad that it takes three bottles of Jack Daniel's for hippies and rednecks to communicate. Nevertheless, it worked, at least for that evening.

The next morning we all sat gloomily around the mess tent, drinking coffee and nursing our headaches. Some of the tension had returned, and mostly we sat in silence. Kaminski offered the possibility of taking some of them on a future flight over the wolf reintroduction area, and some of them took his card.

It is difficult to explain the impact of that night on me. I haven't become a carnivore. I still don't hunt. What has changed might be compared to the feeling I've had while visiting another country: My tunnel vision collapses and I'm forced to see the world in a new, sometimes horrifying, sometimes enlightening way.

Now, when I hear the word "redneck" I cringe. I can't help but feel that we're all born into a life by chance. Had I been born into a family of Idaho spud farmers, I'd probably be spitting chew and driving a Chevy. Had one of the hunters I met been born into my family, with my tree-hugging father and macrobiotic mother, he'd probably be wearing Birkenstocks and studying Zen Buddhism. In the end, this somehow gives me hope: We are all limited by what we've been taught; but we can learn, too.

I doubt if any of those good old boys are going to shoot a wolf. I don't know why, but I have a feeling.

Colin Chisholm writes in Missoula, Montana.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...