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.

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