Elk: Pursuing the hunt and preserving the species

  • David Petersen

    Branson Reynolds
  For author, hunter, woodsman and "hard-core, out-and-amongst-'em ... serious wildlife watcher" David Petersen, elk are more than just a hobby, topic or even a passion; they are a religion. If books had to have subtitles that reflected their deeper messages, Petersen's newest book, Elkheart: A Personal Tribute to Wapiti and Their World, might be A Neanderthal Runs Through It.


"For all but the last 10 millennia or so of our multimillion-year run as Homo, hunting and gathering were all we did. Hunting filled our days with challenge and action, our nights with story. Hunting inspired our dreams and art and myths and religions, helping significantly to shape what we are today, for better and for worse."


While Elkheart is on the surface a wildlife book about the West's most majestic antlered animal, the heart of the book is an exploration of the spirit of the hunter. And it is this spirit, for better or worse, that offers the best hope of saving wildlife and the wild habitat they need to survive, Petersen argues.


"Through four decades of intimately personal experience, I've evolved an unshakable belief that the essence - and thus the moral justification and greatest reward - of so-called "sport" hunting lies in challenge, in woodcraft, in humility, in respect (if not love) for the animals we hunt and the country we hunt them in, evidenced by an eager willingness to protect and propagate both."


This is familiar turf for Petersen. Best known, perhaps, as the editor of Edward Abbey's journals, Petersen also has authored four other books of natural history and a collection of essays. He also edited A Hunter's Heart, a controversial anthology on the ethics of hunting that earned him national recognition as a "hunting ethicist."


Among that bibliography, Elkheart may be Petersen's best work yet. This is a rare gem of nature writing: a natural history book that is unusually informative, entertaining and opinionated, thanks to Petersen's weaving of quality research and personal experience with personality, philosophy, humor and some downright furious rants against what he considers to be the most offensive and dangerous threats to wildlife and wilderness.


In this part of the book, Petersen unleashes his strongest tirade against the exploding elk-ranching industry, which in Colorado alone has grown 50-fold since the mid-1980s.


Petersen quotes Canadian wildlife writer Kevin Van Tighem in saying that elk ranches are "disease and genetic contamination factories." In states that have elk ranching, wildlife agencies report problems with diseases and parasites, habitat loss due to fencing, and a tarnishing of hunting's image by some ranches' unethical and unchallenging trophy hunting.


The only force that can stand up to the types of profiteering threatening big game animals and the habitat they need - along with elk ranching, Petersen cites road building for logging, poaching, real estate development, predator control and public-lands livestock grazing as particularly damaging - is love. And he challenges all wildlife and wildlands lovers to match the love and activism of hunters.


"No one, biologists notwithstanding," Petersen writes, "knows or cares more about the natural histories and daily dramas of animals in the wild, no one is a more attentive student of animal spoor, no one more deeply and honestly loves wildlife and wild lands and freedom and dignity, than the hunter."


He adds: "Hunters, after all, historically have provided a whopping 80 percent of the funding for all wildlife programs in America. (While, to my knowledge, no hard-core "animal welfare" group has ever given one thin dime to benefit wildlife or wildlife habitat.)'


Spirit is what saving wildlife boils down to, Petersen argues. And Elkheart is a good place to get a foothold in that spirit. n








Ken Wright writes in Durango, Colorado.


High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...