« Return to this article

Know the West

Elk: Pursuing the hunt and preserving the species

  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.