I killed my first deer on an October morning, two days after my 14th birthday. I was hunting on my grandmother’s ranch in south-central Colorado, and I can still see that deer, ghost-gray in the dawn, its form more like smoke than animal.
I remember how my chest was tight and my arms and legs shook. I remember the shot and I can still see the young buck fall. And I still feel the mixture of sadness and elation — a strange cocktail that I have sipped many times since. I do not remember much about the rifle that I fired.
The next year, I took a similar deer on that ranch, and as I bent to the warmth of that young buck to field dress him, the sun hit the high crown of Pikes Peak, far to the east. But I do not remember what rifle I carried, nor do I remember which knife I used. They were tools.
At my feet was a life I had taken, and the essence of the hunt. I do not know how many elk or deer I have shot since then, though perhaps I could tick back through the years and come up with some kind of accounting. I have killed moose and bighorn sheep. I have chased pheasants and chukar partridge behind my gun dogs, and scrambled over desert crags after quail. I have traveled many Western states and slept beneath plenty of stars. It’s been a good way of going. There are memories etched deeply into my soul, but the gun, the tool, has only a small niche in the bookshelf that holds the stories of those hunts.
It is clear to me that there is a widening gulf in the sporting community. When we elect a president this fall, there will be those who vote wildlife and those who vote gun. With 47 million sporting votes at stake, and two candidates vying for 5 percent of the voters in crucial states where a lot of hunters live, the ramifications are huge.
As an outdoorsman living in the West, it’s hard for me to ignore the damage that has been done to our wildlife heritage in the last four years. Places where I used to hunt pronghorn and sage grouse on the Upper Green River outside Pinedale, Wyo., are now oil and gas fields.
A ranch where I once killed a dandy mule deer buck in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin was roaded and tapped for coalbed methane two years ago. It will not recover in my lifetime.
For wildlife, and for Western public-land hunters, things are bad all over — thanks, in large part, to a president who took office with the votes of gun owners and hunters. This year, I haven’t seen any "Sportsmen for Bush" bumper stickers. I have seen a few "Sportsmen Against Bush" bumper stickers.
Still, Bush’s support among some sportsmen is very strong. These are the gun owners who, swayed by the propaganda of the National Rifle Association, are convinced that any Democrat in the White House will take away all our firearms. The NRA’s extremely successful media campaign of the past two decades has whipped that wing of the sportsmen’s vote into a frenzy. They will vote for a Democrat when hell freezes over.
Then there are the hunters who realize that it’s about the hunt, never about the tool. They have walked the land and have mourned for the places they used to stalk mule deer or antelope. They read the papers and know that George W. Bush has taken away protections for 20 million acres of wetlands, given back 3 million and called this a net gain. They know that our president has signed away water rights on blue ribbon trout streams, and that his administration is trying to open roadless areas — regions crucial to wildlife — to development.
They are concluding that this president has done more damage to our wildlife heritage than any other president, Republican or Democrat, in the history of modern wildlife management.
When Bill Clinton was elected to the White House, the pro-gun folks said the government was coming to our doors to take away our rifles, shotguns and pistols. No agent showed up at my place.
But I have seen the place where I used to hunt for pronghorn. There’s a pump jack there now. And there’s a sign that warns me of possible poison gas. And there’s not a pronghorn in sight.
Tom Reed is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a registered Republican, a lifelong Westerner and a founding board member of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. He lives in the mountains outside Laramie, Wyoming.