Hunting still holds meaning

Fewer people are picking up a rifle or bow, but the act warrants examination regardless.


Some 11.5 million people in the U.S. went hunting in 2016. That may sound like a big number, but it represents just a small fraction of the population — about 4%. And it’s likely that even fewer people will pick up a bow or a rifle this year: The 2016 tally was the lowest it’s been in at least two and a half decades, according to a survey on hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing conducted every five years by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Moonlight reflects across the still waters of the Columbia River where Kettle Falls once roared. It was the most important fishing location for the tribes of the upper Columbia before the construction of Grand Coulee Dam erased it.
Joe Whittle for High Country News

Yet hunting holds a broader significance than those numbers alone suggest. There are pockets of the West where people rely on hunting and fishing to procure enough food for themselves and their families. And even in places where grocery stores, restaurants or other alternatives abound, hunting remains relevant — yes, as a source of organic, free-range meat, but also as a powerful tool that can be put to many uses, such as asserting the fundamental rights of a nation. 

That’s what Rick Desautel, a member of the Arrow Lakes Band of the Colville Confederated Tribes who lives in Washington, was doing when he shot an elk nine years ago. As Assistant Editor Anna V. Smith writes in this issue’s cover story, Desautel was hunting on land his forebears never surrendered to another nation, in what is now Canada. Canadian officials deemed the hunt illegal, having declared the Arrow Lakes Band “extinct” in 1956; Desautel’s hunt defied this determination.

Indigenous nations have long used their hunting and fishing rights, codified in treaties with other governments, to protect their natural resources and affirm their sovereignty. Desautel killed that elk where he did to force the Canadian government to reckon with his right to hunt ancestral lands, and to treat the Arrow Lakes Band as a nation-state.

Emily Benson, associate editor
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Hunting has other meanings, of course. Elsewhere in this issue, we consider this: how, even when a hunt doesn’t go as planned, it can facilitate a deep connection with the non-human world; and how, even when the hunt itself is unsurprising, it can act as a reminder of the risks both humans and animals face as diseases spread across the landscape. We also examine the world of high-dollar trophy-hunting tags, which generate hundreds of thousands of dollars for state wildlife agencies and a commensurate amount of controversy.

Ending the life of another being is a profound act, and exploring the meaning behind that act is a worthy endeavor, even for the 96% of Americans who don’t participate in hunting. Establishing your rights and identity, providing food for your family, finding your place in the natural world — these are deeply human activities that each of us pursue in some way. Perhaps reflecting on the motivations that unite hunters and non-hunters can inject a needed bit of empathy into all of our lives.

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