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Know the West

Trying to think the good thoughts about ATVs

An elk hunter dislikes ORVs despite their convenience because they make the country too small.


It's 4:45 in the morning and I'm the passenger on an all-terrain vehicle going like hell. Except for the mild thrill of defiance - "no passengers," the ATV manufacturer commands - it's difficult to find anything I like about this ride in the dark. ATVs are loud, jarring, and intrusive.

But I decided, in fairness - and also sloth - to try them several times this fall while elk hunting. Three other hunters and I were trying to beat a lifting fog. The thick mist permitted a rare opportunity to approach a skittish elk herd. We would stalk on foot, but the ATV, I reasoned, would get us to the edge of our hunt quicker.

It didn't matter. The fog rose, the elk were gone and I, trying to figure out what constituted ethical use of an ATV, was none the wiser. It took me the rest of season to sort the matter out.

In the end, I saw that using ATVs as tools for predation - and that includes scouting - turns the hunt into a harvest.

Historically hunters, especially elk hunters, have incorporated new gadgetry into their bag of tricks. As four-wheel drives, bigger rifles and more powerful scopes came on the market, hunting magazines ardently endorsed the stuff. Kill rates soared. Few publications asked the essential question: At what cost do we raise the individual success rate for hunters?

Most national forests are riddled with roads, which make for easier access. Elk have fewer places to hide. More access equals more kills. In order to keep viable populations, game biologists mandate a decrease in licenses. But elk concentrate in shin-bruising, ankle-twisting secure pockets of timber. Hunters, increasingly on ATVs in pestiferous numbers, follow their quarry, and elk, pushed out of their secure areas, move off public land onto private ground.

I can think only of a single positive contribution made by ATVs to hunting: fetching the carcass.

"I hate these things. I just hate them," said one guide/rancher as he drove his ATV down a trail with a cow elk strapped on the back. "But they're a tool and can be very handy." This dyed-in-the-wool horseman said saving time is what made him finally buy an ATV. "I can go get a client's elk and have it hanging in the barn in the time it takes me to rig up my two packhorses."

Lest you think this guide is forsaking tradition and ritual for convenience, consider that outfitters often have six to eight hunters in camp. These men - and most of them are men - have paid thousands of dollars to be there. They want their kill treated well.

What sort of ethical violation is there in a hunter dragging his animal to an existing four-wheel drive trail in a non-restricted area and fetching it whole, not quartered, on an ATV? It saves the hide, which is often disregarded entirely when quartering an elk.

And, it saves time. Given that most guides arise at around 4 a.m., two hours saved in retrieving an animal means two hours more sleep. Don't accuse me of whining until you try it. Sleep deprivation is OK for a few days, but after two weeks of it, when you're trying to stalk and maintain composure, glassing hillsides until your eyes burn, in the company of enthusiastic, inexperienced hunters packing large rifles - well, sleep gains priority.

Still, I don't like ATVs, and the real reason is simple: "Harvesting" will never replace hunting for me.

If I'd been astride an ATV, I would never have had the experience of being caught in the middle of an elk herd. It happened while I was walking back from an unsuccessful hunt, the wind in my face. The darkness around us began producing shadows with legs. Then came mews and cow calls: the high-frequency lyric of elk talk. My partner and I lay down on a hummock and soon elk were on both sides of us. Two cows, not 30 yards away, barked at us like a pair of suspicious rottweilers.

Ultimately, keeping on foot keeps the land in proportion. ATVs, as one Montana hunter said, "make the country small."

Sam Western lives and writes in Big Horn, Montana.