I'm taking a hunter education class in Lander, Wyo., and at the first get-together, I share a table with Ridge, 9, and Dante, 10, cousins who've already hunted lots of deer and antelope with their dads and grandpa. They can't get hunting licenses of their own until they turn 12, but they're eager to learn and they're patient, listening for three hours to instructors who spin hunting tales, rib students and give lectures on the hunter's code of ethics. There are five more classroom sessions to go, and we'll also spend a day at the shooting range live-firing rifles, hiking, climbing over fences and even starting campfires.
I've been a little anxious about taking this course. I feel like a misfit among my fellow students, who bounce in their seats with excitement as one instructor passes around an enormous elk antler and the heavy skull of a bighorn sheep. As a tree-hugging wildlife lover, I'm not sure I want to stalk and kill an animal - any animal.
So why am I here? Because I'm trying to be a good environmentalist: I want to live with as small a footprint as possible, and I think harvesting my own wild meat will help me to do that.
The way I see it, hunting brings you face to face with the reality of your consumption. You pull a trigger, an animal dies and you get its blood on your hands and arms when you gut and skin it. It seems violent and tragic, but death is an unavoidable part of life. Plus, all the other animals we eat die equally gruesome deaths, just out of our sight and experience. Here in the West, hunters of the abundant wild game have a much smaller impact on the landscape than those who buy beef fattened on corn in feedlots or imported from halfway around the globe.
As I sit in the first class, I consider the benefits of hunting. An active hunting community supports the efforts of state fish and wildlife agencies to manage habitat for healthy wildlife populations. Hunting also helps control overpopulated ungulates that thrive in residential and other developed areas where predators have been wiped out, such as the whitetail deer that ravage gardens and alfalfa fields along the Big Horn Mountains of northern Wyoming.
In addition, wild meat is often leaner, cleaner and-all around healthier than even the finest organically certified and grass-finished beef. And it comes with the knowledge that the animal you're consuming lived a free life in the wild rather than a stressed life in confinement. For many of us Westerners, wild meat is about as local as it gets; hunting requires no more fossil-fuel consumption than it takes to drive to the nearest piece of public land or hunter walk-in area. In addition, you're not abetting the destruction of landscapes such as rainforests in other countries to clear land for cattle ranches or soy plantations.
Wild meat is also cheap: If you butcher a deer, antelope or elk yourself, the cost is time -- long hours spent hunting, gutting, skinning, hanging, cutting, grinding and packaging. But you're in charge; you can control exactly how the meat is processed; you know how it's been handled. Most important, it takes effort and skill and persistence and determination to stalk a game animal, kill it in fair chase and tend the meat. You know exactly what went into every bite.
Although I'm not 100 percent convinced that I'm ready to hunt, I'm glad I have the chance to take this hunter education course offered by my state's Game and Fish Department. And I'm thrilled to live in a place surrounded by far-reaching public lands where I can hunt as well as camp and hike. So whether I end up pulling the trigger to kill a deer or antelope this fall or rely on my dad or brother to do it, I look forward to my family's tradition of sitting around the dining room table together in December, sharpening knives, cutting up venison and stacking those tidy white packages in the freezer.
And I look forward to the deer steaks to come, slathered in olive oil and chopped garlic, sizzling in the cast-iron skillet and making a delicious meal.
Emilene Ostlind is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a freelance writer based in Lander, Wyo.