Sometimes the National Rifle Association makes me laugh. The organization seems overly concerned with Americans’ rights to have 10-, 15- or even 30-shot magazines on pistols and rifles. Yet those of us who hunt know that if you can’t kill a deer or an elk in three shots, you’d either better get a lot closer or spend more time on the rifle range. The sad fact is that probably at no time in American history have there been more guns and fewer hunters.
The sportsmanlike pursuit of wild game has been one of the great American traditions on public land. Hunting rifles are usually limited to four shells — one in the barrel and three in the magazine.
Hunting is about much more than killing. It’s about being outdoors with friends and family and the camaraderie around a campfire after a solid day of hiking with mud on your boots and twigs in your coat.
As a boy with a Daisy air rifle filled with pebbles, I’d follow my father down the long rows of cornstalks waiting for pheasants to fly. I have fond memories of those fall afternoons in South Dakota with pheasants lined out on the station-wagon tailgate and the smell of coffee laced with brandy being poured from a thermos. I still have the .22 Winchester single-shot rifle I learned to hunt jackrabbits with on Colorado’s High Plains.
I grew up with the smell of Hoppes and nitro solvent, the stuff we used to clean rifles and shotguns, swabbing out the barrels after a day in the field. But that was decades ago.
One of my adult sons has his Hunter’s Safety Card and the other one likes to target shoot, but neither one is interested in hunting. Across America, hunters are aging, and without younger hunters to carry on conservation traditions, wild game and habitat will suffer. There are over 300 million Americans, but only 12.5 million are hunters –– a mere 5 percent of the adult population. Just as my hero, Theodore Roosevelt, was a bird and big-game hunter and an expert on North American large mammals, he was also a “wilderness warrior” who protected over 150 million acres of American public lands. The two causes go together: Because he hunted, he embraced the goals of conservation.
We need younger hunters. It’s ironic that even with the recent craze for organic food, free-range chickens and a “paleo diet,” there are fewer folks willing to get up before dawn to get out in the woods and stalk game. Anyone who eats meat should learn to shoot, hunt and field dress their game, whether it’s blue grouse found in high-altitude pines or mule deer bedded down in oak brush. As humans, we’ve hunted for millennia; anthropologists even posit that coordinated hunts spurred language development, culture and art.
There has always been a spiritual bond between hunter and prey, and unlike the zany, pistol-owning NRA members who seem obsessed with the size of their gun magazines, hunters know it’s rooted in humility. Native Americans have long believed that game only comes to hunters who are mentally and spiritually prepared.
Practicing marksmanship beforehand, moving quietly through the woods, looking for animal spoor and sign -- these are skills that hunters learn and refine. Young hunters learn that hunting is about being outdoors, moving through the landscape and learning about camouflage and ecosystems, learning to see and smell in the wild. Listening.
In some seasons past, the largest thing I’ve cut up with my hunting knife is an orange. But killing game is not the sole reason to hunt. For true hunters, firearms are only a means to an end, not an end to themselves. I may walk for days on a hunt and never fire a shot.
Aldo Leopold, one of our greatest conservationists and early ecologists, learned about the land through hunting. He also learned about himself. Leopold wrote, “At daybreak I am the sole owner of all the acres I can walk over. It is not only boundaries that disappear, but also the thought of being bounded.”
This year, I’ll be hunting for cow elk during the third rifle season. I hunt for meat, not for antlers to hang on the wall, though I have those, too. And if I see younger hunters in the forest, I’ll give them all the encouragement that I can. We need younger hunters and a little sanity in this gun-crazed nation.
Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Colorado.