One of my earliest childhood memories was pulling into a family friend’s driveway at night, our car’s headlights hitting the flat eyes of a dead buck suspended upside down from a tree. It was my father’s kill. Later, my father hunted bear in Kodiak, Alaska. It was the pinnacle of manhood, he believed, and the dead bear’s hide, head and claws lay on our living room for decades. A rug to prove his manhood. Getting that bear was so much a part of who he was that the rug followed him to a memory facility, where it lay until he died.
I am not a fan of hunting. Any kind of hunting.
Wildlife abounds in Yellowstone National Park. Each day, each hour brought new sightings: elk, bison, deer, prairie dogs, birds…we loved it all. And yet, we knew hunters also abound in Montana. Hunters of the very kinds of wildlife we so admired.
So when we spent a day with our fly-fishing guide, Wesley White, who photographs wildlife and also hunts, I saw an opportunity to hear a different point of view on hunting than my own. Since my travel companion and I both have journalism backgrounds, we picked his brain like journalists all day. And, he agreed to let me share some of his thoughts. In fact, he wrote this post. Unless otherwise credited, the photos are mine.
Wes told us he had a sensitive heart toward animals and I wanted to know how that developed and how he squared it with hunting…. and I was curious about his thoughts on trophy hunting. The discussion did not disappoint. Wes gave me a deeper understanding of what hunting is about for many. I can’t say I’ve changed my own opinion, but I can now see a different rationale. Here he is:
I grew up in a hunting family in S.E. Idaho. My father, brothers, grandfathers, uncles, and cousins all hunt. So naturally when I was a young boy I received BB guns and started hunting small game with my brothers. We killed rabbits for years with BB guns and my mother would cook them. Those were my first experiences with killing game for consumption. I was then given small shot guns and eventually allowed to hunt with big game rifles. I didn’t grow up in a trophy hunting family. We were moderately poor and hunting was an opportunity for my family to escape their Mon.-Fri. jobs and maybe put some food on the table. But my father, my largest influence, is a lover of nature. I wasn’t exposed to hooting and hollering redneck-style hunting. There was always a deep level of respect for animals and nature, more often than not, we didn’t harvest but enjoyed the time spent together. Around 13 or 14, I gradually started gaining interest in photography more so than hunting. From a very young age I was drawn towards animals and the natural world with a belief I would one day make a career out of that interest as it grew into a passion
For around 6 years I did not hunt. I had a couple bad experiences with shooting big game and injuring them without harvest so I gave up the sport. I would still go out with my father but it was more of a drive in the backcountry and less hunting. When I was 21, I moved back to Idaho from Portland, Oregon and was again immersed in the culture of hunting. I started shooting grouse with my, now, wife and we were eating it two or three times a week during the season. While I lived in Oregon I was educated on organic foods and the destructive toll commercial food production takes on our planet. When I returned to Idaho I started recognizing a connection between the organic foods I had learned about in Oregon and the harvesting of wild game I was now surrounded by.
Wild game is organic
Wild game is the most “organic” “free-range” “cage-free” meat available. The animal lives its entire life free and wild without any exposure to vaccinations, GMO feeds, or confinements. They have the opportunity to breed and live a natural life. It may not be stress free for the animal, as it is a game species being hunted by predators, but it has no negative impact on the planet.
I am still an animal lover at heart. I am just as happy watching natural behaviors as I am loading up all my gear and hunting. Photography is a major driving force in my life and it focuses around landscape and wildlife. I have a slightly difficult time taking the life of animals and I am not a predator hunter: the meat is almost un-edible and I won’t kill for the sake of it. Whether I kill small game, like grouse and rabbits, or large animals such as deer, I still have moments of regret where I wonder if it was necessary for me to end this animal’s life for my “selfish” desire. But the human history of hunting, the conservation that hunters are responsible for, and low impact organic meat help me cope when I am facing down a warm dead animal that I am now tasked with cleaning.
How is killing animals “conservation?”
Conservation through hunting is something a lot of people don’t understand. How can the desire to kill an animal lead to conservation of that species? Well, it’s rooted in history. After the meat and fur trade of the 1800s, the United States had very little big game left. Our bears, elk, deer, bison, big horn sheep, and pronghorn were decimated. In the early 1900s a few small groups of people realized what was happening and that without drastic change our nation would have very little game and hunting would be extremely limited, as we see in areas of Europe. Through the sales of tags, taxing of ammo and gun sales, and the establishment of conservation groups the United States now boasts more game than we had in the early 1900s.
We now have all those species re-established in hunt-able numbers and species like elk are moving back into native ranges as far east as Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Over 80% of funding that state game agencies receive come from the sales of hunting tags and licenses. There is no tax on a camera or binocular sales, you don’t buy a tag to bird watch or photograph wild animals. Unless they are contributing annually to conservation groups, those who enjoy seeing wild game in the numbers we have today, have hunters to thank. If a person is in disbelief at these facts, I encourage them to fact check. I assure you, I am not wrong. Hunters want to harvest game, and if the game is not there, the hunting culture dies. Therefor hunters are the #1 contributors to conservation agencies and projects.
Now, not all hunters have that level of respect for game. I am not sure what influences they have as children that would lead to things like poaching or a lackadaisical approach to hunting animals, but there are small numbers of people out there who make a bad name for us all. Some hunters also seem to have a blood lust. The desire to hunt every available animal in every season presented to them. Taking poor shots or hunting unethically. I am not going to judge whether its morally wrong, if they obey the laws, it’s their game and the season exists specifically for them. What would define the person’s true passion for the sport isn’t how they react when they kill game, but how they handle not harvesting. We call it “tag soup”. You didn’t harvest game so you now “eat” your tag. The hunter who feels as though harvesting is the key to a successful hunt, doesn’t appreciate hunting as we should. Its an opportunity to immerse oneself in the natural world, get great cardio exercise if they are in good health, and appreciate a culture that has existed since early man sharpened a stick for the purpose of harvesting a meal.
What about trophy hunting?
Big game hunting in Africa and trophy hunting in other nations draws a lot of negative attention. Not a lot of people are interested in seeing dead lions, rhinos, or giraffes, but again, photographers don’t pay $200,000 for a safari, hunters do. And that whole process has a positive impact on the economy and conservation in those areas. Why would a local man poach bush meat for profits when he could get a cash tip from a hunter that exceeds his annual income? Again, those who disagree I encourage to research those facts. I may not ever participate and may not enjoy seeing an animal dead that I wish to photograph one day, but trophy hunters with a good moral compass are not poachers. They obey local laws and stimulate economies in areas where they may be lacking income for locals.
With all that said, hunting is an amazing experience. You are participating in something that your ancestors’ lives depended on. To acknowledge this should bring on some nostalgia. If you’ve never sat in the forest before the sun rises, listening to bull elk bugle, turkey gobble, or waiting for first light to lay eyes on a deer, you are missing an experience that is sure to rattle your soul and awaken emotions that are rooted in your core as a meat-eating predator.
@wesleywhiteproductions on Instagram, check out my photography!
(Note from Carol: as always, courteous comments are welcomed!)