The Realities of Hunting: a Message to Non-Hunters

I had originally written this for our sister site, Eating Wild Montana.  (And if you have a chance, go over there and check it out.)  After rereading it, I couldn't help but think it would help other hunters explain why they hunt.  I've updated it for The LocaCarnivore.  So, check it out and feel free to forward it to the non-hunters in your life. 

Hunting. It's such a charged word in this day and age.  It's hard to explain to non-hunters who have been misinformed by people who have an agenda of some sort. If you hunt, chances are you know what I'm talking about. But if you don't hunt, you may have gotten your information from sources that are just emotionally charged propaganda. So if you're interested in actually learning what hunting is about from someone who actually loves nature, loves animals, but also loves to hunt ethically, you're in for a frank discussion of what hunting is, and more importantly, what it isn't.

What Hunting Actually Is

It's hard to discuss hunting without understanding what exactly is hunting. You may have been told hunting is full of redneck, fat, middle-aged men who drink beer and shoot up signs. Or maybe you've been told hunting is done just to get some antlers or a head to mount in one's living room. Those statements are about as cliché as they come.  I won't lie to you and tell you that they don't happen, but more often than not, hunting is about a connection with the nature and the past.

I'm talking about traditions. Chances are those who hunt were taught by their parents or an older relative. They in turn, were probably taught by their parents, and so on. It's a connection to our past in a personal way. The anti-hunters claim we're addicted to the thrill of the chase and killing, but given that hunting isn't easy, there are certainly more and easier ways to get an adrenaline fix. Being out in nature is a huge part of hunting. And while anyone can go for a walk in the wilderness and appreciate wildlife, it takes a certain amount of skill to stalk a deer or elk.

It is also about food. There are a fair number of hunters who get the majority of their meat from hunting, even today. Rather than take food stamps or show up at food banks, they hunt to provide nutrition for their families. There are other hunters who prefer the taste of game meat over beef, chicken, pork, or any other domesticated food. Then, there are those who have figured out that hunting done properly is sustainable, and choose that lifestyle over going to the grocery store and financing the corporate food industry.

Ethical Hunters Are Conservationists

Most hunters are conservationists. They want enough wildlife and enough habitat to so there is a healthy game population to hunt. They want to conserve deer, elk, moose, and whatever else because they respect the animals. What's more, the money paid for hunting licenses and equipment pays for conservation. The studies on elk, deer, wolves, and even non-game animals get most of their money from hunting license fees, and sporting goods excise taxes.

Trophy Hunting in the United States

Before I go into what hunting is any further, I need to address trophy hunting. You may think you know what trophy hunting is, but it isn't as bad as you've been told. In every state it's illegal to waste game meat. That means that there are some pretty hefty fines, even jail time, associated with killing an animal for its horns or antlers, or whatever, and leaving the carcass to rot. That is not hunting. Let me repeat: THAT IS NOT HUNTING.

That is what we call poaching. It is the illegal taking of game or leaving the animal to rot. Those people who are trophy hunters in the United States must either take the meat or donate it to charity. So, if someone is going after a big buck or a big bull, they have to use the meat somehow. It's not enough for them to have a head or antlers stuck on a wall somewhere. These people generally look for big animals — usually male — and yeah, there's a certain amount of bragging rights that goes along with that. For one thing, those older male deer or elk are cagey.  They don't get the big antlers because they were foolish and visited people. They get it by being wily. Which means as a hunter, if the take is legal, they have to call the animal in, or sneak up on it, or sit for however many hours or days in a cold tree stand and wait for the critter to show up, assuming it does.

If someone is hunting for a trophy animal legally, I don't have a problem with it provided that the animal is legal and they eat the meat or donate it to charity. Those so-called trophy hunters pass on the deer and elk I'm willing to shoot because it is my food. Would I purposely look for a deer or elk with a big rack?  No.  I'll shoot whatever is legal. Would I turn down a trophy buck or bull if it showed up?  Of course not, but that isn't my criteria for hunting. The rack is only a bonus and not my goal.

You may have seen photos of women who have legally shot game in Africa for a trophy.  Guess what?  They pumped tens of thousands of dollars into those local economies.  They killed animals the wardens knew would not live long, and the meat was given to the local people. How is this wrong?  You could say they should not have smiled--is that what you're objecting to?  As I said, hunting is hard work.  If you could feed a village by killing an animal which need to be killed to ensure biodiversity, wouldn't you smile too?  Wouldn't you smile if it were a particularly tricky shot and you did the job cleanly?  Wouldn't you be glad you gave the animal a quick death instead of a long, painful one because it was driven from its herd (because it was too old) or because the environment was at risk of being overgrazed?

It's Not Easy

One of the myths that non-hunters believe is that hunters have it easy when it comes to locating game and shooting it. Unless you're going for a game damage hunt, or if you're in one of the states that allow bait stations, finding the critters can be problematic. I can't tell you how many times back when I mushed sled dogs I saw hunters who were constantly looking for animals and declared that there were none in the area. But the next day, there were tracks all over the place, and in some instances, my sled team and I ran into herds of elk and even antelope. We once helped a lost hunter find his buddies. He was exhausted from walking around and looking for animals he couldn't find. These animals play a constant game of hide and seek. Even if you know the area, even if you've tracked the animals in the off season, even if you think you know what you're doing, there's no guarantee.  If you want a guarantee on getting supper, go to the grocery store (and support factory farming).

My husband and I have literally spent weeks looking for animals without success in the same areas where we know there are animals. Sometimes they're regular, such as the deer, but given that we only hold certain tags, we can't just shoot anything that shows up. There are regulations for what kinds of deer you can take, length of antler, how many brow tines, etc. And even if you get that dialed in, there's no guarantee that you will shoot the animal. Most deer and certainly no elk I know of, (with the exception of habituated wildlife), want humans nearby or even within several hundred yards.  The last deer I shot was about 200 yards away.  That's two football stadiums in distance. I missed the first shot but connected to the deer's heart with the second. Shooting at distance isn't easy. Your target looks less like a deer through the scope and more like a marble-sized version of the critter. And then, there's things like bullet drop (ballistics), wind (OMG), and other variables.

Now, when you consider that either you have to sneak up on the critter to get a 50 to 100 yard shot or face the daunting prospect of shooting 200, 300, 400, or more yards, it gives you an appreciation just how tough it is. According to Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks, the average success rate of hunters in that state is about 7 to 8 percent based on game check station result. Probably when all is said and done maybe 15 percent of the tags are filled, would be my guess.

In Colorado, hunting was a nightmare. You literally had just a week to fill your tag.  That meant you spent a boatload of money for the privilege of maybe bringing back a deer or elk.   If you were lucky. Many times I went with my husband, we came home without meat.  Yep, it sucked.

Montana gives you about five weeks to find your animals and hopefully get your tags filled during general rifle season, but then it is a big state. It's better, but it's no guarantee.

The Short Life of a Game Animal

Deer live an average of two to three years in the wild. Maybe if they're lucky and get really good avoiding predators, cars, starvation, diseases, and hunters, they're looking at eight to ten. Elk probably go 10 to 13 in the wild tops. Antelope are lucky to see their eighth year.

These are natural prey animals. That means someone or something has to eat them or they die from environmental stresses such as disease and starvation. In order to provide enough food for predators, including humans, they have to produce enough offspring to keep their species alive, which they do, admirably. Their lives are filled with uncertainty due to the vagaries of the environment and pressure from predators.


Speaking of predators, we found a deer that had been killed by coyotes once.  She had been taken down and had been partially eaten from the rear first. The coyotes had left the poor girl to struggle and eventually die with her intestines hanging out while they merrily ate her alive. Now, tell me a bullet isn't more humane!

This is not uncommon. Predators don't kill cleanly. Only humans seem to have that sensibility.

Disease and Starvation

It's not unusual to see game herds stricken with disease.  When there are too many prey animals for the land's carrying capacity or when the environment hands them a drought and poor forage, it wears on the critters and inevitably disease takes hold.  If there is a drought like the one we're going through, it's common for herds to starve in the winter. Both my husband and I have obtained game damage licenses in the past to cull some of the deer which destroy the alfalfa fields ranchers depend on to feed their cattle during winter. We counted some 50+ deer in the one field. If they had food outside of the rancher's fields, they probably would've gone there. The deer I shot had no winter fat to speak of and the sheer numbers meant that she and other deer would starve.

Hunter or Poacher?

Next time you read a story about a "hunter," ask the following questions:
  • Is this a hunter or a poacher? (Hunter = legal; poacher = illegal.)
  • Was the animal killed ethically and cleanly?
  • Where did the meat go? (Did it feed the hunters, their families, the poor, or a village?)
  • Why was this animal killed?  (Besides being a trophy on the wall, there are other reasons a hunt occurs.  Is there a problem with overgrazing?  Has the animal in a reserve grown too old?  Do the people need food?  Does it manage the ecological balance?)

I hope I've given you enough to think about when it comes to hunters and hunting.  Hunters provide a service to the environment in countless ways. Ethical hunters stay within the law.  Ethical hunters salvage the meat and either eat it or donate to those who can use it.  Hunters pay the bill for conservation and wildlife studies.  Those who don't are poachers--not hunters.

More helpful stories you'll like:
Keep Out! Gating the American West and the Death of the Working Class Hunter

Getting Beyond Bambi: Promoting the Hunting Culture

A Women's Advice: Preparing for your First Hunt with Your Partner

-- MH Bonha