Mother Earth News Blogs > Nature and Environment

Nature and Environment

News about the health and beauty of the natural world that sustains us.

The Realities of Hunting

Deer in snow

Hunting. It's such a charged word in this day and age, that it's hard to explain to people who have been told what hunting means 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 emotionally charged and not necessarily informed.

So if you're interested in actually learning what hunting is about by 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 hunting isn't.

What Hunting Actually Is

It's hard to discuss hunting without understanding what exactly is hunting. You may have been told that hunting is full of redneck, fat, middle-aged men who drink beer and shoot up signs. Or maybe you've been told that hunting is done to simple get some antlers or a mount for one's living room. Those statements are about as cliché as they come, and 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.

When I say that hunting is about a connection to 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. Yes, there is the thrill of the chase and looking for critters, but given that hunting isn't easy, there certainly more and easier ways to get your 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 search for and stalk a deer or elk.

It is also about food. There are a fair number of hunters who do get the majority of their meat from hunting still. Rather than be on food stamps or show up at food banks, they hunt to provide nutrition to 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 when done properly is sustainable, and choose that lifestyle over going to the grocery store and picking out a package of meat.

Ethical Hunters Are Conservationists

Many hunters are conservationists. They want enough wildlife and enough wild areas to exist so that there is a healthy population to hunt. They want to see deer and elk and moose and whatever else because they respect the animals. And they understand that in order to keep hunting, the animal must be around in healthy numbers. What's more, hunting tags pay for conservation. The studies on elk, deer, wolves, and even non-game animals get their money from hunting licenses and hunting fees.

Trophy Hunting in the United States

Before I go into what hunting is any further, I need to address the aspect trophy hunting. You may think you know what trophy hunting is, but what it actually is, if it's done legally, isn't as bad as you think it is. In most states, and I would guess that in all of the United States, it's illegal to waste game meat. That means that there are some pretty hefty fines 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 take of game or leaving the animal to rot. Those people who are trophy hunters in the United States must take the meat or donate it to a food bank or other charity where people can enjoy the meat. 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 set of antlers because they were foolish and visited people. They get it by being wily and sneaky. 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 to the food bank. 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.

Hunting is Not Easy

One of the myths that non-hunters seem to have is the overall ease hunters have when it comes to locating game and shooting it. Unless you're going for a game damage hunt, finding the critters can be problematic. I can't tell you how many times back when I didn't hunt but I mushed sled dogs that 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 even 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.

My husband and I have spent literally weeks looking for animals without success in the same areas where we know there are animals. Sometimes they're regular, such as the deer in one area, 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. And I got a heart shot, luckily. I missed the first shot but managed to get a deer on the second shot.

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. The Montana FWP has check stations and the average success rate of hunters is about 7 to 8 percent through those stations. Probably when all is said and done maybe 15 percent of the tags are filled, would be my guess. That includes tags that we fill every year.

In Colorado, hunting was a nightmare. You literally had 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. The times I went with my husband, we came home without meat. Yep, sucked.

Montana gives you about five weeks to find your animals and hopefully get your tags filled during general rifle season. 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 maybe 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 that someone 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 on our properties. She had been taken down and had been partially eaten from the rear first, starting at her anus. 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 that a bullet isn't more humane?

This is not uncommon. Predators don't kill cleanly and they aren't particularly humane when it comes to killing their food. Humans seem to have that sensibility.

Disease and Starvation

It's not unusual to see herds stricken with disease. When there are too many prey animals for the carrying capacity or when the environment hands them a drought and poor forage, it wears on the critters and inevitably disease takes hold. Or 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 obtained game damaged licenses through FWP to hunt some of the deer that were destroying the alfalfa fields where the rancher's cattle were wintering. 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 perhaps other deer would starve because of the scarcity of food.

Maggie Bonham is a multiple award-winning author, editor, and publisher who is a canine and feline behavioral expert and science fiction/fantasy writer living in the wilds of Montana. She raises horses, Alaskan Malamutes, cats, chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys, a llama and 14 ornery and loveable goats. Maggie is the publisher of both Sky Warrior Books and Garnet Mountain Press, which publish science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and nonfiction. Find her on Facebook and Twitter, and read all of Maggie’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.