The Decline of Young Hunters and the Future of Hunting

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In “Heartsblood,” nationally acclaimed nature writer and veteran outdoorsman David Petersen takes a clear-eyed look at humans and hunting, and reaches conclusions sure to challenge everyone’s preconceptions.
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As the sun appeared, so did a husky, high-horned pronghorn buck, grazing alongside a dusty road a quarter-mile below me.

In a time when hunting is misunderstood as violent and inhumane, author David Petersen draws clear and important distinctions between true hunting and contemporary hunting behavior. While traditional hunting encompasses environmentalism, conservation and preservation, the modern hunting industry advertises new tools and weapons to excess, and antihunting groups decry the conditions of animals without understanding how large groups can negatively impact the environment. In this excerpt from Heartsblood(Johnson Books, 2000), author David Petersen explores the problems with initiating new, young hunters and explains that the solutions to these problems lies within recognizing hunting’s faults and educating the public and future generations. This excerpt is taken from Chapter 16, “Should Kids Hunt? Reflections on the Past and Future of Hunting.”

“Does it help them connect with their elders and the outdoors; to respect the power of weapons and the realities of life and death, as hunters believe? Or does killing animals, as hunting’s opponents claim, damage young psyches, making children indifferent to suffering and ready to see deadly violence as acceptable behavior?” — Lance Morrow

IT’S TRUE WHAT THEY SAY–that recruitment of young people to hunting has fallen off in recent years. Some cheer this news, proclaiming that children should not hunt. In fact, one of the favored tactics of “animal rights” hunt-disrupters is interfering with special introductory hunts for kids. (Like in-your-face heckling at abortion clinics, this practice is now illegal in most states.)

Others meanwhile–not only hunters but bio-wise nonhunters as well–fear that a continued decline in young hunters bodes ill not only for the future of hunting but for the wildlife and wildlands that hunting helps perpetuate, as well as for all those young Americans who will never know the natural joys and personal epiphanies that only true hard hunting can bring.

Why is this happening? And what, if anything, can be done to reverse the trend? Or should it be reversed?

If we want to influence the future, and do so wisely, we must start by looking back.

WHEN I WAS A YOUNGSTER just learning to hunt, my challenges were to decipher the daily lives of wild animals and the subtle secrets of the places they live; to master woodcraft and ancient hunting skills; to shoot a rifle steady and true with iron sights only (and a stickbow with no sights at all); to read and rely on map and compass; to interpret the prescience of clouds and the stories writ in animal spoor–and so much more. Until recently, this is how it was for all young hunters, and it all was good.

Perhaps hunters of my generation were motivated as much by a limited availability of gadgets as we were by preference. From the distant vantage of middle age, I can’t really say … I just know I’m grateful that it was as it was. An old dog now, I still prefer “primitive” hunting tools and self-reliance to store-boughten crutches. And I know of no one who takes more pleasure from, or finds more meaning in, the hunt than low-tech “traditionalists” like me … nor, for what it’s worth, whose freezer is more consistently filled with wild meat.

Most important, then as now, I am acting on, acting out, and satisfying an instinctive yearning for a true, traditional hunting challenge–an ancient, innate itch that can be scratched only by making the least of stuff and the most of self. I believe culturally unadulterated youngsters, whether they know it or not, share this same visceral need to “go wild.” And it’s an itch that contemporary hunting, with its market-driven focus on off-the-shelf shortcuts and body-count “success,” largely fails to satisfy. Techno-hunting is just too much like the rest of modern culture–escaping which, after all, is a prime attraction of all wilderness endeavor.

THIS IS NOT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY. If it were, I’d have bored you from the start with my childhood experiences. I can justify the anecdotes from those formative years, which I’m about to drop on you now, only insofar as they provide a personal backdrop for the opinions I’m about to express–and, to a lesser degree, because here, near the end of my thoughts on hunting, they help bring us full-circle, back where we began, providing something approaching closure.

BORN AT THE WEEDY EDGE of a large city, from childhood I longed for field and stream, river and lake, mountain and canyon, forest and flat. My father, who worked too much and had yet to learn to relax and enjoy life, was little help. Happily, there were other hunters in the family who were able and, to varying degrees, willing to play part-time mentor.

My maternal uncle Charlie Harper was a reluctant one of these. On cherished rare occasions, Uncle Charlie would allow me to tag along, safely unarmed, as he prowled the fringes of farm field and pasture, his wiry pointer, Dick, ranging ahead, nose working, tongue lolling, hot on the trail of bobwhite quail.

Back home, if I nagged him long enough, Uncle Charlie would bring out rifle or revolver or shotgun, check to assure it was empty, and allow me to handle the steely-blue icon: feel its form, heft its weight, inhale the aromas of cordite and powder solvent, aromas that to this day induce nostalgia. And it was Charlie who first introduced me to the culinary pleasures of wild meat: quail, pheasant, venison.

But on reflection, this reluctant mentor’s greatest gifts to me were his retellings of wilderness mule deer hunts in Colorado and elsewhere in the Rocky Mountain West. This quality of outdoor adventure, I knew even then, though I was not yet ten, was something I must experience.

Where Uncle Charlie left off, Cousin Harlis began. If I was ten at the time, Harlis Harper was not yet twenty. On frequent weekends–equipping me, incrementally, as I learned to respect firearms, with a BB gun, a pellet rifle, a single-shot 20-gauge shotgun, and a bolt-action .22 rifle–Harlis would lead out across grassy fields and in amongst thorn-tangled woods in search of wild meat and adventure … and some subtle something more.

Harlis was a patient hunter, and he patiently taught me to be the same: walking slowly and quietly, pausing often–standing still as statues, listening, looking, breathing deep the clean country air, then tiptoeing on. When we did spot game, unless immediate response was called for, Harlis (and I by example) would freeze for long memorable moments and just watch: studying, admiring, looking to learn, learning to love.

There were others as well, friends and fathers of friends, who occasionally pitched in. And thus did a precious few mentors, singly and together, expand and bless my life forever. Assoon as I was old enough to drive, having worked and saved to buy my first car, I took to going fishing and hunting on my own, at every opportunity–fishing usually with friends, and hunting likewise if birds or small game were the object. But for the serious, magical business of big game hunting, then as now, I went by preference almost always alone.

How clearly I recall the excitement of fall Fridays during archery deer season, when I’d drive too fast for an hour after school to reach my happy hunting grounds, where I’d pursue ghostly, gray-bodied whitetails with an Osage orange longbow and a back-quiver bristling with hand-fletched wood arrows. Come dark, I’d heat and eat a can of stew, then crash in the cramped back seat of my ’53 Chevy with coyotes yodeling all around. Then up again before sunrise to hunt all day Saturday. Sunday the same. And I loved it all, as I do yet today, mild misery and prolonged frustration notwithstanding.

It took four years of hard hunting to win my first deer: a plump November white-tailed doe that walked beneath the live oak limb upon which I was tenuously perched, shivering in my boots. My arrow took her through both lungs and she died on the run, just five heartbeats later. I remember being at once elated and saddened, whooping and weeping–a bittersweet emotional tug-o-war I’ve since come to expect and respect, and which all true hunters know all too well.

I am no longer young. Yet the years fall away and precious memories revive each time I see veteran and initiate afield together-moving slowly, stopping often, talking in whispers if at all, the eager youngster emulating the elder’s every move. Harlis Harper and me. Your mentors and you.

Poor Mentoring Discourages Young Hunters

MENTORS. Even if we’ve never encountered the term before, we’ve all had them, bad as well as good. The original mentor was a teacher in ancient Greece, friend to Odysseus, charged with the education of the hero’s son, Telemachus, while the boss was off  enjoying his odysseys. Not coincidentally, this prototypal mentor’s name was … Mentor.

A mentor, simply put, is a teacher, a role model, a guide–for better or worse. My own outdoor mentors were both. Consider Mr. Thorp. I was about fourteen when I met Thorp through his son, another Dave, who invited me to join him and “the old man” for a three-day weekend of fishing. I recall the elder Thorp as thirty-something, ruddy of complexion, small of body, intense, indolent, and creatively profane. What Mr. Thorp was good at was catching catfish. What he was bad at, I was to learn, was life. For openers, what should have been a two-hour drive to a nearby stretch of river, less than a hundred miles away, required most of a day, with the two Daves left to broil alongside a stenching five-gallon bucket of fishbait in a black station wagon while our leader took hour-long “rest breaks” at every roadside tavern we passed. And there were plenty.

When we finally reached the river–appropriately named the Muddy Boggy–Thorp’s first and last physical act was to rig a hammock in the shade and drag an ice chest up beneath it. From this prone throne, he instructed Dave and me–expertly, I must say–in such essential bank-poling skills as selecting and trimming thumb-thick osiers for bank poles and attaching just the right length of braided line, just the right amount of wheel-weight lead to nullify the river’s current and hold the bait under, then tying on huge treble hooks and gobbing each one, just so, with a catfish banquet of chicken guts and dead minnows.

For two days, while Dave and I patrolled the brush-choked banks of that cottonmouth-infested river, servicing a score of bank poles and lugging our considerable catch back to camp for cleaning and cooling, Mr. Thorp lay plastered in his hammock, a Falstaff always at hand.

At night, between pole patrols by Coleman lantern, we squatted ’round a campfire purposely made smoky to hold the mosquitoes at bay while a rallied Thorp, nocturnal by nature, entertained us with slurred tales of heroic drinking binges, bar fights, honky-tonk angels, and “serious meat fishin”’–a quaint provincial practice involving a rowboat, a Ball jar of moonshine, and a supply of blasting caps–or, for really big jobs, a part-stick of dynamite, which toy Thorp referred to fondly as a “fish-cracker.” Poaching deer was another favored Thorpean pastime.

The implied moral of Mr. Thorp’s boozy monologues, it seemed, was that when we boys grew up, we too could enjoy such manly sport as boozy bar-crawling, toilet-hugging hangovers, whoring, fish-bombing, and jack-lighting deer. Sadly, this too is mentoring.

Happily for me, that was the last I ever saw of Thorp. Later that same summer, he and a companion in crime blew themselves to Kingdom Come (or wherever) while “meat fishin’.” Though no witnesses survived to testify, stories abounded. My mind’s eye pictures a rowboat, an empty Ball jar, a lighted “fish-cracker” fumbled and dropped into the bilge, a frantic, drunken attempt at retrieval, a mighty Ka-whump! . ..

The lesson being: If a young person has even a modicum of native sense and the will and freedom to call his or her own shots–as I did by distancing myself from the Thorps after that initial misadventure–even the most blatantly negative mentoring can redound to the positive. But what if–like young Dave Thorp–the negative exemplar is your father or someone else in such a profound position of influence and authority that you lack the freedom, or guts, to “just say no”?

What appeared to be just such a scenario unfolded on a recent August morning, the opening of Colorado’s pronghorn archery season. In full dark, longbowman Milt Beens and I hied to preselected ambush sites overlooking separate pools in an intermittent creek on public land. As the sun appeared, so did a husky, high-horned pronghorn buck, grazing alongside a dusty road a quarter-mile below me. But watching him briefly through binoculars would be the only pleasure I’d get that morning–for within minutes came the first in an all-day parade of road “hunters.”

These weren’t motorized spot-and-stalkers–an accepted practice among pronghorn chasers everywhere, insofar as the distances involved are usually considerable, neither depriving the hunter of the challenge of a long stalk on foot nor the prey of a chance to escape. Rather, these were motorized dilettantes, seated comfortably in lawn chairs in the open beds of pickup trucks, shopping for easy meat. In a variation on that loser’s theme, the group that was about to spoil the day for Milt and me–and for that big prongy buck were packed like pickles into a van with big–city plates and the sliding side door open.

Here in Colorado, it’s illegal to shoot, with firearm or bow, from any motorized vehicle, moving or stationary, or from or across any public road. Yet little matters the law to the lawless, and when our heroes spotted the big buck, they sped up in an attempt to overtake him. From the back seat, a tall man leaned out the open door, compound bow in hand and arrow ready. As the van neared the buck, the animal veered off perpendicular to the road. That’s when the van slid to a stop in a cloud of dust (cowboy style).

As the shooter leapt out, he gave a loud whistle, halting the buck’s retreat at something around a hundred yards. (Spooked wild animals often can be stopped, if only briefly, with a yell, whistle, or other loud noise that whets their instinctive curiosity.) Feet firmly planted in the middle of the road, this paradigm of sportsmanship tilted his weapon skyward and mortared a hopeful missile toward the ridiculously distant target.

From my catbird seat on the nearby hillside, eight-power binoculars in hand, 1 could see all of this clearly. What I couldn’t see was where the arrow landed. The buck didn’t flinch, kick, or otherwise indicate he’d been hit, but exploded into flight. Flashing back across the road close in front of the van, the prongy rocketed for the safety of the tree-trimmed creek corridor, between Milt and me. There he disappeared and might have taken any of several erosion gullies climbing from the creek to the timbered ridge above. I never saw him again, nor did Milt.

Meanwhile, down on the road, the shooter was yelling “I hit him, I hit him!” plenty loud enough for Milt and me to hear. Now more bodies spilled from the van, including a lanky teenage boy whom the shooter (still yelling, bonkers on adrenaline) addressed as “Son.”

Without bothering to search for his arrow or a blood trail, the shooter hurried toward the creek, where “his” buck had last been seen. Son trailed behind. From near Milt’s blind, the man directed Son to search up one wash while he took another. The van, meanwhile, rolled on down the road, side door still open, a new shooter in position, resuming the “hunt.”

For the next hour, father and Son ran amok along the ridge just above us, the man yelling out queries and commands punctuated by piercing whistles (his specialty, it seemed). I’d had more than enough and rose to leave. When I stepped into the open, the man spotted me and hollered down, “Hey, guy, you seen a big ol’ antelope with an arrow sticking out?”

“Two,” I replied in sign language, waving a matched pair of erect middle fingers in his direction.

Bottom line and the point being: What was Son’s response to all of this? Was he a willing participant, already ruined–or, as it appeared, trapped by the will of a Thorpean father? Did he leave that place with worry working in his guts that something wasn’t right about this “hunting” business–an anti in the making–or was he fooled into believing this is how it’s done?

Either way, Son loses.

And so does hunting.

AS AN ADULT, I’ve been largely an outdoor loner. Doubly so when bowhunting for elk–my passion of passions. Alone is the way I do it best, and alone is the way I like it best. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the hundreds of days I’ve spent ghosting after elk through bright September woods, gloriously alone, have been among the most enjoyable, satisfying, and indelible of my life. For me, companionship is an evening pleasure; during the actual hunt, company distracts and dilutes–like three on a date. Consequently, nobody was more surprised than me when I became a mentor.

I first met Jamin Grigg, then seventeen, at a bookshop reading of A Hunter’s Heart. Straightaway he impressed me with his love and knowledge of nature, his concern for the welfare of wildlife and wilderness, his ability (rare in teenagers almost to the point of nonexistence) to ignore peer pressure and dance to his own drummer, and, all tallied, his sober maturity; another Harlis Harper, this one. Jamin was an experienced small-game and deer hunter, anxious for his first taste of wild turkey, then on to elk. I volunteered to help.

Following a long, warm April afternoon of walking and calling, Jamin and I finally found a turkey-talker. When the tom came in to my horny-hen yelps, he was in fact three toms–a big boss gobbler and two yearling satellite males, or “jakes.” With the trio of nervous birds smack in his face and bunched together in an unshootable wad, Jamin sat tight as any pro. Lying prone several yards behind him, I could not offer advice, but only watch and hope that he wouldn’t let the excitement goad him into taking a stupid shot.

Soon enough and predictably, the big tom sensed a rat in the woodpile, spat an alarm putt, and streaked for the cover of nearby brush. One jake followed like a shadow, but the other lagged a little behind. That’s when Jamin’s 12-bore shattered the silence.

“I can’t believe it,” my young friend stuttered as he stroked and admired his bird. “My dad has friends who’ve hunted all their lives and never killed a turkey, and I get one my first time out! This will blow Dad’s mind. He’s really going to be proud of me.”

Dad was proud, of course. And so was I.

Within a week of that hunt, Jamin had mastered turkey calling and was teaching a high school friend. The following spring, he “guided” his father, sociology professor Kalin Grigg, to his first turkey. Today, four years later, father and son hunt turkey and elk together every chance they get, and have never been closer. In the mentoring business, one-plus-one equals many. Thoughtful mentoring, as I’ve come to learn, makes more and better outdoorsmen–and women. As a bonus, by introducing others to the skills and values of ethical hunting, you strengthen those skills and values in yourself. Students are often the wisest teachers.

Other Factors That Discourage Young Hunters

GIVEN SUCH INVITING, EXCITING CIRCUMSTANCES as I and so many others enjoyed in our midcentury youth, with hunting grounds and mentors everywhere, what red-blooded youngster, boys in particular, could resist the adventurous call of the wild? And, icing on the cake, hunting back then was a cheap date.

But such traditional scenarios–ceremonies of passage–are becoming increasingly rare across increasingly concreted North America: increasingly difficult to arrange. Today’s neophyte nimrods are made to feel they must amass and master catalogs full of expensive toys–in the process neglecting traditional skills and self-reliance, stifling personal satisfaction, and minimizing the twin values of effort and ethics. Increasingly in these frenetic and confused times, in hunting as in life, it’s less the trip and more the destination, less the game and more the end score.

As C. L. “Chip” Rawlins, poet and reluctant meat hunter, recently observed from his home in rural Wyoming: “More and more, for most of the people who come here from the cities during deer season, it appears that hunting is just an excuse to buy a lot of junk, hop in the truck and go cruising backroads with buddies.”

In fact, the market’s control of modern hunting is prominent among the reasons we’re failing to recruit tomorrow’s hunters at yesterday’s rates: To all but the least among today’s youth, not yet wholly warped by our virtual culture, materialism lacks instinctive appeal in the out-of-doors. What they want, what they need, is meaningful personal challenge: rites of personal passage.

FURTHER STIFLING RECRUITMENT, today far more than yesterday, aspiring young hunters must concern themselves with finding a place to hunt as wild nature gets bulldozed farther away from every city, every day; then finding the means and money to get there; then most likely having to share their hard-earned hunting grounds with others, not all of whom are nice people.

Additionally, today’s youth must qualify for and purchase a growing number of certificates, licenses, and permits, compete for increasingly limited draw tags–and, perhaps most daunting of all, struggle to explain their “senseless killing” to a suspicious nonhunting public, some of whom view young hunters as incipient schoolyard killers. And most telling, these critics often include family and friends, many of whom, in their nature-estranged innocence, view wild meat as unclean and (as we’ve seen) associate hunting with foggy Freudian fantasies of sublimated male aggression.

Whatever your age, you can hardly have forgotten the tremendous weight of influence wielded by friends when you were young. No teenager wants to be considered uncool. And that hasn’t changed: peer pressure remains the single greatest sculptor of adolescent attitudes and behavior. And increasingly that pressure either goes staunchly against hunting or could not care less.

In a 1997 survey, Responsive Management polled American teenagers regarding their interest in hunting. “Fifteen percent said they were very interested, 16% said they were somewhat interested, and 18% said they were a little interested. Over one-half (52%) of Americans aged thirteen to twenty years have no interest at all in hunting.”

And even among those young people who would love to give hunting a try, where do you find a mentor? Most Americans are living in cities, and in many families both parents are working and fewer adults are hunting. These days, Uncles Charlie and Cousins Harlis are increasingly hard to come by.

ALL THIS AND MORE CONSIDERED, if you were a young person considering hunting today–short on access, money, guidance, tradition, and, most important, inspiration–would the shallow rewards of techno-hunting justify its growing social and material costs? It’s easier to continue watching TV; cruising Main Street, and haunting shopping malls with your friends, fitting quietly in.

In sum: The recent radical shift in hunting emphasis–from traditional, inexpensive, close-to-home personal challenge to pricey, distant, ethically questionable, and spiritually bereft big-ticket gadgetmania–has clearly contributed to the recent drop in youthful recruitment, engendering the disdain not only of the youths themselves but of the “significant others” who in previous generations would have been prime recruiters.

In RM’s words: “It takes a hunter to make a hunter. Almost all hunters are initiated into hunting before the age of twenty, usually by a father or other father-figure.”

Yet the hunting “community” seems surprised, searching everywhere for excuses, except within.

A Plan to Preserve Traditional Hunting

YOU CAN’T DEFEND the indefensible, no matter how loud and long you yell, not even to the ingenuous young. As Paul Shepard warns, modern hunting “is an easy target: the commercialization and perversion of the hunt, the game hogs, the drunks, the shooters of cows, the facades of camaraderie, make the war against the hunt both easy and facile.”

The writing is on the wall. Yet few hunters read it and fewer yet heed it, preferring instead–egged on by extreme elements among hunters, hunters’ groups, industry, and media–to hunker down in bunkers of denial while chanting those old losers’ mantras: “Right or wrong, we won’t give a bloody inch!” and “If you’re not completely with us, you’re completely against us!”

What to do? As a beginning, I offer the following Four C’s: Confess, Clean Up, Coach, and Conserve.

Confess hunting’s flaws. When so many–including youthful would-be hunters–can see so clearly what ails modern hunting, today’s bunkers of denial may become tomorrow’s graves. Too often, hunters hear the charge that for one hunter to publicly criticize the ethics and behavior of another is “divisive,” even “treasonous.” Not only is such an openly censorial attitude profoundly un-American, it’s ultimately self-defeating. Hunters have got to understand and make it clear to the nonhunting public that all hunting is not the same–by supporting ethical hunting while decrying abhorrent hunter behavior. This distinction is a necessity for gaining and holding public support. To defend the indefensible is to swell the ranks of both slob hunters and antihunters–at the same time turning off and turning away the ethical youngsters and women that hunting needs to attract. To criticize the bad is our duty to the good. Hunters with the ability to recognize–and the courage to denounce–morally offensive hunter behavior are neither dissemblers nor traitors; they are heroes.

Clean up our ranks from within–thusdepriving our critics of the joy of doing it for us. I’m speaking here of putting heat not only on unethical hunters but also on those elements within the hunting industry, media, and organizations who abuse their positions of trust and influence in order to distort hunter values for personal gain, dividing our ranks and eroding our honor in the doing. These are the traitors among us, peddling their perverted “war against wildlife” mentality. We must let these spoilers know what we think–by writing letters of protest and withholding our purchases, subscriptions, memberships, and votes. At the same time, we must increasingly support those outdoor marketers, media, and organizations who demonstrate high ethics and openness to essential reform.

Coach. Become a mentor. Find ways to help people of all ages get started in true, traditional hunting–ways that fit your own personality, qualifications, and situation. For some, this means volunteering to teach hunter safety and ethics courses or Becoming an Outdoors-Woman classes. For others, like myself, it’s taking young people (and adult women, and even middle-aged men; better late than never) into the woods, one-on-one, and teaching them, by example as well as words, not only how it’s done and how it’s not, but why. If today’s best hunters won’t do this essential seeding work for tomorrow, who will? If we don’t care, who should?

Conserve wildlife habitat. Looking back across the century, it’s clear that no other segment of society has done so much to restore and preserve wildlife habitat as hunters. Yet, most of the hard work has always been undertaken by a handful of committed individuals. Meanwhile, the rest of us do little more than buy the required licenses and pay the levied taxes, sometimes even grumbling about that. For hunting to survive as the great American democratic tradition it has always been, this must change. What good are “hunter’s rights” if you find yourself one day without a place to hunt or anything to hunt for? If we can set aside sufficient public-access wildlands–as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and other conservation groups, both hunter-sponsored and cosmopolitan, are striving so heroically to do–we’ll always have game to hunt and lively, lovely places to hunt in, as will our children and theirs. And should we choose not to hunt, through the good work of good hunters we’ll still have wild animals and wild places to enjoy, each as we choose.

Yet the percentage of hunters (and nonhunters) who belong to mainstream conservation groups is dismal–even as more and more hunters send off contributions to a growing stable of Chicken Little “hunters’ rights” groups with scarcely hidden anti-environment agendas. For democratic hunting to survive in North America, hunters must learn to put superficial differences aside and become hard-core conservationists. It sickens me to hear hunters speak of environmentalists as the enemy. Environmentalism, conservation, preservation–these do not equal antihunting. Rather, they defend the very wilderness and wildlife values upon which hunting and fishing depend.

Whether hunting prospers or dies in this new millennium–or becomes an exclusive private-preserve sport for the rich and privileged, as in Europe and a growing number of elsewheres (including Texas)–will be decided not nearly so much by the big scary antihunters as it will by hunters: through the examples we set for our children; through our ability to admit our faults and our willingness to change when change is necessary; and through our commitment to big-picture, long-view wildlands and wildlife conservation–even when, on rare occasion, such efforts may step on a few of our toes.

LAST WINTER, Colorado hunter Lane Eskew took his ten-year-old nephew, Gavin, and another youngster on their first deer hunt–in a snowstorm, as it happened. Lane was bowhunting, and the boys tagged politely behind. A few days later, Gavin sent this letter to his own “Uncle Charlie”:

Dear Uncle Lane,

We very much enjoyed hunting with you! This experience will last a lifetime. I hope that we could go hunting again sometime soon. It was better–way  better than sitting at home watching the bube-tube all day. Watching you scout around and get down to shoot the deer was awesome. Kool as you would say.

Hunting was one thing, but de-gutting it and skinning it was a whole new experience. Holding a heart in my hand was, well, unexplainable. Touching a stomach–a real stomach, and my hands in the blood, and tonight, when I went out to dinner, I was actually thinking about what I was eating, witch was ribs.

I was also wandering for my own benefits if you could tell me when I could get my hunters safety card, or whatever. Also if you could tell me when I could get a small game license and all of the little details.

The main reason that I wanted to tell you is that I had to thank you. Call me the next time you need a partner to hunt with! I would even be glad to go ice fishing, or maybe just even fishing. I guess that I am one of those nature people.

Your nephew,
Gavin Wisdom
P.S. Hope to see you soon!!!

Fund for Animals vs. Orion, The Hunter’s Institute: How Antihunting Groups Fail to See the Bigger Picture of Environmental Conservation

Thoughtful hunters will cheer my friend’s mentoring efforts. To others, however, fearful that his malleable morals have been badly bent by evil Uncle Lane, young Gavin’s letter will prove alarming. As Heidi Prescott, national director of the strident antihunting group Fund for Animals (FFA), observes in a recent Time story titled “Should Kids Hunt?” … “Both sides are going after the same target–the kids.”

Indeed they are. And Ms. Prescott’s FFA is in there fighting hard for what it believes, following the old environmentalist’s strategy of thinking globally while acting locally. Witness FFA’s “Jackson Hole [Wyoming] Bike Bribe,” chronicled in a well-researched article written by Jackson resident Ted Kerasote and published in Bugle, the journal of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “The ad in the October 8, 1997, Jackson Hole News,” writes Kerasote in his opener, “caught everyone’s attention: ‘Hey Kids! Save An Elk, Win A Bike!'”

Background: Each year, the National Elk Refuge, literally in the bustling Old West tourist town of Jackson, holds a “control” hunt to reduce the number of elk migrating from Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and adjacent high country into the federal wildlife preserve for the winter–upwards of eleven thousand animals some years. That’s two to four times as many of the half-ton (or bigger) ruminants as the refuge’s twenty-five thousand acres of irrigated pasture can support, necessitating costly (and, some fear, biologically and behaviorally dangerous) supplemental feeding. While only one or two hundred elk are actually killed in most years’ control hunts, many others are turned back. While the hunt often isn’t pretty, it helps.

In 1997, as usual, many of the locally cherished control-hunt permits, issued by lottery, went to eager youngsters. And even as migrating elk were the young hunters’ targets, the Fund for Animals had its sights trained on the kids, offering in their ad to give “a brand-new mountain bike, up to $1,000 in value,” to the first twelve- to seventeen-year-old who relinquished her or his elk license and promised not to hunt that season. To FFA’s great dismay, not one of the seventy teenagers holding hunt permits took the bike bribe. As Ted Kerasote recounts the incident: “The inventor of the ad, Andrea Lococo, 44-year-old coordinator of the Fund’s Jackson office, a former philosophy professor from the University of Louisville, Kentucky, and a newcomer to the Rockies, expressed surprise that none of the young hunters had been interested in her offer. ‘Were they simply carrying out the desires of their parents?’ she asked rhetorically, when interviewed by the News.”

Well, yes and no. Yes insofar as their parents almost certainly wanted the meat. But no insofar as none were likely coerced into joining the hunt. Kerasote notes: “Virtually everyone I know in the valley hunts elk for meat and has a deep emotional, even spiritual investment in getting an elk in the freezer; elk meat is the Eucharist of this place.” (Even as it is of this place, my home, nine hundred miles to the south.)

Yet, seemingly undaunted, Ms. Lococo, attempting to import eastern urban values to the rural West, reaffirmed her loyalty to what Kerasote aptly describes as her “mission.” She told the News that she intended to charge full-ahead in her “battle for the hearts and minds of children,” continuing her efforts to convince them that “you can’t love what you kill.”

To thoughtful hunter/conservationists like Ted Kerasote, a major flaw in the animal rights worldview and strategy is their patent unwillingness to invest any of their bulging antihunting war chests in programs that directly benefit wildlife or wildlife habitat. Here, thought Ted, was a chance to confront that stubbornness head-on in a spirit of conciliation.

“Given that the connection between more habitat and less supplemental feeding seems obvious to all,” Kerasote writes in Bugle, “I made a proposal to Andrea. As a board member of Orion: The Hunter’s Institute, a Montana-based organization dedicated to ethical hunting and its role in culture and conservation, I had been asked to suggest that the Fund For Animals donate the $1,000–which would have been used to buy a mountain bike–to a habitat-purchase or restoration project of their choice within the Jackson Hole ecosystem.” When Ms. Lococo registered disinterest in Orion’s proposal, Kerasote phoned FFA national director Heidi Prescott in New York City. Ms. Prescott’s response was unyielding: “We’ll try again with the bike.”

In a finale so bold that few outdoor magazines other than Bugle would likely print it, a calm Kerasote summarizes his frustration:

Perhaps someday people in the animal rights movement might come to view hunting in the same light that many of them see abortion: as a profound matter of individual choice. As eaters of wild meat, some individuals take life directly, through bullets and arrows; as vegans, others take the lives of animals indirectly, through combines, pesticides, and habitat loss. Neither is irreproachable. They are choices, and like choosing to bear a child or not to bear a child, are different ways of living in an imperfect and imperfectible world.

Meanwhile, the battle for the hearts and minds of young hunters grows ever hotter–as evidenced by the fact that such a heavy-hitter as Time would make a cover story of it. That story (November 30, 1998), written by Lance Morrow et al., is arguably the most informed, realistic, and balanced examination of hunting ever to see print in a major mainstream magazine. Above all, it resists the usual temptation to take cheap shots at what Paul Shepard identifies as the “easy target” too many modern hunters make of themselves.

In his introduction, Morrow posits the central question in this philosophical war: “Does [hunting] help [children] connect with their elders and the outdoors, to respect the power of weapons and the realities of life and death, as hunters believe? Or does killing animals, as hunting’s opponents claim, damage young psyches, making children indifferent to suffering and ready to see deadly violence as acceptable behavior?”

After presenting a plethora of pros, cons, issues, and examples, Morrow concludes by circling back to his opening. Once again he asks the central question:

But is hunting safe for children’s minds and emotions? Does it, as Lisa Lange says, speaking for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, “teach children that life is not valuable”? … Terri Royster teaches a class in juvenile crime and behavior at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., and for years has studied correlations between childhood cruelty to animals and later criminal behavior. While many serial killers were found to have tortured animals as children, she says, she knows of no research that links hunting and violence against humans …. Similarly, Ronald Stephens, director of the National School Safety Center … has studied characteristics of children who kill at school, and says flatly that “the notion that anyone who hunts is violent is nonsense.”

In conclusion, says Time‘s Morrow, “teachers and counselors report that kids who are taught to hunt responsibly are generally among the more mature and better-mannered–and saner–adolescents in the wilds of modern American culture.”

Could this be, I wonder, because these young hunters, with help from their adult mentors, are taking full advantage of Paul Shepard’s advice to adopt, in our estranged modern existence, all possible “accessible Pleistocene paradigms”–those genetically engraved map-pieces to a good and natural life?

Could it be that a wisely guided initiation to hunting helps to develop young people’s ability to distinguish between a virtual world of cultural made and a living world of nature born?

If so–and I believe in my heart this is true–then we need all the young hunters, and all the old mentors, we can get. They, both and all of them, are the past and the future of humanity.

Excerpted from Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality and Wildness in America, by David Petersen (Raven’s Eye Press, Durango, CO; 2010).

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