Scattershot Logic

Critics who blast canned shoots as harming "real" hunting may be firing blanks.

On a recent morning, Bill and two of his buddies make the drive from Littleton to Evergreen to do a little game harvesting -- buffalo, to be specific. The shooter, Bill, arrives last. He walks down to the pen and peers inside the chain-link fence to scope out the quarry. "That's the two-year-old I'm after," he says. "He's a good-looking one, isn't he?"

The spread -- a hundred-acre collection of fields, pens, fences and paddocks surrounded by upscale subdivisions in south Evergreen -- is owned by Ron Lewis, a local resident for six decades. "You want him hung by his head or his tail?" he asks Bill.

"Tail, I guess. You want me to get my gun, get this done?"

Ron Lewis offers "planned" harvests of his animals.
Jonathan Castner
Ron Lewis offers "planned" harvests of his animals.

Steve, one of Bill's friends, asks, "You want a picture before you kill it? I got a camera."

Lewis enters the stall and shuts the gate behind him. He carries a bucket of grain, which he shakes every few seconds, hoping the sound of a meal will coax the buffalo into a nearby holding pen. The next-door stall is slightly larger, thus safer: There's less of a chance that Bill's bullet will ricochet off a metal fence.

The buffalo, however, is uncooperative. He bellows at another male on the other side of the fence; the maraca sound of the grain in the bucket is unenticing. Lewis opens the gate and walks out. He climbs onto a fifteen-foot tower overlooking the pen. "You wanna come up here?" he calls down to Bill.

Gary, Bill's other friend, takes it all in. "This isn't the most exciting way to harvest a buffalo," he admits. "But it is quick."

"I much prefer buffalo," Steve adds. "When you buy beef, you never know what you're gonna get. Besides, buffalo's leaner meat. And I like the taste."

Lewis climbs down from the tower and tries the grain-bucket ploy again. This time the buffalo cooperates, following the sound of the feed bucket into the adjacent pen. Bill walks over to his truck and unzips a gun case on its hood. He returns with a seven-millimeter mag rifle equipped with a scope and climbs up on the tower. Lewis walks a few yards away from the pen and fires up a backhoe. He waits in the cab, letting it idle.

Looking down from his perch, Bill follows the buffalo with his gun barrel, the weapon half-shouldered. Each time the animal stops, he lifts the rifle to eye level. But then the buffalo snorts and trots away. Three or four elk watch the proceedings from the other side of the fence.

Bill sighs. He climbs down from the tower; the ground might be easier after all. Shadowing the buffalo along the chain-link fence as it wanders back and forth, Bill pokes the barrel through a link several times and sights in. But the creature is restless, refusing to stand still long enough for a solid shot.

Finally, the buffalo stops in the middle of the pen to nibble on some hay inside a feeder. Bill pushes the gun through the fence and looks through the scope.

"Man," he complains, backing away. The sun is in his eyes. Gary moves over and takes off his red baseball cap and holds it in front of Bill's forehead to block the glare.

"Little lower," Bill says. Gary drops the cap a shade. Bill pulls on his ear protection, which looks like a set of old hi-fi headphones. He aims at a spot behind the animal's left ear. A moment later, there is a loud bang. The spectator elk snort and stamp. The buffalo drops onto its right side like a load of spilled bricks.

Bill hustles back to his truck, seemingly embarrassed to be caught toting a gun with a dead buffalo in a nearby pen. "Did he go down hard?" he asks.

"Yeah," Gary says. Back at the paddock, the buffalo's top legs windmill slowly for half a minute and then stop. Its eyes cloud over.

Lewis puts the backhoe into gear and drives it into the pen. He wraps chains around the carcass's legs, fastens them to the front bucket and climbs back into the machine. With the buffalo dangling about four feet in the air, Lewis drives fifty feet or so to the entrance of a storage shed, where the animal is weighed: 1,205 pounds. The three men will divide the meat among them.

"Boy, they pack tight, don't they?" Bill exclaims.

"This is the hardest part of the job," Lewis admits as the three men begin dressing the buffalo, for which they have paid $1,200. "You raise 'em for two years and then watch this. But," he adds, "you gotta do it. If he don't die, the others don't live."

The canned-hunt industry has never been a particularly popular business. PR-wise, trying to make the practice of shooting an animal inside a fenced enclosure seem reasonable makes baseball's labor problems look positively pastoral. Even figure skating's mobbed-up judges seem benign by comparison. Yet the business has been especially maligned recently.

A couple of weeks ago, an organization calling itself Colorado Wildlife Defense announced that it hoped to introduce legislation that would ban so-called canned hunts. The shoots, says spokeswoman Susan Campbell Reneau, author of Colorado's Biggest Bucks and Bulls, are an insult to traditional hunting. "We find the practice to be appalling," she says. "It goes against the grain of what hunting is all about."

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