Loaded for Bear
Tom Beck began hunting forty years ago, shooting squirrels outside his tiny hometown of High Springs, in north Florida, when he was six years old. As he grew, so did his enthusiasm for hunting. This year he bought five separate bow-hunting licenses in three states, and last month he killed his first moose with an arrow, which will put him well on his way toward his annual goal of stashing 250 pounds of game meat in his freezer before the Colorado winter sets in for good.
Bruce Gill, Beck's boss at the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW), is impressed. "This is the most prolific and accomplished hunter in the state of Colorado," he says. Adds David Petersen, a wildlife writer who lives in Durango, "Tom hunts more than anyone I know who doesn't get paid for it."
Despite such testimonials, Don Clower, president of Idaho's Sportsmen's Heritage Defense Fund, remains unconvinced of Beck's allegiances. "Oh, Tom Beck is definitely anti-hunter," he says. "He just spews animal-rights rhetoric." And a month ago Bob Radocy, president of the Colorado Bowhunters Association, added his voice. In a letter to DOW's director, Radocy suggested that Beck had become so out of touch with hunters--and particularly bow hunters--that perhaps he'd be better off in some other line of work.
"If Mr. Beck has so little respect for the persons who ultimately pay his salary through their license dollars, it might be time for a change," Radocy wrote. "His disregard for sportsmen's values and concerns is irresponsible. Sportsmen do not appreciate this abuse of our hunting heritage by individuals like Mr. Beck, in his open support for animal-rights issues. Mr. Beck has his own agenda, and we see it in direct conflict with the efforts and beliefs of most Division personnel and Colorado hunters."
Beck has become accustomed to the labels and epithets, and most of the time he manages to shrug them off. He lives on twenty acres seven miles outside the small town of Dolores, northeast of the Four Corners area in the San Juan Mountains, so he can pretty much pick and choose whom he listens to. And since he spends a lot of time in the woods doing his DOW job, which is studying bears, he can be hard to track down himself. Sometimes his answering machine goes on the fritz, and sometimes he doesn't get around to fixing it for a few days.
Recently, though, Beck has started to stick his neck out from his isolated home. He did it first, reluctantly, in 1992, when Colorado hosted a fierce debate over how its bears ought to be hunted. As DOW's bear man, Beck was called on to explain his considerable research regarding the relationship between the state's bears and its bear hunters. Although the law prevents state employees from politicking, Beck is opinionated, and he is firm in his opposition to certain bear-hunting techniques. That is not hard to discern when he speaks on the subject. So when Amendment 10--which bans the hunting of bears using dogs and bait, and in the spring using any method--passed by a wide margin, many hunters blamed Beck.
This year Beck involved himself more willingly in the same debate, accepting invitations to speak about bears--on his own time--in Idaho and Michigan, which both featured ballot initiatives similar to Colorado's 1992 measure. With each visit, Beck gained more enemies in the hunting camps: "A lot of locked jaws and beady-eyed stares," he says, recalling the reception he enjoyed from a large portion of his audiences.
Yet the number of sportsmen in Idaho, Michigan and Colorado who have questioned Beck's personal commitment to hunting is nothing compared to the hordes who started gunning for him this past summer, when the editors of Outdoor Life attempted to print a short essay by Beck outlining his views on bear hunting, bear hunters and the state of blood sportmanship in general. It was thoughtful, but undeniably critical. Worse, it had been written by an avid and highly successful hunter.
Before the article ever saw print, hunters who had been tipped off about its impending publication began peppering the magazine with anti-Beck mail and threats. The publishers, fearful of offending subscribers, pulled the piece; the editors resigned in protest.
Being a target for hunters has never been an easy way to make a living, and Beck concedes that "when you're just standing here by yourself, the island gets awful lonely." But he's thought a lot about hunting, and he's got a lot on his mind. "Generally," he says, "we've made it easier and easier to kill an animal. Which brings us back to the question: Why do we hunt?
To people who cannot accept the idea of killing an animal, there has never been an adequate explanation for why some individuals do. But, Beck says, that is not the group that threatens hunting. Rather, it is the hunters themselves who refuse to think about their sport or to tolerate legitimate questions about their methods.
"Hunters think that what I'm doing is harmful to hunting," he adds. "But I think what they're doing is extremely harmful to hunting." Increasingly, people are starting to take Beck's side.
Tom Beck's father was a restless career man who worked for the Florida Marine Patrol and the state parks agency and ran his own gas station. He was also an addicted sportsman. "My dad was quite a prolific hunter, and we ate a lot of game," Beck remembers. The two hunted together often.
But in the tenth grade, Beck says, "it just snapped" that he wanted to work as a wildlife biologist and that he wanted to do so in the western United States. He earned an academic scholarship to the University of Florida, where he first began to think seriously about the act of hunting, something that in the region of the South where he grew up is considered more birthright than hobby.
"The hunters I grew up with had a peculiar but rigid code of ethics when it came to hunting," he says. "Everyone I had ever grown up hunting with was doing a number of things that were socially acceptable but which were illegal. For example, they absolutely would not jacklight a deer; that just wasn't done. But none of them had a problem with shooting a doe out of season."
His father was no different. "My dad used to love to hunt bobwhite quail," Beck says. "He'd get permission from some landowners, but from others he wouldn't. So he'd send in us two boys with live traps on the posted land. We'd trap the quail and then release them onto the land my dad had gotten permission to hunt on, and he'd hunt them. He figured we'd get in less trouble if we got caught than he would.
"When I got out of high school, me and my dad had to stop hunting together. I couldn't participate in things like that. It was a difficult decision and a difficult discussion to have. I didn't really delve into it too much, though. I just wanted to get out of town."
Beck got his chance when he transferred to the University of Utah in his junior year. After that, he moved to Fort Collins and completed his master's degree at Colorado State University, then on to Texas to pursue a Ph.D. But he quit after just a year; he was ready to work. In 1976 he was hired by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Two years later, after various projects, Beck began his work on bears. Although he'd bought a license to hunt them his first year in Colorado, Beck has since refused to hunt bear. "I figure they got enough people shooting at them," he says. "They don't need me."
By 1980, Beck was starting to wonder about Colorado's bear-management policies. That was the year when the first trickle of what was to become a flood of citizen anti-hunting initiatives began. In Maine, residents had questioned the ethics of a spring bear hunt, alarmed by images of bear cubs too young to fend for themselves being left to starve after their mothers had been killed by hunters. Although the Maine wildlife commission headed off an initiative by banning the spring hunt, Beck had seen the future.
At the time, Colorado had one of the most liberal bear-hunting seasons in the country. It began on April 1, before most bears even came out of hibernation. "It was the craziest thing in the world. We had a hunting season when no one hunted," Beck says.
"So I prepared a paper for my boss saying that bears and bear hunting were a potentially explosive issue down the road and predicting that it would come to Colorado within ten years," he recalls. "I was right, although my timetable was off."
In fact, the bear issue first popped up in Colorado only four years later, in 1984. The wildlife commission appointed a citizens' committee to research the topic. "Rather than deal with the issue, we nickel-and-dimed it, put Band-Aids on it, fiddling with dates and so on," Beck says. "But the ethical questions--those, the agency didn't want to deal with."
Meanwhile, more and more of Beck's time was devoted to answering the public's questions about the spring bear hunt and the use of bait and hounds. "During the course of giving what seemed like about a hundred slide shows around the state, I was asked a lot of questions," he says. "Many of them were simple whys: 'Why do we hunt bears this way?' And I didn't have any answers. More disturbing, when I asked my colleagues in the Division of Wildlife, they didn't have any answers, either. I started thinking, and I couldn't come up with good reasons. So when people began asking me about current bear-hunting methods, I began telling them that I disapproved of them. I've never felt comfortable evading an honest answer.
"That was about the same time I started thinking about the idea of hunting versus killing. I never used to think about it. But the more you think about it, the more questions you come up with on your own. It used to be a lot easier. A lot easier."
The questions kept coming. In 1986 Beck was put in charge of reintroducing river otter to the Dolores River in southwest Colorado. Though popular in other parts of the state, the move was opposed by local anglers. "There were certain numbers of trout fishermen who thought that every trout in the river existed for them to catch," Beck says. "And river otter have, on occasion, been known to eat a trout or two."
In 1992, during Colorado's debate over Amendment 10, Beck, the division's bear expert, was put on the spot again. He discussed his research freely, but bear hunters wanted to talk about bear biology and how many bears it was possible to shoot without damaging the population. Beck thought they were focused on the wrong things.
"Bear hunters feel under pressure because of their techniques," Beck says. "So rather than sit down and discuss their techniques, they want to talk about the numbers of bears. And my point is, 'So what?' Why do we hunt bears different than we hunt other animals?" His approach earned him death threats that fall; at one public meeting, participants were searched for weapons as they entered the building.
In the four years since Amendment 10 passed, Beck has become a favorite, and predictable, target of hunting organizations. But the debate also has pitted him against some of his colleagues within the state wildlife agency. "There is a tremendous latent anger within the division over Amendment 10 that continues even today," he says. "There are a lot of people who have the answer--Amendment 10--who are looking for a problem to blame it on."
In his work as Colorado's bear biologist, Beck has become one of the foremost bear biologists not only in the country, but in the world. In the past year he has widened his circle of enemies by agreeing to lecture on Colorado's experience with bear hunting--in Idaho, twice, and in Michigan. "If we're not willing to share what we learned here in Colorado," he points out, "why learn it?"
The problem for hunters is that Beck is an unusually good communicator. "He tries to disarm you, talking like a Southern cracker," says Bruce Gill of Beck's mouth-full-of-chaw accent and odd grammar. "And it works. But you soon discover that he's sharper than a tack."
"The thing about Tom," adds Ted Williams, a highly respected outdoors writer based in Massachusetts, "is that he's an unusual biologist in that he's really literate, as well as a superb scientist."
Six years ago, when he was starting research on his book Ghost Grizzlies, which examined the disappearance of the great bears in Colorado, David Petersen was prepared to dislike Beck. Several years earlier, in response to public pressure resulting from the killing of an adult grizzly bear by a local guide near Wolf Creek Pass, DOW had agreed to mount a search to see if any of the bears remained. The man put in charge of the hunt was Tom Beck, and he hadn't found any grizzlies.
"I went into my research thinking that this was probably a cover-up job," Petersen recalls. "I had a natural suspicion of agencies, and Tom represented the wildlife agency. Besides, the search didn't come up with the results I thought it should have.
"I decided to take this head-on. I called Tom and got an interview, and I went to his home. I spent a whole afternoon there, and I asked him a whole series of hard questions. And he didn't flinch at any of it. He came off as exceptionally intelligent and courageous."
Since then, Petersen and Beck have become close friends. "The only thing we disagree on is music," Petersen says. "Tom likes country-and-Western, and I just want him to turn it off." Last year, when Petersen asked him to write about bears and the ethics of hunting for his next book, Beck quickly agreed.
The book, A Hunter's Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sport, was published this fall. Petersen wrote his dedication at the front: "This book is for Thomas D.I. Beck, who embodies all that's good in a hunter, a wildlife manager, a conservationist, and a friend."
That was to become Beck's chapter in Petersen's book began as a speech Beck gave to fellow wildlife managers in Wyoming nearly two years ago. Using bears as an example, Beck's intent was to draw attention to game-management practices that had failed not because of biology but because of philosophy. He called it "A Failure of the Spirit."
Petersen had seen a text of the speech, and when he began compiling A Hunter's Heart, he immediately thought of Beck. "The piece was eloquent, that was the first thing," he recalls. "The other thing was that I was looking for people who were willing to be honest and tell the truth, both to themselves and to sportsmen. And here was Tom's speech, which was critical of the profession, and he had given it in front of other wildlife managers. It struck me as very courageous. That sort of thing just isn't done very often."
This summer, as his book was being readied for release, Petersen contacted the editors of Outdoor Life, a magazine for which he has written on and off for several years, hoping for a book review. "They said, 'We'll do better than that, we'll run an excerpt from it,'" he recalls. The piece they selected was Beck's, and Outdoor Life called Beck that same day to begin editing the essay.
Outdoor Life was, and still is, a magazine in transition. In July 1995 the magazine's corporate owner, Times-Mirror, hired two new editors--Stephen Byers, a former editor for Men's Journal, and Will Bourne--to revitalize the publication and to reach a less circumscribed audience than the 1.35 million sportsmen who subscribe to the monthly. "The mandate was to make Outdoor Life a sort of crossbreed, a magazine with a much broader scope," recalls Byers. "We wanted to make it a better magazine and bring it into the Nineties. If you're going to try and attract a younger reader, you're going to have to have edge and to tackle controversial issues."
That had not been a strength of Outdoor Life in the recent past. Celebrating its hundredth anniversary this year, Outdoor Life had, like hunters themselves, become more entrenched and less willing to entertain anything other than the standard how-to tracts. "The magazine had been edited for a Fifties audience," says Byers. "You can't imagine how terrible it had become," says Ted Williams. "Just fawning for the sportsmen, fueling their paranoia, playing the role of the sycophant."
As part of his restructuring plan, Byers envisioned a new column called "The Voice," in which different authors would write thoughtful pieces on hunting and fishing that actually tackled ethical questions, controversies that had not been openly discussed but which simmered within the sportsmen's community. Beck's piece on bear hunting was to be the first.
To non-hunters, "A Failure of the Spirit" hardly seems a controversial call to arms. In it, Beck simply but forcefully argues for the application of ethics to bear hunting. Why, he wonders, do some states still allow hunting in the spring, when bears raise their new cubs? The only other animals hunted in the spring are turkeys, which raise their young in the fall, when they are protected from hunters.
"A Failure of the Spirit" also contends that bear baiting (attracting a bear with food and then shooting it) and hounding (using dogs to chase a bear up a tree and then shooting it) have done as much to deplete hunters' dignity as they have to deplete the bear population. Both practices, Beck suggests, have nudged sportsmen across the already smudged line that separates hunting from killing.
"Most hunters sitting over a bait or following hounds only want to kill a bear," Beck writes. "The activity is less important than the outcome. Consequently, today's bait hunters have not developed the woodsmanship skills that are so much a part of the American hunting tradition. Instead, they expound on the comparative merits of rotten fish and honey drippers for pulling bears in, and Twinkies versus Jolly Ranchers for holding bears at the bait site. Is this what hunting should be?"
Once Beck's article was ready to go, an Outdoor Life photo editor assigned to find a picture of a bear being hunted with bait called the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America, one of the country's largest hunter-advocacy groups. Learning the magazine was about to run an article critical of bear hunting, the WLFA swung into action, and its membership bombarded the offices of Outdoor Life with 100 faxes and letters demanding that Beck's piece not be printed.
In July a Times-Mirror publishing executive buckled under the pressure and ordered Beck's article scrapped. Pages of the magazine were already on the presses, which literally had to be stopped. Both Byers and Bourne quit in protest.
"The publishers thought that our timing was suspect--that with the elections nearing and several bear-baiting initiatives on the ballot, publishing Beck's piece was manipulative," recalls Byers, who lives in New York City and is still unemployed. "But Jesus Christ, why run it? Heaven forbid we should have an opinion or try to affect things or do some good."
Since then, the essay has been published in Petersen's book, and this month Outdoor Life finally printed its edited version of Beck's piece alongside another article that argues in favor of baiting and hounding. (The magazine did not, however, resurrect Byers's editorial that was to have accompanied Beck's article and that agreed with his conclusions that some bear-hunting techniques are unethical.)
Predictably, Beck's piece prompted an outcry from die-hard bear hunters. But it wasn't what Tom Beck said about bears that's fueled the continuing attack against him. Rather, it was what his writing implied more generally about hunting, hunters and the methods that have been used for the past century to manage wildlife.
The vitriolic response to both the century-old Outdoor Life and Beck himself--a dedicated, lifelong hunter who must defend his kill record because he has admitted that some animal-rights activists may be right after all--speaks a little to the First Amendment, but volumes about the pastime of hunting animals.
Wearing a sweater, jeans and sneakers and surrounded by precarious piles of books, papers and studies in his Fort Collins office, Bruce Gill looks more like a college professor than a thirty-year veteran of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, where he is a biologist. In many ways, that appearance is not deceiving: For the past several years Gill has spent far less time actually managing animals than he has thinking and writing about how they ought to be managed.
To anyone who does not hunt or trap, Gill's conclusions would not seem startling. But, as in Beck's case, they have nevertheless drawn a heated response from hunters, fishermen and trappers. "Bruce Gill is trained to confuse and obfuscate, so be surgical with your questions," warns Major Boddicker, a spokesman for the Colorado Trappers Association. Gill himself concedes, "Among sportsmen, I'm regarded as the diabolical archangel of the wildlife division."
Gill's heretical thoughts amount to this: The public ought to be consulted as to the management of wildlife. "It has gone over like flatulence in church," he says.
In 1975 a professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute named Robert Giles outlined a theory that said wildlife management had three components: biology, habitat and humans. To Giles, who still teaches at VPI, the last part--the "human dimensions" of wildlife management--was obvious.
"When I was working as a wildlife biologist," he recalls, "a judge ruled that an interstate highway had to go through a wildlife area that I was managing. With one tap of his gavel, he had more of an impact on more land than I could have working as a biologist for my entire life."
Yet Giles's ideas have caught on slowly--where they have caught on at all. There is still a strong feeling shared by wildlife biologists in state and federal agencies that they are the trained professionals and that the scientific management of public animals ought to be left to them. The problem, according to Gill and a growing number of others in the field, is that their management has been neither scientific nor very representative of the public.
The latter point first became clear to Gill about a decade ago, when DOW, in one of its first attempts to measure popular opinion, polled division employees, hunters and the public on their attitudes toward bighorn sheep hunting. About 90 percent of the hunters and DOW biologists agreed that sheep hunting ought to be permitted. But less than half the public felt the same way.
Gill summed up his conclusions in a speech he gave earlier this year to Montana wildlife officials. More and more, he said, the public that didn't hunt or fish was demanding a say in how animals on public lands were managed. Yet professional managers stubbornly clung to methods that favored sportsmen. "We seem unable or unwilling to adapt, remaining trapped in a time warp between past and future," Gill said. "Survey after survey confirms this trend. [But] wildlife professionals, when they notice, argue the public is wrong and attempt to re-educate them back to 'proper' values."
Last week residents of eight states voted on initiatives that aimed to change the way animals are managed. Alaskans voted convincingly to ban flying an airplane in order to hunt wolves, foxes, lynx or wolverines. (Hunters use the planes to spot the animals, then land nearby and shoot them.) Massachusetts and Washington voters approved bans on the use of hounds and bait in bear and cougar hunting. (Massachusetts also banned all trapping, making even possession of a trap illegal.) Idaho and Michigan, two states where bear hunting is enormously popular, voted to continue the use of the techniques, but only after divisive and hard-fought campaigns.
Despite the different outcomes, a common thread ran through these initiatives: In each case, the state's professional wildlife managers sided with the hunters--and against a sizable portion of the voting public.
Even more revealing is an initiative that passed in Oregon last Tuesday. In 1994 residents there narrowly voted to ban the use of hounds and bait for hunting bears and mountain lions. The state's Fish and Wildlife Commission criticized the popular decision, and this year pro-hunting groups placed an initiative on the ballot to repeal the 1994 law. It failed by a margin twice as large as the win two years earlier. If game officials were surprised, they shouldn't have been: The same thing had happened in California in 1990.
Colorado's wildlife managers have been no more in tune with the public. In 1992 the state's politically appointed wildlife commission sided with hunters and opposed banning the use of hounds and bait for bear hunting. When the public voted on Amendment 10, however, 70 percent of the state supported the ban. "The citizens decided it was their bears, too," recalls Beck. "The notion that the citizens deserved a listen-to, that's a real hard thing for a state agency to accept."
One reason is that in most states, the playing field remains sharply tilted against the public. On the surface, state wildlife commissions exist to provide balance. Appointed by the governor, commissioners set policy for the states' rank-and-file wildlife biologists to follow. But as a general rule, the appointees still largely represent segments of the population whose primary interest in animals is killing them.
By law, of the eight members of the Colorado Wildlife Commission, one must be from the livestock industry; one from the agricultural industry; one from a sportsmen's or outfitters' group; one from a wildlife organization (frequently it is the Colorado Wildlife Federation, which generally supports hunters and anglers); and one from a county commission (the current representative is from Prowers County, where hunting and trapping are heavily supported as predator control). "In terms of representing the public at large," says Gill, "it's been just rhetoric."
The public is becoming fed up with appointed commissions. In Massachusetts, five of the seven appointees to the Fish and Game Board were required to have held a hunting or fishing license for five consecutive years prior to their appointment; as a result, the board's policy usually favored hunters and anglers. But last week Massachusetts residents voted 65 to 35 percent in favor of removing the stipulation. The state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife had opposed the initiative.
"A lot of these initiatives are frustration with the wildlife managers," says writer Williams. "The biologists say, 'Just leave it to the professionals, and everything will be okay; trust us, we'll manage the wildlife.' Well, I worked with the fish and wildlife department here [in Massachusetts]. And they can't, and they don't."
Bureaucrats aren't the only ones out of touch with the growing public sentiment against traditional forms of wildlife management. Despite Coloradans' overwhelming vote in favor of Amendment 10, for example, two years later Lewis Entz, a state representative from south-central Colorado, remained unconvinced of voters' intentions. In early 1994 he introduced a bill that would have reversed the popularly decided ban on hounds and bait. The bill passed through a committee in the Colorado House before dying.
"When it comes to wildlife management, the public often thinks that there is a conspiracy of elected officials, appointed officials and vested interests," says Gill. "And they're right."
Gill was closely involved with Colorado's anti-trapping initiative, Amendment 14, which passed last week by a margin of 52 to 48 percent. In the final days of the campaign, he'd been tickled by a bumper sticker that read: "Return to scientific wildlife management: vote 'no' on 14." Gill says he laughed because anyone who thinks that the Colorado Division of Wildlife manages the state's wildlife strictly according to biology has little idea of how game management really works.
"All biology does is set the outer limits," he explains. "We could hunt elk in the spring, when they're pregnant. They'd be fat, huge and sleek. We could do that biologically. It'd be easy. All we'd have to do is figure all the animals we'd lose in utero and then calculate the appropriate number of licenses. But we don't, and the reason is because that, as a society we've made the decision that we don't kill mothers. That's a social value that has nothing to do with biology."
Every wildlife division in the country has similar examples. This spring Utah officials announced they would permit hunters to kill 600 cougars this year. The decision had little to do with biology, except in a peripheral way: The state's deer population was down, which was agitating Utah's sizable number of deer hunters. By killing the cougars, the state hoped to increase the size of the deer herds and make the hunters happy.
This summer the Idaho Department of Fish and Game started a new program: teaching hatchery trout how to eat worms before they were released into the state's streams and rivers. The program has nothing to do with science but a lot to do with the fact that last year Idaho sold fewer fishing licenses to out-of-state anglers than at any other time in the past two decades. State biologists hope that by teaching trout to find fishermen's hooks, more anglers--and thus more money--will find their way back to Boise.
"We don't manage wildlife," says Williams. "We stock pheasants and we stock trout. It's sportsmen management, not wildlife management. Worse, I can't talk to my colleagues at the fish and game department about this. They're convinced that it's a plot against them and the sportsmen."
At the heart of the uncertainty within the profession, Beck says, is a single question: For whom is wildlife managed? In theory, the answer has always been the public. But in the past, managers' perception of the public has been very narrow. "We've always managed our wildlife through the public," Beck says. "We've just limited our public."
The reason, of course, is money. In Colorado, as in most states, fish and wildlife agencies are funded almost exclusively through fees generated by hunting and fishing licenses. (Missouri, whose wildlife agency is funded through sales-tax receipts, is a notable exception.) Because they pay the bills, hunters and fishermen feel the wildlife agencies exist to make their outdoor experiences enjoyable. And the wildlife agencies have become dependent on very simple arithmetic: The more licenses sold, the more money for the agency.
But as hunters become a smaller and smaller part of the population, the financial equation changes. About 15 percent of all Colorado residents hunt, a percentage mirrored in the rest of the country. Yet that percentage is falling. If the trend continues, Gill estimates that in 25 years less than 5 percent of the population will hunt. And at the same time, more people are becoming interested in watching animals--not killing them.
Except in small ways, wildlife managers have not reacted to the change. Two years ago, for example, still stung by Amendment 10, DOW voted to end the spring cougar hunt without the impetus of an initiative. But for the past four or five years, Gill says, he has made the same modest proposal to his DOW bosses: Set aside some state land strictly for wildlife viewing. He has even suggested Mount Evans as a starting point. "Ecotourism is one of the most rapidly growing activities throughout the world," he points out. "I think we can build that into a moneymaker.
"But every time I have proposed that," he adds, "there's been this dull thud inside the division. There are people in this organization who view this as a threat to hunting."
While DOW won't consider Gill's wildlife viewing plan, it has started a new program to recruit women and youngsters to hunt.
"My perception is that I see a great deal of ambivalence on the part of division employees on how, or even if, we ought to be responsive to the public's wishes," says Gill. "But if we don't do more than give them lip service, what we're going to end up doing is breeding anti-hunting activists."
hen Jim Winsor retired from publishing a chain of suburban newspapers outside of Chicago, he moved to an isolated Wyoming ranch, eighty miles from the nearest city. It was the perfect spot for his favorite pastime. "My daddy started me hunting when I was a boy," he says. "It's a fall ritual. It brings me back to some of the basics of nature, the basics of life."
The winters are harsh, though, and the Winsors are social, so recently Winsor and his wife moved their winter residence to Boulder. There they've continued a tradition of hosting a large annual dinner party, usually for about thirty people, which, Winsor says, "is arranged for love and fellowship." The evening features game, which has been taken by Winsor and his friends, and vegetarian dishes, which are brought by those who do not hunt. Usually they are the women.
Two years ago Winsor read a newly published book called Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting, and it gave him an idea. "We had cocktails, and then we sat down to dinner," he recalls. "And I got out the book and read from it and then gave a short talk about the hunting tradition and what it meant in our shrink-wrapped world. Well, the phone calls flew the next day."
Winsor had conducted his experiment knowing that several of the women at the table were virulent anti-hunters and that they had good reason to be. "The hunting community has gotten so frightened of the anti-hunters that they have drawn a line in the sand, and there hasn't been much helpful discourse," he explains. "Some of us hunters, we do it to ourselves.
"I was pheasant hunting up in South Dakota recently," he continues, "and my wife and I were stopped at a gas station. As I filled up, I watched all these cars with Colorado plates streaming by with dead animals strapped to the roof. And I wondered why. It's just a disgrace that we don't honor the life of the animal that has given itself up to us."
But what he discovered at that 1994 dinner party was that it was possible to make a convincing case for why he hunted. Inspired, Winsor wrote a letter to the book's author, Jim Posewitz, who has since adopted the concept of using dinner parties as a starting point for discussions about hunting.
Posewitz was quick to accept the idea of such frank talks because, like Winsor, he recognized the weaknesses of what hunting has become. He says his inspiration for Beyond Fair Chase came seven years ago, when the state of Montana decided to kill bison that had strayed from Yellowstone National Park. People who called themselves hunters were only too eager for the chance to join what was in effect a target shoot and a slaughter.
"Some of us in the [fish and wildlife] department saw it as tremendously dangerous to the sport of hunting," Posewitz recalls. "There were several problems. It was a liquidation. It was bison, with all the tradition of the herds. It was Yellowstone National Park. And it certainly wasn't a fair chase."
Posewitz, an avid hunter who still lives in Montana, quit the division and helped form the Governor's Symposium on North America's Hunting Heritage "to atone for our sins." Soon after that he founded Orion--The Hunter's Institute as a place to contemplate the ethical questions stalking hunters and, at the same time, to celebrate hunting.
In 1993 he finished writing Beyond Fair Chase, which has since sold more than 170,000 copies. Posewitz believes that by tackling hunting ethics head-on, he has ventured into territory left unexplored too long by hunters and the people who manage wildlife. "I worked in the bureaucracy of hunting here in Montana for thirty years," he says. "And not once did I hear the word 'ethics.'"
What Winsor and Posewitz and Beck say they have discovered is the subtlety in the public's understanding of hunting. The public isn't against hunting--survey after survey confirms that. People just want it to be fair, humane and honorable. Using airplanes to hunt or jelly doughnuts to lure bears fails the test. Ethical hunters recognize that there should be nothing easy about taking a life.
"Success, when it comes, must be difficult and uncertain," former president Jimmy Carter writes of his hunting experiences in a chapter of A Hunter's Heart called "A Childhood Outdoors." In September, Beck dashed off this euphoric e-mail: "Moose hunt was great. Camped for six days, killed moose the sixth morning. Lot of work to get it out because of the unseasonable warmth, but I deserved to have to work hard."
Still, such ethical concerns are unfamiliar territory for many hunters, who are reluctant to give up any ground for fear they will lose it all. "It's a mentality that says, 'Anyone who is critical of any aspect of hunting is an anti-hunter,'" says Petersen. "It's as simple as that, no matter if you're an anti-hunting activist who lives in New York City, or a man like Tom Beck, who lives to hunt."
Beck says hunting practices still have plenty of room to improve, and in order to do so, hunters must listen to anti-hunters. "There will be other issues," he predicts in "A Failure of the Spirit." "Trapping, target practice using live animals, and contest hunts come to mind, all deservedly. Our critics will never disappear. Nor should we want them to, for they keep us from getting stuck in amoral bureaucratic ruts. They force us to look forward."
Which, Gill says, explains Beck's lack of popularity among some sportsmen: Unlike many hunters, he is willing to draw a line between what he strongly believes is right and wrong and then stay on the right side. "He advocates--and many people oppose--that we address ethical issues up front," Gill says. "Let's don't pretend they don't exist."
"Hunters feel that he's a traitor," adds Petersen. "Here's an insider--one of the most respected bear biologists in the world--and for him to come out against the fraternity and say that we need to just stop it is a hard message for many hunters to swallow."
"I don't want to bring discredit to the Division of Wildlife," says Beck. "But I do want to change my profession. And I do want to change my agency, because some of the things they're doing are wrong. We're still an agency that listens only to the hunting and fishing public. That should be part of our mission, but not all of it."
To read related Westword stories, visit www.westword.com
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.