The Herd Mentality

The Colorado Division of Wildlife recently announced that it will issue more elk tags this year than ever before. A spokesman for the agency says that 106,000 hunters -- roughly one for every two elk in Colorado -- will receive permission to hunt elk in the state in one of four separate seasons this fall. That's 30,000 more tags than the division has previously issued in a single year. You would think the elk would be quaking in their cloven hoofs. However, the odds are quite good that they'll be plenty safe.

The reason the DOW will be allowing such a huge army of hunters into the woods this year is that there simply are too many of the animals living here. Colorado's herd, already the largest in the world, has outgrown the state's natural ability to support it. Hunting is the only tool the division has to control that population, so DOW's big-animal number-crunchers (yes, there is such a job) attacked their calculators and announced that the quantity of hunters required to cull the herd needed to be raised by about 40 percent.

The most common explanation for why the size of the herd has exploded in recent years is climate. Dry and unseasonably warm weather over the past couple of autumns has kept the animals deeper in the backcountry, thus making a successful hunt more difficult. In a good year, about one-quarter of elk-tag holders will bag an animal. For the past two years, though, that number has stayed on the lesser side of 20 percent; last year it barely broke 15 percent. It only follows that fewer successful hunters means more successful -- i.e., living -- elk.

Yet there is another explanation worth considering: Ineptitude. There is considerable anecdotal evidence that a big reason the elk population is ballooning -- despite the increasing number of people stalking them -- is that hunters today are, well, just not very good. "All of my game-warden friends tell me they can't depend on hunters to kill the elk," says one Western Slope guide who asked to remain anonymous. "Anymore, they're lazy and unskilled."

Durango's David Petersen, a guide and author of the forthcoming book Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality and Wildness in America (Island Press), agrees. "I don't think hunters today are working at it," he says. "Most hunters now are dilettantes. It's something for them to do until the football season starts."

In short, for those who subscribe to the notion of hunting as a wily contest that pits man's smarts and cunning against the beast's natural wariness, there can be only one conclusion: The elk are winning in a rout.

Generally speaking, being inept at a recreational pastime is no big deal (unless you regularly rupture your ankle at the annual company softball game). But when that incompetence results in the failure of public policy -- the inability of biologists to properly and efficiently manage Colorado's elk herd -- it's time for the rest of us to start paying attention, too.

There have always been bad hunters. But what that has traditionally meant is dangerous hunters. While growing up in upstate New York -- first in the countertop-flat farm country of western New York, then in the Adirondack Mountain region, and finally in the Finger Lakes area -- I clearly remember the first day of deer-hunting season in the fall. Like many people, I carefully noted the day, but not because I was eager to stalk a deer. It was because deer season meant the arrival of thousands of weekend warriors who descended on the state from New Jersey and New York City like some undertrained but very enthusiastic and well-armed militia.

Dressed up in their still-creased fatigues, they toted designer guns and drove their Mercedes (Lexus SUVs weren't around then) north in long lines. They scared the living hell out of me, and newspaper accounts confirmed that I wasn't just being paranoid. Each year, it seemed, some big-city moron with as much understanding of hunting as he had of corn fertilizer would point his rifle at the first rustle in the bushes and pull the trigger. Too often, it wasn't a deer that fell out, but another hunter. For several weeks each fall, I rounded up my dogs and stayed inside.

But there is another kind of bad hunter, too, the kind of sportsman more akin to a hack golfer than a homicidal sportsman. These inept hunters certainly can be dangerous; however, more often, they are merely unsuccessful. I know people who enthusiastically enter the woods each year who without dumb luck would have no luck at all.

No studies have tried to measure the relative competence of modern hunters versus their predecessors, but people who think hard on the subject have their opinions. For starters, they say that the average once-a-year sportsman seems to have lost sight of the fact that hunting is a skill. It takes plenty of practice and commitment to maintain one's proficiency.

This is especially true with elk. More than most game animals, elk need to be actively hunted. That means learning how to read the woods and track an animal -- not merely sitting on a platform or in a blind until one wanders by. "You have to hunt harder, and most hunters don't have the inclination to do that anymore," says Brad Frano, a DOW employee and avid third-generation hunter.

Those fortunate enough to happen across an elk still can't be counted on to complete the harvest. Even experienced hunters accustomed to viewing animals through crosshairs can forget that directing a bullet to its intended destination is a skill preserved only through repetition, no different from throwing a baseball or hitting a tennis ball. "Many of the people I encounter don't sight in at the beginning of each season, and they don't practice their shooting," gripes Petersen. "I'd say the majority of hunters -- maybe 80 percent -- are incompetent and lazy."

"Ninety percent of the hunters I know throw their stuff together the night before they leave," adds Frano. "That's when they suddenly realize, 'Hey, I haven't fired this thing since last year.' And then they wonder why they can't hit the broad side of a barn."

Too busy to hone techniques that can take years of work, some hunters who ought to know better convince themselves that they can substitute the latest gear for old-fashioned competence. There are, of course, philosophical arguments against relying on high technology to conduct a primal pursuit. For instance, most people would agree that hunting wolves from an airplane ought to be banned (as it was a few years back in Alaska).

Yet it is also true that a dependence on tools designed to make life easier can only diminish the same skills that make a hunter one who hunts. "Physical fitness and woodsmanship skills decline in direct proportion to technological advancements," David Stalling of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation wrote in an issue of the elk-hunting magazine Bugle several years ago. "What good is a laser sight if a hunter won't -- or can't -- walk more than a mile from the trailhead? Elk are probably more vulnerable to tenacity than to technology."

"The more you get to depending on technology and the less attuned you are to the nature of the hunt, the less successful you are," adds Jim Posewitz, author of the book Beyond Fair Chase and founder of Orion, The Hunter's Institute, a sort of think tank for the sport located in Montana. Petersen is even more succinct: "If they'd get their butts off their ATVs, hunters today would do a lot better."

This fall won't mark the first time state wildlife officials have tried to give hunters a break in the hopes that they would do their part to manage Colorado's elk. Frano remembers the fall of 1997: "We had fifteen [game management] units where we were way above holding capacity for our herds -- the habitat couldn't support the number of animals." So instead of holding a lottery to see which hunters would be permitted to shoot elk, the wildlife agency decided to sell the tags over the counter to whoever wanted one. Even better, the tags were unrestricted: A holder could harvest either a bull or a cow.

"It was like, 'Do us a favor -- put some meat in your refrigerator,'" Frano recalls. "And so we saw this incredible influx of hunters that year. But when the season ended, the harvest statistics were still incredibly low. We just shook our heads.

"What I saw from being in the field and from talking to our agents in the field was that all these hunters had absolutely no idea what they were doing. They were asking, 'What do I do? Where do I go?' These guys didn't have the first idea how to hunt. The same thing happened last year, too, which is why we're in the position we're in now."

Not everyone agrees that there are more lousy hunters now than before. Patricia Dorsey, DOW's acting hunter-education administrator, says the vast majority of sportsmen working the woods today are very skilled. She adds that a small number of incompetents can leave a big impression. "There's always been a wide spectrum of hunters and behaviors," she says.

And not every bad hunter who wanders into the woods these days is willfully incompetent. Todd Malmsbury, a spokesman for the DOW, says, for instance, that his agency's research shows the average age of hunters is steadily climbing. That means two things. The first is that more hunters simply are less capable than they once were. Stalking an elk is a physically demanding activity; the older you are, the less willing you may be to hike twenty miles into the backcountry to find an animal.

The second implication of hunters' aging is that the pastime is not being passed down between generations as it once was. For men, in particular, hunting traditionally has been learned at a young age from one's father. But what if your father doesn't hunt (or if he's never home)?

I know about this from firsthand experience. My father never hunted, never even owned guns, and while I had no burning desire to hunt as a youngster, a few years ago I developed an interest in it. After completing the mandatory gun-safety course, I approached my instructor to get some information about the next step. "So where can I learn to hunt?" I asked.

"Well, I dunno," he said. "Maybe you can hang out at a gun club and somebody there can help you."

Indeed, there is a common perception that if you are a man, you should somehow already know how to hunt, as if the skills necessary to track and kill an animal were encoded directly into the Y chromosome. The DOW clearly has an interest in seeing better hunters roaming the Colorado woods. Yet, while the agency hosts seminars to teach youngsters and women how to hunt, men -- by far the majority of hunters -- are left to their own devices.

While there are no direct studies to confirm this, extrapolation suggests the number of young men needing an introduction to hunting is not small. Dorsey says surveys of twelve- to fourteen-year-old boys indicate that about a third are interested in learning how to hunt, yet only 10 percent actually get around to it. That means that nearly a quarter of the men out there may harbor a latent longing for the sport that could resurface at any moment. But there is nothing for one of these men to do but locate some codger at the local gun club to help him find his way around the woods. Or he can stoically -- and incompetently -- stumble out there on his own and hope for the best.


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