Hunting got some scrutiny in this newspaper at last. Washington State has lost more than 16,000 hunters in the last five years, Thomas Clouse noted. On the same page, Rich Landers lamented that we fail to “curb poaching problem.”
Ethical hunters driven from the field by shooters make the two stories converge.
My distinction here, between hunters and shooters, rests on the reverence extended toward game animals and birds. True hunters, indigenous or otherwise, honor prey in various ways. They obey state laws, care for the meat, enhance habitats, and maybe even mumble a prayer.
Shooters, though, they care more about rocking the world off its axis with the firepower they wield.
Environmentalist and author Aldo Leopold characterized the shooter’s impulse as “trigger itch,” a simple craving to blast away. Leopold regretted his trigger itch when he shot a wolf with pups and watched the “fierce green fire” die in her eyes. His honesty endeared him to millions of readers since his “Sand County Almanac” came out in 1949.
To make a full disclosure, I am a born-again non-hunter. I swung guns and drew a lethal bead for thirty years. Finally, though, my heart began to grate and brim over with tender empathy for the dead.
During my spell as a hunter, game habitats shriveled and crashed, an upshot of the human population’s pressures in Washington State where I came of age. I felt my pastime added to the wreckage of sensitive and dwindling species, as shooting had for dodos, bison, passenger pigeons, prairie chickens, sharptail grouse, sage grouse, and so on. But the greatest turnoff came from run-amok shooters.
Shooters deploying technology irresponsibly change the stakes of fair chase. At the same time when wildlife officials are desperate for ways to curtail poachers and their impact on wildlife, manufacturers are enhancing the chances that shooters might score in the great outdoors no matter how unfairly.
One trait of the shooter is firing from roads. Pickup trucks creeping rural routes are a dead giveaway. Another is a spotlight sweeping a field after dark. Public lands, private lands, highways, gravel roads, pastures, even yards are prowling grounds for shooters too lazy to walk. Even worse is the ATV. Whether shooting from a road, or throttling down upon a herd to get a shot, the pilot of an internal combustion machine has taken technological advantage to an unfair extreme.
Other subspecies of reckless shooters pass on costs. One kind shoots road signs. Notice the bullet holes through state and county highway aluminum, the wooden signs peppered by shotgun blasts. Other shooters chase their prey out of state, kill more than laws allow, gun down protected species, or lean on military hardware to make slaughter’s odds even more lopsided.
Some shooters cross the line into poaching by firing a few minutes before legal hours at dawn or a few minutes after legal hours at dusk. If they cross these lines and see no punishment forthcoming, they might slide a slippery slope and become cheats, poachers, shooters, slobs.
The upward trajectory of illicit shooters complements the downward trajectory of legal hunting. Licensed hunters are becoming fewer – a source of anxiety to those who endorse and enforce the sport. The ranks of hunters in the U.S. has fallen to a record low, at the same time that guns have boomed past one for every man, woman and child in the nation. Some 13.7 million people bought licenses in 2011, a drop of 400,000 from 1991, when the nation had 60 million fewer people.
Never would I claim all gunners wallow in the gadgetry that gives nasty shooters their edge. My best friend hunts from a tree stand with a black-powder rifle. He is a throwback to a simpler life and time. Other hunters, having shifted from ethical hunting to illicit shooting, choose to exploit a technological supremacy their fathers never knew.
Our oldest son has shown a recent interest in hunting. Sixteen years old, he enrolled on his own and passed a firearm safety class online. I agreed to take him out, show him the ropes, even if his choice of pastimes winged some hearts.