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Archive for the ‘hunting’ Category

Death of the Old Doe

 

dead deer

Blood and nasty green stomach matter gushed from her side. The Old Doe had been hit. The arrow flew from the old oak tree, just off from that feed plot where all the deer had been feeding all through the late summer and early autumn. It was aimed at her heart, and the doe was hit a bit far back.

And now she was running wounded. Death was coming, but it wasn’t fast enough.  The agony of the deer was now replaced by the terror and panic that she must run from the predator, the danger that that revealed its with that swishing arrow sound and the thud into deer flesh.

She would not be long for this world, but it was not soon enough to remove her from the before the torture of this sort of death would set in.

For seven years, the Old Doe had run these hills. Her mother was a wise old girl, who had dropped the Old Doe and a buck fawn in her fifth spring, and she taught her young ones the ways of survival in summer swelter and through the hard snows of winter. She taught them many to walk into the wind, so they could always catch the scent of what lay ahead, and she taught them to be most wary of man. For man is the only animal that can kill you if he has you in his clear view of sight, and if man can see you, you’d better run like hell.

A pickup truck took her mother on a late March evening, when the doe took her young out to lap some vestiges of the road salt that had been dumped all through the winter. It was an ignoble death for such a wise creature, but it is a death that happens thousands of times on the highways every year.

And the Old Doe became an orphan, but she had her mother’s wisdom, and she had her mother’s band to hook up with. White-tailed deer live in little societies in which the mature bucks live in their own bands and the does and their growing offspring live in their own as well. The old does become really woods-wise, and they pass this knowledge onto their daughters, granddaughters, and nieces.

The buck bands split up when the autumn makes their hormones surge into a state of insanity, aggression, and just plain libido. They run the country looking for estrus does on their own, and this is roughly the same time that men with rifles and shotguns show up and drop them dead as the course the sweet sensual scents of the rut.

But the does stay together through most of this insanity. A buck might run a doe on her own for a little while, but she invariably returns to her sisterhood.

The Old Doe learned from her mother’s older sister, who died at the age of ten, when her teeth were all ground down to the nubs, and there was no way that she could masticate an acorn or beechnut to feed her gaunt form. She starved to death on a late February day, and when she passed, the doe band’s leadership was passed to the Old Doe.

And she ran the hills for four good years. Every hunter and homesteader in that part of the country knew her well. She was a big, stout doe, and she always dropped her twins in the sweet days of late May.  They would follow her out into the pastures on midsummer evenings when the fireflies seemed to rise with the humid vapors of dusk.

Two daughters made it through the gauntlet of slinging arrows and firing guns and speeding cars. They were her lieutenants, and by their second years, they were both dropping twins along with their mother. Coyotes and mowing machines got some. A bobcat got at least one.

The hunters looking for tender meat always took the little fawns as soon as the hunting season started.

The Old Doe lived a life in which death stalked everywhere, and it was always just a matter of time before someone was shot or impaled or lifted from a sleeping form.

But she lived all through that horror, and her band thrived as well as deer could.

In the end, the Old Doe could only avoid a fatal error so long, and on that early October day, she led her band to her favorite food plot, and for whatever odd reason, she chose to slide in with the wind blowing behind her as she passed the big oak.

The steeping sun occluded the hunter’s form as he drew back and let the arrow fly. He was a young man, fifteen years old and learning to be a proper huntsman. He had spent hours practicing in the range. He thought he had that arrow flinging down, and I suppose he did. Even the best of them sometimes shoot a little too far back.

After the arrow thudded into her side and out the other, the Old Doe ran with her band for the coverts. But the loss of blood and the spurting green stomach matter slowed her advance.

And in panic she ran as hard as she could. She didn’t know the direction. She just ran and ran. The thorns from the multiflora rose pierced her legs. She just ran and hoped that all the terror and pain would cease.

And then she fell and fell hard. Her neck twisted the side. She flailed for about five minutes and bleated as if she were a lonely fawn calling out for her mother.  And as she bleated, the strength sapped from her existence.

Her sides rose and fell and legs flailed a bit longer.

But she was gone.

And all that knowledge of being a deer in these hills was wiped away.  Minutes ago she was animate fur and flesh, and now she was a pile meat, hide, bone, and organs.

The night began to drawn in around her body.  A trio of roaming farm dogs caught her scent and trailed down to her final resting place.  They tore at her hide, but not being experts at dissecting carcasses, they made a mess of the whole thing. Indeed, most of what they did was tear into her flank a little as they torn into each other as they fought over this bounty that they had suddenly discovered in this part of the dark woods.

And so the Old Doe died, and her carcass was discovered that morning when the young hunter and his father managed to pick up her trail in the early morning sun. The meat was not whole, and the stomach contents had fouled most of the meat as she decomposed in the early autumn warmth.

At least she wasn’t alive anymore to suffer, but her body would be left to rot and stink and feed the vultures, foxes, and opossums. They would live well off her body, for in death there can be promise for more sustenance, more life. And if nature’s rules are adhered to, all flesh goes to the carrion beetles and the decomposing bacteria.

And so we can think of the Old Doe’s death as a tragedy, a wasteful death that ended a lifetime of horror.

But the white-tail evolved to live lives of horror. They don’t have complexes about it. They simply live while they know of constant terror, and pass on what they know to their young. And they have done so for millions of years on this continents, millions of years before the first Siberian hunters came down from Beringia and took that first white-tail for a bit of meat.

Their bodies have fed countless numbers of humans, and they’ve fed such teeming multitudes of predators that it would be foolish to count them all. And in the hills where they once grazed among the Mastodons and fleeted away from American cheetahs, they now live in the oak woods, where the rifles crack and arrows fly.

They live their fleeting lives of constant terror. But they live them well and so nobly that few humans can ever approach their dignity, even when they fall in such folly as the Old Doe did.

But it is the way of these creatures. Their evolution as prey made them be this way, and we must accept that their deaths must come, if not by the hunter then by the speeding car or horrific starvation.

So it should be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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To the water

ian casting

Bluegill aren’t the prized fish of any big-time angler. They are pretty easy to catch, and in some not particularly pressured bodies of water they will happily nail unbaited hooks.

But they have a special place in my heart. I’m fairly certain that the first fish I ever landed was a bluegill, and if I’m feeling that I can’t catch anything, I’ll always try to for the bluegill. I’ve never gone bluegill fishing and failed to land at least one, and if you’re just looking to cast out and drown some worms, they provide a bit of relaxation and hint of Zen-like meditation.

And they are beautiful fish. The males in spawning color have the most spectacular turquoise marking around the heads and gill-plates. Were they not the banal fish of every little fishing hole, they would probably be prized as a sort of temperate cichlid and cost at least $25 a pair.

The current project around the house is setting up a native fish tank. It’s a birthday gift to my partner, and what’s more, my partner’s son is spending a few weeks with us.

And I get to share that childhood joy of landing that first bluegill, which he did this week. I wanted to make sure he got the fundamentals of fishing before we went out “for real,” when we were going out deep in the quest for our new tank specimens.

I taught to cast using a Zebco reel. The Zebco was the reel I first learned to use, and in a about a half hour’s worth of casting practice, he was doing the job well.

So we went to the lake at a little state park not far from here. We threw some night-crawlers and mealworms in the blackness of a summer lake. The bright orange bobbers floated like alien craft on the surface of the water, and every once in a while, the bobbers would tense up and shift, sure sign that a creature was nibbling at our bait. And then the bobber would go below the surface, and I’d say jerk and reel, and we’d miss.

But then we didn’t. The little bluegill fought his hardest against the line being spooled back towards the shore. He was so small that I was certain he’d gotten unhooked, and the boy reeled in his line, expecting to be left with a bare hook. Instead, he pulled in the little blue.

And his eyes beamed with pride at having landed that fish. It was prize every bit as a great as that record-breaking muskie or that giant flat-head reeled on a hot summer night’s fishing foray.

To the water we have gone.  And we have gone in search of beasts. We cast our lines into the murky universe that we can never fully enter. We hope that our baits are good, that our hooks are sharp, that our knots are steady, and that we reel just right.  Our big brains and dexterous thumbs have made us masters of the land, but when it comes to the life aquatic, we are mere amateurs. It matters little if we’re casting into little farm ponds or into the deep swelling sea. The fish have the answers. We can only hope that we ask the right questions and hope that luck swims in our way.

I hope I have passed on some of this mystery to Little Ian. I know that I have given him a chance to have some fun and think about the world that is not ensnared in steel and concrete. To consider the organic world from which we all descend is a gift I wish every child could receive.

So now we’re ready to collect our first specimens. I hope we get some bluegills or, even better, some of their related sunfish kin. These are the beauty fish of North America, but they are so common that we never consider their beauty fully. They are bycatch for bass and crappie anglers or bait for the flat-head hunters.

But they are still marvelous. And yes, they are tasty.

ian catches fish.jpg

 

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Evening catch

I caught these trout at Cooper’s Rock this evening.

The one on the bottom is a nice fat brook trout.

brook trout

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The North America wildlife management strategy is best described in this video:

Just a few days ago, NPR reported that the percentage of people hunting in the United States has dwindled to 5 percent, and this lack of hunter participation is hamstringing wildlife management departments all over America.

The North American model’s main funding mechanism, which isn’t really mentioned in the Rinella piece, comes from two main sources, hunting license and taxes paid on hunting equipment. Right now, if you buy ammunition or a sporting gun, there is an 11 percent sales tax, which comes from the Pittman-Robertson Act.  There is a 10 percent sales tax on pistols and revolvers, and that money goes to the Department of the Interior, where it is then distributed to the states and territories for conservation purposes.

With gun and ammunition sales often driven by speculation and fear-mongering about gun control (which is now in the news again), it is unlikely that this source will dry up in the near future.

The real problem is lower hunter participation. With fewer and fewer hunters taking out after game each year, the coffers of state wildlife agencies become emptier and emptier. The election of so many Republican legislatures nationwide also means that the states are less likely to offer up alternative revenue for wildlife management agencies. So many people who are hunters vote Republican, but in the end, the Republican Party isn’t about increase taxes on anything to keep spending money on what some view as a socialist enterprise in our wildlife management system.

So we live at a time when our public management system is under attack from conservative force but is being starved by an increasingly urban and liberal public. Yes, an increasingly liberal and urban society isn’t going to be spending money on hunting licenses.

It is a perfect storm of bad ideas from the right and the left.  It is easy for hunters to attack urban people. We all have this concept of the New Jersey cat lady, who has 25 cats in her house and does TNR with the alley cats and goes to great length to raise hell when the bear season comes every year.  That is someone who definitely does exist, but it is a caricature of what liberal, urban America actually is.

Most people who live in these areas vote Democrat, but they don’t really have a strong opinion about hunting. And because they really don’t know anyone who hunts, they are very easily manipulated by animal rights organizations. They are manipulated by ignorance.

Ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. I’m ignorant about many things. We all are. If your day-to-day existence doesn’t include much wildlife, it is easy to think that those animal rights people actually do know what they’re talking about. If you don’t know anyone who hunts, it is easy to accept the premise that all hunters are right wingers who love their Donald Trump and Ted Nugent.

And hunters have responded to this stigmatization by wrapping themselves up in right wing politics, which will likely turn out to be the biggest strategic move that hunters could have made.

Right now, the Republican base is aging, and fewer and fewer young people each year register as Republicans. By wrapping hunting up into the greater ideals of conservatism rather than conservation, hunters are going to suffer greatly as the next generation of voters shuns the Republican Party.

That’s going to be bad for wildlife, too. They will not be buying tags for hunting, and they won’t be buying guns and ammunition either.

So both revenue sources for the North American Model will be drying up.

One could simply add canoes, camping equipment, and cameras to the goods subject to the Pittman-Robertson taxes, because then you’d have non-hunting wildlife enthusiasts paying for conservation.

That solution would require legislation, and I am not certain if people who are engaged in those activities would support those taxes. Businesses that sell those items would likely not be happy with adding a cost to their sales prices.

So the only real solution is to find a way to destigmatize hunting for the younger and more urban generation.

The first thing that hunters who are interested in the future should do is take on the cause of conservation.  It is not helpful for hunters to be deniers of scientific facts, especially when it comes to climate change. People under a certain age will not buy any of that stuff.  Demographically, that battle has been lost, whether you’re right or not. (And you aren’t).

If you can sell hunting as an ethical way to manage forests, say show how killing a some white-tailed deer every year promotes the regeneration of oak forest, then you’re making some headway. Also show how humanely you kill a deer, explain that a single shot to the heart, which is kills in seconds, is far more merciful than a lingering death in the March woods when all the acorns are gone.

The other thing hunters must do is realize that conservatism is a lost cause. Conservatism isn’t going to save your guns, because consevatism is a discredited ideology for the generation that is about to take power. What will save your guns is recognizing the need for meaningful gun legislation and making dead certain that you understand that hunting is primarily about conservation. It is a “green” idea to hunt deer, and being green isn’t a bad thing, because it ensures that wild places will continue to exist.

If you’re going to hold onto these ideas and attack young people, then they will not listen to you, and they WILL listen to the animal rights extremists, who honestly don’t have a very good grounding in conservation principles at all. Animal rights extremists know how to do publicity right. They know how to do politics.

Most hunting organizations know only how to operate in a system in which conservative politics reigns or has the potential to reign. The new world for hunting organizations is figuring out how to exist in a society that doesn’t regard socialism as a dirty word and views climate change as a major issue that must be addressed.

Hunting can survive, but only if hunting organizations realize that real world has changed. And it’s up to us to be much more effective at destigmatizing field sports.

I know this is easy for me. I’ve never been a conservative. I was raised in a family of liberal deer hunters, so it’s not like I really have to change my approach.

But I am only one person.

For those hunters who disagree with me, I have two questions:

Do you really think Ted Nugent has changed the minds of enough young people to keep hunting a part of America’s conservation heritage for decades to come?

Do you think Donald Trump has added to his electoral base since the 2016 election?

You know the answers to both questions.

And that’s why we are going to have this big challenge ahead of us for the future of hunting and conservation in this country.

 

 

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Trump Jr with coyote he killed

Donald Trump Jr and Canis latrans.

I am in an odd place politically. I suppose one of the worst things about living in America now is that we have decided what tribes we belong to, and the two tribes have gone to war.

Don’t get me wrong. I know which tribe I belong to. It was somewhat preordained because I was raised in the one the last FDR-style liberal family still left in the backwoods of West Virginia.  No one in my immediate family voted for Trump, and I didn’t either.

I am also approaching my 35th birthday, which means my political views were largely set during the George W. Bush administration.  Let’s just say I wasn’t a fan.

But at the same time, I like to hunt and fish.  There is an assumption in the new tribal landscape of this country that if one calls himself a progressive Democrat that this political identity means that I side with the radical animal rights movement.

I don’t. Indeed, I oppose them as much as I do the right wing, but in this new era, it is really hard to explain to people that I am not a Republican.

I am well aware that the Republican Party and conservatism as construed now are entities that have a pretty bad demographic problem.  As time goes on, it will have harder and harder times winning elections.

And the sad thing is, hunting and, to a lesser extent, fishing have hitched their political wagons to that party.  Virtually all the celebrity hunters on TV are Republican. If they aren’t, they are either Canadian or are very quiet about not being Republican.

The problem here is obvious. In a few decades, the Republican Party is going to have a hard time winning elections, and the Democratic Party is full of people who have very negative notions about what hunting is.

I see so many hunters talk up Donald Trump Jr. as someone we should celebrate as a hunter. I don’t know how he is as a hunter, but for me and for a whole host of people my age and younger, he is not an admirable figure at all.  To me, he’s that guy who meets with people who work for the Russian government to get opposition research on his father’s opponent. To others, he’s that blowhard who thinks socialism is about taking candy away from children on Halloween.

I don’t care that he spent much of his youth learning to hunt with his grandfather, a gamekeeper for the state in Czechoslovakia, and I say this as someone who has more than a passing interest in Central European hunting and wildlife management systems.

If people like the Trumps and Ted Nugent are the representatives for what hunting is, then the whole enterprise is doomed to fail. It will fall apart as the Republican Party stops being able to win elections.

Who could save hunting?

Well, we’ve got to find someone like a 21st Century Aldo Leopold.  I have no idea what Aldo Leopold’s politics were, but he wrote about hunting and ecology in truly poignant ways.

And he never once came across in his prose as some kind of yahoo. He was a lifelong hunter, but he was troubled by some the axioms of the culture in which he lived.

aldo leopold german shorthair

Leopold would have real problems with a president who denies climate change and allows fossil fuel companies to operate with impunity. He would have taken great issue with current moves to dump off public lands into the hands of the states or private interests.

To save hunting, we must find away of connecting the act with affirmative conservation. Most people live in urban areas. Their understanding of the wild is mostly from digital content now.

They cannot see or fully understand that hunting plays a major role on our North American model of conservation. In our system, wildlife is managed as a public trust, but most the fees that go to support research and conservation come from the sale of ammunition and hunting licenses. As those fees dwindle, it will become harder and harder to fund research and conservation projects.

And that will ultimately be bad for wildlife.

Further, hunting itself plays a management role in the ecosystem. Ever since the first people came down into this continent from Siberia, humans have been managing wildlife. When Europeans arrived here, they found many different nations of people who actively engaging in managing wildlife and maintaining habitat. It is well-known that fire was used to maintain good grazing for deer in open parts of the Northeastern forests, and they were actively working on creating conditions on the land the produced enough wild animals on which they could survive.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Americans began to realize that we’d wrecked our wildlife heritage, and hunters were among those who led the movement to preserve species.

The white-tailed deer, for example, was quite rare by the early part of the twentieth century, and so state after state began to set up wildlife management programs for them. In a world in which wolves and cougars had been mostly killed off, the deer recovered very well. Indeed, when I was in my adolescence, the deer were so numerous in parts of West Virginia that there were very real concerns that they would eat the forest down around them.

Liberalizing hunting on the deer has helped cut those numbers back. In most of northern and central West Virginia, the doe season has been lengthened out. In some counties, one must kill a doe during rifle season in order to use a second buck tag.  This provision has resulted in higher doe kills. If one kills a mature doe, then you’re removing three deer from the population: the doe and the two fawns she will have the next spring.  Thus, the numbers can be reduced fairly quickly if the does can be targeted in this fashion.

Some anti-hunters might say that we should just bring back wolves and cougars, but the North American continent as it exists now will never tolerate wolves and cougars on the land at the same levels were around at the time of European settlement.  Suburbanites raise hell when coyotes set up shop, and they certainly would lose it if they saw a pack of wolves chasing a deer through a golf course.

So we’re going to need hunting to preserve what wild remains. When humans hunt, we assume the role of the predatory beasts we’ve extirpated, but we also assume the role in the ecosystem that we’ve held for the past 300,000 years.

You would never get such a discussion from the current avatars of hunting in America.

A few weeks ago, I decided to watch one of these hunting shows on television. It was primarily a white-tailed deer hunting program, and it had a hokey little intro.

And it went downhill from there. In the first minute and half, Al Gore was mocked for believing in climate change.

I didn’t watch another second. I changed the channel and began to wonder what these people are thinking.

Yes, they are pandering to an audience, but that audience is becoming a smaller and smaller part of the country.

And in this accident of the electoral college and gerrymandering, we are watching a minority of the country’s wishes being imposed upon the majority.

A backlash is certainly brewing, and hunters could very well be collateral damage.

I suppose I can see it because I am part of an even odder minority in the American political system, but I can see what is coming very clearly.

And hunters better do a better job reaching out to constituencies that aren’t on the right, or we’re toast.

 

 

 

 

 

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IMG_6287

My deer season was unproductive, but I spent enough time on oak-lined ridges to realize that this summer had produced a bumper crop of gray squirrels.

I prefer gray squirrel meat (yes, Americans eat squirrels) to venison anyway, and I managed to drop these three.  I shot them with an 20 gauge (Stevens Model 940D). I shot two out of trees, and the third came running up a log toward me while I was sitting down.

 

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Here’s a good video of German hunters going after hares and pheasants with an assortment of dogs, including Drahthaars and Kurzhaars as well as at least one Langhaar and a wire-haired teckel.

There is a lot of ceremony involved in German hunting traditions, but I particularly enjoy the dog that howls along with the horns at the end.

 

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