Even when you come up empty after a season of hard hunting, there are plenty of reasons to feel good about your role as a hunter.
I stopped for lunch at one of my favorite overlooks, a cliff of columnar basalt 500 feet above a creek meadow with a stunning view of the backside of the Tetons’ Cathedral Group on the horizon. After a long seven hours in the black timber, it was a relief to get out of the deadfall and shrub thickets. Nice to be able to see more than a hundred yards, too.
If it had been a casual hike, this would have been the high point of the day, but there was nothing casual about this walk. For five days, I’d been in the woods an hour before sunrise, back to the cabin two hours after sunset, combing a mostly vertical piece of Rocky Mountain high country for a bull elk. Just one. Didn’t have to be a trophy; in fact, a raghorn was preferable—plenty of tender whole cuts for the coming winter.
But the elk hadn’t cooperated. I’d been up at tree line, down in the canyons and nearly everywhere in between, 15 trail-less miles a day, give or take, until every joint from my neck down hurt and the rifle sling had cut a permanent groove in my right shoulder.
The elk sign said there was really no point in continuing. Over the course of the first day, I’d seen a dozen sets of tracks, individual animals headed in different directions. But by the third day, the tracks I turned up were old and all headed west toward Idaho. This, the sixth morning, had yielded no sign at all.
The area had never been stiff with elk, except for the week or two in early November when the park animals migrated through. According to Wyoming Game and Fish, fewer than 15 percent of the people who tried to kill an elk in this area actually connected, but over the previous five years, I‘d been one of the favored few, a circumstance I was inclined to attribute to hard work and a measure of skill, not blind luck.
This year, though, the elk had been exceptionally scarce. Hunting pressure wasn’t the problem—I doubted that there were more than a dozen hunters in the hundred square miles where I’d spent the week, and most of those hadn’t gotten more than 400 yards off the road. A dry summer? An early cold snap? Or maybe just the contrary moods of the local herd? I didn’t have a clue, but I’d run out of time and motivation. Cross over to the south rim and hunt your way back to the truck, I thought. Then pack up and head east.
As I made my way down to the meadow and the creek crossing, I tried to sort out my feelings. I could take some comfort in the part this hunt and others like it play in the fiscal and political affairs of wildlife conservation. In 2016, elk hunters in Wyoming spent nearly $10 million on licenses alone. That’s the largest single source of revenue for the state’s Game and Fish Department. I was part of that.
Nor was that the only way I’d contributed to the cause. Back in 1937, a group of far-sighted hunters committed the rest of us to an excise tax on arms and ammunition, which, in the years since, has been expanded to include archery equipment. It’s a little-appreciated program called the Federal Wildlife Restoration Program, or Pittman-Robertson after the men who sponsored the original bill in Congress.
Eleven percent of the price of the rifle I carried and the ammunition I fed it had gone to that federal wildlife restoration fund, the proceeds from which were later distributed to state wildlife agencies. In 2016, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department had received more than $13 million of that revenue. Nationwide, the support for state wildlife management from Pittman-Robertson amounted to nearly $700 million.
Of course, those “donations” were mandatory. I’d made them with full knowledge of the support they lent to conservation, but no matter how I felt about them, there was no getting around them. However, I’d made other expenditures that were completely voluntary and, in their way, just as important to the long-term well-being of elk and the places they live.
My trip across the state to hunt here had been a tiny part of one of Wyoming’s biggest industries: big-game hunting. In 2011, the last time such things were surveyed, expenditures for big-game hunting constituted a $200 million revenue stream in Wyoming alone. That presence in the state’s economy gives elk and elk hunting significant leverage in political affairs. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a survey every five years. The 2016 summary report was released this past August, but the full state-bystate breakdowns were not yet available as of this writing.
Then there were the memberships and contributions to nonprofit conservation groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. I didn’t even know how much I’d chipped in to such organizations, but I was pretty sure it was creeping up toward $1,000 a year. Mine is not an affluent household. As my wife occasionally reminds me, the carpeting is 30 years old, and the kitchen cabinets are in a deplorable state of repair. Still, we find a fair amount of money to contribute to conservation because, in the end, that’s more important. In this, we are no different than most of the hunting households I know. In 2016, American hunters spent more than $180 million on membership dues and contributions alone.
The membership dues by themselves keep fulltime professionals on the job, scrutinizing wildlife management efforts at the state and federal level, reviewing management plans on national forest and BLM holdings. And, like many other hunters, I try to do more as a member than just sending a check; I write letters to Congressmen, governors, state legislators and various other officials, supporting the good work and decrying the bad. This kind of political action has always been important in conservation, but it may never have been more vital than it is now, as special economic and political interests find ever more effective ways of overriding the programs hunters and other conservationists support.
The sum of all these things constitutes a powerful public-relations message to anyone who pays attention. Hunters definitely aren’t the only people who pay for conservation, but hunters contribute more. A lot more.
We do this because we want abundant, widely distributed populations of game, because such populations are an irreplaceable part of hunting. We also do it because we care about wildlife and wild places with an intensity that few other Americans share. Many of us are just about as interested in chickadees and wildflowers as we are in trophy elk and wilderness. And we put our money and our effort where our passions lie.
I pondered all those things as I picked my way down the mountain, and they offered some salve against the sting of coming up empty. Still, there were more personal considerations that lingered.
In my house, we’ve always kept our trophy elk in the freezer, not on the wall. This year, it looked like we were headed back to a diet of beef. We were going to miss the wild meat, not only because the ground round was expensive but because it wasn’t as good for us. Disappointing in the extreme.
Wyoming is one of the few places in North America where you can safely start a cocktail conversation with a stranger by asking: “Did you get your elk?” I knew that, back in civilization, I’d have to tell this story, several times, to people with more or less interest. And when I got to the end, there would be the inevitable raised eyebrows—“And what then?” It would be a joke without a punch line.
There was a measure of self-doubt as well. By this time in my career as a big-game hunter, I’d killed a fair number of elk, and the six days I’d just been through had been enough to shake my faith in my abilities. Anything I might have done differently? Something I’d missed? And to those questions, I had to answer: nothing I could think of.
As I walked, I remembered a gray January many years before, a day I’d spent in a fruitless attempt to catch up with a cottontail in the ragweed and blackberry tangles behind the house. I walked into the garage with the frozen legs of my jeans rattling against each other, broke the ice off the laces of my boots, and freed my numbed toes before stepping gratefully into the warmth of the kitchen in my stocking feet.
My dad was sitting at the table and looked up with an appraising eye.
I shook my head and gave him the short version of my tour of the local rabbit cover.
“Well,” he said, with a smile, “that’s why they call it hunting, not killing,” and went back to his evening paper.
In his unmatched treatise on the chase, Meditations on Hunting, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset considered the phenomenon of the skunked hunter at greater length with far more erudition and arrived at much the same conclusion.
“It is not essential to the hunt that it be successful,” he wrote. “On the contrary, if the hunter’s efforts were always and inevitably successful it would not be the effort we call hunting; it would be something else. Corresponding to the eventuality of the prey’s escaping is the eventuality of the hunter’s going home empty-handed. The beauty of hunting lies in the fact that it is always problematic.”
Another keen observer of hunting and hunters, Aldo Leopold, felt that the way we hunt counts for more than the game we take. In his essay, Wildlife in American Culture, Leopold wrote that “voluntary adherence to an ethical code elevates the self-respect of the sportsman,” an idea that offered some comfort as I made my way up the last timbered ridge.
When I examined the effort I’d made over the better part of a week, I found very little I would have changed and quite a little I felt good about. I’d seen a lot of magnificent country, hunted it carefully with hardly a lapse of focus, tuned to every movement, sight, sound and smell, every scuff mark in the pine needles, every mark in the mud, from first light to the far side of sunset. I’d hunted about as well as I knew how, and there was some pride to be taken in that, meat or no meat. The hunt had been true to a piece of advice my dad had given me with my first .22—always give advantage to the animal you hunt; never take advantage.
“If man wants to hunt, he can only, like it or not, make this concession to the animal,” the philosopher Ortega noted. “If man did not do this he would not only destroy animals, he would destroy, coincidentally, the very act of hunting which fascinates him. There is, then, in the hunt as a sport a supremely free renunciation by man of the supremacy of his humanity.”
There was no doubt in my mind that, over those six days, I had given up “the supremacy of my humanity.” Elk, 42; Madson, nothing. Or maybe not quite nothing. There was the memory of the mist clinging to the meadow in the gray dawn, the first light catching the tops of the lodgepoles, the scent of aspen and willow in the cool of the morning, the sweetness of the last wizened huckleberry of the season. And the silence, the perfect silence. Not quite nothing.
It’s my custom at the end of an unsuccessful big game hunt to fire one shot as I leave, a farewell to the country and a salute to the game. Looking back from the top of the last ridge, I chambered a round and, aiming high over the valley behind me, squeezed the trigger. In the ancient contest between hunter and quarry, I’d lost this round, but as the echo died away, I straightened my back and nodded to the black timber stretching away to the horizon and to the elk that sheltered somewhere in its shadows. One round, I thought, but not the last round. There will be other Octobers.
Chris Madson trained as a wildlife biologist and has spent 35 years as a writer and editor with two state wildlife agencies.