Writers on the Range

A former hunter laments the ‘shooter’ mentality

By Paul Lindholdt
Writers on the Range

Hunting fascinates me, and I read everything I can about it. So I was taken aback to read recently that in my state of Washington, there are 16,000 fewer hunters than there were five years ago. Another story focused on the failure of our justice system to curb rampant poaching, and I began to wonder why so few writers are concerned about hunting’s silent issue, the problem of the “shooter.”

Real hunters, I contend, show reverence for the game animals and birds that they kill, and they honor their prey in various ways. They obey state laws, care for the meat, enhance habitats, and maybe even say a prayer over what they’ve destroyed. Shooters, on the other hand, seem to care more about rocking the world off its axis with their own firepower.

The conservationist Aldo Leopold characterized the shooter’s impulse as “trigger itch,” a simple craving to blast away. Leopold regretted his own trigger itch after he shot a wolf with pups and saw the “fierce green fire” die in her eyes. His honesty has endeared him to millions of readers ever since his Sand County Almanac came out in 1949.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a born-again non-hunter. I swung guns and drew a lethal bead for 30 years. I was really good at hunting. Finally, though, my heart began to brim over with empathy for the dead. But that wasn’t all.

I saw game habitats in Washington shrivel under the pressure of human population growth where I came of age. I feared that my pastime only increased the damage done to sensitive and dwindling species, including black-tail jackrabbits, band-tail pigeons, mourning doves, sharptailed grouse and greater sage grouse, among others. But the greatest buzzkill came from having to interact with run-amok shooters.

When such shooters come on the scene, their expensive technology immediately changes the stakes of fair chase. Gun manufacturers have vastly increased the chances that shooters will score in the great outdoors, no matter how unfairly.

Shooters are also apt to fire illegally from roads. Pickup trucks creeping along rural routes are a dead giveaway. Another trick is spotlight-sweeping a field after dark. Public lands, private lands, highways, gravel roads, pastures, and even yards are prowling grounds for shooters too slothful to walk. When all-terrain vehicles are involved, it’s even worse. Whether firing from a road, or throttling down upon a herd to get a shot, the internal combustion machine’s pilot has taken technological advantage to an unfair extreme.

There are other subspecies of reckless shooters out there. One kind attacks road signs: Notice the bullet holes in state and county highway signs, both wood and aluminum. Other shooters chase their prey out of state, kill more than the law allows, kill protected species, or exploit military hardware to make the 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 because of underfunded agents and understaffed agencies, they sometimes slide a slippery slope and become cheats, poachers and slobs. Those who turn to jacklighting might bolt on spotlights that sport tens of thousands of candlepower to penetrate the night.

The upward trajectory of illicit shooters echoes the downward trajectory of legal hunting. Licensed hunters are becoming fewer all the time, a source of anxiety to those who endorse and enforce the sport. Some 13.7 million people bought hunting licenses in 2011, which is a drop of 400,000 from 20 years earlier, when the nation had 60 million fewer people.

Of course, not all gunners wallow in the gadgetry that gives bad shooters their edge. My best friend, Darryl, hunts from a tree stand with a black-powder rifle. He sips coffee, cradles his blunderbuss, and waits for the game to approach close enough to make his one shot count. He is a throwback to a simpler life and time, and there are others like him, among them archers who need to be close to their prey.

My oldest son has recently shown an interest in hunting. Sixteen years old, he enrolled on his own and passed a firearm safety-class online. I agreed to take him out and show him the ropes. I’ve told him, though, that my hunting days are gone for good.

Paul Lindholdt is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is a professor of English at Eastern Washington University in Cheney.