As part of a family that has always had access to a large amount of land, you can be sure I have a few opinions on hunting. Given my record of random opinions, bet you’re not surprised.
Dad has worked here on this ranch for close to 50 years. With the job comes the privilege of 170,000 acres of stunning and varying Montana landscape that serve as our workplace and home.
Dad is a cowboy’s cowboy; he has zero interest in hunting. I’ve seen him shoot a gun maybe 10 times in my life, and then only to exterminate a skunk or put a suffering animal out of its misery. We receive beef as part of our wages here at the PV, so we have never wanted for meat.
However, we Arviks are well-accustomed to hunters desiring permission to hunt on this land where we are privileged to live and work. Hunters show up here almost year-round. They want prairie dogs in the summer, geese and coyotes in the winter. But it’s in the late summer and fall, of course, that we see the largest influx of weapon-toting game-seekers — those holding state licenses and wanting to harvest deer, antelope, and elk on this property.
As I was growing up, my parents, the ranch managers, wrote permission slip after permission slip for the hunters who pulled into our yard. Then, about 15 years ago, most of the ranch land was enrolled in the Block Management program operated by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. (The state-run, warden-governed BM program has been around since 1985, but was significantly expanded across the state in 1996, and operates as a cooperative agreement between private landowners and FWP. Its intent is to help landowners manage hunting activity and to provide hunters with free public hunting access to private land and landlocked state land. FWP pays landowners to participate.) Though we, as land managers, hear a few complaints that Block Management might be corrupt or that state hunting laws these days are ridiculous, Mom insists Block Management is a much better hunting-management approach than what we were doing before. She says she was very relieved to hand the responsibility of hunting coordination and permitting over to the game wardens… because she was tired of waking up at 6 a.m. on Sunday mornings to five vehicle loads of hunters waiting at the front gate for their permission slips.
Honestly, in my mind, I kinda group hunters into a “radical/crazy” group. I’m a little like my parents: I just can’t conjure up a lot of love for gun-toting, camouflaged, property-rights-challenging folks who spend inordinate amounts of time securing small amounts of meat, especially when we’re wading through our busiest time of year here on the ranch, which is weaning cattle in the fall. For the most part I was raised to regard hunters as proverbial flies: pests that show up annually, in their season, and around whom we must accomplish our real work.
But, all teasing aside, I realize most hunters are good folks, and the men who’ve married into our family have broadened my view. My brother-in-law is a trapper (now, predator control is a pastime I can get on board with) and my husband has this unfathomable (to me) desire to don camo and collect guns and peruse the hunting regs magazine every summer. My husband has helped me to see that, whether I understand it or not, hunting access is something many desire and which we, through our job, can share with folks we care about. Last year I was pleased that Beau got to share hunting time with a few special friends of ours and, even better, with our newly-minted-hunter of a nephew.
The Block Management and the sheer size of this place, though, mean that many of the hunters who come through are strangers to us. Of all the strangers who have traveled the roads of the ranch during hunting season in my lifetime, I’ve seen some good ones and some bad ones. I’ve witnessed an SUV full of hunters careen through a herd of bulls we were trailing down the gravel road, barely slowing down and almost running over my good dog. Those people I would’ve shot at if I’d had a gun. (Here’s a tip for you: if ever you are driving and approach an oncoming herd of cattle, common courtesy dictates that you pull over, stop your vehicle, and wait for the cattle to move past you. If you approach from behind, just follow slowly in your vehicle until the cowboys indicate it is safe for you to go by or through the herd.)
Well now. Where were we? Oh yeah, the SUV full of ignorant hunters. Another good one is the guy who wined and dined our family all year long in anticipation of hunting rights; he delivered several store-bought cakes to my parents’ home and even ordered the Schwan’s man to drop off a gallon of vanilla ice cream bi-weekly. It truly became overwhelming; it was like the twelve days of Christmas. We got a few laughs at that old boy’s expense when he finally realized that the piece of land which he desired to hunt wasn’t even within the ranch’s jurisdiction.
But, on the flip side of the coin, our family has been the recipient of many good and heartfelt gifts which were unnecessary but were tokens of appreciation from people so thankful for the opportunity to hunt. Framed Tim Cox prints, homegrown food, even garage doors have been given with thanks. (Garage doors? you say. Yep, there’s a fellow who comes to hunt geese every winter who has an overhead-door business in another state; he offers in exchange for his hunting privileges free parts and labor to maintain the many problematic garage doors around here. His knowledge and willingness have been a blessing to us, leading my husband to come to the conclusion that in an ideal world, that’s how hunting ought to work: what skill can a hunter trade — to us, land managers who have more work to do than can realistically be done and who manage a restrictive budget for improvements — in exchange for hunting access?)
Another thing on the good side of the coin: I’ve witnessed an antelope hunter on Froze-to-Death climb to his feet from a prone position after waiting patiently as cattle drifted by him for an hour or more in a slow gather; we had no idea he was in the vicinity until the last of the cattle went by him. His care was indication to me that hunting and ranching can co-exist peaceably if both sides practice a little respect. Hunters, just recognize that the main and most important thing going on here is the cow operation. And in return for your respect, we promise not to make too much fun of your outfit!
Speaking of Your Costume and Makeup
The commercialization of hunting amazes me because otherwise-sensible folks fall for it hook, line, and sinker. From hunting shows on television to the herds of people that march through Cabela’s and Bass Pro stores to buy guns and gear, from camouflage vehicles (why?) to the (poorly-edited, by the way) hunting magazines that fill the racks… hunting has become mighty big business in recent years. It’s like we’ve all got waaaay too much money to spend. My own husband is fond of pointing out that plaid was the original camouflage… and buckskins even before that… but that doesn’t stop him from wanting to outfit his drawers with a complete Kuiu wardrobe (and bright orange accent pieces to go over the top of the camo, of course). According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, hunting enthusiasts spent a total of $33.7 billion on hunting products and services in 2011. How did the simple act of bringing home meat for the family turn into such an outrageously expensive, time-sucking, rooted-somewhere-other-than-in-common-sense activity? Haven’t we Americans, as usual, sort of moved beyond the point to frivolity? As I teased a town buddy of ours who spent a lot of summer and fall weekends with us as he was “getting a feel for the land” and “scouting for big bucks” and who has thus far this hunting season come up empty-handed… if he was a real Indian, he’d be mighty hungry by now.
The Elephant in the Room
The last point to bring up is one that probably won’t be well-received but which is at the crux of the hunting issue for me. Here’s the ugly truth: I believe a lot of folks, men especially, use “hunting” as a selfish weapon against their families.
You say you hunt to procure a freezer full of meat to feed your family? I can think of no nobler pursuit and support you 100%. By all means, harvest the game to feed your family. You say that hunting is a tradition and experience you want to share with your loved ones? That’s great; please bring your wife and kids along and teach them about gun safety and the age-old tradition of harvesting meat.
Maybe you say you just need a little time by yourself in the wilderness. Understandable. Maybe you value the camaraderie of hunting with buddies. Fine; everyone knows a fella benefits from a little guy time. You say you yearn for the challenge and ancient connectivity of a hunt? Okay; I’ve thought long and hard about what drives folks who have a passion for hunting, and I’ve decided that they must be the descendants of the hunter/gatherers and warriors of ages past. Weapons and ridge-running just seem to be in some folks’ blood, and who am I to deny you who you really feel you are deep down inside?
BUT. If you’re a husband and daddy who invests more time in hunting than you do in your family — if you rob your family of time with you in order to be out hunting — you are neglecting your most important duty and your wife is a saint for putting up with you. Me? I’d run my cooking knife through your drawer full of camo and over your bow string. Guys, hunting is not a right, but a privilege… not only when you’re negotiating for land access but also when you’re negotiating your family’s time. Please don’t use hunting as a selfish excuse to abandon your family’s ship. Maybe you DO deserve a little time all to yourself. But I bet your wife deserves a little time to herself, too — and anyhow, life just isn’t all about getting what one deserves.
The winter I was pregnant with our second baby, my husband became enamored with coyote hunting. I cringed and put up with it for a few weekends; he seemed to be desiring guy-time with his buddies and an escape from his workplace, which also happens to be our home. But then came a frigid Sunday in January when I took our little 2-year-old boy to church by myself and brought him home to a very empty, very dirty house by myself. I was highly pregnant, suffering a terrible cold that had stifled my ability to breathe, taking a cold medication which was causing heartburn, and I really thought I might die before I delivered this baby. All afternoon, waiting for my husband to come home from coyote hunting, I stared dismally at a pile of dirty dishes that wouldn’t disappear of its own accord. I had never felt so abandoned in my life. I still remember that coyote-hunting season of our marriage as the one in which we came closest to divorce, and to this day I associate coyote hunting with broken-heartedness.
(By the way, guys, I’m totally on to you. I know that coyote hunting is not about killing coyotes. As I like to point out to my husband: if he really wanted to physically kill a coyote, he could do just that in the horse pasture right here behind the house. The horse pasture is overrun with coyotes that yap all night long and which truly need to be shot at. But he doesn’t want to do that. What he wants is to put on his camouflage and go somewhere with his friends for the day. Which is fine. Now that we’ve all admitted that’s what’s really going on here.)
We’ve finally come to the conclusion in our house that Daddy — who works outside six days a week — needs to take care of some business in the house before going hunting. That “business” might include helping out with housework, giving mama some me-time, and investing in three little souls who desperately desire their daddy’s attention.
Uh… What Was My Point Here?
At the end of the day, I guess I want hunters to know this: first and foremost, we’re trying to run a ranch here. Your hunt is secondary to us, and in fact, in light of all the work we have to do today, seems a little frivolous to us. But we know we’re lucky to have access to all this wild land through our job, and we honestly don’t believe we’re so special that we should be the only ones to enjoy the land… so we are pleased that you have a chance to appreciate the land while you’re here hunting. We just ask that you respect our work while you’re here, that you appreciate the chance to be out here… and that you go home to your family ASAP.
© Tami Blake