Thursday, December 20, 2012

Why the Public Trust Doctrine is Important

Here is an excellent video from the Boone & Crockett Club on the Public Trust Doctrine. Historically the doctrine has been an important aspect of Orion's programmatic efforts: "Orion provides a forum to facilitate innovation and ideas and takes action to promote fair chase ethical hunting and address other hunting related issues; and through vigilance and advocacy to ensure the people's wildlife remain in the public trust."

I recommend that you take a few minutes to watch this important video and recommend it to your friends.

Boone and Crockett Country - The Public Trust Doctrine from Boone and Crockett Club on Vimeo.

Monday, December 17, 2012

When Silence Isn't Golden

In the still-developing national conversation about the complex issues raised by last Friday's mass murder in Newtown, CT, one constituency is oddly--I don't want to say ominously--silent: the National Rifle Association. As a long-time participant-observer in America's gun culture, I'm at a loss to account for this. Are they in some sort of denial? It's business as usual on their (very busy) web site, but their news feed carries nary a word about the school shootings. Why not? Why no acknowledgment of the story that has rightly captured the attention not simply of this nation but of the world? Why not even a note of sympathy or condolence? Inquiring minds, as they used to say, want to know. This one does, anyway.

I should make it clear where I stand re the NRA. I am not a member. I was, for a couple of years when I first started hunting and writing about it, but I dropped my membership for two reasons: One was Wayne LaPierre's notorious "jack-booted thugs" comment about Federal officers; I didn't want to belong to any organization that espoused that sort of inflammatory rhetoric. (I noted with some irony that former president George H.W. Bush cancelled his life-membership at the same time, for the same reason.) But my other reason was, actually, pro-NRA: Because on numerous occasions in various contexts I was called upon to write or speak about gun issues in which the NRA figured prominently, I reckoned I was on more solid ground on the occasions when I defended the NRA (and there were many) if I was not myself a member. I actually have a lot of friends who are NRA members. I am married to an NRA life member. I know these people are not the stereotypical gun nuts so often demonized by the Brady Bunch. I also know a lot of NRA members are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the organization.

The national Shooting Sports Foundation--headquartered in Newtown, a few miles from Sandy Hook school--immediately issued a simple statement:
“Our hearts go out to the families of the victims of this horrible tragedy in our community. Out of respect for the families, the community and the ongoing police investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment or participate in media requests at this time."

Would it have been too much to ask for the NRA to do likewise?

Or does America's most powerful gun lobby figure it is above all that? Perhaps they figure it was enough to unleash board member Ted Nugent to tell the right-wing internet news site Newsmax on Sunday, in an "exclusive interview," that the real problem was that schools like Sandy Hook Elementary are gun-free zones. That the twenty 6- and 7- year- olds were killed because they were "forced into unarmed helplessness." Surely the NRA can come up with a better line than this.

Or maybe they cannot, at least not under their current leadership. Maybe this is the end of an era. And maybe that is a good thing.

Mary Zeiss Stange is the author of Woman the Hunter (Beacon Press, 1997), Gun Women (New York University Press, 2000), and most recently Hard Grass: Life on the Crazy Woman Bison Ranch (University of New Mexico Press, 2010). She also edited Heart Shots: Women Write about Hunting (Stackpole, 2003) and Stackpole Books' "Sisters of the Hunt" series of classic works about hunting by women, and has published widely on women's and environmental issues in both the commercial and academic press. A professor of Women's Studies and Religion at Skidmore College, she teaches in the gender studies, environmental studies and international affairs programs. She divides her time between her "town job" in Saratoga Springs, NY, and the bison ranch in southeastern Montana that she and her husband Doug share with six Peruvian horses, two Springer Spaniels, a tuxedo cat and various wildlife.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Killing treed bears: Rejecting hype to find out for myself

Hounds work to pick up the scent of a bear that had crossed a Forest
Service road in Tehama County, California.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012
By Holly A. Heyser

Three years ago, I had a pretty low opinion of hunting bears with hounds. Being a relatively new hunter, I wasn't yet aware that even in the hunting community, there was disdain for houndsmen. I just didn't like the idea of a hound hunt. I preferred - then and now - ambush over chase.

It wasn't just that aesthetic, though; the big stopper for me was the idea of shooting a helpless and frightened treed bear. I always put myself in the heads of the animals I am about to shoot, or have just shot, and the treed bear's perspective made me cringe.

So, how was it that I found myself shooting a 225-pound black bear out of a tree this Sunday? It started with the Humane Society of the United States' campaign against bear hunting in California.

A bear track on a Forest Service

© Holly A. Heyser 2012
In 2010, California's black bear population was continuing to grow, and there was an effort to increase the "quota" - the total number of bears that can be killed by hunters each year. That, of course, caught HSUS' attention, and it launched one of its emotionally laden, fact-deficient campaigns.

One word in particular set me off: "trophy." The HSUS California lobbyist was being quoted in newspapers all over the state referring to "the trophy hunting of bears."

Hmm. Most hunters I know would love to get a "trophy" animal of any species, but most are also just happy to be successful on a hunt - smaller animals are fine.

This was nothing less than the organization's usual strategy for picking low-hanging fruit: Public support for meat hunting is very high - 85 percent - while public support for trophy hunting is very low - 28 percent (source: Responsive Management, 2006). Most non-hunters I've met interpret "trophy hunting" as "not eating the meat." Say the word "trophy" and you can count on fanning hostile sentiment among non-hunters. (Here's what I wrote on the topic in my blog that year.)

There was another component to the Department of Fish & Game's proposal: allowing houndsmen to use GPS collars on their dogs, making them easier to track down. I ignored this, because I knew nothing about it and really didn't much care for the whole hound thing.

Neither proposal passed that year. One year later, DFG tried again to raise the quota, but dropped the GPS tracking collar issue. This effort, which I blogged about here, also failed.

Then this year, there was a big public relations disaster: The president of our Fish and Game Commission, Dan Richards, hunted a lion with hounds in Idaho and sent a photo to a weekly hook-and-bullet newspaper, Western Outdoor News. What he did was legal in Idaho, but Californians had banned all lion hunting here. HSUS fomented outrage, and tried to get Richards booted from the commission. (Here was my take on that.)

Closed-door politics defeated that effort, but the HSUS still wanted to demonstrate its power, so it decided to go after hunting with hounds, partnering with Southern California state Sen. Ted Lieu to introduce a bill that would ban hunting bears and bobcats (but not pigs) with hounds.

Two Plott hounds ride atop the box on the back of a pickup,
chained to the box for safety. The driver cruises Forest Service
roads slowly in hopes that the dogs will detect the scent of a
recent bear crossing - called a "strike," which the dogs will
signal with their signature bark.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012
By this time, I had already begun trying to learn more about hound hunting from friends - people I liked and respected - who were familiar with it. Before I started hunting, my view of hunters was that they had to be sick to get off on killing. But watching my boyfriend learn to hunt, then deciding to take it up myself, showed me how wrong I was. Could I also be wrong about hunting bears with hounds?

After remaining silent on hunting with hounds in the previous debates, I now leapt to the defense of houndsmen, because it was becoming clear they were being caricatured - another typical HSUS tactic - as lazy rednecks who kick back while dogs do all the work.

HSUS also really hyped the "terrified, treed bear" image, and I'd heard so many houndsmen reject that depiction, which had been the core of my concern, that I began to doubt my assumptions. More on that later.

I took a long hard look at how I hunted, or to be more exact, the nature of the deaths I caused. I came up with three kinds:

* Some were my own Holy Grail: instant deaths that they didn't see coming. One pig I have shot died instantly, and probably half of the birds I've shot did as well (some of which didn't see it coming, some of which did moments before the shot).

* Some were close to my ideal: quick deaths. They didn't die instantly, but because I had hit lungs, they had bled out and died within a minute. Three big-game animals I had shot went this way (none of them saw it coming), and maybe a third of the birds I've shot did as well (again, some saw it coming, but others didn't).

* Some were cringe-worthy deaths: poor shots that merely crippled, leading to suffering that would last until I finished the job. One pig I shot went this way (found him and finished him off within five minutes) and all the remaining birds did as well (most finished off quickly, but undoubtedly some got away - it's inevitable). I have chased lots of birds that were trying like hell to get away from me.

I despise the third category, yet I accept that it is an unavoidable facet of hunting: We cannot shoot perfectly all the time, which means invariably I will have to chase an animal before killing it. If I could accept that, why could I not accept shooting a treed bear? I decided I would go on such a hunt to gain some firsthand knowledge.

A houndsman waits with me on the road
while the rest of our hunting party follows
dogs working cold bear trail in steep

© Holly A. Heyser 2012
The hunt could be an entire story itself, but I'll just hit the key facts here: We hunted 10 hours the first day, slowly cruising Forest Service roads with hounds riding atop the vehicles in hopes that they would catch the scent of a bear that had crossed the road, or that we would see tracks of bears crossing the road. No fresh tracks, no "strikes" - which is what they call the hounds' reaction to a fresh scent.

We had hunted that way for maybe five hours on the second day when we stopped to check out some tracks that seemed  reasonably fresh. The scent was so cold that no one was sure the dogs would be able to follow it, but they did, and within about an hour we heard the barking that indicated they had treed the bear.

As we set out toward the cacophony, my empathy reaction kicked in: I imagined what that bear was experiencing at that moment. I wondered if I could go through with it. Then I remembered why I was there: I had already decided to kill a bear on a hunt with houndsmen. I wanted and needed meat from a big-game animal in my freezer. And I needed to know - really know - what it meant to kill a treed bear.

When we got there, it went down fast. From one position, I couldn't get a shot. I shifted to a better position, and the bear started coming down the tree. Here's the thing: Bears will stay in trees over barking dogs for hours, unconcerned about creatures that can't climb up to get them. Humans, on the other hand, are a real threat, and bears are willing to risk contact with the dogs to get away from us.

As she started making her way down fast, I put the crosshairs behind her shoulder and pulled the trigger. She fell dead.

Did I hate myself for killing her that way? No. I had the same reaction I always do: I was grateful I had made a good shot, in this case doubly so because a wounded bear is dangerous, whereas wounded ducks, pheasants and doves aren't. I was grateful that I would be bringing home a LOT of meat. And I was mindful that I had ended her life, which is always - ALWAYS - a serious event, regardless of whether the animal sees it coming.

This is me with the bear I killed Sunday.
Would I do this again? Yes. While the road-cruising was tedious, I admired the dogs' skill and the houndsmen's fitness, watching them clamber up and down hills that had me out of breath in 10 seconds. When I last saw them on Monday, they were preparing to head out to an area that would require brutal hiking - no road cruising - something they'd tried to spare me on my first bear hunt.

Also, I like bear meat, and this is an effective way to get it.

Sadly, though, I will not be doing this again, because the California Legislature passed that bill. Hunting bears with hounds will be illegal next year, and I have tagged out for this year's season.

We've lost something here in California, and I wonder how many hunters - laboring under the same knee-jerk reaction I'd had - don't even realize it. I'm just glad I took the time to get to know something I didn't understand before it was too late.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Artemis Abroad

There is an old Slovak proverb: “A goat, a birch and woman do not belong in the forest.”

Well. That proverb was tested—and trashed—by a conference I recently had the privilege of attending, in Bratislava, Slovakia on the theme “Women and Sustainable Hunting: Experience, Nowadays and Future.” The conference was organized by the Club of Slovak Ladies Hunters, under the auspices of the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC—for Conseil International de la Chasse). An international gathering of female hunters on this scale was a first. Its goal was twofold: to bring together female hunters from a variety of national and cultural contexts, to compare their experiences and perspectives on sustainable hunting; and to celebrate the inauguration of “Artemis,” an international organization of women hunters established as a free-standing CIC working group. I was thrilled to be invited to bring a US perspective to what turned out to be a fascinating three days of presentations and conversation. And I was beyond thrilled when Sonja Sukepova, the  president of the Slovak Ladies Hunters Club and conference organizer, invited me to stay on for a couple of extra days, to hunt red deer, mouflon and wild boar with her and her family.
About sixty women attended the conference, fourteen of us presenters. All of the presenters aside from myself were from Scandinavia, central and eastern Europe, regions where hunting traditions and rituals run deep and where—as Tamas Marghescu, the CIC Director General put it in his introductory remarks—lady hunters have long, and unfortunately, been “looked at with a little bit of suspicion.” Sounds kind of familiar to American ears, that. However, when—after remarking that women are the “biggest growth sector” in hunting worldwide and that we may quite literally be the future of hunting—Tamas went on to say he was eagerly “looking forward to crispy innovations, to open the window wide for new, strong crisp wind and energy” in the hunting world . . .well, mild jet-lag be damned, I started feeling pretty downright crispy myself. And the ensuing days of formal and informal presentations and interactions with a surprisingly diverse group of outdoorswomen ranging in age from their twenties to their seventies, and in profession from academics and attorneys to museum curators and wildlife professionals, turned out to be a breath of fresh air indeed.
This was my first on-the-ground exposure to European hunting culture. And what is immediately striking is the depth to which hunting is a culture in and of itself there. As Marghescu put it, “Hunting is not a hobby, it is a lifestyle.” While many hunters on this side of the Atlantic might readily agree with that assertion, I think most Americans (the ones I’ve spoken with over the years, anyway) fail to grasp the essential role played by European customs that we often tend to write off as quaint “remnants” of an earlier time: the ritual of the hunting horn, the bit of grass or forage placed in the mouth of the freshly slain animal, the extensive artistic and crafts traditions relating to the hunt, the sartorial tradition of hunting clothing not simply for the field but for business and dressy occasions. Indeed, in the latter regard, this was the most fashionably turned-out hunting conference I’ve ever attended. Here is a group photo from the evening of the gala dinner, showing several women in traditional hunting formal wear (that’s yours truly in a standard American little black dress kneeling farthest to the left):
And by evening’s end, what were all these stylish women talking about? Guns and shooting. Calibers and loads, preferred rifle makes and models, favorite prey animals and the best methods and places to hunt them and ways to cook them, and other such ladylike topics!
There was another theme of conversation that grabbed me, that evening and throughout the three days we shared as a group: the idea that good hunting has a religious dimension. Now, this is a familiar idea to anyone who knows Yale sociologist Stephen Kellert’s groundbreaking work on hunter “types,” not to mention the work of writers like Richard Nelson, Gary Snyder, Ted Kerasote, Barry Lopez and others who have homed in on the idea that some kind of spirituality lies at the heart of hunting.  But, and not surprisingly given our own cultural history, there is invariably something deeply—dare I say ruggedly?—individualistic about American approaches to what Kellert developed in his “nature hunter” model.  By contrast, virtually every statement I heard about hunting from the women in Europe had a distinctly communitarian ring to it: hunting is not only a lifestyle, it is a communal way of life that people share intimately with one another, and that must be passed from one generation to the next. And it was generally agreed among the conference participants that more than ever before this matter of cultural transmission is women’s work. It is time, as Tibor Lebocky, head of the Slovak Hunter’s Chamber phrased it, to “build a new history for hunting in the future.” And this is what Artemis, the international women’s hunting club, hopes to be all about.
I was especially impressed by the way this communal emphasis played out in the various presentations on what women’s hunting clubs—and such clubs are far more common on the national and local levels in Europe than in the US—embrace as their primary activities and goals. Again and again, women from Norway and Denmark , Latvia and Russia, Italy and the Czech Republic and Hungary and Slovakia and Austria sounded common goals and described projects dedicated to achieving them. The goals had to do primarily with educating the non-hunting public about nature, wildlife conservation and sustainability: objectives that certainly rang true to my American ears.
But it was the array, and consistency across national boundaries, of methods for achieving these goals that struck me as refreshingly constructive and broadly forward-thinking.  While there were regional variations, every presenter stressed the following:
·         First and foremost, working with children. Several clubs already operate summer camps, for children ranging from kindergarten to their teens. There was consensus that these camps should be international in their make-up, to ensure cross-cultural communication as well as to instill awareness of and active participation in nature through numerous hands-on activities ranging from dog handling and photography to fishing, sport shooting and falconry.
·         Developing a media strategy to improve public perceptions of hunting. Interestingly, while the goal is to educate the public about the connection(s) between hunting and sustainability, the methods cited were largely—and I believe brilliantly—aesthetic rather than scientific: photography and documentary filmmaking competitions, art and jewelry exhibits, museum displays, concerts, game feasts.
·         Improving public opinion of hunting and hunters through philanthropic activities. Several speakers stressed the importance of charitable work—with the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised—as an essential piece of a broader consciousness about the hunter’s role in society.
Of course, these national and regional women’s hunting clubs also focused on hunter education and skills training in ways not dissimilar from the US’s “Becoming an Outdoors-Woman” (BOW) program. And they are in some cases facing the same barriers to women’s participation in outdoor sports as we do here: access to hunting areas, networking among women hunters and retention of hunters beyond the “novice” phase, overcoming cultural stereotypes about hunting as an “unfeminine” activity, and just plain finding the time as well as the places to hunt.  Additionally, in nearly every European context women form a smaller percentage of the hunting population than we do here in the States. But there, as here, female hunter numbers appear to be growing steadily.
And it struck me that these European women’s hunting clubs see their real work as beginning where BOW’s leaves off. Let me be clear here: This is in no way intended as a criticism of BOW, which I think is a terrific program, and which in fact I talked up in my own presentation on “American Dianas: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.” But BOW cannot do everything that needs to be done for women’s hunting in America. And, frankly, I don’t see too much else going on out there on this side of the Pond. Such women’s hunting clubs as we do have here and there tend to be very localized, and to focus on individualistic—at times “extreme”—hunting. Programs for women operated by the likes of SCI and the NRA are often costly and appeal to a relatively small niche of the female hunting population.  I really think we need to do more, and do better. And I think our European sisters have a lot of wisdom to share, in this regard. I’m looking forward to continuing, and sharing, those conversations . . . So, to be continued.
As to those two days of hunting in Slovakia—More on that to follow!

 Mary Zeiss Stange is the author of Woman the Hunter (Beacon Press, 1997), Gun Women (New York University Press, 2000), and most recently Hard Grass: Life on the Crazy Woman Bison Ranch (University of New Mexico Press, 2010). She also edited Heart Shots: Women Write about Hunting (Stackpole, 2003) and Stackpole Books' "Sisters of the Hunt" series of classic works about hunting by women, and has published widely on women's and environmental issues in both the commercial and academic press. A professor of Women's Studies and Religion at Skidmore College, she teaches in the gender studies, environmental studies and international affairs programs. She divides her time between her "town job" in Saratoga Springs, NY, and the bison ranch in southeastern Montana that she and her husband Doug share with six Peruvian horses, two Springer Spaniels, a tuxedo cat and various wildlife.