Hunting for Experience

Hunting is a quest for knowledge and wonder as much as a pursuit of game.
Hunters explore a meadow in the San Juan Mountains. Photo by David Lien.
Hunters explore a meadow in the San Juan Mountains. Photo by David Lien.

Hunting has always been driven by curiosity to discover what lies over the next hill and, accordingly, much of human exploration has been driven by hunting. Some 14,000 years ago, human migrants from Asia entered the New World. These people hunted and gathered wild animals and plants. Many of these Stone Age hunters, in what is today the western U.S., focused their predatory attention on giant, wide-horned bison. Today, Utah’s Henry Mountains are home to the only free-roaming, huntable herd of bison in the 48 contiguous United States.

Although there are few bison-hunting opportunities in North America today, many hunters from across the country venture out West to explore and experience places like Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana to hunt elk and other big game, including mule deer, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. Some hunters are ultimately successful in harvesting an animal, but many head home without meat for their freezers.

In Colorado, for example, each year only about 25 percent of elk hunters fill their tags.  Even for hunters who go after less wily deer—say, in Minnesota, where I was raised—putting meat in the freezer is no sure thing. During 2008, approximately 38 percent of Minnesota firearms hunters successfully killed a deer. During 2009, 32 percent were successful. In Colorado, the success rate for deer hunters is about 50 percent.

Hunting in Colorado is a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry, generating millions of dollars in revenue for local communities and hundreds of jobs. “It’s second to skiing and tourism,” says Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) spokesman Mike Porras. “Not only does it provide revenue to the agency, but communities depend almost entirely on hunting for their livelihood; it’s like the ski season for them.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the average hunter spent $2,484 on the sport in 2011. In Colorado, nonresident big-game hunters spend an estimated $216 per day during their trips, according to CPW. Additionally, fishing and hunting generate $4.3 billion in annual economic activity for the state. Ian McLendon, co-owner of Independence Pass Outfitting Company in Aspen, likened the cost and effort of a week-long hunt in the Rockies to that of a helicopter skiing trip elsewhere.

Colorado is home to the largest elk population in the world. Yet despite vast herds of elk, only around 25 percent of hunters are succesful each year.
Colorado is home to the largest elk population in the world. Yet despite vast herds, only around 25 percent of elk  hunters are succesful each season.

“Those people spend money; hundreds of millions of dollars in the state of Colorado,” he said. McLendon’s outfitting company charges $6,000 per person for a five- to seven-day, fully guided elk-hunting trip. Having an outfitter certainly increases a hunter’s chances of bagging an animal, but hunting in the backcountry is no small feat. “When you kill an animal in Colorado, it’s a big deal because it’s extremely difficult,” McLendon said. “That’s why it’s called hunting and not killing. This is as hard as it gets.”

Although McLendon has a high success rate among his clients, there are no guarantees, and it’s not all about bagging an animal. “Hunting takes you to the most primitive experience,” he said. “Killing the animals is secondary to the experience . . . you completely decompress, and while it’s mentally and physically demanding, it’s also cathartic. You get a sense of what it was like to live over 100 years ago,” McLendon added. “You find out what you’re made of . . . it’s a life-changing experience.”

Archer Rick Hooley and his San Juan bull. Photo by David Lien.
Archer Rick Hooley and his San Juan bull. Photo by David Lien.

Former Green Bay Packers quarterback, Brett Favre, had a similar experience hunting mule deer in Colorado during 2012. Favre, a lifelong outdoorsman, is a spokesman for Remington, and he finally put that relationship to boots-on-the-ground use with his first hunt out West. Favre says hunting is primarily about “the peace and solitude, and the chance to get away from everything. There’s nothing like it.” Favre isn’t a trophy hunter and adds, “Any day in the woods or hunting is a good day to me, but that mule deer was special. I had never seen one up close, and it was amazing to see the size of that animal … the country here just keeps going. It’s endless. This is as close to heaven as it gets.”

For those more focused on trophies, you might want to hear a camp cook’s perspective. In his cookbook, “Fish and Game Cookery,” Roy Wall writes, “The sportsman who bags a noble head, a monarch of a wilderness glade, has a just right to be proud, but in doing so he imposes double duty upon the camp cook, for, in most cases, the finer the head, the tougher the meat.” Clearly, motivation for hunting varies by hunter. Some go for the contest (athlete), others for the meat (utilitarian). Others hunt for the rack and bragging rights (trophy), while others go for the experience of the wilds (naturalist).

But hunters like Ian McLendon, Brett Favre, and Roy Wall (like most hunters, I think) head into the woods each fall (in part) for the experience of reconnecting with our hunter-gatherer past, and because they don’t care to always have an anonymous hit-man between themselves and their supper.

During the hunt we may kill an animal or we may not. In the end, it matters very little, because in searching and striving we shall certainly find other things, expected or unexpected, to add to and enhance our life experiences. The great Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gassett, wrote, “Animals hunt in order to kill; people kill in order to have hunted.” To hunters, that means we hunt not for meat or for trophy alone, but rather for the entire experience of hunting.

“Hunting is a quest for knowledge and wonder as much as a pursuit of game.”
–Author unknown

This story was written by David Lien. Lien is a former air force officer, chairman of the
Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and author of “Age-Old Quests II:
Hunting, Climbing & Trekking”

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