Although a few deer hunters are still out there, with muzzleloaders, most ended their season last Saturday. This fall, Maine hunters have pursued ducks, geese, grouse, woodcock, turkeys, bears, coyotes, deer, and more. While our numbers have declined in all types of hunting, this outdoor activity is still an important part of our heritage and economy.
Hunting Works for Maine, a state chapter of a national program, reports that 181,000 people hunt in Maine each year, including 40,000 nonresidents, spending $213 million and supporting 4,000 jobs.
And that’s not the whole story, because through our purchases of hunting licenses and permits, and payment of federal excise taxes on our equipment, we provide most of the money that funds the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s work to protect, manage, and sustain wildlife habitat and all the critters that live there — including those that we don’t hunt. From sporting goods stores to sporting camps, gas stations, and country cafes, Maine hunters provide an important economic boost to thousands of businesses statewide.
But there is no doubt that many Mainers are no longer familiar with hunting. And a growing number are actually antagonistic to hunting, believing that killing wild birds and animals is cruel and has no place in a civilized society. We’ve had battles over hunting in the Legislature, and two costly referenda on bear hunting and trapping, and we expect more of these battles in the future.
A wonderful anthology edited by Robert Elman and David Seybold and titled, “Seasons of the Hunters” (Ballantine Books, 1985), opens with this challenge: “How can we write with grace about an activity that many decent people have come to find distasteful, repugnant, even appalling?”
The usual justifications for hunting are well known and often offer no more than harsh rebukes to our challengers rather than real answers to their troubling questions.
We point out the hypocrisy of those who challenge the ethics of killing wild animals and then sit down to a chicken dinner. We argue that it is the dollars of sportsmen that fund important conservation and wildlife programs, and that we only take a portion of any population of game animals. We note how beneficial it is to provide your own food.
All true, but hardly satisfactory answers to the question: Why do you hunt? And the underlying question: Why do you kill? Most of us are content after a day afield with nothing in the game bag, but we go out with full intentions to put something in that bag. And therein lies the challenge — how to explain the killing to non-hunters.
On a cool, crisp fall afternoon, I lifted a well-practiced shotgun to my 12-year-old shoulder, sighted along the path of a colorful male pheasant that had exploded out of the field in front of me after our English setter pointed it, and fired the first killing shot of my life. Dad stood proudly beside me while our setter quickly retrieved the bird.
Every moment of that hunt alongside the north shore of Maranacook Lake remains vivid to this day. That is one reason I still hunt. It is my heritage. Dad and I hunted together for 53 years, and since his death, I always wear a piece of his clothing when hunting so he’s still right beside me.
We also hunt because we are good at it: the mastery of skills, the defeat of a worthy opponent in his own habitat, where he has most of the advantages, and the stealth and knowledge necessary to put game into the bag are all important ingredients. There is an element of pride involved, too, in displaying one’s skills to your hunting buddies. But there are lots of hunters who are not all that successful, so that doesn’t fully answer the question.
I love grouse and venison, but not every hunter does. So that’s not the entire answer either. My hunting buddies are an important element, with a shared accumulation of experiences, relived and retold over and over again. But some hunters prefer to hunt alone, so we’re still not quite there.
I think you’d have to be in the woods with us to really understand this. This year, due to a frozen shoulder, I could not shoot my shotgun or rifle. But I was still out there, with my friends, just walking around in the woods. Last week I even went out once by myself, without a gun. I paddled downstream, rousting some ducks, then climbed the hill to sit in my favorite tree stand, barred owls started calling all around me. One flew down and landed close by, to look me over. So much happens to us when we are out there hunting. And oh yeah, a group of deer wandered by, too.
So there is my answer. I hunt because I need to, because not to hunt, even if no killing were allowed or physically possible, is unthinkable on a November morning, and because putting game in the bag is only one part of the hunt, and often not the most important part. It is one ingredient of many in a cake that, thankfully, continues to bake in our great state.