Monday, June 15, 2009

Hanging with the Wild Hunters

I had the pleasure Friday night to sit around the campfire with some of my heroes: The hunters and fishermen who run the Colorado chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is a national organization founded in 2004 that has filled a void and closed a schism in the battle to protect wild country: It finally gives sportsmen and sportswomen a place to unite in the defense of wildness and wilderness, but in the name of hunting and fishing. Prior to this group, so-called "environmentalists" and wilderness defenders were perceived as being in opposition to sportsmen, and vice versa.

Even though hunters and fishermen standing up for wild habitat is a tradition that can be traced back to Teddy Roosevelt and earlier, for generations this natural alliance has been kept severed by the generally ideologically (an also illogically) anti-wilderness stance of traditional "sportsmen" groups. And traditional "environmental" groups maintained a leeriness of hunters and fishermen, largely because of the reactionary pro-motorized and mechanized "sporting" mindset maintained by those industry-backed so-called "sportsmen" groups.

Enter BHA. Here is a group that argues -- eloquently and fervently -- that hunting and fishing need big, healthy, roadless wilderness and wild country. And that it's needed not just for the wildlife that is the object of their woodsmen passions, but also for the health and spirit of those hunters and fishermen themselves.

The group, then, takes some surprising -- and welcome -- stances that stand in stark opposition to the industry-co-opted sportsmen organizations and publications:
  • That hunting and fishing are activities enjoyed by both men and women.
  • That non-motorized, human-powered, low-tech ways of getting around and doing that hunting and fishing is better and healthier for both the land and the people out on it.
  • That these places and traditions need to be preserved not just for today, but for future generations. Toward that end, BHA has a strong componnet of education and family that is meant to reintroduce the values of hunting and fishing to America's youth.
Good people doing good work.

And there was no better place to get to meet and talk with these good people than around a campfire and under the stars of a lovely San Juan Mountain night.

Below is a profile I wrote of the group when it first organized.
Solitude. Tradition. Challenge. Freedom. Health. Family.

Now there’s a list, eh? And how do you come by those good things?

By hunting and fishing in big, wild, open spaces, according to the vision of a new sort of environmental group. Or a new sort of hunting organization. Or a new kind of fishing advocacy club. Or whatever it is, for unlike any other kind of pro-wilderness coalition out there, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is all those things.

“Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is dedicated to quality and ethical hunting and fishing opportunities in the wildlands of North America, and the aggressive protection of wilderness and other backcountry habitat for fish and wildlife, upon which these great traditions depend,” states the group’s proclamation.

Their statement continues: “We are dedicated hunters and anglers who cherish the peace, solitude and challenge of the backcountry experience. As hunters and anglers, we know that our continued enjoyment of these traditions is dependent upon the protection and enhancement of a healthy environment.”

“At no other time in history have our traditions been threatened like they are today,” the message concludes.

Those “threats” to those traditions and the backcountry they require include the federal government’s recent rescission of protection for the country’s last 58 million acres of roadless land outside of Wilderness Areas. Roadless areas are vital habitat for large animals such as elk and bear, as well as providing essential native trout fisheries. The effects of roads -- even small logging roads and ATVs trails – and the access they cut into backcountry areas include increased human visitation and impacts, stress and altered natural behavior for wildlife, stream sedimentation, engine noise, access for poachers, and the spreading of noxious plants. Roads also disqualify areas from future Wilderness designation.

To counter those threats, BHA aggressively supports roadless area protection and Wilderness Area designation. It also, though, goes beyond these issues to also advocate for the reintroduction of predators such as wolves where viable, off-road vehicle restrictions, and minimizing technology for hunting and fishing -- all stances that stand in direct opposition to the messages conveyed in most modern mainstream hunting and fishing media, where wilderness “locks up” the land, roadless areas prohibit access to backcountry, predators steal “our” game, and ORVs and technology give you the edge up on those wily animals (while providing big advertising dollars in those glossy sportsman magazines).

It’s a radical approach, then, uniting hunters and anglers by promoting the protection of wild country and healthy ecosystems. The key rallying point is a shared valuing of tradition: renouncing motors and gadgets in favor of muscle and mind in pursuit of game. But it’s not a new philosophy, argues BCA co-founder and chairman Mike Beagle.

“It’s the freedom to hunt and fish in solitude, without urban excesses, and with challenge,” he explains. “It’s an old-fashioned way of doing things, that says it’s demeaning to wildlife to use technology to show our mastery over wildlife.”

Beagle, a former army officer, high school teacher, and football coach living in Oregon, refers back to Teddy Roosevelt when he talks about “the doctrine of the strenuous life”-- getting yourself in and out of the backcountry by your own power, and meeting your prey on their turf and level. All it requires is leaving the land alone, and leaving the toys at home. Which, of course, would also keep many of the motor-and-technology-dependent so-called hunters and fishermen at home, too. Like it used to be.

So that’s the solitude, tradition, challenge, and freedom parts. From that, the health and family benefits of low-tech adventuring in motor-free backcountry are gravy, says Beagle. “There’s also the added value of it being great for families. Real ‘family values.’ And it doesn’t cost like a theme park. All we have to do to get into it is sweat. We have to earn it. And even at a young age, kids understand the idea of earning it.”

“We just have to protect the solitude and challenging environments, by educating hunters and anglers about wild habitat,” he says, summarizing BHA’s approach. “We’re not against anything – we’re for things.”

Holly Endersby agrees.

“I joined because there wasn’t another organization out there that shared my values,” says Endersby, an Idaho-based outdoors writer, horsewoman, hunter, and angler. “All the rest were us-against-them groups.”

BHA, she says, appealed to her because of “their unique stress on protecting wild public country” and “a value that has lost its hold in the last few years – that killing should not be easy.”

“It’s important to me to get my own food,” explains Endersby, who also has become a member of the BHA board of directors. She says that she and her husband live on wild game, including elk, deer, bear, upland birds, and fish.

“It’s a privilege to hunt and take animals,” she says, “and when you work hard for something, you value it more.”

She and her husband frequently practice their traditional-style stalking in the nearby Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, in Idaho. It is this place that also taught her that “our public lands are every citizen’s gift,” she says, adding that she considers it “a civic duty to take care of them.”

“Most other hunting groups don’t address that, or defend that,” she complains.

Endersby also defines that “killing should not be easy” edict as non-technological hunting and angling. But weapon-wise, what defines “technological” or what level of technology is too much is an issue that needs to be put aside here in favor of unifying over keeping the hunt itself as primitive as possible.

“It’s those senses – a consideration of the needs and honor of the animals, the land, and the hunt itself – that puts BHA in a category all by itself,” summarizes David Petersen, the Durango, Colo.-based author and hunting ethicist whose books inspired the group according to Beagle. “A group embodying the best of the middle ground of common sense, decency, intelligence, and respect. A group that’s not just about rights, but also is promoting respect, responsibility, and resource protection.”

“Backcountry Hunters and Anglers embodies all the things hunters and anglers should become,” he says. He then adds pointedly, “And all the things we must become in order to continue doing what we love.”
Learn more about Backcountry Hunters and Anglers here.

Learn about the Colorado chapter of BHA here.

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