Early last month, I was blessed by more than a week with good friends hunting deer and camping on public land on and around Steens Mountain. This area of southeastern Oregon has great spiritual and emotional value for me, as I hold treasured memories of camping, fishing and hunting with my father and seeing friends and family blown away (and nearly blown over) while taking in the deep and vast Kiger, Big Indian, and Blitzen gorges.
Sagebrush, rabbit brush and aspen, basalt escarpments and glacier-carved valleys, and yes, even the feral horse herds, make up this grand place we know as the Steens.
Cultural anthropologists have a concept called sense of place to describe the important connections that people have with landscapes and Steens Mountain holds a special place in my heart. I have been brought nearly to tears on the drive upcountry from Fish Lake, as each bend in the road seems to wash another memory over me.
Having public lands like these to hike, hunt and camp and publicly owned and managed wildlife populations to pursue are treasures that we as Americans can easily take for granted. My own autumn experience in the Steens is an American experience, one that should instill pride and patriotism and no small amount of gratitude for the wisdom of conservation-minded lawmakers and leaders more than 100 years ago that make this all possible.
Under what is known as the North American model of wildlife conservation, wildlife is owned by the public, available for the noncommercial use of all citizens and managed following scientific principles for the benefits of society into perpetuity. Native threatened and endangered species, game and nongame species, predator and prey species; all are managed to persist and play their ecological role on the land.
We should all appreciate that this is a fortunate result of being citizens of North America. Throughout much of the rest of the world, wildlife populations suffer from unmanaged hunting for food or trophies.
In other areas, hunting is reserved for those either born into an elite class or who can pay their way to hunt. Instead of being managed as a public resource, animals (and the right to hunt) typically belong to the landowner to use, sell or lease as they wish. Hunting is really an activity for the aristocracy, for the connected and the wealthy.
In Germany, for example, citizens can hunt only if they are awarded a license after passing written, oral and shooting tests. They also must hold an additional hunting permit and proof of liability insurance and must have permission to hunt granted by a landowner (usually through a lease). Even the hunting rights on public forests are sold to private hunters, at prices that would be out of reach for most American hunters.
I can assure you, the hunters I saw this fall in the Steens are not part of the landed gentry. Yes, some drove $70,000 pickups pulling ATVs and/or camp trailers, but there were plenty of others like us sleeping in a tent or under the stars, driving older pickups, and perhaps even using rifles handed down from our grandfathers. The North American model allocates hunting opportunities equally, with each would-be hunter having the same opportunities to apply for and get these tags. Yes, it takes five or six years to land a Steens buck tag, but we all compete for these tags in a fair and equitable way.
The North American model of wildlife conservation arose in the late 19th century as our country witnessed the loss of wildlife due to uncontrolled market hunting, subsistence killing and habitat loss. About this time the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon disappeared from the wild and are now gone forever. The conservation model was driven by hunters, who demanded their own activity be regulated in order to sustain both hunted and nonhunted wildlife populations through time. Hunters are, and should be, proud of this legacy as North American wildlife populations are now managed carefully using the best available science.
As hunters, however, we need to remember that we are in the minority. Only about 3.5% of Americans and 8% of Oregonians hold a hunting license. Surprisingly, this hunting minority enjoys the support of much of the public. Recent polls show that about 80% of Americans see hunting as a legitimate activity, although trophy and predator hunting are viewed somewhat less favorably. We saw this in the Steens this year, as the majority of the people sharing the campgrounds with us were nonhunters simply enjoying the same autumn landscape but in a different way, and who seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing as hunters.
We have plenty to be proud of as Americans. We are committed to free and open elections. We believe in the equality of all citizens. We care about the welfare of the underprivileged and the opportunities for future generations. We care about the survival of wild creatures that depend on our landscapes and our actions, and we also care enough to develop and a commit to a model of conservation that works and is fair to all.
What can be more American than that?