column By: Jack Ballard | September, 19
It was not the end of elk season, but it was the last day Clint would be hunting. Two weeks remained in the season, but work and family responsibilities made the next seven hours the proverbial “last hurrah” for this hunter. Easing through a stand of lodgepole pines littered with droppings and rank with the scent of wapiti, Clint’s darting eyes spotted a small, unusual tree trunk some 60 yards ahead. He stopped, stooped and stared intently at the oddity, which morphed from a sapling to the dark brown leg of an elk.
Six measured, cautious steps revealed the bodies of not one, but two elk standing idly in the pines. On the left was a sleek cow. Fifteen yards to its right, the eyes of a young bull stared intently in the direction of the hunter. Squinting through his rifle scope, Clint could see four tines on an antler sprouting from the whorled hair on the bull’s head. The other carried five.
By the time the hunter took his next breath, the crosshairs found the shadowy crease just behind the elk’s shoulder. At the shot, both animals whirled and raced away. But one’s dash lasted but seconds. Less than two hours after dawn, Clint ambled back into his extended family’s hunting camp. Later, with the entire crew gathered around the table at dinnertime in the warm comfort of a canvas wall tent, Clint told his tale.
“Sounds like you done some good sneaking” remarked his grizzled old uncle. “But what worm addled your brain into poppin’ that cow when you coulda shot a bull?”
What worm indeed? Confronted with a similar situation with an either-sex elk tag lining the pocket of his shirt, the average hunter would immediately shoot the bull, thank his lucky stars and think himself a better hunter for conveying a carcass into camp with bark-stained bones on its head. However, from the standpoints of conservation, trophy hunting or culinary satisfaction, shooting the cow actually makes better sense, an argument Clint pressed on his fellows.
“Look,” he said, beginning an impromptu speech with a determined swipe on his sweaty brow, “I think I’m kind of like the rest of you guys. Really big antlers boil my blood, but beyond that I’m a meat hunter. That cow will probably eat better than the bull.”
A couple heads bobbed in agreement. If I was in Clint’s audience, one of the affirmative nods would be mine. The second-best cuts of game meat I’ve ever enjoyed came from the carcass of a young cow killed by my wife, her first elk (the best was actually a seven-year-old bighorn ram taken by my oldest son). The meat rivalled any cut of beef for tenderness and exhibited a delicious, mild flavor. Two seasons before Lisa dropped her cow, a young cousin of mine took a cow of similar age on the second day of the season. The tenderloins I grilled in camp the following evening were a huge hit, even earning a glowing review from a friend who is “okay” with wild game but claims beef is the far superior protein (I argue he simply doesn’t know how to cook wild meat). I have eaten the flesh of many bull elk in my lifetime, none of which rivalled those cows in terms of tenderness or taste.
Still on the stand, Clint forged on to explain some facts about conservation and habitat to his elk camp audience. The reason he had an either-sex tag was because wildlife managers were trying to reduce the local elk herd to maintain the carrying capacity of its winter range. Shooting a bull takes one animal out of competition for forage, Clint asserted, but dropping a cow more fully realizes management objectives by not only eliminating a single forage-consuming ruminant from the population, but by reducing reproduction as well. State big-game managers issue either-sex elk tags hoping to impact the female population, not the male.
A cursory look at population dynamics in Montana lends credibility to Clint’s argument. For essentially a decade, around half of Montana’s hunting districts have harbored elk populations over wildlife managers’ stated objectives. Currently in Colorado, more than 30 percent of the elk herds are 10 percent or more above population objectives. (In Colorado’s management structure, an elk “herd” refers to a regional conglomeration of animals that range over several game management units.) Several other western states also have numerous regions where burgeoning elk numbers threaten the health of habitat.
Where elk numbers chronically exceed management objectives, negative impacts to habitat occur not only for elk but also other species of wildlife. On winter range, for example, both anecdotal evidence and research indicate elk may overbrowse shrubs critical to mule deer sustenance. In the absence of other predators, human hunters are essential to keeping elk numbers in check. The most effective means of elk population control in such places is the regular shooting of cows.
Pressing on with his argument, Clint floated another observation. “You know,” he offered, “I’ve been doing some reading on elk biology. Mature bulls are more efficient breeding machines. Leaving older bulls in the population means fewer late calves. That makes for a healthier bunch of elk come winter.”
Clint launched the conclusion of his wall-tent oration with the biggest shell in his arsenal. Like many elk hunters across the country, the young woodsman stalks wapiti in a hunting unit open to “general hunting” where any brow-tined bull or antlerless animal can be legally taken. Two-year-old “raghorn” bulls represent the bulk of the bull harvest in such districts where older bulls routinely account for 5 percent or less of the male population.
“There isn’t a person in this tent who wouldn’t give a week’s pay to pack a legitimate six-point bull from these mountains,” he exclaimed emphatically, gazing intently into the eyes of his fellow hunters. “If we keep shooting every young bull that pokes his head out of the pines for meat, it ain’t gonna happen.”
Slumping into a folding chair near the woodstove, the 31-year-old felt a nagging sense of failure in the heavy silence. Then his uncle spoke from under the stained brim of a straw hat, his twinkling eyes matching the humor in his voice.
“You know sonny, you’ve made more sense in the last ten minutes than the previous thirty years combined . . . and you’ve given me something to ponder while I’m tryin’ to sleep besides a sore neck. Let’s hit the hay.”