Hikers or not, our lack of gun-toting acquaintances wasn’t surprising. Hunting in America is a dying pastime.
In my home state of Washington, nearly one in three hunters has hung up his rifle in the past decade. It’s happening everywhere. Hunting permits are down 20 percent in West Virginia over the past 10 years. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the number of Americans who hunt has fallen 25 percent since 1980, to less than 13 million.
Hunting’s decline isn’t due to lack of game. Whitetail deer are overpopulated in 73 percent of their range. A century ago, only 50,000 elk roamed the continent. Today, the combined North American herds total one million strong.
The biggest culprit is land development. Specifically, the loss of private farmland, where much of the country’s hunting has traditionally occurred. According to the National Farmland Trust, two acres of prime American farmland are lost every minute. If hunting were hiking, that would be like losing one Grand Canyon National Park each year.
Hunting’s decline can’t all be blamed on the loss of open space, though. Powerful cultural forces have also been at work. Hunting is commonly passed down from fathers to sons and daughters. But over the past two generations, the hunting gene has withered on the vine.
I saw it happen in my own family. My grandfather was a duck hunter. When my father was young, Grandpa Barcott took him out for predawn shotgunning parties. “We went out with dad’s buddies, and they had a great time—cooking up steaks, hash browns, the whole deal,” Dad told me. “But by the time I got good enough with the shotgun to shoot ’em on the fly, in my early 20s, I found that I just didn’t want to do it.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“The ducks,” Dad said. “They were just too beautiful.”
Sooner or later, every hunter comes face to face with the same issue. To hunt is to kill a living creature. And we’re not talking about squashing a mosquito. In the early stages of my hunting interest, I browsed the rifle section of a Dick’s Sporting Goods store. My six-year-old son was with me. “Why do you want a gun, Dad?” he asked.
“I’m thinking about maybe going deer hunting,” I said.
He thought about that for a minute.
“Why do you want to shoot a deer?” he asked.
My answer was so half-hearted and halting that a passerby overhearing the conversation would have been embarrassed for me. Clearly, I had some philosophical work to do.
I went to the experts for perspective.
I put the question to Bruce Friedrich, vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and Ted Nugent, guitar hero and prolific hunter: Should we hunt?
Friedrich treated the phrase “ethical hunting” as an oxymoron. “There’s no ethical difference between shooting a deer and shooting a cat or a dog,” he told me.
“The deer has the same intelligence and range of emotions, the same capacity to feel pain.”
But don’t hunters help keep the deer population in check?
“Some people just enjoy shooting defenseless animals, and that’s one way they justify it,” he said. “Future generations will look back on our shooting animals with the sort of moral incredulity that we reserve for past abuses of human beings.”
When did hunting cease to be morally justified?
He thought for a second. “It could have been phased out 10,000 years ago, with the development of agriculture.”
Ted Nugent begged to differ. “Don’t let the lunatic fringe keep you from hunting,” he said. (Actually he emailed me between hunts. The Nuge is a very busy beast slayer.)
Nugent, of course, is the 1970s rock star who reinvented himself as America’s foremost hunter. Nugent views animal rights advocates like Bruce Friedrich as nutjobs divorced from the natural cycle of life.
“Do we really need to shoot wild animals when there’s a Safeway down the street?” I asked The Nuge. “Is this just murder as sport?”
“That’s like saying recorded music is available, so none of us needs to make our own,” he said. “Vegetables are on store shelves, so we don’t need to tend gardens. I’m sure we could find someone else to breed our wives for us, too. Not me. I have nothing to do with the mass assembly of food. I hunt, kill, butcher, and cook my own, knowing that it’s the healthiest, most natural nutrition available to mankind—while at the same time bringing balance to the environment. Remaining connected to the good Mother Earth is a driving force in all the hunters, fishermen, and trappers that I know.”
“Hunting,” Nugent assured me, “will cleanse your soul.”
As much as my soul could use a scrub, I didn’t put a lot of faith in the Motor City Madman’s method. I doubted that any epiphanies would come attached to a smoking gun. At the same time, I found myself falling closer to Nugent than to the guy from PETA. I’m an enthusiastic carnivore. Over the past 40 years, dozens of cows, pigs, and chickens have been slaughtered on my behalf—butchered out of sight and out of mind. Like a lot of Americans these days, I’m trying to live closer to my food. I’m eating backyard vegetables and buying eggs from my neighbors. I decided it was time I met my meat.