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A regional public media collaboration serving the Rocky Mountain States of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Does The US Need More Hunters?

Renee Bright / KUER

It’s pretty weird seeing my dad cut into the neck of a dead cow elk.

Like me, my dad Mike has never hunted before. He’s a software engineer. But now he’s wearing blue latex gloves, covered in blood, as he peels skin and fur off the animal.

“It’s a lot like getting ready for smoking ribs,” he said.

We’re in the middle of a three-day hunting workshop in central Idaho. It’s organized by a sportsmen's group called Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

A recent survey from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found only 4 percent of Americans hunt and that number has been dropping for decades. So Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is hosting workshops like this across the Mountain West in the hopes that more young adults will begin tracking, hunting and frying up wild game.

Graph of hunting rates.
Credit KUER
The rates in which Americans participate in hunting have been dropping steadily over the past several decades. While people in the Mountain West hunt more than the rest of the country, rates in the region are still on the decline.

So far, on day one, we spent hours inside a cold yurt watching hunting videos, learning rules and regulations and how to track an elk.

Now, on day two, we’re on our hands and knees trying to butcher one.

The carcass is sprawled out on a blue tarp in a parking lot.

My dad keeps his eyes trained on the job at hand, but all I can do is stare at is the dead elk’s limp head laying next to my foot. There’s also a rank smell coming from its neck.

Photo of butchering elk.
Credit Nate Hegyi / KUER
Mike Hegyi (right) helps butcher an elk during a hunting workshop in McCall, Idaho.

“It’s probably literally food that’s still sitting in there, partly decomposing,” said Eric Crawford, an instructor and Idaho Game and Fish Warden. “That’s what’s giving you that sour smell.”

These are the kinds of smells and scenes I need to get over if I want to learn how to hunt. I grew up in Wisconsin, surrounded by classmates who would take off school to go hunting on opening weekend with their dads, sit in a tree stand and shoot deer.

But I never learned the skill from my dad. He never learned the skill from his father, Frank, who was a Hungarian refugee. So my family grew up buying our meat from Piggly Wiggly grocery stores or after-school McDonalds.

As I got older, however, I learned about the big carbon footprint of beef and pork. And that’s got me thinking about eating wild game.

Class instructor and Idaho state wildlife biologist Katie Oelrich said that’s a big driver for a lot of adults who want to learn to hunt.

“There’s a really strong locavore movement,” she said. “Having to harvest your own animal, knowing exactly where it came from, knowing that it isn’t filled with any type of chemicals.”

But hunting advocates are facing an uphill battle in the United States.

Oelrich learned to hunt seven years ago and said it can be somewhat scary for adult newcomers.

“If your parents don’t do it, it’s intimidating to get into on your own,” she said.

That’s one reason why Oelrich began teaching the skill. Right now, we’re kneeling on the tarp as she takes the elks head off like she’s an ‘90s action star.

“The Stevan Segall head twist,” she said.

Afterwards, we butcher the meat on a table and throw the scraps into a grinder. The whole animal produces around 200 pounds of really lean, healthy meat.

Photo of workshop.
Credit Courtesy Mike Hegyi
Instructor Sawyer Connelly teaches students how to grind elk meat during a hunting workshop in McCall, Idaho.

The instructors fry up some of that meat in a cast iron pan and pass it around. It tastes delicious and feels hard-won. Of course, I just helped butcher the animal.

Even though I didn’t kill it, the instructors really stress the ethics behind getting this meat.

“I still have that sense when I walk up to an animal that I just shot of, somewhat, sorrow and deep respect for that animal.” Crawford said “I think if you don’t have that, there’s something wrong with you.”

The instructors spend hours teaching us the history of hunting and how it helped birth the conservation movement in the United States. Nowadays, sportsmen licenses pay for 60 percent of state wildlife agency funding. We also learn how to kill an animal quickly and humanely.

That’s the part I’m most nervous about. Around two-thirds of Americans have fired a gun. But despite growing up in rural Wisconsin, I never have.

Hunting expenditures.
Credit KUER
Americans spent more than $26 billion on hunting related expenses including travel, gear, license fees and public land use fees. Fees for licenses and public land use help fund conservation efforts across the U.S.

So on the third day of the workshop, we drive out to a shooting range. Crawford hands me a .243 Winchester rifle. It doesn’t kick back much, so it’s often considered a good rifle for beginner hunters.. We do a couple of dry runs without ammo and then he loads a magazine into the rifle.

I clumsily cycle a round into the chamber, look through the scope, aim and fire.

The sound is deafening and I instinctively close my eyes. I fire a few more times, and in different positions – lying prone on the ground or sitting cross-legged. I only strike the target a few times.

If I’m going to be a hunter, I’ll need to become a much better shot. That will take practice, as well as getting used to a rifle. But I’m not sure whether I can actually shoot a living creature. I asked my father if he wants to hunt.

“You know, I’m absolutely a hypocrite. I love red meat,” he said. But he also acknowledges that he often outsources the killing of that animal to a slaughterhouse.

“I guess I’m not totally objecting to hunting — especially the ethical side of it. And if it is for harvesting meat, I think maybe I’m a little bit more open to it then I thought I was,” he said.

As for me, I may just stick with fishing.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado

Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
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