This article on debunking hunting myths for writers is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
The Expert: Rebecca Mowry
Today’s expert is wildlife biologist Rebecca Mowry. Over the past 10 years, she’s spent countless hours in the field with wolves, woodpeckers, mountain lions, river otters, and a big salamander called a hellbender. We’ve had fascinating conversations about deer and predators and the evolution of migration patterns. You should follow her on Twitter.
Debunking Myths About Hunting
Most of my job as a wildlife biologist in Montana revolves around hunting: regulating it, monitoring the effects of it, sometimes even helping game wardens enforce it. My opinions about hunting have evolved greatly over the years, from adamant opposition that may or may not have developed as a result of watching Bambi and the Lion King in my formative years, to acceptance of hunting as a sustainable, beneficial way to procure food for the family.
If you’ve never hunted, or never picked up your state’s hunting regulations, the aspect of hunting may seem completely foreign to you, at least beyond its basic process and function. If this is you, and you want to include hunting in your story, read on for a discussion of some common hunting misconceptions.
Myth #1. You can hunt anything all the time.
Wow, definitely not. Hunting seasons across the country are, for the most part, carefully regulated for native game. This generally includes big game (deer, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, etc.), predators (black bears, mountain lions, wolves), and hunted birds (ducks and geese, grouse, doves, turkeys).
I don’t know of any state in which big game hunting season does not take place in the fall, for a few reasons: young are weaned and independent, males are rutting, the weather is changing and animals are on the move, and they’re in good physical condition. Winter is hard on ungulates (hoofed animals) and not only will animals be in poor shape come spring/summer, decreasing the population before the winter means the surviving animals have more forage and a better chance of making it to spring.
In addition to the hunting seasons themselves, regulations regarding what, when, and how you harvest animals vary by area. In Montana we have “hunting districts” among which regulations can vary greatly due to habitat quality, predators, human development, etc. We have archery-only areas and seasons, and sometimes special shotgun/muzzleloader-only rules around homes because rifles are too dangerous. And don’t forget that wildlife is a public resource, held in trust by wildlife managers like me—it doesn’t belong to me, or the agency I work for. I’m responsible for providing the best science by which to manage, but the public still gets a say. Speaking of which: when poachers poach, they’re stealing from you.
All this is to say that when you’re including hunting in your novel, be sure to research the rules and regulations. Obviously nobody’s going to expect you to get everything dead-on—and regulations change frequently—but when your character goes nonchalantly hunting for elk in the spring or summer, anyone who hunts—which is a lot of people—is going to scoff.
Myth #2. Those things growing out of their heads are horns.
Okay, this doesn’t pertain to hunting per se, but as many of the animals we hunt have horns or antlers, this is such a no-brainer it drives me crazy when people get it wrong.
ANTLERS ARE NOT HORNS. I repeat: ANTLERS ARE NOT HORNS. They are very, very different things.
Members of the deer family (deer, elk, moose, caribou) have antlers; that is, they grow branched pieces of bone out of their heads from scratch ever single year (which is pretty impressive, when you think about it), and when they’re done using them to impress the females and fight off competing males for breeding rights, the antlers fall off, or “shed”. In most cases, only the males have them. Caribou are the only North American deer species in which some females regularly grow antlers. Here’s a piece of trivia for you: did you know antlers are the fastest-growing tissue in the animal kingdom?
On the other hand, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and bison (related to domestic sheep, goats, and cattle) have horns; that is, they have bony cores sprouting from their heads throughout their lives, encased by a sheath of hard keratin. Both males and females possess horns, although those of males are often larger. These horns are never shed and are also never branched.
Then you have the pronghorn antelope, which is an oddball: males and some females have a bony core over which a forked sheath of keratin grows, but the sheath is shed yearly. Most people call them horns. I call them sheaths because I like to be precise.
So when you go “horn hunting” in the spring, looking for the pieces of headgear deer and elk have dropped because they no longer need them, please picture me shaking you by the shoulders and yelling, in a slightly hysterical voice, “THEY’RE NOT HORNS!”
Myth #3. Hunting is easy.
Not even a little bit. (Editor’s note: Preach!)
Hunting isn’t just about seeing an elk beside the road, shooting some lead into it, and then voila! Steak dinner. Hunting involves finding the animal first, which is often a lot more difficult than it sounds, then placing a shot that will kill the animal. And if you’re bowhunting, there’s the added challenge of getting close enough to the animal—most bowhunters I know won’t take a shot beyond 40-50 yards.
I think this part is why a lot of people hate the idea of hunting—because it’s not as easy as it may seem to place a kill shot. I am often asked to dispatch elk and deer that have been walking around with broken legs or arrows sticking out of their necks. This is unfortunate, and I know that no ethical hunter likes to do this, and it bothers them immensely when they do. This is part of the reason new hunters are advised and sometimes required to take hunter education before they head off into the woods—not just to learn how to handle a gun or bow safely, but to learn where to aim and how to avoid wounding loss.
Getting the animal down is just the first part…then you’ve got to “field dress” it, or cut out the icky parts that will make the meat go bad otherwise. Some people do eat the heart and liver, but they’re usually removed and placed in a separate bag. Regardless, now you’ve got a few hundred pounds of meat to pack out from where you got it. Think about how big a bull elk is, think about where they live, and then think about strapping him to your pack and carrying him ten miles through downed timber, over steep hillsides, and/or a foot of snow to your vehicle.
There are a few options hunters have when it comes to packing out the meat. If you’re lucky enough to harvest an animal close to your vehicle, you can sometimes load it up whole. I have seen elk strapped to the tops of minivans, and I have seen a buck white-tailed deer jammed into the trunk of a Volkswagen Jetta alongside some firewood.
Most hunters, however, cut the meat into quarters (front legs and back legs, along with backstraps, tenderloins, and neck meat) and pack them out a piece or two at a time. Having to leave part of it out there can be risky depending on how far you’ve got to go—there could be bears or wolves eager to help themselves. But wasting meat is illegal, so you’ve got to come back for the rest.
Then there’s “boning out”—removing the meat from the bone before packing it out. You end up with a lot less dead weight, but it takes longer in the field.
To give you an idea of weight difference between these three methods: an average bull elk can weigh about 400-500 pounds field-dressed, quarters can weigh about 75 pounds each, or boned out meat seems to average 200-250 pounds total. Keep in mind there’s a lot of variability here. And remember, if you killed a bull with ANTLERS (not horns) you want to keep, add that weight in as well (50-75 pounds, whole head). This is one reason many hunters planning on hunting the backcountry choose to bring horses or mules.
Here’s a fun “not-myth” for you: It may be true that some predators, particularly grizzly bears, actually key in on gunshots during hunting season and try to get to your kill before you. For this and many other reasons it’s vitally important to be bear-aware when you’re hunting in grizzly country.
Facts About Hunting
Hunting is not evil. I realize and accept that if you feel strongly that hunting is, in fact, evil, I may not be able to change your mind. That’s fine. But I’d at least like for you to read this and maybe see things from a point of view you may not have considered. Here are some not-myths about hunting.
Fact: Hunting is necessary.
Populations of deer and elk can quickly get out of control. Yes, of course, if humans weren’t around, we could let nature take its course and let wolves and bears and weather conditions and stuff control populations. Sure, that’d be nice. But the thing is, humans are around. It’s not just that we want to hunt the animals too—it’s that we’ve built houses into their habitats, thrown freeways across their migration routes, cut ski resorts into the summer range, altered the nature and severity of habitat-renewing wildfires with our forestry practices. Oh, and we’re changing the climate, which doesn’t help them either.
If we don’t keep populations of especially deer and elk in check, here’s just a taste of what they will do more often: run in front of our vehicles, get stuck in our fences, eat our crops and gardens, catch diseases from or give diseases to our livestock, and in the case of predators (and yes sometimes deer), attack us. Disease especially is not a thing to trifle with; many disease outbreaks are a direct result of overpopulation, and keeping populations in check also maintains a lower prevalence of pathogens.
Then you have the fact that we’ve reduced wildlife habitat so much with our roads and homes that overpopulation can result in drastic overutilization of wild food sources. That will lead to a population crash, eventually, which does solve the problem of overpopulation but at what cost? Animals dying slow, horrible deaths and carcasses dotting the countryside, when they could be sustaining a hunter and his or her family for a year instead?
Oh, and don’t forget that the majority of funding not just for management of hunted species, but for habitat and nongame conservation, comes from hunters (firearm/ammunition sales, hunting licenses, and donations to organizations like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Mule Deer Foundation, and Ducks Unlimited). The focus may be on preserving game animals, but the things that help them usually help countless other organisms as well.
Fact: Hunting is sustainable.
I mean this in two ways. First, not only are elk and deer a “renewable resource”, but hunting and eating them is generally a lot easier on the environment (and arguably more humane) than growing and eating a typical beef cow. Think about an elk living 5 years in the wild with its herd, killed during a hunting season and put in the freezer. Think again about how much meat you can get from a bull elk. Now think about the beef you buy at the grocery store, and what kind of life that cow or calf most likely led before it too was killed, packaged, cut up, shipped, and placed in your chain grocery store (having led part of its life, at least, on pasture cleared of natural vegetation that could otherwise have supported deer and elk). I’m not trying to knock the beef industry here, but if you’re worried about animal welfare and conservation, think twice the next time you eat a hamburger.
Fact: Game meat is leaner and healthier than beef. Self explanatory.
Fact: Hunting gets people outside.
This, for me, is the big one. In a world where more people are walking around in iPhone-trances, playing video games, Netflix-and-chilling, or commuting to big city office jobs, I and many others in my profession legitimately worry about the future of wildlife conservation. It’s one thing to watch a documentary from the comfort of your home, and see a majestic elk and think, “Boy, that thing’s cool, I think I’ll donate to World Wildlife Fund” and that’s the end…it’s entirely another to deck yourself out in camouflage, drive out into the sticks, make your way through miles and miles of timber and find what you’re looking for—that herd of elk grazing on the timberline above an alpine lake—and, after you pull a few ticks off your neck and chug some water, shoot a cow, field dress it, then pause, take a breath of fresh mountain air, and think, “Boy, this is cool, I want to make sure this place and this experience is something my children and grandchildren can one day enjoy.”
Not knocking the World Wildlife Fund here, or city dwellers (who are more often than not living the most sustainable lifestyles), but hunting isn’t just about killing something—it’s about the experience. It’s about an appreciation—a profound, piercing appreciation borne of sweat and blood and cold mountain springs and crisp, falling leaves—that cuts to the soul. And it is passed down from generation to generation, a heritage of old yarns and memories and unbreakable bonds not only between humans and our environment but between brothers, friends, father and son (or daughter!). Montana’s hunting heritage is so important to its citizens that the state even recognizes it in our constitution.
Granted, you don’t necessarily have to be a hunter to experience this; you could be a backpacker, fisherman, berry-picker, National Park visitor, whatever. But I want you to go outside, as often as you can, however you can, wherever you can. All I’m saying here is that hunting is one of the most popular reasons people go outside, and that’s just fine with me. Documentaries and magazines only go so far: you don’t know, you don’t really know, how important this stuff is until you’ve experienced it. And if no one knows how important wildlife and wildlands are—to the ecosystem, to our souls—who will save it?
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Dustin Fife says
Love this. I’ve thought a lot lately about the morality of killing animals. It’s nice to see how hunting fits in at a more macro-level. Well done.
I think about that too, sometimes. I still have never actually hunted myself–mostly because I don’t like to cook, but also because I’ve had to put down a lot of injured deer over the last few years and I hate doing it. Even though I know I’m giving them a humane death after a lot of suffering.
But I do deal with LOTS of hunters (it’s pretty much my job) and most of them are decent human beings who really don’t want the animal to suffer. But they use the meat, they’re not out there just for sport. Hunting licenses are so cheap for residents here that for some families it’s the best, most affordable supply of food. And then…well, wolves, lions, and bears kill these animals, and we don’t think of them as immoral, right? We’re predators too.
Now, trophy hunting….I still think about that a lot. There are some major moral/ethical questions there.
I love this. Around here, most of this is common knowledge. BTW, if you have someone looking for shed antlers, we call it “Shed hunting” and yes, you can train your dog to help.
I think the hunting culture is surprising to some people…even around here. My town in Montana is sort of this island of rich/retired/non-hunter types surrounded by Super Hunters, so I’ll take a call from a trophy hunter followed immediately by a call from someone who feeds the deer (which is illegal) and thinks they’re cute and that hunters are evil. And we do have a lot more poachers here than I would have thought; guy bragged to me a couple years ago about how he sniped an elk at 900 yards, which is just asking for a non-lethal injury that’ll slowly and painfully kill that animal. That stuff gives hunters a bad name.