Years ago, long before I became a bird hunter, I read a hunting story that stuck with me, or at least a sentence did.
The hunter, writing about holding a warm mountain grouse he had just killed, lamented, “If I could breathe life back into this bird and let it fly off into the forest, I would.”
It stuck, but not in a good way. The quote left me uneasy, even in the 1980s when I had recently adopted catch-and-release fly fishing because of the boost it provided wild trout.
Every hunter with a soul has felt some discomfort with killing, the essential act of hunting. One doesn’t hunt to kill, but rather kills to have hunted, wrote the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, in his oft-quoted classic, “Meditations on Hunting.”
The nature of fly fishing allowed a carve out, one that disconnects the pursuit of prey from the act of killing. Releasing a trout has become hunting’s antithesis: a virtual rebirth.
The kill is anything but rebirth. Hence those complicated emotions when we succeed. Complicated, but not so much so that I’ve abandoned hunting.
When I hunt, I intend to kill.
That may seem perfectly obvious, but increasingly, dialog in the hunting community suggests some have adopted an almost anti-hunting stance when it comes to hunting, especially with quail.
During the recently concluded season I encountered social media posts suggesting ethical quail hunters only shoot on the covey flush. Hunting singles once the covey is broken up is blasphemy, a slob-hunter practice that decimates bird numbers.
A week later, another poster in the same hunting forum proclaimed the opposite, that an ethical quail hunter shouldn’t shoot the covey rise. Instead, they count birds in the initial flush to determine if the covey is large enough to sustain additional mortality. These hunters pursue singles only if their covey calculus tells them it’s sustainable.
There are other dictates: never shoot a limit; stop hunting at 2 p.m. so the coveys have plenty of time to regroup before nightfall; if it’s cold, don’t hunt quail at all or they’ll freeze to death by dawn.
When I read these “conservation” tips I increasingly imagine them in the voice of Terry Jones, the deceased actor who was a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe. Only I hear these pleas in Jones’ infamous drag voice.
“We mustn’t hunt the quails,” the hand wringers implore. “We might kill them!”
There’s little threat Montana’s upland species will be hunted into oblivion. Pheasant are basically winged coyotes so far as thriving in novel habitats is concerned. Sage Grouse is the only species hunters need treat with kid gloves.
As for the quails, bobwhite are depressed across most of their range so hunters should be careful not to over harvest. In non-public land states, such as Nebraska, quail habitat is often fragmented into small chunks of grassland surrounded by agriculture ill-suited to wildlife.
Southwestern desert quail, however, fluctuate wildly depending on habitat and rain. When it’s good, hunters shouldn’t fear chasing limits based on the recommendations of biologists.
When conditions are bad you’re rarely going to limit anyway.
Much of the kerfuffle is in Mearns (Montezuma) quail country on the Mexican border. Guides who’d prefer less pressure in the easier accessible canyons would rather we all stop at one or two. They’re pushing a trophy bird, rather than eating bird, concept.
I’m a quail eater, however, and habitat, not hunters, is the problem. Instead of shaming us into essentially not hunting, we should focus on defending our sport and the habitat that sustains the animals we pursue.
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