Sometimes a hunting trip may be more about what you don’t tag and take home.
Earlier this year my wife Catherine and I were in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona bowhunting javelina. This ecosystem is one of the most strikingly unique anywhere, and any adventurous soul willing to explore this environment will find him or herself rewarded with a seemingly endless display of plants and wildlife.
As our adventure commenced we were hiking to one of the many high, rocky outcroppings to glass, carefully weaving our way through the ocotillo, saguaro, fishhook barrel cactus and jojoba. These prickly obstacles, while impeding our progress considerably, are common and essential sources of food, cover and nesting sites for Sonoran Desert wildlife such as Coues and mule deer, numerous bird and bat species and the desert tortoise, as well as the javelina we were pursuing.
We were carefully making our way during the early morning light and came upon the nearly vertical edge of an old mining pit. The area was heavily mined for copper, gold, silver and lead during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and these remnant exploratory mines are common, reminding us of those hardy souls who settled this harsh landscape in days gone by.
While we observed the pit, which was only about 6 feet deep, we noticed two objects crowded tight in opposite corners of the pit. Catherine and I blurted to one another, “tortoise!” It was obvious that the two tortoises had tumbled down the steep sides into the pit and were unable to escape. After some quick examination in hopes of ensuring that the ground in the bottom of the pit was safe for me to stand on, I climbed down to aid these timeless desert dwellers. Unfortunately, the first one I examined had succumbed to the elements, as there was no water or food available in the pit – there was no way of knowing how long she had been down there. This tortoise, a female, was probably 30-40 years old based on her size. I moved to the opposite corner to examine the other tortoise and realized this male, probably about the same age as the deceased female, was still alive. I gently picked him up and handed him to Catherine, who was standing on the rim of the pit.
I climbed out, and we carried the surviving tortoise to a spot away from the pit hoping to prevent him from ending up in it again. We provided him some much needed water (from the supply we carried) and food – the fruits from a nearby fishhook barrel cactus. Though the tortoise had defensively withdrawn himself inside his shell, he could not resist the meal we had put in front of him. He slowly poked his feet and head out of the shell to check us out, and, realizing we were not a threat to him, he proceeded to enjoy the fruit and water.
After polishing off several cactus fruits and some water, he slowly began his solitary trek back into the desert and appeared to be recovering well from his ordeal, all things considered. The desert tortoise is a resilient creature with evolutionary adaptations that allow his survival in the harsh demands of his desert home. Unfortunately, it is the human-induced factors in his environment that have that have landed him a threatened listing under the Endangered Species Act. Though he is not a critter that we as sportsmen and –women pursue, the tortoise and other keystone species’ well being indicate the future for the species we do hunt. It is not coincidental that President Roosevelt often referred to hunters as the “original conservationists” – in my experience sportsmen are keenly aware of their obligation to be stewards of the land and all its species!
Whether it is abandoned mine pits in the Arizona desert, punching gas wells in sage grouse habitat or paving roads through elk calving grounds, this experience underscores the importance of mitigating the human-induced factors that we impose on the inhabitants of our wild places.
Though this adventure started out as a pursuit of javelina, it became one about providing a hands-on conservation act for a desert tortoise that would have been doomed without a helping hand. Whether or not you believe in karma, we were rewarded later that day with a 30-yard shot that resulted in filling our javelina tag for 2014.
I don’t find it strange that the memories of this hunt are as much about the tortoise as the javelina. It certainly validated to Catherine and me that sometimes our outdoor experiences are not just about what you bring home, but what you don’t.