Thanks and Good Luck

Thagards with Wyoming mule deer.

The Thagards with a mule deer taken on National Forest land in Colorado. Sportsmen’s dollars are the most significant contributor to state fish and wildlife agencies funding. Photo courtesy of Neil Thagard.

When my wife Catherine and I look for places to hunt, “off the beaten path” is near the top of our criteria list.  Public lands where we can backpack and not see another human soul for days are a magnet to us.  Recently we found ourselves hunting an area of National Forest which contained both the mule deer we were seeking and a popular hiking trail to a spectacularly scenic waterfall. We decided that we’d willingly share the canyon with others for the opportunity at one of the big bucks we knew were there.

Shortly after sunrise we were sitting at a great glassing spot near the trail when we heard human voices approaching. As the hikers came into view we saw a large group wearing the trendy clothing of the young and environmentally conscious; Catherine and I were in full camo with weapons in hand. I saw my wife inwardly brace for the anticipated disapproving stares and “Bambi-killer” accusations.

We made a point to be friendly, commenting on the beautiful day.  After some small talk on the trail conditions, I heard the inevitable question, “Are you guys hunting?”

“Yes,” I answered as Catherine held her breath, “We are looking for deer.”

“Well,” said the apparent leader of the group, “thanks and good luck.”  Then they headed off down the trail.

That was it – thanks and good luck. Could the complex interconnectedness between hunters and anglers, and the communities in which they pursue their game be summed up in that simple sentence? I’d like to think the young hiker we met that day on the trail understood the essential role that hunting plays in conservation and local economies, and that he was directing his thanks to us for that.

While hikers, mountain bikers and other nature lovers are able to enjoy that spectacular canyon and the wildlife it contained for free, we spent hundreds of dollars on the tags and licenses required for the opportunity to hunt there. Our money goes directly to the state game and fish agency and pays for a wide spectrum of conservation programs.

Sportsmen’s dollars are the most significant contributor to state fish and wildlife agencies and support everything from habitat improvements and fish stocking to scholastic educational programs and disease research. Through their financial contributions, hunters and anglers even support non-game and endangered species management efforts.

However, when we look at the big picture of hunting’s impact from an economic perspective, it’s not just about what hunters spend on permits. It’s also about the local motel that relies on pheasant hunters to extend their season.  It’s about the mom-and-pop coffee shop that sees a significant proportion of their business in the early morning hours as deer hunters head out. It’s about the jeweler who specializes in elk ivory, the taxidermist putting his kids through college and the second generation fly-shop owner carrying on the family business. It’s about the rancher who receives compensation when he loses livestock to predators and the countless other ways in which sportsmen’s dollars directly and indirectly bolster local economies.

In my home state of Wyoming, the hunting and fishing industry contributes $1.1 billion annually. That’s second only to oil and gas, and is no small number when you consider there are only about a half a million people in the entire state. In a state like Wyoming that is dependent upon the oil and gas industry, our abundant wildlife helps to provide a diversified economy that is able to withstand the booms and busts associated with natural resource extraction.

Most people do not realize that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has not had a hunting license and tag fee increase since 2008, even though the cumulative inflation rate since then has been 8.5 percent. They have also been required to spend more of their existing budget on legislatively mandated costs, such as health care for employees. The 2013 Legislature rejected the agency’s request for a modest fee increase, forcing a multi-million dollar budget cut. This has hit Wyoming families and the small businesses that depend on our outdoor industry the hardest.  It’s not hard to see how these severe funding cuts limit the state’s ability to actively manage fish and wildlife, which in turn reduces the number of visitors to the Cowboy State whether they are hunters, anglers, birdwatchers, nature photographers or simply conservationists.

The good news is that we have the opportunity to restore what has been lost, and with it the jobs and economic strength Wyoming derives from our outdoor industry.  Two bills have been introduced by the Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee of the Legislature to provide a modest fee increase that keeps pace with inflation, and to share some of the financial burden of the Game and Fish Department with the non-consumptive user.

Both bills will need to pass the budget session in February, and I encourage every Wyomingite to contact their legislator and express your support for the bills. But it’s not only locals who hunt and fish in Wyoming – sportsmen come here from across America to experience our world-class hunting and angling opportunities. Every sportsman who has ever even dreamed of chasing Wyoming elk, antelope, bighorn sheep or cutthroat trout has a stake in how these resources are managed – contact the Wyoming state legislature today and let them know you are a sportsman who supports the bills.

Redefining the Hero Shot

My husband Neil and I take a lot of vacation photos.  Most of them are pretty typical: a smiling couple, breathtaking scenery, a group of friends around a campfire. Less typically, some feature one or both of us with a dead animal.

You see, we are hunters. While other couples are taking the kids to Disneyland or relaxing on a beach, we spend the summer eagerly anticipating September, that magical month when hunting seasons are open in the Rocky Mountain West. It is no exaggeration to say that as an archer who does not participate in rifle seasons later in the year, Neil lives for September.

Photo by Neil and Catherine Thagard.

Often referred to as “hero shots”, sportsmen commonly take pictures of themselves and their quarry at the conclusion of a successful hunt. The concept is not new; people have been taking hero shots since photography was invented. What has changed is how we share these pictures. Until recently, the people most likely to see a hunter’s photos were those close to him who, for the most part, understood why the picture was taken.

However with the emergence of digital technology and social networking sites that allow anyone to instantly email or post pictures on the internet, today’s hunters are facing new ethical questions regarding the images they share. The reaction of a non-hunter to having one of these pictures show up unexpectedly on their computer screen is often as predictable as it is inaccurate – that the pictures are gruesome, perhaps even disgusting, and that the hunter is an insensitive braggart flaunting his or her bloodlust.

Photo by Neil and Catherine Thagard.

Neil and I take these so-called “deadhead” or “grip & grin” pictures because they are an important part of our vacation memories. As the image of someone’s toddler with Mickey Mouse reminds them of a day spent at the magical kingdom, so our pictures remind us of our time spent in the great outdoors, and the many wonderful experiences we shared before, during and after the hunt.

And while this may seem like a contradiction, we take pictures out of respect for the animal. They illustrate the brief moment in time when we experience both gratitude for the sustenance it will provide, and humility at the magnitude of the decision we made when we chose to end its life. We take a picture of every animal, whether it’s an antelope doe, spike bull elk or giant bighorn ram. One is no more or less deserving of respect than another according to the presence or size of antlers, horns, or any other trophy quality. The smiles you see in our pictures reflect many things – from pride at successfully putting hunting skills developed and honed over many years to use, to the knowledge that we have provided food for our own table. But never, ever, do they imply a joy in death.

Photo by Neil and Catherine Thagard.

When we have spent days or weeks on a hunt, capturing the memory is well worth a few extra minutes to thoughtfully compose a photo.  We take the time to position the animal in its natural setting and clean up any excess blood before pulling out a camera. Nothing is more cringe-inducing to me as a hunter than seeing a picture of a dead deer laying in the back of a pickup, legs splayed, tongue hanging out and blood pooling on the tailgate. Is that scenario going to happen as you travel home from your hunt?  Perhaps, but that is not the moment to preserve or publicize.

Some will disagree, arguing that they have nothing to hide and that anyone who does not appreciate their pictures can choose not to look at them. I maintain that there is a distinction between hiding your pictures and not rubbing people’s noses with them. There is a difference between a private email to a friend or a post on a hunting website and uploading an image that is going to appear on your vegetarian Aunt Susan’s Facebook page. This goes back to the respect issue, in this case respect for your audience. Every hunter must be cognizant of the fact that we are ambassadors for our sport, whether we choose to be or not, and that it’s not just like-minded individuals who see our pictures when they are made public.

My husband and I have our “hero shots” framed in the hallway of our home and in a private online album shared with hunting friends. Collectively, they reflect a lifetime’s passion for wild things and wild places. We often look through them, and I am always struck by the same thought – killing a deer, elk or any other game does not make you a hero – it makes you a hunter.

 

Video: Improving Hunting Access

  • Sportsmen must travel farther than ever to access public lands.
  • Public lands can be rendered inaccessible by adjacent private land owners.
  • The federal Open Fields program incentivizes land owners to enable sportsmen access to privately owned lands, including otherwise inaccessible hunting grounds.

Visit our partner sites to find out more about Open Fields and public lands access:

Pheasants Forever
Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies

Blown Radiators and Backcountry Muleys

I was already way behind schedule when I arrived at the trailhead in the middle of nowhere in central Nevada for my first archery mule deer hunt. A blown radiator had left me waiting several hours for a truck to tow me 60 miles to the nearest town for repairs. By the time I hiked the four miles to camp, it was 2:30 in the morning.

Needless to say, first light came quickly. After a bite to eat, I hiked up to a steep vantage point overlooking the canyon where I would be hunting.

I had seen a group of bucks in this canyon a few weeks earlier with my good friend and mentor Larry Johnson with Nevada Bighorns Unlimited. After three days of hunting, neither Larry nor I had gotten close enough to make a kill, and we both left empty handed. I had come back alone with the hopes of filling my tag.

After glassing a bit, I spotted some bucks feeding on a hillside several hundred yards up the canyon. I watched for a while and figured they would bed down in one of several stands of mahogany trees scattered throughout the canyon. I sat tight, hoping to intercept the bucks as they came to bed down.

As the sun rose higher, the group went downhill to some trees about 200 yards below where I sat. There was no way to sneak in on them without being seen, and at this point my lack of sleep was catching up to me. I took a rest, hoping the bucks might move later in the day.

When I awoke, I crept back up to check on the bucks. They were gone. Trying to stay calm, I scanned the canyon and eventually spotted the deer disappearing into trees on a ridge a thousand feet above me on the opposite side of the canyon. I wasn’t exactly sure where they were headed but figured they were going to bed down again somewhere where the afternoon breezes would be cooler.

Grabbing my pack and bow, I began the long hike across the canyon. A light rain was falling by the time I reached the other ridge. The sound of the rain masked my footsteps, and a steady southwesterly wind allowed me to move into the trees and search for the deer undetected. I moved slowly through the mahogany, stopping every few steps to glass. I was looking for movement – an ear twitch, antlers or the silhouette of a bedded buck.

I made several passes through the area with no luck and began to think that the deer had outsmarted me again. Finally, I glanced uphill and saw the unmistakable shape of a deer. I pulled out my rangefinder to check the distance: 32 yards.

Nocking an arrow, I moved to get a better look and see if antlers were attached to the deer. Just then, deer began standing up one by one in surrounding trees. They had seen me.

I froze as a buck stepped out into the open. He was a shooter. I instinctively drew my bow and released the arrow. I heard the thwack of the arrow hitting as the buck jumped and ran across the rocky hillside. After 20 yards he slowed, then stopped, began to stumble and fell to the ground. I later discovered that the broadhead had gone through his heart. It was over very quickly.

My first Nevada archery mule deer hunt makes me extraordinarily thankful for the abundant and unique hunting opportunities that abound in the West. Mine was the type of hunting about which every sportsman dreams – a spectacular setting, far from any roads or signs of civilization, lots of deer and few hunters. I was able to hunt in some of the greatest remaining mule deer habitat in the nation. Nevada has a lot of undeveloped backcountry, but even here, mule deer habitat is threatened.

Mule deer need large areas of undeveloped backcountry in order to thrive. As we lose habitat throughout the West, mule deer numbers decline as do our hunting opportunities.

Sportsmen recognize the importance of conserving these areas, but in order to ensure healthy wildlife populations, hunters and anglers must spread the word. Sportsmen must let federal land management agencies know what is at stake and that we are paying attention. High-quality hunting opportunities on public land comprise the backbone of America’s sporting heritage. It is staggering to think about how much great habitat has been lost in the last 30 years – and the ramifications if this trend is allowed to continue.

This is why the TRCP is working hard to conserve high-quality, intact habitat throughout the West. Get involved today and sign up as a TRCP Western Sportsman Advocate.

United We Stand: A Serviceman Reflects on Freedom, Family and the Outdoors

Sometimes you have to leave something behind to truly appreciate it.

I find I relearn that lesson each time I deploy to a foreign land. I miss my family and friends the most, as is expected. Thanks to technology I receive emails from home, discussing everything from kids to the change in seasons and excursions into the woods to hunt. I am grateful for these snippets of daily life because they make me appreciate how much freedom we have.

This Veterans Day, I am deployed once again on foreign soil in support of our national interests. I am proud to serve, but at the same time, I am thinking of home and longing to be with family.

Lieutenant Colonel G. Brent Cummings with his dog Tucker after a hunt for lesser prairie chicken in Kansas.

An image that comes to my mind when I think about home is stepping out into the cold morning with my loyal black Lab. I watch him excitedly chase some type of feathered creature that always seems to land just out of range or flush just a bit too low for a safe shot.

I can taste and feel the bite of cold as I take a deep breath and enjoy the fellowship of the hunt with a close friend as we map out the best strategy to move through a field or drop out decoys. So often we know our grand plan will fail, but simply being outside is the magic that makes the day.

Those memories represent the opportunity to share the moment outside, in a free country surrounded with the beauty of a magnificent landscape. Being deployed reminds me again how special that freedom is.

Enjoy Veterans Day and the freedom it represents. I support organizations such as the TRCP and other like-minded conservation groups. They are our guardians back home while we guard from afar. Because of their efforts, when I come home I have a place to hunt and fish. I encourage you to take the time to call your brother-in-law, uncle, friend or whoever you like to hunt with, and head out. Don’t worry whether you bag some game or not. Just enjoy the day afield and the freedom that has been earned.

I want to acknowledge how deeply grateful I am for the men and women who have served before me and laid the groundwork of freedom upon which I currently stand. Without their stewardship and professionalism, I wouldn’t have the freedom I cherish and expect as a U.S. citizen. In honor of Veterans Day, I encourage you to step outside with a friend or a family member and enjoy the freedom that has been granted to each of us.

Lieutenant Colonel G. Brent Cummings

United States, Army

Beginning in 2007, Lt. Col. Cummings served nearly 15 months in Iraq as part of the 2nd Surge Brigade with the 216th Infantry Brigade.  He then served as Commander of as the U.S. Army Airborne School at Ft. Benning.  He is currently deployed in the Middle East.

National Forest Roadless Lands Conserved as Big-game Seasons Commence

As sportsmen head to the fields, forests and streams this fall, we can be assured that some of America’s finest public lands fish and wildlife habitat will be conserved into the future. On Oct. 1, the Supreme Court declined to consider an appeal of a lower court ruling upholding the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule as the law of the land for the management of 45 million acres in 36 states.

This determination effectively ends all legal uncertainty for the 2001 roadless rule and assures its permanence into the foreseeable future.

The roadless rule represents a balanced and reasonable approach for the management of high value, undeveloped public lands. Photo by Dusan Smetana.

Areas managed under the roadless rule include renowned big-game hunting destinations such as the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming, the Elkhorn Mountains in Montana and the Warner Range of Oregon and California.

These large blocks of undeveloped public lands provide the habitat security necessary for wildlife managers to provide substantial public hunting opportunities for game such as mule deer and elk.

The great thing about the roadless rule is that it represents a balanced and reasonable approach for the management of high value, undeveloped public lands. The rule conserves roadless areas while providing management allowances to protect communities from wildfire, restore habitat and ecosystems and even develop oil and gas, as long as this development is done in ways that maintain the areas’ backcountry values.

Over the past decade, wildlife managers, sportsmen’s organizations, and hunting- and fishing-dependent businesses across the nation have spoken in favor of the management assurances and high quality habitat provided by the roadless rule. The TRCP has been working alongside our partners to advance this popular policy since our organization was founded in 2002.

With big-game hunting seasons commencing across the country, sportsmen can celebrate by grabbing our gear and setting out in pursuit of deer, elk and other critters on America’s national forest lands. This Supreme Court decision represents an unqualified victory for our community.

Taking a Stand for Waterfowling and the Pastimes We Cherish

If the voices of hunters fall silent, it won’t be long before the voice of the waterfowl we cherish goes quiet as well. Photo by Paul Bramble.

I was driving down a back road on Maryland’s Eastern Shore when I pulled my truck over to let a tractor pass. The farmer tipped his hat in appreciation and was on his way to the next field. Before heading down the road myself, I took a look around; fields of crops gave way to the Chester River in the distance and a place I am proud to call home.

With tall corn and soy hiding goose pits and the vivid summer woods obscuring tree stands, it is tough to see the importance of hunting during a hot and humid Chesapeake summer. But just a few months from now, the days will get shorter and crisper, and homes across the Eastern Shore will come to life earlier than normal as decoy bags and gun cases are tossed into trucks and Labs wag their tails with the kind of anticipation only a gun dog can muster.

Waterfowl hunting means a lot to this part of the world. On the highway into town, geese adorn the welcome sign, and we have waterfowl festivals to celebrate the autumnal return of the birds. You may find yourself raking leaves in the backyard or picking out the perfect carving pumpkin at the local patch when you hear your first flight of Canada geese returning. It is a sound that compels your eyes skyward and makes many of us reflexively reach for our goose calls.

But the memory of the 2011-12 season remains stark in the minds of many hunters. Winter’s cold weather never came; nor did the birds. Some estimated that less than one quarter of the typical population actually made it as far south as the Chesapeake. The lack of snow and ice gave the birds no reason to venture to their normal southern grounds. The warmest winter anyone can remember gave way to the warmest summer, and hunters can’t be blamed for asking, “Will the birds return?”

More than a few hunters I’ve talked to are considering letting their blind leases lapse.

“I’m gonna give it one more year,” is a familiar refrain from waterfowlers pinched by a slow economy and slow days afield. Visit Higgy’s Diner on any Saturday morning during duck and goose season and you will see just what hunting means to the local economy. It’s not just about license and ammo sales; hunters open their wallets at motels, gas stations, watering holes and sub shops, as well as for guides and gear. As the birds go, so go the hunters.

Conservation is an essential part of hunting’s past – and future. Whether addressing global issues like climate change or local issues such as land use, hunters have a responsibility to become knowledgeable and participate in finding workable solutions. If the voices of hunters fall silent, it won’t be long before the voice of the waterfowl we cherish goes quiet as well.

Learn more about the TRCP’s work in the Chesapeake Bay.

Study: Keep It ‘Fun and Social’ When Introducing Newcomers to Hunting and Shooting

Study LinkWhether in a duck blind or on the firing line, the majority of hunters and target shooters share their activity with a companion, and, as an NSSF-funded study reveals, they are there for one overriding reason: to have fun.

Learn more at the National Shooting Sports Foundation website.

Download the study.