(c) Jack Ballard
It’s not the end of elk season, but it’s the last day Clint will be hunting. Three days remain in the season, but work and family responsibilities make the next seven hours the proverbial “last hurrah” for this hunter. Easing through a stand of lodgepole pines littered with droppings and rank with the scent of wapiti, Clint’s darting eyes spy a small, unusual tree trunk some 60 yards ahead. He stops and stares intently at the oddity, which morphs from a sapling to the dark brown leg of an elk.
Six measured, cautious steps reveal the bodies of not one, but two elk standing idly in the pines. On the left is a sleek cow. Fifteen yards to her right, the eyes of a young bull stare intently in the direction of the hunter. Squinting through his rifle scope, Clint spies four tines on an antler sprouting from the whorled hair on the bull’s head. The other carries five.
By the time the hunter draws his next breath, the crosshairs find the shadowy crease found just behind an elk’s shoulder. At the shot, both animals whirl and race away. But one’s dash lasts but seconds. Less than two hours after dawn, Clint ambles back into camp. Later, with the entire crew gathered around the table at dinnertime in the cook tent, Clint tells his tale.
“Sounds like ya’ done some good sneaking,” remarks his grizzled old uncle. “But what worm addled your brain into poppin’ that cow when you coulda shot a bull?”
What worm indeed? Confronted with a similar situation with an either-sex elk tag lining the pocket of his wool shirt, the average hunter would immediately shoot the bull, thank his lucky stars and think himself a better hunter for dragging a carcass into camp with bark-stained bones on its head. However, from either the standpoint of conservation or trophy hunting, shooting the cow makes better sense, an argument Clint presses for the next hour on his fellows.
“Look,” he says, beginning his impromptu speech with a determined swipe on his sweaty brow, “I think I’m kind of like the rest of you guys. Big antlers boil by blood, but beyond that I’m a meat hunter. That cow will probably eat better than the bull.”
A couple heads bob in agreement. Still on the stand, Clint forges on to explain his perspective on conservation and habitat. The reason he had an either-sex tag was because wildlife managers were trying to reduce the local elk herd to maintain the carrying capacity of its winter range. Shooting a bull takes one animal out of competition for forage, but dropping a cow more fully realizes management objectives by reducing reproduction as well. In most situations, state big-game managers issue either-sex elk tags hoping to impact the female population, not the male.
Pressing ahead, the cow-tagger floats another observation. “You know,” he offers, “I’ve been doing some reading on elk biology. Mature bulls are more efficient breeding machines. Leaving older bulls in the population means fewer late calves and higher pregnancy rates in cows. That makes for a healthier bunch of elk.”
Taking a deep breath, Clint launches the conclusion of his wall-tent oration with the biggest shell in his arsenal. “There isn’t a person in this tent that wouldn’t give a week’s pay to pack a legitimate six-point bull from these mountains,” he exclaims emphatically, gazing intently into the eyes of his fellows. “If we keep shooting every young bull that pokes his head out of the pines for meat, it ain’t gonna happen.”
Slumping into a folding chair near the woodstove, the 31 year-old feels a nagging sense of failure in the heavy silence of his fellows. Then his uncle speaks from under the stained brim of his felt hat, his twinkling eyes betraying the edge on his voice.
“You know sonny, you’ve made more sense in the last forty minutes than the previous thirty years…and you’ve given me something to ponder while I’m tryin’ to sleep besides a sore neck. Let’s hit the hay.”