“To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.” ~ Aldo Leopold
I’ve always believed that hunting should be difficult. The act of killing, whether avian or ungulate, carries with it a weight of responsibility that should not be forgotten too quickly. In the Southern Appalachians, the mountains in which I wander, the hunting of the ruffed grouse is, at the very best of times, an exercise in patience and effort.
Each year, my home state of North Carolina collects data from participating hunters and publishes the North Carolina Avid Grouse Hunter Survey. After a peak around 1990, the likelihood of success in our southern mountains has declined in a dramatic way. The odds weren’t good 25 years ago, and even a masochist like myself would have found past numbers sufficiently challenging.
Likely as a result of worsening conditions, the average age of hunters has increased, indicating that fewer young folks are entering the sport. The average hunter in the 2015-2016 season flushed just over 2.5 birds per trip and harvested just over 0.3 of them. Compare this to roughly 6.2 and 0.9 in the 1989-1990 season, respectively, and the decline becomes clear. We sometimes joke that hunting grouse in North Carolina is often little more than an armed hike with dogs.
I was not fortunate enough to know these ‘good old days’ of grouse; having just reached thirty years of age, I have known nothing but the consistently poor conditions we now face. I have, of course, rather conflicted feelings. I know that the hunt is not about the birds, exactly, but about the dogs, the friends, the miles and about the woods themselves. On the other hand, I recognize the obligation that I have to ensure that those who come after still have wild places to wander in search of grouse and other game. And so, we fight for public lands and forest management with the knowledge that while we long to see the results in our own hunting lives, the fight is on behalf of those yet to know the ecstasy of a good dog, an old shotgun, and a thunderous flush from a laurel thicket.
In the early days of state regulation of hunting, Theodore Roosevelt addressed the question of conservation from a perspective not common in his time and not common enough in ours. In discussing the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation and the belief that the game belongs to the people, he stated, “so it does; and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people. The ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction.”
The reasons why I hunt, then, are numerous. I hunt because I enjoy it, even those days when things don’t go my way. On a deeper level, however, I hunt because I recognize that the right to do so is mine by having been born in a nation that once recognized the value of wild places. I hunt in defiance of those who work to dismantle those rights and strip future generations of the privilege of experiencing this difficulty and required self-reliance. I hunt for those in Roosevelt’s womb of time, that they too may one day know the stillness of an Appalachian sunrise, the joy of trusting the judgement of a bird dog more than that of oneself, and the immense sense of gratitude that accompanies a grouse in hand.
To join or for more information about the Ruffed Grouse Society, go to www.ruffed.org.