How I Earned My First Hunting Trophy
My journey from an average animal lover, to an active participant in conservation
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I’m a killer. But that probably means something very different than what you’re thinking. Allow me to explain, and I think you’ll begin to understand why hunting plays an important role in the modern world, despite its common image as a blood sport.
What’s you’re looking at is an Antilocapra americana; it’s not related to the African or Eurasian antelope but it is often called one due to the similar appearance between the two species, and the similar role both play in the ecosystem. Its closest relative is actually the giraffe, and it’s distantly related to goats; some people jokingly refer to them as “speed goats.”
Neat looking animal, huh? And it’s not one many Americans, at least in my social circles on either coast, realize lives here. The pronghorn’s range extends as far east as western Minnesota, as far west as California, and stretches into Canada and Mexico. But you’ll find most of them in the heart of the sagebrush sea, where that’s left mostly wild in Wyoming (where they outnumber people), and northern Colorado.
They were first scientifically cataloged by the Lewis and Clark expedition. Upon seeing them for the first time, Capt. Merriweather Lewis wrote:
“We found the Antelope extreemly shye and watchfull insomuch that we had been unable to get a shot at them; when at rest they generally seelect the most elivated point in the neighbourhood, and as they are watchfull and extreemely quick of sight and their sense of smelling very accute it is almost impossible to approach them within gunshot… they will frequently discover and flee from you at the distance of three miles. I had this day an opportunity of witnessing the agility and the superior fleetness of this anamal which was to me really astonishing… I beheld the rapidity of their flight along the ridge before me it appeared reather the rappid flight of birds than the motion of quadrupeds.”
I brought a skull I found in the field back for my friend Marcie, she gave it to her beetles to clean up, and it turned out great.
“Extreemely [sic] quick,” is right. The pronghorn may be the fastest land animal in the world, although that title is more often given to the better-known cheetah. Pronghorns have been measured running at speeds of up to 70 mph, and can sustain high speeds far longer than that African cat.
A magnificent animal, right? Well, it’s one that probably wouldn’t exist anymore if it wasn’t for hunters like me. Due to habitat loss caused mostly by agriculture and over hunting, the total population of pronghorns had fallen to just 12,000 individuals in 1950. Today it stands at 1.1 million. That’s thanks to hunting organizations like The Boone and Crockett Club (of which I’m a member).
“Personally, I think that the antelope are doomed, yet every attempt should be made to save them,” wrote a Boone and Crocket member in the 1920s. The club partnered with the National Audubon Society to buy up large tracks of private land for the purpose of pronghorn conservation, and lobbied the federal government to set aside more. This land would eventually total over 550,000 acres, and thus the pronghorn thrives today, along with the 350 other animal species that share its ecosystem.
Becoming a Hunter
I’m not the kind of person you likely think of when you try and picture a hunter. I live in Hollywood, California, in a hot pink Craftsman. I go to trendy bars, eat at fancy restaurants, and blog for a living. My first real career job was at a fashion magazine in London.
I did grow up on a farm; a horse farm in Buckinghamshire, one of England’s tony “home counties.” You see, my parents long ago decided they were too liberal to participate in the devolution of American culture, and fled to Europe. Dad spent his career in the defense industry, where he learned to detest all forms of violence, and mom was a special needs teacher. Now, they’re retired and live in central France, where, so far as I can tell, all they do is buy wine, then call me to bemoan the state of American politics.
“You’re no son of mine,” my dad said, half joking, over the phone recently, after I told him that I’d purchased a Glock (a gen 3 20SF, if you’re interested) in response to all the mass shootings. That was actually a hard decision for me to make. I’ve voted Democrat in every presidential election since Al Gore won, and my Land Rover wears a “Bernie ’16” sticker, but I generally don’t consider myself a member of that party. My politics are simply more liberal than those practiced by most Democrats these days. And believe me, I like to tell people all about that.
But I did grow up close to nature. Mom and dad started taking me camping before I could walk, enrolled me in the Cub Scouts as soon as I was eligible, and I’m both an Eagle Scout, and Brotherhood member of the Order of the Arrow. I’ve always spent most of my free time recreating outdoors, and a couple years ago, I was able to pivot my career to make doing that my job. I also grew up with animals of just about every description. Dogs, cats, bulls, rams, chickens, horses, ducks, rabbits, you name it. I taught Wooley, the ram, to play soccer. My current relationship with my dog, Wiley, is so close that it creeps most people out; he sleeps in my arms.
I tell you this because I want you to understand that I’m like you. I love and am fascinated by nature and animals, and I try to be a proponent for them, both in my words and my actions. And that’s why I hunt, because it’s such a positive contributor to conservation, and because it requires that I participate with the life cycle of animals, on their own terms, in the wild.
I was able to take a handful of birds as a kid, and I bagged a white tail in college, but it wasn’t until a pig hunting trip in central California a few years ago that my interest was piqued enough to really put in the time and effort to take hunting seriously. You see, hunting is an exceptionally difficult sport, especially to get into from the outside.
In order to hunt, you first have to master the weapon, or weapons you’ll be using. Rifles take big game at distance, shotguns get you birds, and bows exist to make things as hard on you as possible. In the last three years, I’ve become proficient at all three, spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in the process. Like any other process, you make mistakes, and learning from them is how you get better.
Then you’ll need to tackle the labyrinthine licensing and tag systems of various state governments. In California, for instance, most big game tags (a tag is a permit to take a specific animal in a specific location) are subject to a lottery, so you pay to enter that, wait to see what you draw, then have to figure out how to find animals in the zone you’ve been allotted. That zone will probably be a long ways away, requiring travel in advance of the hunting season to perform scouting. Animals are hard to find, hard to predict, and hard to get close to.
My entry to hunting was at least eased by a general all-round competence outdoors. Anyone who’s grown up outside will have a similar advantage. I already had experience moving undetected through the woods, I already knew how to track, I already knew I could get close to the animals. Just now, I had a reason to.
How Hunting Benefits Animals
Hunting hasn’t always been kind and cuddly. Originally, it was just how we survived. Up until the late 1800s, when roads, rails, and refrigeration made it possible to ship people beef, it remained an important source of protein across much of America. But market hunting, where people would hunt in order to sell meat at local markets, for profit, grew in pace with the expanding population of humans, and soon began to decimate animal populations. It just wasn’t sustainable.
So, around the turn of the century, outdoorsmen, animal lovers, and big thinkers like Teddy Roosevelt began to come up with a new, unprecedented system designed so that, to quote the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, “Their populations will be sustained forever.”
It’s called “conservation,” and it’s the managed use of resources designed to sustain them. In the cold, hard reality of the real world, nature needs to have a value in order for humans to value it.
Today, the system of sport hunting devised by Teddy Roosevelt and peers remains an example for the world, and has successfully restored the North American populations not just of pronghorns, but also deer, elk, bears, cougars, and other large animals.
Here’s how our system of sport hunting works: Any given environment has a carrying capacity for a species of animals. It’s what that specific ecosystem is able to support, given varying weather conditions, and other factors, both natural and manmade. Game species are evolutionarily adapted to reproduce in numbers that exceed this carrying capacity, with the natural check and balance on their being predators. But because there are so many of us humans, and because our agriculture is so widespread, our continent just isn’t a terribly friendly place for predators any more. So we hunters now fulfill that role. Biologists determine by how much a given population of animals in a specific area have exceeded the local carrying capacity, and the number of tags issued for that specific species in that specific zone is pegged to that excess. We are actively furthering the success of these species by keeping them at numbers their ecosystem is able to support. When populations exceed carrying capacity too long, they face large scale collapse due to disease, or malnourishment.
It is a hunter’s goal to give the animals we take a quick, humane kill. Not just because we care about how the animal dies, but also because the manner in which they die impacts the taste of the meat we harvest. The meat of an animal that dies instantly is not polluted by the taste of adrenaline. That’s why we practice, why we buy fancy, high-tech equipment, and why we go through extraordinary efforts to ensure a one-shot kill.
There’s actually not enough people hunting in the U.S. to provide total management of excess animal populations. The federal government has a department called Wildlife Services that uses traps, poisons, and even shoots animals from the air to provide the management hunters are unable to. Believe me, getting shot in the heart and dying instantly is far preferable to the suffering that an animal experiences when it is trapped or poisoned, yet that's the fate 4 million wild animals are subjected to each year.
In addition to facilitating the management of game species, hunters contribute to conservation in one other overwhelmingly positive way: money. In addition to the licenses and tags we pay for, there’s an additional 11 percent federal tax on all hunting and fishing-related purchases—every bullet, every gun, every camo hat, ever bow, every arrow, every rod, and every reel, etc—that is routed directly to conservation. This is the combination of the Pittman-Robertson (hunting) and Dingell-Johnson (fishing) Acts, and is the single biggest conservation fund in the world, by quite a margin. In 2015 alone, it raised $1.1 billion. That money goes directly to state conservation agencies, and 100 percent of it is spent on animal conservation right here in the USA. To quote Field&Stream:
“These visionary excise taxes are based on the very basic principles of economic growth: money spent on wildlife and fisheries restoration results in more wildlife and fish, which allows for more hunters and fishermen, who buy more boats and fuel and ammo and guns and tackle, which provides more money for improving water quality and restoring or protecting habitat, which results in more game and fish… and so on to a kind of beautiful perpetual motion creation, teeming with happy outdoorspeople, leaping fish, thundering herds and skies dark with waterfowl, cerulean buntings and plovers.”
How does the money raised by hunters and fishermen compare to that raised by wildlife charities? Well the largest animal conservation charity in the world is the World Wildlife Fund. In 2014, it raised a total of $266 million, $28 million of which was spent on further fundraising efforts, $12 million went to “finance and administration,” and $224 million was spent on programs. It’s a great charity, and one I donate to, but it’s inarguable that $224 million spent worldwide pails in comparison to $1.1 billion, all spent in the U.S., and all on conservation. In America, hunters are the reason we have animals.
The Hunt, and Its Aftermath
Last October, I flew back from Romania, got a night’s sleep, hung out with my dog, and flew to Wyoming. Weatherby had just released its new, high-velocity 6.5-300 hunting round, and was taking a handful of MMA fighters, pro snowboarders, and Super Bowl ring wearers on a hunt to test it out. Somehow, I got invited along.
I don’t think I’d ever seen a pronghorn before, so, when Casey Tillard, the rancher who owned the land we were hunting on, and my guide for the day, pointed one out on a hillside in the distance, and asked me if I wanted to go after it, I said yes in nervous excitement.
We spent about an hour, using the natural folds of the landscape to try and intercept the buck and his does as they ranged in search of feed, without them seeing us. As Merriweather Lewis describes, pronghorns are a wary creature, and either by scent or by sight, they detected us as we glassed them while laying down on top of a ridge line. At a distance of about 250 yards, Tillard asked me if i wanted to make the shot, and I said yes.
I’d fired Weatherby’s new Mark V a total of three times that morning, placing all the bullets in a one-inch circle at 100 yards. Enough to satisfy myself that the thing shot straight. One of the guys did the same at 300, and said he’d held the crosshairs directly on the center of the target to do so; the round just doesn’t drop between 0 and 400 yards. So I figured a 200 yard shot would be simple. I laid down, calmed my breathing, put the crosshairs on the buck’s heart, and squeezed the trigger. And then I watched through the scope as the bullet took out his elbow. Damn, I’d flinched.
Wounding an animal is the greatest sin a hunter can commit, and not one Tillard, or I, was prepared to let stand. Over the next 25 minutes, we chased the wounded pronghorn a total of 4.2 miles, according to my phone’s GPS. In the end, we weren’t able to get closer than 400 yards. I was out of breath, drenched in sweat, and shaking from the effort, but I knew I had no choice but to make the shot, so I laid down, put the crosshairs on his heart again, and this time I was successful.
It took Tillard an hour to get back to his truck and come find me and the buck. And the rest of our little hunting party had staggered in by that time. Somehow, one of them had found the layers I’d ditched as we ran across the sagebrush along the way. We loaded the gutted carcass into the truck, and I took a bunch of flack from the guys as we drove back to town.
I flew back to LA with two livers (another hunter didn’t want his), and the pronghorn’s heart. That night, I made Wiley and I pronghorn heart bruschetta, and turned the livers into pate. A few weeks later, a box with 65 lbs of tenderloins, backstrap, roasts, and sausage arrived from the meat processor. I was seriously worried that it’d be incredibly gamey, since the animal suffered, but was relieved to find that the meat remained tender, tasty, and mild. In small recompense for the animal’s near half-hour of pain and panic, I’ve used it as well as I possibly could. It’s served about a dozen dinner parties, been given as gifts, and I’ve been sure to make use of any leftovers.
One night, I cooked a dinner at home for a band you listen to, and a bunch of their friends. 15 people total. They’re not the kind of people who hunt, and not the kind of people who would typically consider game meat. So I didn’t tell them what we were eating, until one of the guys took a bite, remarked on how tasty it was, and asked. I explained most of the above, talked about how “organic,” and “free range,” are just labels in the grocery store and explained that this is the real deal, showed them all pictures on my phone, and you know what? With the exception of one of the guys’ girlfriend, who spent the rest of the evening giving me dirty looks, they were all impressed, and they ate every last bite. I don't think hunting needs to be something that’s universally reviled in certain circles, it just needs to be better understood. And maybe that’s something us hunters haven’t done a good enough job with, yet.
Six months later, the FedEx guy dropped a big box off at my house marked “antelope.” With Weatherby’s help, I’d gotten the opportunity to have the pronghorn turned into into a shoulder mount.
I’ve always said that I’m not a trophy hunter. It’s not that trophy hunting is morally wrong—it delivers all the same conservation benefits described above, and I’ve previously written about the objective merits of trophy hunting in Africa—it’s that my own agreement with my conscious says that predators kill for food. So that’s what I do too. And yet, here I am with a hunting trophy.
To me, the dead animal hanging on my wall is a little bit of the world I love, brought into my bedroom. It’s mounted next to the shotgun my great, great granddaddy had in his hands with the Union army came marching through our farm, and beside a ceremonial turkey fan a Native American girl on an LSD trip gave me a couple years back, on top of a mountain in Big Sur. It’s a reminder of all the time and effort I’ve put into becoming a hunter, a little bit of inspiration to keep on pursuing it, and of the good times I’ve shared with friends in the process. As its glass eyes stare back at me, it’s also a reminder that this is something I can always be trying to improve at, that I should endeavor to never miss a shot again.
This dead animal is also a reminder that the natural world isn’t just something I have to passively observe through my computer screen, but rather something I can actively go out and help make a better place. That’s what hunting represents to me, a way to actively participate in the life cycle of the animals I love, while helping to make sure they’re able to stick around forever.