Turner has found a way to make hunting pay for conservation. At his Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico and Colorado, he allows a few hunters to kill about 200 trophy elk each year—some 2 percent of his 10,000-elk herd. Each hunter pays $10,000, which brings two million dollars in revenues annually. “Now, that’s a pretty acceptable figure,” said Turner, who uses the income to keep his 600,000-acre (240,000 hectares) property in a relatively wild state, with few fences and with preference given to indigenous plants and wildlife.
Hunters of more modest means contribute to conservation in other ways, giving 280 million dollars annually to organizations such as Pheasants Forever, the Ruffed Grouse Society, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Quail Unlimited, and other nonprofit groups, which sponsor scientific research for particular species and maintain important habitat. Since its formation in 1937, Ducks Unlimited has conserved more than 11 million acres (4.5 million hectares) of wetlands and associated uplands. Hunters also focus public attention on conservation issues in state legislatures, in Congress, and in the marketplace. When you buy a camouflage camisole ($24.99) from the Ducks Unlimited catalog, a portion of the proceeds goes to conservation projects. If you visit Bozeman, Montana, and buy a pair of Schnee’s Pac boots, you will find a tag dangling from the laces, along with a promise that the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation will receive some of your money for elk conservation projects.
“It’s the hunters who keep most of these species going,” said Jim Clay, a middle school English teacher, hunter, and maker of turkey calls in Winchester, Virginia. “They put in the money, and they put in the hours. Hunters really care about what happens.”
As a bird hunter who occasionally shoots a deer for the freezer, I have never shared the big-game hunter’s appreciation for horns, antlers, and trophies, which convey an elevated status upon those who keep track of such things. They carry pictures of trophy elk and whitetails in their wallets and speak knowingly about Boone and Crockett Club scores for antler points, rack spreads, and other measurements. It may be that trophy fever is rooted in the aesthetic that prompts me to save a few grouse or woodcock feathers each year—which are beautiful on their own merits and evoke a particular day in the field, when a bird twittered up through the alders, folded in mid-flight, and was brought to hand by Bart, an old Brittany spaniel who still knows his job and does it with style.
Bart and I pile into the car with the first cool days of autumn, heading north, as we’ve been doing for more than a decade. Even at age 13, he still quivers like a puppy; he knows what’s in store, the very thing for which he was bred as a pointing dog. Year after year, we tromp the same moldering orchards, endure the same slashing hawthorn thickets, hear the same old stories from friends in New Brunswick and Maine, and flop in the same seedy hotels along the way. We mourn the dogs that have died since last year and meet the puppies that will replace them. This routine is a reminder that the seasons dance to a cadence as old and reassuring as Ecclesiastes—even older.