Each bird I take from Bart is accepted with a mingling of thanks, a twinge of regret, and a smoothing of earth-colored feathers. When we have enough for a meal, it is cause for ceremony, accompanied by good wine and extravagant praise for Bart, who can no longer hear a word I say but pretends to, knowing this will earn him a nice piece of woodcock or grouse at the end of the show. Such gestures are important in a world where hunting seems increasingly irrelevant and misunderstood.
Well, maybe not so misunderstood. In the rural Virginia county where I live, neighbors drive the roads at night, illegally spotlighting and shooting deer, in and out of season. Just last autumn, while walking on my own land, I found a very young doe that had been shot through the spine, which made her back legs useless; otherwise she was alert, eyeing me, kicking her front legs to get away. I put her out of her misery and ate venison the next few weeks, thinking that there was no reason to compound my neighbor’s crime by treating the creature as garbage. Up the road in Shenandoah National Park, authorities recently broke up a ring of hunters who were shooting black bears and selling their gallbladders for the Asian medicine market.
Elsewhere, hunters illegally bait for ducks, kill over their limits, ignore the season, spray houses with bird shot, and argue with landowners who catch them trespassing. Even some people who hunt legally do not hunt ethically, leaving mortally wounded prey to flop around while they pose for photographs, piling up kills they have no intention of eating, treating their quarry as just another commodity.
“When you’re hunting,” said Grayson Chesser, a Virginia waterfowl guide and decoy carver, “you have to be ethical. You have to come to terms with the impact you have on other creatures. But I’m afraid we’re seeing a new generation of hunters who are disconnected from tradition. Half the time, they don’t even know what they’re shooting—they’re so obsessed with the latest gun, the latest camo pattern. And they think you’re some kind of sissy if you don’t get your limit.”
More typical, perhaps, are the hunters you meet on the wind-whipped grasslands of central Montana, where a local chapter of Pheasants Forever has converted an 800-acre (325 hectares) parcel into a haven for pheasants and other wildlife.
“Pheasants need grain and cover,” said Tom Stivers, a biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks who showed me around the Coffee Creek project. The rolling, treeless plains looked well-groomed. Rows of alfalfa, sweet clover, and silver sage hugged the sinuous contours of Coffee Creek, while the surrounding hills bristled with juniper, buffalo berry, chokecherry, and golden currant. In the distance, snow clouds swirled around Square Butte, a landmark anchoring the scene, just as it did in paintings by cowboy artist Charles M. Russell.