Not Long ago, a friend happened to notice elk antlers hanging from a wall in my family room.
"I'm a little suprised at you" He said, "I've read several articles you've written about how bad trophy hunting is and here you have a trophy on your wall"
I thought seriously about his statement and decided he had made a couple of mistakes. First, he confused the concept of trophy hunting with having a personal trophy. It is accurate to say that I oppose the selective killing of the best and biggest animals of a species. I believe it imposes a reverse darwinian selection of the least fit, in which the lesser animals are left alive to breed and pass along their genes. Over time, one obvious result will be smaller, less capable animals.
A look at the record books bears out this theory; with occasional exceptions, the largest animals of the back country have been taken in decades past. Whitetails, which are far more likely to benefit from human agriculture, and are often scientifically fed for maximum antler and body growth, haven't necessarily followed the same downward trend. But the whitetail situation reflects maximum human interference, a question for another time.
Targeting the biggest males does more than simple remove the best genes form the population; it also has a negative impact on overall health health. Consider elk activity during the rut. A mature bull is ready to breed weeks earlier than younger bulls. The cows he breeds will become pregnant earlier and give birth earlier than those cows bred by younger bulls. As a result, the big bull's progeny will enjoy better nutrition for a longer time before they must endure their fist winter. Their rate of survival will be higher and they will come out of the winter stronger. His male offspring have a better chance of becoming dominant bulls. Females will be more likely to give birth to healthy youngsters.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Problems associated with delayed breeding and birth continue through succeeding generations. When most breeding is done by young bulls, the problems compound themselves over time.
But as I am against the killing of a big, mature animal when the opportunity presents? Absolutely not. When hunters target all legan animals, as opposed to only the largest, mature males, the harvest will contain a reasonable percentage of massive animals, but not so many as to endanger herd health.
I kill a large elk or deer when I get a chance, but I don't focus on them to the exclusion of other, lesser animals. In general, I kill the first legal animal I see. Occasionally, that animal is very good, as was the case with the bull elk whose antlers my friend noticed. More often than not, it is mediocre. Fortunately, mediocre animals tend to be more tender and taste better than the big fellas.
My concerns with trophy hunting are not just biological, but social. When hunters begin to think of game animals in terms of their record book scores, a critical element in the equation is lost. Our heritage as hunter-gatherers becomes a step further removed. The relationship between hunter and hunted changes from that of a predator-prey to something more akin to shooter-prize. When I hear a man say he killed "a 360 bull" I know his measure of success is made with a tape measure and not with his heart.
The second mistake my friend made was adopting the technique of some political pundits of taking a complex issue and treating it as though it were very simple. Any discussion of trophy hunting must encompass the concepts of legality, morality and ethics, all of which can be murky and unclear.
For instance, more and more ranchers are providing the opportunity to shoot large and essentially domestic elk and deer within small, fenced enclosures.
Legal? In many cases, yes. Ethical? Questionable at best. But then, ethics are personal after all, so in lieu of a widespread ethical standard, the hunting community has adopted rules set forth by the Boone and Crockett Club and its archery equipment, the Pope and Young Club. Those entities establish guidelines for the inclusion of animals in their listings and they specifically exclude animals taken from small, fenced enclosures.
But does their exclusion mean those animals cannot be considered trophies? No, of course not. The trophy label is even more personal than ethical standards. I have no idea why my mounted elk antlers would score because I just don't care. Their size isn't what makes the antlers a trophy to me. What does is the recollection of calling a nice bull in within 20 yards in a light snow, trying to coax him out of the thick timber and then dropping him with a cartridge my father handloaded specifically for the task.
One of my other mounts is a pronghorn antelope buck. In therms of relative size, my buck would have to stand on his tiptoes to see "marginal". But I chased him over the Steens Mountain for three days and killed him on the third day after a five-mile stalk.
In my mind he is a magnificent trophy and I smile every time I look at him. Sometimes I even laugh, because now that he is up close and unmoving I can see that his right ear is missing two inches off the top, probably the result of an early coyote encounter. All the time I was chasing him across the STeens I was comparing his horns to his ears and boy, they looked big. It's amazing how big antelope horns look when compared to three-quarters of an ear.
I supposed I should respond to my friend. "You're right," I said. "Those antlers are a trophy, but not in the sense you mean. I don't care how they compare to others or where they stand in a record book. They do the same thing for me as the pictures in your house of your kids and grandkids. They serve as a memory tickler. And I never look at them without honoring the animal who wore them or giving thanks for the year's worth of meat he provided."
"And there's one other thing," he said.
"They are absolutely beautiful."
Published in Washington-Oregon Game & Fish Magazine November 2011
These are my sentaments, he is better at writing down his thoughts than am.