This is an excerpt from a story I wrote last autumn. As you read this I will be on my second antelope hunt.
There has never been a deer emerging cautiously from the forest at last light that I did not love, nor a bull elk bugling in the night that I did not find beauty in. There has never been a bison, head buried deep in snow searching for long senescent grass, which I did not admire. I love them for their right to this land. I find beauty in their easy belonging. I admire them for their skill in surviving where I could not.
But I cannot think these things while staring down the barrel of a Weatherby .243 rifle pointed at a mature antelope buck. The buck is bedded with his harem of eight females in a shallow bowl scooped from a hillside in western Wyoming.
For the past three days, my boyfriend John and I have hunted these cracked sagebrush hills in search of the fastest land mammal in North America. We find many. A young male without a harem. A buck with a dozen does. Two males sparring for control of a group of females. But each time we approach they catch our scent or see movement from behind what little cover the landscape affords.
Although most hunters refer to them as antelope, they aren’t antelope at all. They are more accurately known as pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) and are the only surviving member of the family Antilocapridae. Pronghorn are relicts of the past when Pleistocene cheetahs and hyenas chased them across the American prairies more than 11,000 years ago. Today, no predator is fast enough for an adult pronghorn except a human with a gun.
John and I first spotted this group from a ridge to the east more than a mile away. We escaped their sharp eyes by dipping below the horizon, using the rolling hills for cover, then crawling through prickly pear cactus to the top of a small hill overlooking the bowl. They are grazing and alternately sniffing the air for danger. I rest the barrel of my rifle on the shooting sticks and train the crosshairs on the buck.
When I was a kid hunting was about as foreign to me as city living is to a rancher. I didn’t know any hunters and had little concept of the sport. I was never opposed to hunting, but I thought killing an animal was one of those things that I’d never be able to do myself despite the fact that I regularly ate meat from the grocery store.
But the more I learned about the food industry the less meat I bought until eventually I’d pick up a Styrofoam tray full of dismembered chicken wrapped in plastic and immediately think of their pathetic lives lived in a cramped windowless factory, piled on top of one another and defecating on the unfortunate ones below. It was too much so I quit eating meat altogether.
Then I moved to Montana. I had never met so many hunters. Almost every one bucked (pun intended) my idea of what hunters looked and acted like. They weren’t just old, grizzled men as I had pictured. They were women too and they weren’t old and grizzled. Many of them were conservationists who cared deeply about the animals they hunted. It was in Montana that I first heard of the North American Model of Conservation.
The model was designed by hunters who in the 1800s realized that the wholesale slaughter of wildlife in the west would soon drive elk, bison, bighorn sheep, bears and other wildlife to extinction. To preserve hunting opportunities for the future they set limits for themselves and began preserving important wildlife habitat.
Today, hunting license fees and taxes on ammunition and sporting arms are how the states obtain their funding for conservation, management, and research activities for game species and many non-game species as well. Hunters, it turns out, are pretty good conservationists.
Still, none of this means anything to me as I lay crouched behind a silver sagebrush shrub with the crosshairs of my gun trained on a small patch of fur just behind the buck’s shoulder.
One by one the does stand and the buck joins them. They begin making their way up the hillside. Soon they will be over the ridge and the hunt will be over, but before the buck disappears he pauses and turns broadside. He is in perfect position for a clean shot so I flip the gun safety off and rest my forefinger on the trigger. I inhale once then exhale slowly. At the end of my breath I hold what little air is left in my lungs to steady my hand.
It is a small thing this trigger behind my forefinger. One soft touch and a bullet will torpedo out of the stock at 3200 feet per second, pierce his thick hide, and explode into his lungs.
I hesitate. If I pull that trigger I will end this pronghorn’s life and that is no small thing.
A part of me is thrilled with the idea of hunting my own dinner. I need to know that the steak on my dinner plate did not come from a cow whose death lay hidden behind a slaughterhouse wall. Hunting is the only way to obtain truly free range, organic meat and creates a powerful connection to the animal that is missing when purchased in a store no matter how many “sustainable” labels appear on the packaging.
But the other part of me remembers how vulnerable pronghorn and other wildlife are to humans. And not just to those with guns. We build fences which block their ancient migration routes. We build towns in the middle of critical winter range. We expand these towns with subdivisions then name them after the animals that once lived there. After all this what right do I have to point a gun at a pronghorn?
The buck is motionless. All I have to do is pull the trigger. I think how beautiful this tawny and white pronghorn is standing in the afternoon sun. Delicate, yet strong and swift and I know then that I will not shoot this buck. He steps forward and disappears over the ridge.
John asks me if I want to follow them, but I decline. We begin our walk back to the jeep. The snow-capped Absarokas lie many miles to the north. Though it’s only October, winter has come to these mountains and they shine in the distance like rough-cut diamonds.