I know that I’m not alone when I say that the wilderness hunting experience represents the apex of what I want from the outdoors. Many hunters like me look for pristine environments untouched by roads, clearcuts, and the hum of towns and highways, areas preferably brimming with elk and deer unconditioned to hunters. Finding this experience requires more bootleather and sweat than most people are willing to give, for a chance at success that rates somewhere around the acceptance rate of an Ivy League university. The isolation and remoteness that characterizes wilderness areas and wilderness study areas (WSAs) is also a bedrock condition for healthy big game populations both within and outside the wilderness boundary.
I’ve learned that bucks and bulls alike take refuge in steep and deep sanctuaries where the threat of predation or human interference is minimal. I shot a bull on the very edge of one of these havens during the first week of archery season this year, and I’m convinced that this experience and this beautiful animal were both dependent upon the immaculate and rugged habitat of the wilderness study area I found them in. The Thursday after opening day, I hiked four miles through BLM land littered with cattle and roads without seeing so much as a disappearing flash of tan. The very moment I crossed into view of one of the WSAs near Missoula, I spotted a mature bull feeding along a ridgeline. Half an hour later, he charged a cow call and gave me a frontal shot at barely three yards. Within ten seconds, I watched him crash just below me. I still have residual adrenaline from this encounter, and I am sure that this memory will stay with me long after I stop chasing elk.
This was not a remote backcountry wilderness experience: it was a public lands hunting saga that many of my peers would recognize. I hiked in on roads that are open to motorized access for most of the year, but I found elk the moment that I crossed the boundary of the WSA. This WSA is one of the areas being targeted in legislation offered by Senator Steve Daines and Congressman Greg Gianforte, who want to open it and nearly 800,000 acres of other public lands to development, motorized access, and resource extraction. Their legislation would deprive us, as hunters, the experience of pursuing confident and unpressured elk on public lands. Please stand with me in opposing H.R. 5148 and 5149 and S. 2206.
Sign a letter and tell Senator Daines and Representative Gianforte that Montana’s hunters and anglers value Wilderness Study Areas.
By Walker Conyngham, a lifelong hunter and the Policy and Outreach Assistant for Montana Wildlife Federation.