DOINews: USFWS: Distinctive Hunting, Lasting Memories

Last edited 09/05/2019

This article appeared in the March/April edition of Refuge Update.

It was a warm August evening more than 25 years ago, but I remember it vividly.

I had finished a day of smoking and drying meat from a Dall sheep ram that I had harvested two days earlier and was hovering over a small camp stove waiting impatiently for water to boil for my freeze-dried dinner. I glanced across the Kongakut River and watched a special event of nature unfold in the heart of the congressionally designated wilderness at Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

hunter Robin West
The author with his hunting bow at Georgia's Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge, one of 63 refuges that include congressionally designated wilderness. Photo by USFWS.

A male grizzly bear was lumbering downstream while a pack of wolf pups and one parent moved playfully upstream — the adults' view blocked from each other by low willows along the river's edge. I watched intently as they reached each other. There was immediate surprise, and then the adult wolf bit the bear in the butt and ushered the pups over the mountain at a rapid pace. The bear exited in the direction it had come with equal zeal.

Nearly an hour passed when I heard a wolf howl. The mate of the other wolf had returned from hunting and was calling for its family. I voiced a howl in return and was surprised to see the wolf run to the river's edge and swim to my camp, only to discover its mistake mere feet from my tent and return across the river to follow the scent of its family.

That is one of countless memories I hold from wilderness hunting trips. Wilderness areas on national wildlife refuges provide such memories for many hunters every year and, with proper protection, will do so for generations to come.

Hunting is a traditional use of wild lands throughout the United States and is supported by the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act.

Wilderness hunting is not for everyone. The restrictions on access and use of wilderness areas — no permanent roads, no mechanized transportation, etc. — make the experience more difficult than some hunters will undertake. I once walked 59 miles on a successful eight-day sheep hunt in Alaska's Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, most of it with a heavy pack. Yet I and many other hunters would have it no other way.

A Cherished Experience

The restrictions required by law to protect wilderness values also protect the quality of the game and the experience cherished by many hunters. I witnessed this most recently on a hunt at Georgia's Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge, which just marked 67 years of providing for a bow hunt for deer, and more recently to help manage a growing population of feral hogs. Approximately one-third of the hunters chose to hunt the island's designated wilderness area, even though they would have to pack out any harvested game rather than hauling it out on a motorized ATV. This choice is important.

I believe that, over time, the added level of legal protection afforded designated wilderness will benefit hunting opportunities by providing large areas of natural habitat that can support healthy populations of all wildlife — hunted and non–hunted species alike. That is not to say I believe that all lands suitable for wilderness should be so designated. Many social and economic factors must come into play as society decides how to manage the larger landscape into the future.

From a hunter's viewpoint, though, having a variety of remote designated wilderness areas serves our interests well. What is good for wildlife will always be good for hunters.

Robin West recently retired after 35 years with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. During that time, he managed Refuge System designated wilderness in Alaska, Oregon and Washington.

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