Once again it is upon us: the season of the hunt.
There is a chill to the morning air that wasn't with us a week or two ago. A bit of color is beginning to flare in the hills, and the light is softer now. Elk are bugling in the high country, shattering the forest quiet, and geese and ducks are beginning to stir nervously, readying themselves for the long trip south when the weather closes in.
Already, camouflaged archers are moving quietly through the dawn hoping this will be the day that fate and skill combine to bless them with an opportunity to take the deer or elk they have been hunting in their dreams for months.
Already, shotgunners and eager pointing and flushing dogs are prowling the ridges for blue grouse, the forest edges and stream bottoms for ruffed grouse, and the thickets and draws and wide-open country over east for sharptails.
In a few days, the early big game season will begin in the backcountry. Camps have been set up in the same remote basins where they have been set up for generations. The last of the hay is being hauled over miles of rocky trail that have scarcely seen a human presence since last fall. Smoke already curls skyward from cook tents where guides and camp tenders are taking care of the final preparations before the first hunters clatter in, full of excitement and hope and awash in the beauty of the country.
In a blink of an eye, it will be October and the opening weekend of waterfowl season. Hunters will gather in old haunts to tell stories and laugh and peer skyward over the marsh at first light, straining to hear the music of geese on the move. Then pheasant season will bring droves of hunters out onto the margins of wheat fields and along the stream bottoms of the eastern plains. And finally, the general big game season will arrive, and every hunter who hasn't already gone afield will finally venture out.
It has been happening this way every autumn since the white man first stumbled upon this place we call home, two hundred years ago, or so. And it happened before that for hundreds and thousands of years as the Native people of this place went out onto the land to bring in the meat and hides and tallow they would need to endure another unforgiving winter.
The ritual of the hunt is in our bones here in Montana. It is the time of year when, more than any other time, Montanans come face to face with the country in a very personal way. And in responding to the urge or instinct or whatever it is that sends us afield to become the hunter, we come to grips with all the ways we are connected to the land and all the living things that dwell upon it.
Of course, lots of things change over a generation or two, and many things about hunting in Montana have changed in the 45 odd years since I got my first hunting license. For one thing, there are a lot more people living here, and as a result, there are more people going afield to hunt than there were in the good old days of my youth.
For another thing, many of the old ways of doing things no longer apply. As our cities have sprawled out into the surrounding countryside, many of our old haunts have given way to residential development. It is not quite as easy or as acceptable as it once was to just step out the front door and do a little hunting in those places.
The days when everyone had a friend with a ranch that harbored elk and deer galore are also a thing of the past. Many of those old family ranches have changed hands, and some have been made off limits to the public entirely. In some cases, it has become an economic necessity for landowners to charge hunters for the use of their land. And other landowners have accumulated enough experiences with rude or thoughtless hunters who abused the generosity of the landowners and perhaps the land itself that the door is just no longer open.
So these days, most Montana hunters rely on public lands or on private lands made available through Fish, Wildlife and Parks block management programs. And we rely on systems of special tags to allow us to hunt certain species or certain sexes in certain areas. There are more rules and regulations to know before ever setting foot afield. And learning and understanding the hunting regulations has become something of a job in itself.
And today, more than ever before, the activities and behavior of hunters are getting close scrutiny from the non-hunting public. We all know that there are those who disapprove of hunting in any form. And in doing so, they ask questions that are sometimes very uncomfortable and difficult to answer.
I think that we as hunters owe it to ourselves and to each other to go about our hunting in a way that honors the long and storied tradition of the hunt, and lends credence to the claim that many of us make that we view the beauties of the natural world and the prey we seek with awe, humility and deep respect.
It is that word respect, I think, that we should keep in mind each time we go afield. It applies directly to the way we should view our quarry, whether beast or fowl. It certainly applies to the way we treat the land we hunt on. It goes for the way we observe the rights of those who choose not to allow access to their property for hunting. It goes for the way we learn and adhere to the regulations that apply to our hunting. And it goes for the way we treat other hunters as well as for the way we acknowledge the sensibilities of those who do not approve of hunting at all.
We are so lucky to be living in a place where we are still able to roam the hills every fall in search of game. We are not only the beneficiaries of a long and glorious hunting tradition, we are also the heirs of generations of people who have toiled long and hard to protect the habitat and wildlife we now seek.
The deer and elk and grouse and pheasants would not be there at all were it not for the tireless efforts of our state and federal agency personnel, private landowners who saw the importance of protecting and nurturing the habitat and wild creatures on the land, and conservationists and hunters who have given generously of their time to the same end. Because of them, we Montanans enjoy wildlife populations and hunting opportunities as diverse and rich and as readily available to everyone who wants to partake as anywhere in the country.
So this fall, let us renew our resolve to go about our hunting in a way that honors those efforts, and this place we live.
May you have many wonderful days in the hills in the weeks and months ahead.
Greg Tollefson is a Missoula free-lance writer whose column appears each week in Outdoors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.