Finding a New Place to Hunt
©2012 by Pat Wray
At the end of this elk season I finally made a decision I probably should have made two years ago. I decided to stop hunting the area where I’ve pitched my elk camp for the past eight years and find someplace new. This was not an easy decision. It feels a lot like divorce, I think. I’m giving up on something I once loved and all the wonderful memories that went along with it. But in the end every relationship is about meeting needs and mine were very definitely not being met.
It was not the land’s fault. In the beginning there were lots of elk and deer and even when I wasn’t successful I was always exhilarated at their proximity, their mews and bugles, snorts, barks and burps. Very few days went by without at least seeing elk and on some days there were multiple encounters. I mapped multiple active rubs and wallows. Gradually, I developed a sense of where the animals fed in the evenings and bedded down during the day. I had an idea of their general travel patterns and where solitary bulls might be found.
For a nomad like me, who hunted different places every year for many years, this spot felt like home and it soon became my annual elk hunting destination. Situated at the break-over point between the headwaters of three different rivers, it offered multiple different habitat types, from open ponderosa pine forests, to lodgepole thickets to dark spruce bogs and swamps to open sagebrush hillsides. At least once each season I would hike to the top of a nearby mountain even though the elk sign was always thin up there. There were trout in the stream near camp and a 10-incher was a real trophy. There weren’t a lot of trails, so ATV usage was light. In short, it was damn near perfect. It even became our annual family camping spot.
I always did my part; I was a careful camper and hunter. I never left a scrap of trash and always picked up after other people. I covered ground religiously and loved every minute of it. I was not some sit-on-a-treestand kind of hunter; I explored new places on a regular basis and every time I liked the area more.
Everything was great…until it wasn’t. A fire 10 years or so ago destroyed a few thousand acres of timber. By now it would probably be providing wonderful grasses and browse for deer and elk, but a sheep rancher with grandfathered rights in the wilderness has continued to graze between 1,200 and 2,000 sheep across much of the best elk habitat and sheep don’t leave much for anyone else. There has also been heavy beetle kill of the pines. With reduced hiding cover, elk were forced into smaller patches of timber, where they became more vulnerable to hunters. Many were killed, many more departed the area. It would be easy to blame predators, but there aren’t any wolves and only an average number of cougars. No, we did this ourselves.
But in the end the cause doesn’t matter. Even the least kill-oriented hunter needs to see elk occasionally to feel like he or she is not just on a sightseeing expedition. And so I have to find a new spot. Maybe I’ll put in for the Ochocos, or maybe I’ll try the Cascades. I could always stay in my own backyard; I’ve always enjoyed hunting the coast range.
But maybe, just maybe, things will get better next year. Maybe I shouldn’t give up so quickly. It doesn’t take a lot of elk to keep me happy and it sure is wonderful country to hunt. I bet there will be more elk next year. Maybe it will get better. Maybe I should go back.