Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of young hunters with instructor © Lee Fahrney

Iowa County Conservation Warden David Youngquist assists novice hunters through a Learn to Hunter turkey program.
© Lee Fahrney

February 2012

The face of Wisconsin hunters

Courting a land ethic.

Lee Fahrney

A recent article and sidebar in Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine tripped the trigger of several of the state's big game, waterfowl, upland game bird and small game hunters. The informative article by staff writer Kathryn Kahler reported on a brown bag lecture at UW-Madison entitled "Shifting paradigms in hunting and conservation: How will Wisconsin respond?" presented by Keith Warnke, hunting and shooting sports coordinator with the Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Law Enforcement.

The first entry of the Question and Answer sidebar caught the attention of several readers who consider themselves not only hunters but protectors of the land that they either own or hunt. The question is as follows:

Q: How do we reconcile the fact that there is a perception that most hunters have not yet embraced Aldo Leopold's views of the importance of developing a land ethic?

A: "That's a valid observation," Warnke responded, "but the converse is also true, and a lot of hunters are 'eco-rednecks' and have embraced the land ethic."

While use of the term "eco-redneck" is unfortunate, Warnke is correct regarding the notion that hunters are fully absorbed in not only practicing a land ethic, but passing it on to future generations. This article will attempt to capsulize the attitudes and contributions that Wisconsin's hunters make to the conservation of our natural resources.

First, however, we must attempt to define a land ethic. Leopold discusses at some length the relationship between land and people. He is particularly interested in reconciling the thrust of economic development with the need to respect what he refers to as a "biotic pyramid."

"Plants absorb energy from the sun," Leopold writes. "This energy flows through a circuit called the biota, which may be represented by a pyramid consisting of layers.

"The bottom layer is the soil. A plant layer rests on the soil, an insect layer on the plants, a bird and rodent layer on the insects, and so on up through various animal groups to the apex layer, which consists of the larger carnivores. Each successive layer depends on those below it for food," Leopold maintains.

Al Shook of Oconomowoc is a life-long hunter, former Air Force pilot and now a supervising inspector for the City of Waukesha. Having absorbed Leopold's message in his approach to land management, he takes it a step further by suggesting that Leopold is not the only source of an understanding of what constitutes a land ethic. "It's not a fair question," he asserts.

Photo of hunters and their harvested bucks © Lee Fahrney
Aaron Marty (right), a Milwaukee architect, and Darin Fahrney, vice principal at the Singapore American School, harvested these bucks on private land in Iowa County.
© Lee Fahrney

He submits that many hunters who have never read Leopold's reflections have learned respect for the land from family members or other mentors. "I was taught by my dad and the farmer I worked for to look around and remember what lived where, before I ever read Leopold's work."

Shook goes on to say a land ethic is different for almost everyone. "My connection to the land I hunt is complete," he explains. "I can close my eyes right now and see the land in great detail – downed trees, slopes, holes."

Mark Noll of Alma in Buffalo County views his responsibility for the land through the eyes of four generations of family members who have owned the property. "We have very deep bonds with our land," Noll says. "We truly believe that if you take care of your land, your land will take care of you."

"Working and hunting on our property also brings great enjoyment and satisfaction to our entire family," Noll maintains. "It gives us a perspective of how we tie into and impact the natural world around us."

A land ethic also involves caring about the creatures that inhabit the land and the laws and administrative rules that govern their protection. Consider William "Bill" Howe of Prairie Du Chien, a delegate to the Wisconsin Conservation Congress for more than 50 years. Howe offers a walking, talking history of conservation leadership.

Howe was an acquaintance of Ernie Swift, former secretary of the Conservation Commission (now DNR). Swift would come to the area to hunt ducks with Howe's kinfolk, as did cartoonist "Ding" Darling of the Des Moines Register, Howe said. Darling was also a wildlife artist, who sketched the first federal duck stamp. In those days, Howe's family published a small newspaper, The Courier, covering Grant and Crawford counties.

Howe became a "river rat" at a young age, fishing and hunting year in, year out along the Mississippi. His commitment to resource protection went beyond the river, however. Howe describes traveling to northern Wisconsin to chase starving deer out of over-browsed areas so that both deer and forest understory would have a chance to survive.

"We had people from the Conservation Commission, Parks and the Conservation Congress all involved," he says. Unfortunately, the operation, conducted near Rhinelander and Eagle River, failed. "They went right back," Howe ruefully adds.

Hunters recognize the urgency of keeping this "biotic" in balance. They understand the relationship between predator and prey, that an abundance of cottontails this year will lead to an increase in coyotes and other predators the next.

Likewise, Leopold understood the relationship between predator and pursued, soil, water and sun, flora and fauna. In addition to his enduring reputation as a wildlife ecologist, Leopold was also a hunter who brought his breathtaking prose to the pursuit of wild game across much of the country and abroad.

Among his writings, Leopold reflects on loosing an arrow at a buck harbored by the branches of a "great oak" – only to whiff. Without remorse, Leopold says, "It was appropriate that I missed, for when a great oak grows in what is now my garden, I hope there will be bucks to bed in its fallen leaves, and hunters to stalk and miss and wonder who built the garden wall."

Leopold understands the inevitable fate of the buck, however. "Someday my buck will get a .30-30 in his glossy ribs. A clumsy steer will appropriate his bed under the oak, and will munch the golden grama until it is replaced by weeds."

Another reader had this response to Kahler's article on Warnke's presentation, "Shifting paradigms in hunting and conservation: How will Wisconsin respond?"

I own 50 acres of vacant land in Langlade County. I am not a hunter. The only reason I would kill a creature larger than a horsefly is to stay alive. I do enjoy catch-and-release fishing (perch and walleye being the exceptions). And I would never consider posting my land. I do not feel that I have the right to impose my personal attitude on people who enjoy the art of hunting. Wisconsin has a long, strong hunting tradition, and I understand and appreciate that. And I occasionally get a tasty stick of sausage from an appreciative friend.

Fred Steinbrecher
Cambridge, Wis.

The present day hunter often expresses the same sentiment about a great stag that slipped away unharmed. Other times, a wounded animal challenges the strength and endurance of the dedicated hunter whose ethical standards demand an all-out effort to recover the animal – no matter what it takes.

There are other environmental challenges for which hunters will bear great responsibility. This is especially true with regard to white-tailed deer management. As the urban/suburban landscape continues to expand, a more sophisticated approach will be required.

Laura Wyatt is the Urban Forestry Council liaison and partnership specialist with the Department of Natural Resources. Her job is to facilitate cooperative efforts to manage forests within Wisconsin's urban areas containing 27 million trees and where 80 percent of Wisconsin's population lives. She recognizes both the complexity of the urban biota and the threat to its stability from invasive plants and species, particularly deer.

White-tailed deer now inhabit many urban and suburban areas where hunting often finds little support from either a social or a public safety perspective. Without control measures, however, deer populations typically proliferate until action is taken to protect other sectors of Leopold's pyramid.

The same threat of overpopulation exists in rural areas. Efforts to control deer herds include liberal hunting seasons and damage abatement programs involving not only deer but other species such as turkey and bear.

Most tree growers in Wisconsin rely on some form of damage control to safeguard their investment. Fences, deer repellants and protective tubes to guard against antler rubs, all work to safeguard forests. The most significant control measure, however, derives from the hundreds of thousands of hunters who step up each year to harvest adequate numbers of deer.

Wyatt understands the issue from both a personal and a professional perspective. A small herd of deer have taken up residence in her neighborhood in the Madison area. "They follow the railroad track," she explained. "They even eat our bird seed," she said with a laugh.

The former manager of an arboretum in Illinois, Wyatt said control efforts there got into the issue of sharpshooters and the donation of venison to food pantries. Collaborating with all stakeholders is necessary to solve problems of encroachment from deer or other species, she asserts.

"If we have a problem, we need to come together to solve it," she urges. "We're all in this together."

Lee Fahrney is a freelance outdoors writer, hunter and landowner from Iowa County. He is a delegate to the Wisconsin Conservation Congress where he serves as secretary on its three-person Executive Committee. Fahrney and his wife, Marilyn, own 160 acres of land near Hollandale where the couple has restored wetlands, planted thousands of tress and initiated several wildlife habitat projects.

One man's motivations for deciding to hunt: Reviewing The Mindful Carnivore

Kathryn A. Kahler

Our story about the growing locavore movement in the October issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources prompted a request from author Tovar Cerulli to review his new book, The Mindful Carnivore (Pegasus Books, New York). His brief description sounded intriguing so we agreed, and I'm awfully glad we did.

book cover image

Cerulli is a 40-something logger/carpenter/freelance writer who grew up in southern New Hampshire. As a boy he filled his spare time with outdoor pursuits that both cultivated his natural curiosity and satisfied his appetite. He was as adept at coaxing a trout to take his lure as he was catching bullfrogs in the quarry near his home. But with age came a growing consciousness, and his love for such luscious meals became guilty pleasures he could no longer justify. Killing for flesh became abhorrent. By the time he graduated from college, he had learned enough about factory farming and studied philosophies that questioned meateating to know he could "never consume a fellow creature" again. He became a strict vegan.

Over the course of the next decade however, things gradually changed. Cerulli became aware that an agrarian lifestyle has its own issues with how it impacts the land. Even the protein-rich soybean products like tofu and soy milk he consumed became a concern when he learned that soybean farmers are issued special permits to kill deer that damage their crops. And he found that organic farmers who want to stay in business must use means, usually deadly, to control deer, woodchucks, insects and other creatures. As he put it, he "didn't want Bambi and Chuckie getting plugged and bombed as part of my 'personal ecology.'"

A warning from his doctor and Cerulli's evolution of thought eventually led him to reconsider fishing, and then hunting for food. The book culminates in a wonderful telling of his first deer hunt.

Cerulli's story is a pleasure to read, absorbing and well-researched. It is a thoughtful account of one man's motivations for deciding to hunt. As a hunter myself, who has often found it difficult to describe my motives, I appreciated his clear yet profound reasoning. In his words as he considered taking up hunting, "I knew that my own motives could not be neatly divided and compartmentalized. I would be hunting to confront the death of fellow vertebrates, yes. And I would be hunting to learn about myself and the place I inhabited, to be nourished by the land and participate in its rhythms, and to answer a call for which I had no name. I could not separate these things. Together, my reasons formed a complex web. Why should other hunters' motives be any different, any simpler?"

– Kathryn A. Kahler is a staff writer for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.