Monday, February 4, 2013

Children learn about selves, nature during backcountry excursions

A version of this story originally appeared in the fall 2012 issue of  The Backcountry Journal, the quarterly newsletter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers

Natalie in June 2012 with her first northern on Lake Kawishiwi, Boundary Waters Canoe Area 

photo by Erik Jensen

Hunter-angler conservationists today face the challenge of how to pass on the traditional outdoor culture to our kids and grandchildren. The decline is well documented, even in regions of America where hunting and fishing are revered parts of the culture. The average age of sportsmen is climbing. In Minnesota, only 69 percent of the children of hunters are taking up the activity and the state’s participation in fishing has declined from half of the population to just over a third.

A powerful social trend is at work: cramming numerous organized activities, whether it’s more sports practices or rigorous band camps, into most kids’ schedules. “Putting Families First,” a non-partisan, non-sectarian organization that advocates balance between children’s outside activities and families spending time together, encourages parents to make a conscious decision to “set aside” time for family activities. The group cites family social science research documenting a 50 percent decline in unstructured outdoor play among children ages 3-12 from 1981-1997 due to a rise in structured recreation.

Making a commitment to set aside family time and work at passing on the traditions of hunting, angling and other outdoor activities can go hand-in-hand. Our twin daughters, Theresa and Natalie, are turning 9 this year and have had numerous fishing, hunting and camping experiences, including two in the backcountry. They’re even preparing to turkey hunt this spring, and Natalie still hasn't given up on shooting her first squirrel this small game season, which lasts until the end of the month.

We are fortunate to live in a state where residents of a large urban area still can with relatively little time get to public fishing, hunting, shooting and camping opportunities. These more conventional trips, which they call “daddy days or trips,” allow for the flexibility of numerous activities in one setting that kids love: biking around the campground, shooting their bow, walking down to the lake or stream to fish. Then they can go to a playground for some kid time. On afternoon trips to our gun club 45 minutes north of Minneapolis, we always work in time to drive over to a nearby lake for swimming or fishing.

These easier trips set the stage for more challenging trips in backcountry. The irritation of noisy neighbors at busy car campgrounds can be a lesson on the value of the time and effort to it takes to do backcountry trips.

Our first family backcountry trip was camping for three days about two miles up a forested canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park, just before they turned six. They complained about the hike and the weight of packs, but also said they felt “big” while expressing pride in their newfound abilities. They explored massive rock formations that were favorable fairy habitat. Other memories included having to cook breakfast in a small ravine below our campsite due to high winds, another watching their first trout take bait in the gin-clear waters of the Big Thompson River.

For our first family venture into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness we gave up portaging in favor of setting camp once on a big lake and paddling a channel to a second lake. It had high moments and the girls added new skills. Natalie finally caught her first northern pike on the last night of the trip, which she demanded to eat immediately. Learning the mundane skill of relieving oneself in the woods abiding by leave no trace principles, the girls asked “Is this something hunters have to do?” We also canoed into a massive burn area to see regenerative effects of fire, offering a chance for a lesson in ecology.

During the family discussion afterward, the girls said at times they felt locked in at the campsite with an inability to roam. We concluded that we would go back in a few years when they could go out in the canoe on their own. We were already making plans for the next big trip and at the same time talking about the memories we’ll share forever from our most recent adventure. The negative memory of the 18-hour drive from Minneapolis to the Rockies now overshadowed, Theresa said “I want to walk in the mountains again.”  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

When Kids and Guns mix and when they don't

Theresa and Natalie Jensen love their single-shot, bolt-action Crickett .22, and are proud of their increasing shooting skills
Photo taken by Paula Faraci

Of all gun politics and policy issues, few, if any, elicit the kind of raw emotion than the "mixing" of kids and guns. Last year, I bought my twin daughters, who at the time were six and a half, a single-shot crickett .22. Aside from adult policy debates, the kids are loving it and usually shoot it when they have the opportunity.  It's been a great way to spend family time and get prepared for their first hunts that should happen next year.  The reaction from most of my friends and family was strong support, but shock from a number of non-gun owning family friends.

I've had the fear of kids and guns "mixing" come up regularly over time in conversations with other parents, usually liberal urban people with little or no connection to shooting sports. One particular memory I have was at an Early Childhood Family Education class. I mentioned the value of youth hunts as a family activity.   One parent in the group said with contempt "oh, great idea, kids and guns".  There is a significant section of parents who want the total separation of kids and firearms, they have an intense feeling about it.

In 2008, apparently due to the opposition from some parents, a North Carolina school district took administrative action to prevent a high-school affiliated Future Farmers of America Marksmanship Team from participating in a weekend shooting contest. The school board's policy statement was "kids and ammo don't mix". See the International Hunter Education Association's response.

Shootings by youth, accidental and deliberate, is one of the few areas  where pro-gun control forces have won some policy victories, although some of those victories are a decade or more old.   A good example is the "no guns on school grounds [under any circumstances]" law that is in place in Minnesota, apparently a state level implementation of the 1997 Federal Gun-Free schools Act. We are what would be considered overall a "pro-gun" state, although less so than states in the south and west. We are certainly pro-hunting. There is no provision in the law for teenagers who are involved with hunting to have guns in their cars on school grounds if they are hunting after school, even with some procedures such as notifying the principal beforehand and using trigger locks. In rural areas of the state hunting after school would be common, and not uncommon in some exurban areas, so it is a significant restriction. Last year, two boys were suspended for three days under the law's provisions, even though everyone involved acknowledged there was no intent on their part to threaten anyone at school, they were just going hunting right after school.

The well-intended but bluntly written laws responding to school shootings and the grassroots fear of "mixing" kids and guns are a significant problem for the future of hunting. Our numbers are in a slow decline, and there is tons of evidence that to sustain our hunting heritage, we have to bring kids into hunting and shooting, and the younger, the better. This is not to dismiss the very encouraging trend of "Adult Onset Hunters", many driven by a desire for environmentally-friendly and healthy food and an active lifestyle. However, to maintain our hunting culture, it is clear that a key strategy is that it has to be done as it was for thousands of years: a skill passed through families, from older generations to the next. In today's society, where outside forces often overwhelm families, hunting families are going to need to have a support network among youth, in schools and other institutions. That is going to mean kids learning to shoot guns.

The gut reaction by many parents against mixing kids and guns is driven by some real dangers that shouldn't be ignored by the shooting sports community. The US rate of youth shootings, both accidental and deliberate, and youth suicides by firearm, is the highest among the rich nations of the world. My readings of the studies on the matter lead me to conclude unsafe storage of firearms is largely to blame. While youth firearm violence and deaths aren't isolated to the poor, there appears to be significant socioeconomic differences. This interesting study of firearm storage methods in households with youth under eighteen includes a number of excellent citations of other similar studies, and there is solid evidence that higher household income and education is correlated with safe storage, in addition to regional differences.

Focusing only on the serious negatives, and foolishly ignoring the health, family, and environmental benefits of kids being involved with hunting, the American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends to not have guns in the home at all if you have children under eighteen.  This is in spite of the fact  one JAMA study showed safe storage methods decreased the rate of accidental and suicide deaths by youth dramatically, and concluded safe storage was a viable alternative to asking families to get rid of their guns.

Of course, the guns rights movement isn't doing the situation any favors. The NRA's insane response to school shootings is to begin a discussion of essentially militarizing public schools, that included "for consideration" armed principals and teachers. They intensely resist legislating gun storage practices that they recommend people do on their own, characterizing them as a government plot to invade the homes of gun owners. They recently pressured the Florida legislature to enact a law that barred pediatricians from asking families about gun ownership and how they stored them. The law was struck down as a violation of the first amendment by a judge appointed by George W. Bush. The gun rights movement's response to the real dangers of unsupervised and uncontrolled access by youth to firearms is to argue that legislating storage methods would infringe on the right of armed self-defense. All of this amounts to more anti-hunting politics from the NRA. Their response makes it harder for shooting sports advocates to get the social support needed to recruit families to shooting and hunting.

A new, progressive program of advancing youth shooting sports participation needs to be advanced. It would involve policies that encourage kids to start shooting guns at an early age, with proper controls. Some combination of safe storage legislation, broad based school and other institutional support for youth shooting needs to be enacted. Government-sponsored education campaigns should include the benefits of kids being involved in shooting sports, as well as the clear dangers of youth suicides, accidental shootings, and use of firearms in crime. In a large majority of suicides, there are warning signs, but the decision to commit suicide is impulsive, and the solid majority of those that attempt suicide unsuccessfully don't do so again. Access to lethal means matters greatly, most of those that attempt suicide with a firearm are successful. The lessons that hunters learn in firearms safety, "you can't retrieve a bullet", or "once you pull the trigger, you can't undo the outcome", are very relevant here.

Enacting youth shooting sports programs are going to take a lot of effort.  We'll need to both confront the NRA and educate and convince a lot of parents, school administrators, and legislators about the value of kids hunting and shooting.  Public health officials concerned about gun violence, the AAP, and gun control groups will need to show strong support for youth participation in shooting sports.  But ultimately, it's going to be concerned hunters who are concerned about the future of our tradition who can make it happen.  We know the value of private gun ownership, and the serious responsibility it is as well.   

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Erik's First Elk Hunting Adventure in the Zirkel Wilderness

Fresh rub on tree from rutting bull elk, seen on the last day of the hunt
This and other photos by Ben Pena

I returned from my first elk hunt a week ago, in the Frank Zirkel Wilderness in Colorado.

There was a last minute change of plans, as my normal hunting partner in these types of adventures, Rita Juran, was unable to go on the hunt. She was able to recruit another one of her fellow Minneapolis firefighters, Ben Pena, to go on the hunt. It worked out very well as Ben is a very experienced hunter and many grades above yours truly when it comes to navigation/orienteering in the Rockies. It was his first elk hunt, but he has spent lots of time in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming hunting mule deer, as well as helping a hunting buddy scout for elk there. His skills with USGS maps, GPS, and compass, and using these tools to match to physical features in sight of you was a huge help to hunting. Ben also had a constant awareness of how differing directions of slopes have a huge effect on weather and amount of sunlight and thereby the vegetation, as well the usual direction of storms and wind hitting mountain sides, which greatly affects the amount of deadfall. Mentally adjusting to the terrain as a midwestern deer hunter used to being in what is generally flat terrain with dense woods and some open fields was a huge challenge.

We started by hiking in on the Swamp Park Trail, to the South Fork Mad creek canyon, where we camped. It was over three hours, and a good section of it rugged uphill hiking. For the next day and a half, we hunted the woods and meadows near there, as well as climbing up a steep canyon open hillside to glass down into the canyon. We saw elk sign, including where bulls had rubbed trees, but they appeared to be a couple weeks old. While camped there and hunting we saw mule deer, blue grouse, and black bears. One night returning from hunting, we walked right up on a large boar, who took off quickly. Normally we saw the bears climbing up and down a steep open ridge presumably heading and returning from feasting on the numerous berries and other vegetation close to the creek. Seeing the bears was great for me, because I had never seen them out hunting, even though they are numerous in Minnesota. That open section of canyon hillside allowed for easy observation of their comings and goings.

This open ridge allowed for frequent bear sightings at distances of 800-900 yards

We quickly concluded that the elk had to be higher up, as the weather was warm and the sign was old, and we had heard no bugling of bulls or mewing of cows. We later talked to a party that years before had killed a good bull in those very meadows at the same time of the season, but they weren't there this year.

We relocated to a spot nearly a thousand feet higher, so we were at 8,700 feet instead of 7,800. On the way we met a group of hunters from Kansas who had a large camp and horses. They said they had seen some elk and but that the elk were not bugling as much they normally were at this time of year. We heard this from another party later in the hunt a well. While none of us are trained elk biologists, the most common belief was that there is massive amounts of green grass around this year due to the snowy winter and wet summer, combined with the relatively warm weather we were experiencing, made the elk less active. Elk have thick skin and seek cool places, and eat green grass. In the normally dry climate of the Rockies this forces elk to seek small pockets of moist areas in late summer and early fall. This year, green grass is abundant.

Ben dissented slightly, he thought the elk were more cautious due to the hunting pressure, which was significant for elk, even though from the point of view of whitetail deer hunting, hunters were few. Even though we were in a wilderness area inaccessible to motorized transportation, the area was used by elk hunters and some others. Mostly people were traveling on horseback.

After relocating, we did see more elk sign on a steep hill covered by dark, thick timber that plateaued to a meadow and pond at the top. We found an elk skeleton and skin, evidence of a kill by a bowhunter early in the season. We also finally heard an elk bugling after dark, an encouraging sign. The next morning we intended to hunt the same pond, but navigating through the thick timber and deadfalls in the moonlight and minimal use of headlamps, we ended up a couple hundred yards to the left on a steep hillside of pines, aspens, and green grass. We missed our spot but were also in good elk habitat, but saw nor heard elk that morning on that hill and some ridges further away. We spotted another elk camp with horses, who we talked to later in the trip, a group of hunters from Iowa.

Even though we hadn't seen any elk yet, we decided our camp was in a good spot and that afternoon and evening, Ben, using his great endurance and navigational skills, and went on a "re-supply" mission. He walked all the way to our previous camp where we had hung some dried food, and then to the truck. He returned after dark, at 11 pm, after about 7 hours of walking. Other than an encounter with a bear that quickly took off running, no mishaps.

In the next morning's moonlight, during one of the many moments we took to stop and listen and look at openings in the dense woods, we experienced one of the bigger thrills of the trip. Above us, we saw an animal that was as big as a deer and a similar color, but running lower to the ground, with the soft pitter-patter of paws skipping across the boulders for maybe five seconds...a cougar.

Later that morning, we finally encountered an elk. We were working a ridge line slowly and quietly, and heard a bugle of a bull in front of us, but we weren't sure of the distance. Ben thought a half a mile, I thought a third of a mile, but it turned out to be much closer. We approached as quietly as we could, making a few cow calls. We walked slowly, taking each step with great care, but our caution was not enough. Suddenly, there was the motion of a large animal running away from us, snapping large branches and twigs, brief glimpses of antlers, and the brief view of a hind quarter disappearing over a high point...we had spooked the bull. My heart pounded and I shook with nervousness and excitement, but he was gone.

During a later more reasoned moment, we concluded the swirling winds of the ridgeline had brought our scent to the elk, which sends them packing a long distance.

We were hopeful we would start seeing more elk, and that night we planned and prepared for going much deeper into the backcountry to some distant meadows with our entire camp on our backs. We could hunt and then set up camp wherever we ended up, hopefully near an elk kill. Then we could travel back or start packing out a kill the following day and start heading for home.

It began to rain that night at dinner, but it was what my daughters refer to as "pitter-patter rain", and it was raining when we woke up at 3 am. We concluded it would soon pass, but we were wrong. At 5 am, we were ready to take our tent down after packing all the rest of our gear and eating our standard breakfast of coffee, muesli, powdered milk, and a couple slices of pre-cooked bacon. The rain had now increased in intensity, and we decided to head for our tent and re-sort our gear in the packs so that what needed to stay dry would be packed separately from what could get wet. From that point on, we were stuck in the tent for a full twelve hours, just keeping our essentials dry. I watched the clouds thicken and the rain intensify, at several points visibility went down to a mere two or three hundred yards. You could not see across the canyon and the entire sky and surroundings were gray. I wrote several times in my journal about the rain, more than once about the rain appearing to finally break, but then showers would re-develop over the mountains to the north. However, finally the showers with each wave were less intense and there were very brief glimpses of sunshine. At 5:30 that afternoon, when the sky was finally breaking, we went out to hunt nearby. During the hunt we endured a last shower, but as sunset approached the sky was finally blue. We saw no elk but hoped the next day would bring an increase in elk activity as the temps had cooled.

In the pre-dawn, we packed up our tent and food and began the day's hunt. We found a good area not far from an area where we had hunted before, with a grassy meadow below a steep aspen ridge, and heard a bugle in the direction we were travelling, some distance off. Then we heard the boom of a muzzleloader not that far away. Shortly after we met the hunters from Iowa, who told us that shot had been just emptying a gun, but one of them had shot at a cow an hour earlier, but missed. They had experienced less elk activity than in years past, and had killed nothing this year, which was uncommon. They were packing up and leaving that day but gave us a few points of where to go. We headed in the direction of where they suggested and found a remote meadow and low-lying wet areas surrounding it. There we saw excellent sign of the bull, including the tree the rutting bull had stripped of bark with its antlers (above), very fresh tracks, and scat. We called, but to no avail.

After finishing working that area, we walked up high, hoping to use the higher ridges to cross about a mile and a half of ground and reach a trail that would take us back, while doing some hunting on the way. As it turned out, it was a much tougher route than anticipated, and involved climbing up several hundred feet in elevation, then walking down and up a steep canyon with tons of deadfall, thereafter another steep ascent and descent. We were getting concerned about reaching the trail before dark, but suddenly, there it was. At this point we had walked twelve hours with short breaks for rest and snacks, carrying about fifty pounds on our backs as well as carrying our bows in our hands. After the demoralizing feeling I'd had just minutes earlier, when I'd given up on hunting, now all of a sudden, on the trail, I would be willing to shoot an elk again. It would involve many hours of work to bone and pack out. In the back of my mind, I thought, there'd be delicious fresh meat, we'd make a fire, and camp out near the boned-out meat and pack it out in the morning.

Trudging through steep dark timber...

Joy at reaching the Luna lake trail !

As we walked the trail with a spring in our step relieved that we wouldn't be stuck outside at night not sure where we were, Ben, a few steps ahead of me, suddenly saw elk about a hundred yards in front of us. We quickened our pace and started cow calling, hoping to draw them to us and cover our approach. One cow went in a different direction than the others, and looped around behind us, into a draw that we had just walked through. Ben saw her and advised me to get ready to shoot as she walked into the opening. My "training" as a hunter kicked in, I knocked an arrow, and as she walked broadside into the clearing, she stopped and I aimed and released the arrow.

It was a clean miss, (or "non-hit" as the positive psychology people want you to say) hitting a downed tree in front of her. She heard the noise of the arrow, and quickly trotted off. I had made a common mistake that hunters make in terrain like that where you at one moment are in thick, gnarly timber, where small openings create the effect of over-estimating distance. Conversely, once you come upon an open draw, and look at a large animal, you underestimate distance. We hadn't had time to get out our rangefinders, it had happened so fast. I thought the cow was 40 yards away, at the limit of my range, but it measured 60 yards away when measured on the rangefinder. Ben was impressed with the fact that I didn't skip a beat and drew and released an arrow with fifty pounds of gear on my back after walking a grueling 12 hours. Had I been less tired, or more experienced at elk hunting, I would have walked closer to the draw to cut the distance while she approached, or let her pass and stalked. My movements would have been hidden by the small aspens and pines at the edge of the draw.

The first arrow released on a cow elk fell short

The hunt was a "non-sucess" in terms of putting meat on the table, but was a great adventure and huge learning experience and deepened my commitment to both elk hunting and protecting backcountry. Being in wilderness is not only a challenge, it is a relief. A relief from noise, a relief from the pressures of everyday life, a relief from cell phones, a relief from the omnipresent media. Wilderness hunting teaches you don't need that much sometimes, simple meals will do, along with a dry place in the tent to sleep.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

I still hate the NRA, but felt their pull the other day

From : NRAVideo

Here I am writing about gun politics again, which I wish I wasn't. The necessary discussion of the topic is usually a distraction to advancing hunting interests. The readers of this blog know that I would love to see a political and cultural consensus around guns that constructs a system of regulations and supports around private gun ownership that minimizes the negatives effects of private firearm ownership and maximizes the positives. I have long considered the NRA and the gun rights movement's large influence within our hunting community a huge negative, a glue that holds together various conservative forces and interests whose politics are ultimately anti-hunting due to their opposition to conservation.

They also are part of a powerful right-wing coalition whose social policies accerbate social trends that are negatively affecting all sorts of outdoor activities, hunting probably the most. The dog-eat-dog rat race society they have contructed has given families less time and put more pressure on them to put their kids into all sorts of activities that will ensure them more notches on their resume for good colleges. Of course, the hope is that the good college education will secure them good careers in a world where there is an ever-declining pool of good jobs. Outdoor activities, especially time-instensive ones like hunting, are actually a detriment to this "achievement ladder". This is in spite of the fact that outdoor activities like hunting, angling, bird watching, hiking, camping, cross-country skiing and numerous activities not listed here have great benefits to our health, environment, and society.

However, I felt the NRA's appeal the other day when investigating one of their bizarre claims about the Obama administration I had seen on another hunting blog. The claim was that Secretary of State Clinton "welcomes UN gun ban". I have seen references and heard conservative hunters and gun owners I know talk of this, of course I assumed it was deliberate misinformation or simple tea-party paranioa. In fact, both are. They are referring to the UN Small Arms Treaty, which would essentially oblige signers to establish proper controls on firearms between nations. The focus of the proposed treaty as presently drafted is on military small arms. The website "The Truth About Guns", which appears to be an independent "pro-gun" website, debunked the NRA's and GOA's (Gun Owners of America) claims as fear-mongering and fund raising ploys. The US is the only rich nation in the world that has not signed on to the treaty. Signing nations include such high-private firearms ownership countries like Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. The idea that these nations would be supporting a "global gun ban" is absurd.

One of the main organizations supporting and pushing the treaty is the International Action Campaign on Small Arms (IANSA). Overall, the organization is doing a lot of good work on such issues as fighting against the escalation of armed conflicts through illegal gun trading and the use of child soldiers in the third world. The campaign was long headed by Rebecca Peters (2002-2010), an Austrailian gun-control activist who successfully led a campaign in the 1990s and early 2000s to ban numerous firearms - handguns, ALL semi-automatic rifles and shotguns (including those designed for hunting) , and, even more incredibly, pump-action shotguns. Above is a link to the first part of a debate on youtube between her and the head of the NRA, Wayne Lapierre, it is in four parts. It was posted by the NRA, so I'm sure it is selectively edited to make Peters look her worst and Lapierre his best. However, it is worth watching all parts as there are unbroken clips of Peters making such outrageous statements that all semi-automatic shotguns and rifles should be banned on the basis that they are not needed to kill a deer. She also says there should be a drastic reduction in private firearms ownership acoss the world. She tells an audience member that the abolition of pistol shooting as an acceptable, common sport in the U.K. was needed, as handguns are only good for killing human beings. She says. "I feel bad for you, but take up a different sport". It is important to note for Americans that even when England had pistol-shooting as a sport, it is a nation that has long had a system of strict gun control. I can't spell out the details, I am confident people had to jump through some significant hoops to get handguns at that time.

There is one astounding claim made by Lapierre in the debate, quoting Peters being for banning every rifle that can shoot more than 100 meters. He said she said it on CNN in October 2003, which I have been unable to verify even though I've combed the CNN website for transcripts. They don't appear to go back that far. The social consequences of Peters' ideal gun regulations are horrible. Despite her claim to the contrary, they are anti-hunting. In particular, her ban on semi-autos is an attack on women hunters, who often need to use weapons with less recoil. Semi-autos fill that need for them. Of course, if she is for banning guns that shoot more than a hundred meters, that is banning all hunting rifles. Her attack on handguns, even for sport shooting, is driven by a belief that they are morally evil things.

It is disgusting that she gets to use IANSA, which is doing other good work all decent people should support, such as campaigning against the use of child soldiers and fighting to ban cluster bombs, issues that affect people in poor countries, to advance her radical anti-gun agenda. Another shame of that debate was that Lapierre got to be the defender of Joe hunter and gun owner, which of course he is not. At one point in the debate, they was a discussion of good and evil, and whether the line between good and evil was always real clear, which Peters claimed it was not. Lapierre, revealing his own extreme gun ideology, said, "good people know that a firearm will protect them". A gun is a powerful tool that could be used by someone good, to protect themselves, under certain situautions and conditions. Of course, with the radical anti-gun ideas Peters was spouting, Lapierre didn't have to be held to account for the dangerous consequences of his "guns are good" beliefs to the audience. In addition to her advancing her extreme policies, that was the other detriment of her performance in the debate.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Letter to "The Progressive" responding to Ruth Coniff on gun politics

I make no secret that I think the NRA is ultimately an anti-hunting organization and that hunters who are serious about our future should call them out and set to work on forming a different gun politics in this country. The NRA's extreme gun politics trump all else, when faced with choosing between expanding, (not just defending), gun rights and conservation initiatives that are critical to hunting, they will throw hunting interests under the bus.

Typically the way this plays out in electoral politics is they will support Republican candidates who favor expansion of guns into more aspects of daily life over a Democrat who does not favor the expansion, but the Dem is supportive of conservation efforts that are good for hunting and is generally supportive of private firearms ownership.

Additionally, the NRA takes a lot of forays into other issues, and often they are directly at odds with what the hunting community wants or is ultimately in our interest. For example, take a look at this article from New West on the NRA's opposition to the designation of Brown's Canyon in Colorado as wilderness area, on the basis that wilderness designation would close the canyon to ATV use. Organized hunting interests in the area that had something to say on the subject wanted Brown's Canyon to be designated wilderness for that very reason. The ATV use and abuse in the canyon was disrupting elk hunting and damaging their habitat, yet the NRA cynically argued that they were defending disabled and elderly hunters, yet they produced no one in either category to publicly support their position.

Having said all that, I can understand why the NRA's baiting of liberals as anti-gun works with average hunters who don't share the NRA's views on guns and how and when they should be regulated. The fact of the matter is, a significant minority of the progressive community is ignorant of guns and the shooting sports. These progressives are ambivalent about hunting, or don't view hunters and hunting as constituencies and activities that should be actively supported, even if they think hunting should be a legal activity. Additionally, they have a substantial part of their political base that is anti-hunting. So, when a progressive writer or legislator takes a strong position on stricter gun laws, it often makes many of us deeply suspicious.

The most recent column by Ruth Coniff, the political editor of "The Progressive" magazine, which I subscribe to, is a case in point. As a Wisconsin resident, Ruth is not anti-hunting, she told me in a phone conversation. She has written columns strongly supporting stricter gun regulation and is very critical of the NRA, as she was in her most recent column praising the progressive stances of the freshman class of Democrats in the U.S. house. I can't provide a link to the column, that portion of the magazine is not online. But, my response below gives you a sense of the content as far as guns and gun politics is concerned:

"The general point of Ruth Coniff's piece on the positives of the new class of congressional Democrats moving leftward I agree with. However, her discussion of guns and gun politics is very misinformed and naive. I am an avid hunter and our family owns seven firearms, and like many gun owners, I have no time for the NRA. I generally support stricter gun regulations on the federal level, especially if they are combined with government support for shooting sports. However, many regular gun owners not affliated with the gun rights movement are rightfully suspicious of the likes of Coniff and the freshman class of Democrats she celebrates. They are either ignorant of or ambivalent towards shooting sports and a large part of their political support base views guns simply through the prism of crime, suicides, and accidental shootings. They think of shooting sports as a value-neutral or even negative activity.

Coniff quickly reveals her own ignorance about firearms. She repeatedly calls assault rifles 'automatic weapons', or what would be referred to commonly as machine guns, which they are not. They are a class of semi-automatic weapons designed for military purposes. Many hunters use semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, but they are commonly limited to five rounds, and don't have higher-capacity detachable clips like assault rifles. Hence, like many mainstream gun owners, I support much stricter regulation of the ownership of assualt rifles and high-capacity clips and oppose their use in the field for hunting on the grounds of hunting ethics. While such a mistake may seem minor to non-gun owners, it is easily exploited by the NRA to scare gun owners who disgaree with the NRA's extreme gun politics into their camp. Questions are raised in the minds of moderate and liberal gun owners about what kinds of restrictions would be placed on firearms they own if urban non-gun owning legislators and activists were to control gun policy in America.

For example, Congresswoman Karen Bass, former speaker of the California state assembly, comes from a state that has lots of gun regulations, and is from the southern, urban part of the state that produces legions of anti-hunting activists. While Bass herself never has supported anti-hunting legislation, hunters and other mainstream gun owners are not a constitutency that are a priority for her. She and the other Democrats Coniff praises come from the east and west coasts, where antigun and antihunting sentiment is much higher than in both liberal and conservative areas of America's heartland. If progressives are serious about weakening the power of the NRA and winning stronger gun regulations. they need to make it clear they support shooting sports as positive activities, regardless of their personal attitudes towards firearms. Legal, regulated, hunting in particular has environmental, health, and social benefits, and hunters are often a key support base for conservation efforts."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Back to Outdoor Blogging, After the Other Half of My Political Identity Interfered for Awhile

Expect more signs like these with conservative power at the Minnesota legislature

I'm back to outdoor blogging, as the other half of my political identity - that of a trade unionist and union reformer - took over for awhile. There was an election for delegates to the International Teamsters Convention in my Teamsters Local 320, ballots were counted March 4th and I was part of a winning slate. What it took to win was not only good issues, such as reducing the top leadership's outrageous pay packages while the membership of public employees, like other workers in this economy, suffer pay freezes, furloughs, and benefit cuts -but a lot of hard work as well. It's been said that the winning side in politics usually has a bigger mouth than the other side, be it money for media or boots on the ground organization. Our side had the latter, which meant many people, including myself, spending a lot of time visiting worksites and calling people to get out the vote.

Of course, there's been the massive attack on collective bargaining in Wisconsin, so I've spent some time on that attending support events, and plan on being at another today.

However, I have managed to keep up on outdoor politics in Minnesota, and the picture with the conservative movement in charge isn't pretty. There are massive attacks on hunting and angling interests at the state legislature. The worst is probably HF 332, an egregious piece of anti-hunting legislation, which would mandate the DNR not increase acreage of publicly held land. Additionally, there are attacks on the funding recommendations for the use of lottery money, and the outdoor heritage fund, which is constitutionally mandated to fund wildlife habitat. The legislature is also refusing the DNR's proposed hunting and fishing license fee increases, even though the game and fish fund is getting depleted and the increases are supported by hunting and fishing organizations.

We had our problems with the Democrats in charge, but through our efforts and coalition-building we were able to fend off most of the attacks on our interests. However, the GOP victory has empowered voices within the Democratic party who are anti-public land, and thereby created a powerful alliance to attack hunting and angling interests. A powerful push-back is needed, as well the building of a long-term movement of progressive sportsmen and women to preserve our hunting and angling heritage and opportunities.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Hunting and Skiing in the tracks of my ancestors

Hunting gear being hauled in a pulk

photo taken by Erik Jensen

On Dec 27th, with the aid of cross-country skis and what is called a pulk, which is a sled for hauling loads, I managed to get out for one last hunting trip before the archery deer season ended. With the deep snow we have in most of Minnesota, deer are moving much less. However, it was a day that was part of the late-December warm spell. Often deer increase movement on those days in the winter.

I decided to do it partially out of a desire to combine a couple of my favorite activities : hunting and cross-country skiing. I also had a desire to use the skis as my Norwegian and Sami ancestors had used them quite a bit: as an aid in hunting.

I still haven't arrowed a deer with a bow, so I had hoped to accomplish that and get some more venision in the freezer. The supply we have is being quicly eaten.

It was at a local property owner's land in the northern exburbs of the Twin Cities, so no great wilderness adventure. However, the movement of gear across deep snow, as well as a quick scouting mission, was helped greatly by the use of the skis. My one disadvantage was that the skis I own are like most skis you now buy for what is called "touring" skiing: they are thinner than the older skis people used. Of course, these modern skis are much faster in groomed trails than the wider skis once commonly used, but my friend's place of course had no groomed trails, so the skis sunk deeper in the snow.

I managed to fairly quickly get the gear to my stand after seeing the few deer tracks that were visible anywhere in that patch of woods and field. I also was able to make a brief run to another area where I often hunt to look at deer trails there with the advantage of the snow.

I settled in and hunted from a stand I have permanently set up on deer travel route. I was prepared to hunt on the ground if need be, but there was the most activity near that stand, so using the stand was the best option. I hunted for just under two hours and saw no deer. From the point of view of hunting success, it was a bust.

However, it was useful for expanding the use of my pulk, which I originally acquired for hauling my twin daughters when they were very young on fairly short x-country ski trips on days of moderate winter weather. With some work, I may be able use the pulk with wheels for walking deep into public forests where there are only foot-trails, depending on terrain. Then, when there's snow on the ground, take the wheels off and use it for its orginal purposes, whether for hunting with the aid of x-country skis or snowshoes, or hauling loads on longer ski-touring trips.