For the Bragging Rights

Autumn in elk country would not be complete without the stirring sound of solicitous bulls bugling-in the season of brightly colored leaves, shorter days and cooler nights. Nothing, save for the clamor of great flocks of Canada geese, trumpeter swans or sandhill cranes announcing their southward migration, is more symbolic of the time of year. And just as any pond or river along their flyway devoid of the distinctive din of wandering waterfowl seems exceedingly still and empty, any forest or field bereft of the bugling of bull elk feels sadly deserted and lifeless.

Yet there are broad expanses of the continent, once familiar with these essential sounds of autumn, where now only the blare of gunfire resounds. By the end of the nineteenth century, the great wave of humanity blowing westward with the force of a category five hurricane—leveling nearly everything in its destructive path—had cut down the vast elk herds, leaving only remnants of their population in its wake.

Nowadays, a different kind of rite rings-in the coming of autumn across much of the land. Following in the ignoble footsteps of their predecessors who hunted to extinction two subspecies, the Mirriam’s and the Eastern elk, nimrods by the thousands run rampant on the woodlands and inundate the countryside, hoping to relive the gory glory days of the 1800s.

On the way back from a trip early last evening I saw one such nimrod as I turned at the local mini-market on the final stretch home. I have no doubt in my mind that he was parked there just to show off his kill; the antlers of a once proud, now degraded and deceased bull elk were intentionally draped over the tailgate of the assassin’s truck—clearly on display.

I can’t say that I see just what the hunter was so proud of. It’s not like he personally brought down the mighty animal with his bare hands. Elk follow a pretty predictable path this time of year, and the bulls are distracted and preoccupied with escorting their harems around. Taking advantage of them during their mating season is about as loathsome as anything a human can come up with (and that’s saying a lot).

All a deceitful sportsman has to do is blow an imitation elk bugle to lure a competitive bull within range of their tree stand or wait in hiding above the herd’s traditional trail to the evening feeding grounds. When the procession passes by (right below the camouflaged killer’s perch), the most challenging thing for the sniper is deciding which individual animal to shoot or impale with an arrow.

The fact that they let groups of cows and young spike bulls pass by and wait for the largest, “trophy” bull is proof positive that they’re not hunting for food, but rather for sport—and for bragging rights.


The first portion of this post was excerpted from the chapter, “The Fall of Autumn’s Envoy,” in the book, Exposing the Big Game: Living Targets of a Dying Sport

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson

6 thoughts on “For the Bragging Rights

  1. Jim, it was the death of an elk that finally put me over the top with respect to my disdain for hunting. We were photographing the bugling elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, magical in every way considering we arrived at the season’s first snow.

    One afternoon, we found ourselves taking a wrong turn into an uninhabited neighborhood in the nearby town of Estes Park. We came upon a huge herd of elk, bugling, socializing, teaching their young, all within the confines of a development. We watched and photographed for an hour as snow flakes fell and the silence carried those magical, haunting calls across this abandoned estate. Behind the trees, on a property adjacent, we didn’t know there was a hunter waiting for one of the bulls. We heard the shot first, before we saw the outcome.

    The long and short of it was that this man had purchased hunting rights on an adjacent ranch property, just outside of city limits. The man shot an elk that had been, hours before, literally sleeping on a golf course, and had then traipsed through suburbia on a *known* pathway (as you suggest), where the elk are generally tolerated or habituated to humans. The man’s act was legal because it wasn’t technically inside Estes Park (we checked with wildlife officials). But it was hardly close to ethical.

    The “hunter” shot the bull first with a bow, a poorly-placed and wretched gut shot, then with a gun (legal there at that time of year). Still, the bull didn’t die. The hunter let the poor bull elk languish in a slow death. The hunter laughed with his companion and young son (probably five years old or so), smoked cigarettes and talked on his cell phone while watching the elk struggle to rise up, again and again, lifting his head and torso while encumbered by bloody wounds below his neck. We witnessed this helpless to do anything about the struggling bull, our concerns over the inhumanity of it all completely ignored except by one other horrified resident of this complex. This kill took place across a long driveway from suburban homes with basketball hoops and electric garage door openers. The neighborhood was posted with “no hunting” signs, but the property where the elk died was the one enclave where it was legal. It was entrapment and cowardice on the hunter’s part.

    The herd, having witnessed this killing of the bull, was in utter chaos. They raced in myriad directions after the shot, with cows calling out to their calves, scrambling to escape the scene. We were witness to their reaction because of our placement and viewpoint. It was utter and complete heartbreak and, sadly, business as usual for the hunter who paid no attention to the havoc wreaked by his act. I didn’t eat or sleep for days, haunted by what I’d seen. To this day, I still can’t look at my photographs from that trip. It was the event that truly broke me, even after all I’d seen previously. As such, your post touched a big nerve and elk remain for me forever, the species that reminds me of that potent turning point when I could no longer abide the lies about hunting.

    • Ingrid, I probably won’t be able to eat or sleep for days either, after reading your account of a typical elk hunt. I can see why it would make you instantly and forever more turn your back on any and all pro-hunt PR drivel. This is the kind of thing that makes me want to take back any suggestion I might have kade in the past of not hating all hunters. Though some “sportsmen” might try to distance themselves from this type behavior, what you witnessed was the norm, not the exception.

      The same thing happens any given fall right outside Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Parks, or in the town of Big Sky, etc., etc. Just yesterday, the local paper for a coastal Oregon town reported that a bull elk was seen with an arrow stuck in his side.

      I’m sorry for what you had to go through in witnessing this, but I’m glad to have you on the side of the wildlife and decidedly against hunting. I urge you to tell your story far and wide. If you submit the above account, word for word, to papers and publications in and around elk country, I guarentee you’ll inspire other non-hunters to become full-fledged anti-hunters right on the spot!

      • Thanks very much, Jim, I know you’ve burned out on the rationalizations, as have I. In the context of some of the wildlife rescue I’ve done, I still try to engage people, including hunters, with different life perspectives than my own. I obviously don’t change their opinions about hunting and never will. But, sometimes I at least defy their bigotry about what constitutes an animal rescuer or vegetarian or any other negative stereotype they have about anti-hunters.

        The unfortunate reality, as you well know, is that invariably, even those who claim a high standard of ethical conduct (however one can construe that in the field), default to a position of supporting fellow hunters if what those hunters are doing is “legal.” I’ve found hunters utterly reticent to call out their own for bad behavior unless it’s poaching, which is easy. It’s much harder to take an unpopular stance in the hunting community about the type of “hunt” I witnessed above, about high-fence hunting, about baiting and hunting with hounds, etc. I always argue that as long as hunters refuse to police their own within the ranks, they should be held accountable under the same large umbrella of “hunting” that includes slob hunters, cruel and sadistic hunters, 50 percent injury rates and more, environmental trashing and so on and so forth.

        In other words, I don’t hate all hunters personally, either, but I make that generalization as long as they refuse to do what’s “right” and stand up for the wildlife they profess to “love.”

      • Yep, and the only way they can really do what’s right is to denounce all forms of hunting and quit killing wildlife. That will sound extreme to most of them, but a few have come to that conclusion.

  2. Hi Jim; Some people are getting very concerned about where in the world is Brennan Browne since July; no one, including me, who regularly heard from him, has gotten anything from him for 2 months now. Do you know him personally and do you know what’s up with him; I certainly hope he’s fine and perhaps only having computer problems. Hopefully, Laura

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