Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on hunting in Montana. Read Part 1 here.
“Women are getting into hunting and shooting in droves. They may just save us.”
“Field and Stream” rifles editor David Petzal is worried that “kids are not getting” into hunting. But women are, he points out in the June-July edition of the iconic outdoor magazine. And they just may rescue a tradition that pays for much of U.S. conservation.
In five years, the number of overall hunters throughout the U.S declined by more than 2 million.
In 2011, 13.7 million people ages 16 and up hunted some type of game animal. An overwhelming number of those — 10.9 million — hunted deer. By 2016, despite an overall population increase of 12 million, there were 2 million fewer hunters. According to the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation survey, only 11.5 million people 16 and up hunted in 2016.
Why is hunting in decline? Often-offered reasons include urbanization, children spending less time outdoors, aging baby boomers (a large segment of hunters), lack of access to huntable land (a category where Montana stands apart), and changing attitudes toward wildlife.
Why is it important that hunters exist?
Hunters fund most conservation of game animals and their habitat.
Money from license fees and excise taxes on guns, ammunition and fishing equipment provide about 60% of the funding for state wildlife agencies, which manage most of the wildlife in the U.S. In 2017, state fish and wildlife agencies received over $629 million from Pittman-Robertson funds, according to the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. The program has contributed over $11 billion since its inception.
In 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, dubbed the Pittman-Robertson Act after the lead sponsors of the bill, Sen. Key Pittman and Rep. Absalom Willis Robertson.
The bill established a model by which the already existing 11 percent excise taxes on firearms and ammunition sales would be directed to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to fund programs designed to meet the goals of conservation, including wildlife refuges, wildlife research, private and public habitat management, and public access to land through acquisition and easements. Decades later, hunter education and things like public target ranges also became beneficiaries of the funds.
Fewer hunters equals less conservation funding, making recruitment of hunters important to maintaining healthy wildlife populations until, or if, the model for conservation funding is expanded to include new funding sources.
While the view for the national hunting tradition is grim, there is some good news.
In Montana, the hunter rate is significantly higher than the national average, which comes as no surprise, given the state’s ardent outdoor culture.
In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Census Bureau reported that 4% of the U.S. population age 16 and up hunted some type of game.
But in the Treasure State, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks reported 197,020 resident hunters in 2014. The approximate population of Montana that year was 1 million. Those nearly 200,000 hunters bought licenses, in addition to the 43,682 nonresidents who paid significantly more than residents to hunt in Big Sky Country.
Also, women hunters are incrementally growing in numbers. Although still a significant minority, their numbers have steadily climbed over the years as a percentage of overall hunters.
In Montana and specifically in Region 6, which includes Hill and Blaine counties, women make up the majority of students in adult hunter education courses, said Marc Kloker, information and education program manager for FWP.
Kloker, who teaches hunter education, estimates that about 70% of adults in his class are women. Kloker always asks why, at this point in life, they decided to take up hunting.
The conventional narrative for women includes putting food on the table, breaking through conventional gender barriers, and accessibility to training. But the answer Kloker receives most is very traditional.
“Almost every one of them,” Kloker said, is like, ‘My husband hunts and I never see him and I just want to spend more time with him.’ ”
But he has heard the other reasons as well. The most common of those, Kloker said, is women want to put food on the table.
Avid hunter Virginia Seigel of Havre fits the latter mold. She hunts to put meat in the freezer and to have a better connection with what she eats. During big game hunting season, she’s out on the Montana landscape every chance she gets, looking for, stalking and taking deer.
Seigel, an Army veteran and former Havre City judge, began hunting later in life, after finishing her tenure as a soldier in her late 30s. The skills she learned in the Army, such as stalking and ambush, she said, translated well to hunting.
But there’s more. Her reasons for hunting are like a multi-course meal.
As a fan of staying in shape and being outdoors, Seigel also enjoys the hiking and navigation aspect of the hunt. And as a veteran — and a human — the hunting experience is therapeutic. Seigel dubbs it a “healing process.” Being out in the field, in nature, clears her head. For her, there is also a significant spiritual aspect to a hunt.
“That’s what I love,” she said, “getting in the circadian rhythm of life, driven by light and weather. It’s a different world.”
Like the hunter who was featured in Part 1 of this series, Seigel mentors and tries to pass on the tradition that means so much to her. She believes it instills patience and discipline, among other valuable attributes, that people can use more of in life.
Hunting is also an opportunity to bond with her children, whom she introduced to the sport. On this year’s opening day on Saturday, she and her son each took their own deer.
Last year, Seigel took three novice female hunters out. One of those women was her daughter.
She believes her more traditional style has greater appeal to women. They’re more likely to be out there for meat and not as likely to trophy hunt — go for big bucks — as are men, she said. They’re in it for fitness reasons as well, so they like walking the landscape.
Seigel has been hunting for nearly a decade, and when asked about some of her most memorable outings, she has to think about it, because it’s a crowded field.
In a story she dubs “Learning to Love Montana,” she looks back at one of the most memorable hunts:
It was about minus 7 degrees with the wind chill factor on Nov. 20, 2010.
“I began my morning with solo snowshoeing in the dim gray light of a snowy dawn. I hiked about a mile to get past the farmhouse from the parking area of some local farmland. As I passed a pasture with some 10 to 15 young cows, I spotted a doe on the other side of the field.
“I froze in my tracks. She was too close to the cattle and the farmhouse to shoot. So with the cows as my blind, I sank down and rolled onto my back to remove my snowshoes so I could crawl.”
By the time she saw the doe again, there were more deer, near a ravine.
“So I crawled through the snow to the ravine and pushed into a bank of foot-high fluffy — very cold — snow to get under the fence and into the ravine. Wow! What a bed-down area it was. There were fresh tracks and warm droppings all over the place.”
But no deer. The doe she spotted earlier had moved on. So Seigel moved up into position to watch the nearby fields in case something popped up.
“And there she was!”
She found the deer again. But all was not necessarily ideal.
“I stopped and watched her and got into a position to shoot with my small hunt pack as a prop. That’s when I discovered my scope was iced over and I couldn’t even see through it. After struggling to get the near and far lens clear enough to see through, the doe was well over 300 yards away and I was breathing too hard to feel confident of a good shot. So I watched her walk away over a rise.”
Seigel said she worked on her scope before going any further. But that was proving ineffective because “the more I worked on it, the worse it seemed to get.”
As she tried to thaw out and clear her scope, she looked through it to check, and what did she see?
“What was that? Ears, maybe? Yep, ears.
“Over the rise was the doe with a friend. Both were cautiously coming my way.”
“Okay,” she thought. “I can hardly see, but I can see, so just hold steady. This time, I feel confident I can take a far shot … just come a little closer.”
One of the deer spooked and ran away, but the other was about 250 yards out. So she shot.
Or she tried.
She took the safety off and tried again.
“My left ear is ringing,” Seigel said. “I don’t see anything running away … I stand up. Yep, there it is, on the ground.”
The deer turned out to be a young buck with nubs for horns, which her license included.
“He weighed about 90 pounds and I put him on my shoulders and snowshoed across the fields and over barbed-wire fences to get back to my truck.”
But there was one more obstacle left.
“I found the handle on my truck topper was frozen solid. Fortunately for me, the lady of the ranch was home and she gave me some strike-anywhere matches to thaw the lock out.
“After all that, I was glad to get home and thaw myself out, too.”
Statistically, hunters drop out when they are about in their mid-60s. Seigel was asked at what age she believes she’ll be unable or unwilling to hunt. When would it become more than she wants to take on?
Came her reply: “That would be called death.”
Email Paul Dragu at firstname.lastname@example.org