Of wolves and onions

Flash in the Pan

The pre-party potluck salad bar was an attempt to counterbalance the main event, which we’d been warned would contain no vegetables—unless you counted beer. My shredded carrots and onions, tossed with dehydrated cherries, pumpkin seeds and sesame teriyaki dressing, sat next to a salad of mixed greens and red onions.

“Dude, I bet there will be talk about the wolf hunt tonight,” said Matty, who went on to win a minor raffle prize at the event—as did former Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas, a man who once publicly called Matty an Eco-Warlord.

The dominance of onion in the salad course did not deter its complete consumption. Nobody fretted about the prospect of close, pungent, conversations later on. That’s because now, in the dog days of winter, we can eat onions with impunity, if not advantage. Egyptian pharaohs were buried with onions near their heads because the vital potency of onion stench was strong enough, supposedly, to bring the dead back to life.

Maybe that’s why now, at the end of winter, I crave onions deep in my physiology, in the same way salt will taste like sugar to someone sweating to death in the desert. I want raw onion zing in my breakfast burrito, my cheeseburger, everything.

The room was filled with enough hot air to absorb most all of our onion breath; meat and booze absorbed the rest. I followed my glass of red to the buffet table, where I parked between the bighorn sheep meatballs and the bacon-wrapped deer steaks, then moved on to antelope stew, barbecued elk ribs, smoked fish and more. Not a veggie in sight, as per our pre-potluck intelligence. Good thing onions lower cholesterol.

The Hellgate Hunters and Anglers (HHA) of Missoula, Mont.—whose annual game feed this was—is a diverse group, deeply divided along fronts defined by political affiliation, National Rifle Association membership, religious preference, and other belief systems. But the values that united us, clearly, were stronger.

These were not vegetarian values, to be clear, although I did run into a former-vegetarian-cum-hunter as well as a known bacon-and-wildgametarian and a suspected sprout-grower. At its core, this is a gang—hippy and redneck alike—that values big roadless landscapes of real wilderness, if for no other reason than the opportunity to hunt in them.

Despite being rowdiness-prone, these individuals know how to be quiet in the woods, how to go deep, alone, and come back alive—hopefully with meat.

We gorged on chili, jerky and pâté, cracking jokes and drinking, har har har. At one point I laughed so hard I was crying. Through a tear in the corner of my eye I saw the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt—granddaddy of the hunter/conservationist ethic—by the keg.

Periodically, the sound of a duck call would focus our attention to the podium, whose final occupant, Steve Doherty, chairman of the Montana Game Commission, made the mistake of taking questions.

One man asked about the problem of increasing numbers of elk hiding out on private land—land sometimes purchased with out-of-state money and rendered inaccessible to local hunters.

Many of these big landowners are the same people complaining about the destructive impact of swelling elk herds, Doherty noted, so they’re going to have to start making some concessions to hunter access if they want to bring herd sizes down.

Hunters, he reminded us, are how we control game populations in Montana. We cheered.

“Now that Montana has a buffalo hunt,” another hunter asked, “why aren’t the buffalo managed like game animals?” He was referring to Montana Department of Livestock’s (DOL) habit of rounding up and killing the wild buffalo of Yellowstone Park when they stray onto cattle range.

If we want a sensible bison policy in terms of habitat, Indian treaty rights, and cattle conflicts, Doherty responded, we need to remove bison management from DOL jurisdiction and give it to his agency. Period.

The already attentive crowd went completely hunter-silent at the next question: “At what time on Monday morning are the enviros gonna file their lawsuit against the wolf hunt?”

“It got filed last week,” muttered the Eco-Warlord, who successfully hunts elk and deer every year.

“Ah, yes,” said Doherty, gripping the podium and bracing himself for the discussion to come. “The woof. Everyone wants to know about when we’re gonna get to hunt the woof,” he said, clearly enjoying the old-school pronunciation of the “W” word.

He seemed to make eye contact with each of the room’s 200-plus occupants—including, perhaps, the ghost of Aldo Leopold, the transformational hunter/conservationist who, before a change of heart, once earned cash by killing wolves. How appropriate that the HHA newsletter is called The Leopoldian.

While some hunters find wolf hunting distasteful, ecologically unwise, or otherwise wrong, others have been waiting all of their lives for the opportunity.

“We fulfilled our mandate,” Doherty said, referring to the fact that Montana’s wolf populations have been deemed healthy enough by the feds to be removed from Endangered Species Act protections.

But while Montana Fish and Game has published regulations for a 2008 wolf hunt, wolf hunting in Montana is inextricably tied to recovery efforts in Idaho and Wyoming, Doherty explained. And yes, lawsuits, the first of which has already been filed, will tie this up a while. “Realistically, I don’t think we’re looking at a woof hunt in 2008,” he concluded.

The crowd settled back into a din of tall tales, backslapping, booze, and meat. I finished my night with a bowl of delicate and chunky duck soup, which was perfectly completed by a scoop from the adjacent bowl of chopped spring onions—the only vegetables on the whole table.