Preserving the heritage of hunting

Meeker, Colo., is quaint little town on the banks of the White River, about two hours northeast of Grand Junction, as the raven flies.

I recently was in Meeker to teach a hunter-education workshop for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Visiting Meeker, there are two places where you must spend some time.

One is the town museum, a wonderful treasure chest of antiques crammed into a series of single-story log cabins.

And on the opposite side of the Meeker town square is the historic Meeker Hotel.

You step back more than a century in time when you set foot of the pine planks of the floor of the Meeker Hotel, and the greeting committee is pretty awesome.

On the knotty pine walls are mounted heads of some of the biggest elk and deer I've ever marveled at; they were overseeing things as they have done for more than 100 years.

If you were to ask one of those trophy heads, or one of the ghosts that supposedly reside in the hotel, about its history, they would tell you that Teddy Roosevelt hung his hat in the Meeker Hotel during his lion-hunting expedition in 1901. Billy The Kidd also bunked here, as did Gary Cooper, Franklin Roosevelt and a host of other notables.

You can feel the presence of the past in Meeker. It's powerful, and that's important.

Visiting Meeker goes along with visits to Aldo Leopold's shack in Wisconsin, Thoreau's Walden Pond in New Hampshire and Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC, where Gifford Pinchot had the inspiration for the natural resource policy called "conservation."

These are pilgrimage places for the modern sportsman.

All around the world there are many unique places that remind us of our past.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's list of World Heritage sites — Mesa Verde, Stonehenge, Mt. Fuji and Machu Picchu are but a smattering — includes some of the world's most popular tourism attractions.

The value of heritage sites is more than simple curiosity. They remind us of who we are, as well as teach us the lessons of the past. They ground us.

Hunting heritage sites have a special place in our identity. These places teach us that we are but the latest model of a long line of hunters and fishermen that trace back to the Paleolithic.

In the windy, high desert of western Nevada, south of Reno, at the Grimes Point Archeological site, Shoshone Indians once carved petroglyphs in the rocks to invoke spirits that would bring them good luck in the hunt. The power of the past is strong here, but there are even older hunting history sites elsewhere with other important lessons to teach.

In Belgium, numerous shrines and cathedrals honor St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunting, who as the Bishop of Liege, preached to hunters and others in the Ardennes Forest from 705 to 727 AD.

In Europe, St. Hubert is not just a historical figure. Every Nov. 3, on St. Hubert's birthday, colorful festivals take place and a special mass is performed on hunting horns; hunters and their dogs come into the church to receive blessings. Now that's what I call living history! We could use more of that over here.

A few hundred miles south, in France, an even deeper root of the hunt is the Paleolithic caves at Lascaux, where striking pictographs on the walls were made some 10,000 years ago by the passionate hands of hunters.

No one is quite sure what the drawings mean, but in a modern world where the wildest animal that many people encounter in an average day is the "mouse" for their computer, this early art gallery ignites sparks in the human soul.

What 'heritage' is all about

The International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation in Budapest has compiled the "Catalogue of the Hunting Museums and Hunting Collections of the World." It's a 127-page book, of which three pages chronicle 63 hunting museums in the United States.

Admittedly, the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation book does not include the impressive interpretive displays at Bass Pro Shops headquarters in Springfield, Mo., or Cabela's in Sidney, Nebr. Nor does it list the Meeker Hotel.

But the fact that there are only three pages of museums with significant collections about hunting in America — as compared to three pages for Italy, seven pages for Germany and seven pages for France — is food for thought.

In this land of Daniel Boone, Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold — where we have half of all the sport hunters in the world, as well as a vocal anti-hunting movement — an awareness of the heritage of the hunt is as important to the future of hunting as preserving the right to hunt with a constitutional amendment. But what does that mean?

"Heritage" has become an increasingly popular buzzword among hunting organizations. That seems like a hopeful sign, but I'm not so sure. History is part of heritage, but not all of it. Heritage means something that is inherited from our ancestors.

Scientists who have studied the influence of hunting on human evolution generally agree that aside from providing more protein to help ancient man increase brain size, hunting originally taught mankind the importance of cooperation.

This brings me to my point: If we lose touch with the cooperation aspect of our "hunting heritage," we risk losing touch with the true spirit of the hunt.

Some current hunting-heritage programs seem to be more concerned with promoting competitive fund-raising campaigns for all kinds of things, rather than fostering the cooperative spirit of the hunt. I won't name names, but look in the mirror.

Personally, I fear that the greatest danger to the future of modern "sport hunting" is not the anti-hunters, but the overcommercialization and rampant competition that sometimes possesses the hunting and shooting community. It is self-limiting and, at times, self-destructive.

The heritage of hunting is not so much the size of the racks on deer and elk, but the fact that the modern sportsman is a descendent of thousands of years of human evolution and the power of the spirit of the hunt has forever etched its place in the human soul.

Hunting is an instinct in man, and when you honor and express instincts, people are healthier. I told the master hunter-education instructors at the Meeker workshop that they were teachers of hunting and, to some degree, a benefit to community mental-health workers as a result.

Any group that wants to preserve the "heritage" of the hunt should begin by conducting a survey to see what is already being done. They should be willing to compliment or even collaborate with others to make good things happen, rather than become another competitor for finite funds.

I don't know if Ben Franklin hunted, but he did say, "We must all hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately."

I was reminded of that while contemplating those wonderful, old trophy heads hanging on the walls of the Meeker Hotel. In such places, sometimes it's hard to say who is responsible the words that seem to pop into your head. That's a power of heritage, too.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.