Hunting season has just ended in Montana, bringing to a close an
annual marketing melee that was, as usual, as lunatic and
relentless as a mossy-horned bull elk in rut. On the radio an
elk bugled for a washer-dryer combo at Orv's Appliance in
Florence. And ads for Remington ammunition appeared on the daily
Missoulian's religion page, as if endorsed by God.
For five weeks every fall, commerce revolves about the men who
lovingly clean their weapons, unearth sleeping bags and coolers
from the basement or garage and go off, beyond summoning, to
perform mysterious wilderness rituals. Last year a free gun
could have been yours just for buying a new piano, but music
stores are silent when the elk are bugling in the mountains.
Compared with that shrill beckoning, a piano is a feeble siren.
Hunting is as inseparable from Montana's soul as pickup trucks,
red beer and black ice on the highway. The obsession is evident
everywhere: In the Missoula Yellow Pages there's one listing
under "Taxicabs" and 19 under "Taxidermists."
But should you be among the unfortunate who do not hunt or
understand the compulsion--47% of Montana men and 7% of the women
partake--you'll still find hunting inescapable. Try leaving the
state by car, and you'll be waylaid by slow, ungulate-laden
pickup trucks turning off at highway check-stations where
orange-clad men in funny hats hobnob with game wardens about
their triumphs and near misses. Try to get out by plane, and
you'll be delayed while an airport baggage attendant snips up
lengths of garden hose to shield antler points and argues with
bearded men bedecked with big knives about security policy and
the extra freight charge for a frozen elk.
Hunters say their sport is an excuse to be in the outdoors with
their buds, and that they enjoy the meat. But this doesn't
account for the strange blending of religion and commerce that
attends the season. Normally taciturn John Wayne types lose
their composure and get all mushy at the sight of a fleet of
antelope crossing the prairie. Local magazines feature stories,
written in worshipful prose, about old-timers with trophy rooms
filled with animal heads. And woe to those who speak against the
hunt: In October a spokesman for the Montana Wood Products
Association had to eat crow after he suggested that the state's
elk season be shortened to allow for more timber harvesting.
Headlines in the Missoulian screamed, HUNTERS DEMAND APOLOGY,
then APOLOGY'S NOT GOOD ENOUGH and finally, in the paper's
Letters to the Editor section, YOU'RE DAMNED RIGHT--AN APOLOGY'S
NOT NEARLY ENOUGH!
The hunt may be sanctified, but it's also lucrative. In
Montana--a state that is one-third public land, with a population
of only 860,000--hunters spend about $160 million annually on
their sport, and that doesn't include the cost of license fees.
Starting next year, out-of-staters who hunt with a licensed
outfitter will pay $835 for a big-game combination tag. And
landowners could be paid up to $8,000 a year by the state's
department of fish, wildlife and parks for allowing hunters on
Even in-state hunters spend a lot. Tags can cost as much as $78.
Then there's $400 and up for a gun, ammo, groceries, gas,
clothing, butchering, trophy preparation ("Wildlife Preservation
Begins at Buckhorn Taxidermy!"), vehicular wear and tear, and
accessories such as a "sports saw"--not a long story about your
favorite team, but a tool for cutting through animals' bones. It
comes with a holster.
So why do hunters do it? An anthropologist might say that
hunting in Montana serves an important social function and is
critical to the survival of the family: It gets men the hell out
of the house before deep winter and cabin fever set in. How else
to explain why hunters dance the night away at Hunter's Balls in
saloons across the state on the eve of opening day, when, if
they were serious, they would be hunkering into position for a
shot at that big bull elk at dawn?
Some 87% of Montana hunters are male, and they are notoriously
averse to the presence of females on hunting trips. They tell
women they're too sensitive to see an animal die. But that
rationale smells of a ruse. Montana women are a pretty tough
In any case, hunters' wives have their own compensations:
Midnight Madness sales at department stores are de rigueur
during the season. And saloons know their female clients aren't
the type to sit home and mope. In Missoula this season, one
honky-tonk's enticing marquee read, WHILE THE BUCKS ARE HUNTING,
THE DOES COME HERE.
Perri Knize lives in Missoula, where she teaches magazine
writing at the University of Montana.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY PAUL CORIO [Drawing of moose driving car past sign reading "NOW LEAVING MONTANA"]