In the early hours before dawn, Boulder geophysicist Andria Bilich parks her car at a trailhead in the hills west of Boulder, climbs out, flicks on her headlamp, and begins to make her way up the mountainside. Dressed in camouflaged layers and a bright orange vest, Bilich hikes to a location she’d scouted a few days earlier that affords a sweeping view of the valley below. There, as the sun crests the horizon, she posts herself in some bushes, readies her rifle, and patiently waits for a deer or elk to wander into range. “Every time, it’s nerve-wracking,” Bilich says. “I don’t want to screw this up.”
It was a book that convinced Bilich to learn to hunt. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma depicted the American meat production industry in such a disturbing way that the bike-commuter, gardener, and self-described liberal decided years ago to either become a strict vegetarian or become more a part of her own ecosystem. One hunter safety course, a high-powered rifle, and lots of target practice later, Bilich has killed—and she and her family have eaten the meat from—two deer and one elk.
For Bilich, this is no mere hobby. Aside from a few seasons she missed while she was pregnant and had infants, Bilich has hunted for the past several years and plans to continue this month when she’ll return to the hills beyond her home. The appeal, she says, is the ability to feed her family and bypass industrial meat production. “We’re with the meat out in the wild until we cook it in our house,” Bilich says. “I know what’s happened every step of the way, and if something goes wrong, I’m responsible for it.”
To third- and fourth-generation Colorado hunters, the start-to-finish process of pulling a big-game license in the spring to field-dressing an elk in the fall might be commonplace. But to those who grew up thinking meat came in cellophane-wrapped packages from the refrigerated aisle at King Soopers, hunting is a new experience that represents the ultimate locavore pursuit—and it’s a pastime that’s undergoing a notable renewal.
The number of hunters in the United States jumped nine percent between 2006 and 2011, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Colorado’s numbers show steady growth with a roughly five percent increase in big-game licenses since 2012. In Denver, there’s been an almost 10 percent increase in the number of big-game permits issued to city residents in the past four years, according to data from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), the agency that manages the state’s wildlife and hunting programs. Last year, the number of people attending the state’s hunter education safety course jumped to 20,000 from an average of approximately 13,500 in years prior (in Colorado, hunters are required to pass this course once).
Like Bilich, many of these modern hunters represent a new wave of the DIY culture; they already brew their own beer, grow their own vegetables, and investigate the provenance of their entrées at farm-to-table restaurants. Dan Severa, an instructor for the state-mandated hunter education course, believes the connection has something to do with the fact that hunting offers a gateway to the state’s pioneer legacy. “People want to be self-sufficient, or at least to know they could be,” he says. “Hunting is a great way to do that.”
Hunters have long championed conservation, dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt, who helped establish the U.S. Forest Service and five national parks, including Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park. Famed 20th-century naturalist Aldo Leopold was an avid hunter; in his writings, Leopold reveres the hunter’s ability to truly know a landscape and cautions about the impacts of civilization intruding on the wild.
In 1947, a year before his death, Leopold wrote, “I came home one Christmas to find that land promoters, with the help of the Corps of Engineers, had dyked and drained my boyhood hunting grounds on the Mississippi River bottoms…. Perhaps no one but a hunter can understand how intense an affection a boy can feel for a piece of marsh. My hometown thought the community enriched by this change. I thought it impoverished.”
Today, hunting is big business. According to a 2008 state-commissioned report, the economic impact in Colorado is estimated at around $1.8 billion when combined with fishing. Nonresidents pay hundreds of dollars for the chance to bag a Colorado buck, while residents pay nominal license fees, generally $34 for a deer and $49 for an elk. According to the nonprofit group Hunting Works for Colorado, big-game hunting alone generates roughly $763 million in annual economic benefits.
Although Severa does point to a successful hunt as an inexpensive way to eat hormone- and steroid-free meat at home (“If you pay for that high-quality meat at the store, it’s going to cost you a fortune”), he says hunters more often venture into the woods for cultural and philosophical reasons, something more akin to the feelings of Aldo Leopold. That’s what tempted 40-year-old Rob Fineberg, a second-year student at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, to don camouflage and practice his elk bugle.
Shortly after landing in Colorado, Fineberg—a Manhattan native and former competitive triathlete—swapped time trials for fly-fishing and mountain biking, and he says he viewed hunting as a natural progression. Enticed by the promise of bushwhacking through rugged terrain and the physical challenge of packing large containers of elk meat out of the wild, Fineberg ignored his critics (his New York City–based family wanted to know how he could “shoot Bambi”) and headed for the hills. “Hunting is very respectful,” he says. “When I have game meat, I’m eating an animal that lived out in the world. Most people eat animals grown in cages and slaughtered in questionable conditions. What’s more humane?”
That same question led Denverite Stefan Jansson, a San Francisco native born to Swedish parents, to hunting. “My roots are in two of the most un-gun-friendly places on Earth,” he says. Jansson has long been a hunter of more refined culture, collecting ticket stubs from more than 150 operas around the world. He says that when friends and family learned he’d begun to hunt big game, “their jaws dropped to the floor.” But Jansson says he didn’t feel constrained by cultural prejudices. “We’re so confined to a life of boundaries,” he says. “It’s easy to get sucked into the mainstream and feel constricted.” Jansson adds, “When I hunt, I don’t use trails; we don’t use horses or ATVs [to pack meat out]. There’s freedom with knowing you are in the middle of no-man’s-land and you have intentionally put yourself there.”
Aside from an economic boost, increased interest in hunting is good for the state in other ways. Since the eradication of natural predators like wolves, hunters are essential for keeping big-game populations in balance. Without hunting, herds would proliferate, which would have far-reaching ecological implications, says CPW spokesperson Jerry Neal. And although the agency doesn’t track demographics when it issues hunting licenses, Neal says “there is absolutely an interest in the state’s hunting and fishing resources from groups that break the mold of the typical multigenerational hunter.”
For her part, becoming a hunter has meant Bilich has learned the laborious task of processing the entire animal. Typically with her husband’s help, she dresses (removes the internal organs) and debones the animal in the field; at home, they butcher the meat and categorize it by cut (steak, ground, etc.). Then they vacuum-seal their cache and load up their stand-alone freezer, content at having solved their own personal omnivore’s dilemma for another year. “I give them a clean, quick death,” Bilich says, “and we have delicious meat to eat the entire year.”