Portrait of an unexpected hunter

The photographs, projected onto a screen in front of the room, were astonishing.

Cougars like venison too - Photo © Susan C. Morse

A bobcat crouching in thick cover. A cougar staring intently, its head dusted in snow. A black bear on its hind feet, marking a white birch.

And the words that went with them—spoken by wildlife biologist, conservationist, photographer, and tracker Sue Morse—were inspiring.

I had never heard anyone speak so passionately about the importance of habitat protection, particularly the danger of habitat fragmentation and the need to protect the travel corridors that keep wildlife populations interconnected and genetically viable.

She concluded the public presentation with yet another stunning photo of a bobcat.

“These are our neighbors,” she said.

A year later, while taking part in a habitat stewardship training designed and taught by Sue, I learned that she was a deer hunter.


Sue loved wild animals. She admired them. She spent the vast majority of her waking hours working to understand and protect them. Keeping Track, the organization she founded, was working to conserve tens of thousands of acres of vital wildlife habitat across North America. How could she then turn around and kill one of them? It did not compute.

Only years later, as the possibility of hunting bubbled up into my own consciousness, did it begin to make sense. Only now, asking Sue about it, have I really begun to understand.

It turns out that she didn’t grow up hunting either.

It wasn’t until her early forties, she tells me, that she recognized a basic disconnect: what she calls her “schizophrenia” about predation. Carnivores were the focus of most of her research. When she came across signs of a mammalian predator’s successful hunt—perhaps a place where she could track a bobcat’s stealthy movements in the snow and read the story’s end in scattered turkey feathers—she celebrated, knowing the animal had survived another day.

A meat-eater, Sue had been raising lambs for years. She detested the cruelties and ecological impacts of the meat industry, and valued having a personal connection with the flesh foods she consumed.

Yet she wasn’t participating in the forest life cycles she studied.

It was, she decided, time to start.

Now, after more than twenty years as a predator, Sue’s message as a hunter is inextricably bound to her message as a naturalist and conservationist.

She wants to see some changes in American hunting.

Recent trends in the portrayal of hunting in television shows and videos, for instance, get under her skin. She sees far too much emphasis on competition, on success in bagging animals—in short, on killing. She sees far too little room left over for cherishing and respecting animals, for pausing to reflect on the meaning of hunting and killing, for allowing sorrow to coexist with gratitude and elation.

Sue, a hunter education instructor, feels it’s important for thoughtful hunters to address these things: “We have a huge responsibility to share with our non-hunting neighbors the truth about what hunting can and should be.”

But Sue has a more serious gauntlet to throw down.

“Many hunters,” as she once put it, “fail miserably at championing conservation and environmental protection causes.”

She’s well acquainted with the role that hunter-conservationists have played in the history of North American wildlife conservation, and with the programs funded by the license fees and excise taxes that hunters pay today. But she doesn’t think we should sit around congratulating ourselves.

Today’s dangers are too real and urgent.

Human activity continues to drive species over the brink of extinction, diminishing global biodiversity. In the United States alone, Sue notes, 3,000 acres of habitat are destroyed every day.

And we’re doing next to nothing about acid rain: “The Clean Air act hasn’t been strong enough after all, and the incalculable tons of filth we pump into the air do indeed fall back down upon us. Meanwhile our lakes and fish are poisoned, mercury contamination dictates that we shouldn’t eat our catch, and our forests sicken and decline in ways we can sadly measure but not fully understand.”

More hunters, Sue says, need to give back to the land. More hunters need to join organizations fighting to conserve wildlife habitat. More hunters need to work at building people’s awareness of the preciousness of all life, from invertebrates to wolves and cougars.

It’s vital, she argues, for hunters to join forces with environmentalists. We can’t afford political divisiveness.

Too often, she says, a few outspoken hunters “dominate the agenda, often opposing conservation measures, with their over-simplified and often selfish interests.” Too many hunters are distracted by what she calls “our increasing fascination with the machismo of bigger trucks, and the ease of mechanized hunting on ATVs and snowmobiles.”

Too many hunters miss the big picture: good hunting—like good birding, good hiking, and good berry-picking—has to begin with clean air, clean water, healthy soil, and intact ecosystems.

“We, of all people,” she told me recently, “really should get it. We should understand the relationship between a healthy natural environment and what makes us whole.”

Thanks, Sue, for all you do to keep the world whole. And for providing such a fine example of what hunting can be.

Notes: Sue’s organization Keeping Track, like so many non-profits, is struggling to keep afloat in these tough financial times; every donation, no matter how modest, helps. Also, Sue’s work with youth is profiled in the book The Woods Scientist, for kids age 9-12.

© 2010 Tovar Cerulli


  1. I’m fascinated by what makes people hunt, and I really like her reason – it’s not one I’ve heard before.

    And she’s right that we need to do more about conservation.

    The only thing I wonder is how much do hunters actually obsess on the machismo element? I know the advertising and programming push it (of course, the programming is driven by the advertising). But how many hunters embrace it? I know so many who don’t live the life they see advertised. But all I see in real life is California hunters, so I don’t know…

    • Tovar says:

      Good question on the machismo, Holly. That’s hard to quantify from the personal experiences and anecdotal evidence we each have.

      Another way I look at it, though: Even if a lot of American hunters don’t want or can’t afford the trappings of machismo (e.g. big trucks), how many embrace the basic attitude?

      And I think those ads and programs can do damage in other ways: How many potential hunters see them and think that’s what hunting is about? How many non-hunters see and think the same?

        • Tovar says:

          And every “potential hunter” is a non-hunter whose perceptions can be affected in that way.

          And then there are kids — young, up-and-coming hunters whose ideas about hunting may be influenced by the television shows and videos they see.

  2. Phillip says:

    Another great post, Tovar. Thanks!

    I agree, largely, with Sue’s points regarding the trend of hunting to become a competition… especially on TV. But when it comes to TV, it’s important to consider the source. No matter how sacred the hunt may be to some of us, on TV it’s entertainment. I’m constantly concerned that the competitive trend may spread into the general hunting population, but with very few exceptions, I have to admit that I don’t think it’s any worse than it ever was.

    Guys have always wanted to shoot the bigger deer than their friends. We’ve always taken a kind of pride in coming home with a few more in the bag than our neighbor. But maybe that competitiveness says more about our human nature than about any loss of the spirit or meaning of the hunt itself. I don’t know… still working that one over.

    What I do find unfortunate relates to the last part of the post… the need for hunters to give more back. In large part, I think a lot of hunters look at a day in the field the same way a golfer looks at a day on the greens.

    You go out, have a good time, and then you throw your clubs in the trunk and go home. You don’t worry about the course. You paid your money so someone else can mow the fairways, fertilize the greens, and keep the deer from eating the ornamentals. It’s someone else’s job.

    I find it heartening as I meet more and more people like yourself, Josh, and Holly who come to the sport with a different kind of commitment. It means that while many of the old-school will continue to do what they’ve always done, someone will be doing things differently, driving change from within, and taking an active role in more than just the extractive nature of our pasttime. Maybe, as you become “old hands”, that commitment will fade with the novelty… but I’m hopeful that it won’t.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Phillip.

      I like your “golfers on the greens” analogy! Aldo Leopold — and the other conservation heroes that so many hunters point to — definitely weren’t paying their fees, playing the game, and going home.

  3. When I came back into the Hunting World this year, I returned looking for a way to get closer to nature, and to eat some “cleaner meat.” I also enjoy making noise with a gun, and going to the range. As for golf, my only outing produced 147 after 9 holes, and my dad never invited me back…no boo-hoos on my part, I thought it a most boring game.
    To get serious, I started looking around for information, and stumbled on these hunting blogs, and branched out into some serious reading of some of the recommended books, and found it wasn’t all about hunting, it was about living off the land, and preserving it. As somebody who rode his bike across Detroit to attend the first Earth Day back a while, I have always been there. Can anyone else remember the Whole Earth Catalog?
    I was brought up in three cultures, so I’m a mixed bag, as far as cultural ideals go. Detroit, it was all urban, no culture, just a city life with school to top it off. Ontario, where my relatives were farming, was where I got my introduction to hunting, fishing, and raising food. Paris, France, where my mom took me to visit my cousins, aunts, and uncles, was a mixture of the two, where a big garden, bicycle races, and museums/landmarks painted a wholesome picture for a young guy.
    Now, I live in a metropolitan area with 12 million people, and it’s driving me crazy. I’ve taken to the ocean and the hills as a way to get away from all of the hubub, smog, and freeway traffic, and have had an urban garden the past few years. I also used to raise turkeys, chickens, ducks, geese, and rabbits on my little suburban plot about ten years back, and would like to go that route again. My move North is going to happen in a year or so, simply because I’ve persuaded my wife that LA is a death-trap I don’t want to get caught in, and she’s also done with it, for social reasons. All of her family and friends are up north. I’ve already made the lifestyle transition, and I see it as a better fit for me, even if I’m getting a little rickety in the joints.
    Then, I’ll probably join the sustainable, eat-local, more organic gardening movement, something I don’t see happening in SoCal. The scene here is limited to the vegetarian/PETA crowd, who are fine, but not my cuppa tea. I don’t see how you can be urban and try to have an organic lifestyle, with 12 million people soiling the air and water all around you. Hunting? There are a few places to shop, but most are selling guns for home protection, as people hunker down to protect their 1/8th acre plots. So, Go North Young Man. That is my Mantra.

      • Yes, either Sacto or the East Bay. I’m hitting the job fairs next spring. I’ll take a big pay cut, due to years of service, but then, you never know what opportunities might exist. I just gotta get out of LA…

        • Ingrid says:

          I highly recommend it, too! We also escaped L.A. after almost 8 years there. Some of my family members moved there, stayed and love it. But to me and Hugh, it was a soul-killing existence. We sprang to life like Sea Monkeys when our feet touched Bay Area soil again. He still has to travel there for work way too much, but the natural bounty in Northern California has been worth every single tradeoff. (We don’t hunt, but we spend a huge amount of our time in the outdoors for personal and professional reasons.) Now, I’m in the Northwest for a year or two, but already homesick for my beautiful No. Cal.

          • Yea, it will be quite an uprooting, but I think I will benefit much in the short and long haul of it. My whole family, except for me, is in Seattle, but I need a little more sunshine than they provide.

  4. Bill Koury says:

    Great topic. It goes beyond hunting ethics and once we bring up wildlife conservation, the conversation about funding is not far behind.

    I’ll state the obvious. (My friends say I do that a lot!) Hunters are not a homogeneous group. They hunt for different reasons, they appreciate wildlife on differing levels, they work for environmental causes in varying depths. So like you, I can only relate first hand what I see as hunter activity around me and make a few comments.

    I don’t see competition or the driving need to kill the most or biggest among my friends. We kid each other about who may have the better success. But I think, as it has been said above, most of the TV fare doesn’t reflect my observations of hunters I know. My estimate is that most of my friends enjoy just being in the woods and fields. Seeing game is exciting. Bringing home something to eat is a capstone, but not a requirement.

    Regarding doing more for habitat improvement, I agree we need many more hunters engaged. I’ve been active in habitat restoration through a few organizations and president of one of them. There are many hunters that I’ve been associated with have given hundreds of hours to this activity. A number of them, including me, have gone to Washington to lobby face-to-face with their Representatives for funding for wildlife conservation, non-game funding and habitat restoration. Certainly this is not the majority of hunters, but there are many across the country who do. But we need to do more. We need to be able to say that the majority of hunters are contributing either actively or at least monetarily in addition to the current funding we provide. There are currently a number of national and local organizations that are involved in getting a larger hunter involvement. But hunter numbers are a small percentage of the population.

    But a much larger opportunity for wildlife conservation and habitat improvement lies with the non-hunting, non-fishing users of the outdoors – i.e. boaters, hikers, campers, birders, climbers, canoers, kayakers, trackers and wildlife watchers. Not to mention livestock owners (who use a lot of public land). If they contributed to the funding of habitat and wildlife conservation with funds specifically directed for that use – similar to the Pittman-Robertson hunting and fishing equipment taxes – there would be significantly more funding available.

    As for partnering with environmental groups, hunting organizations I’ve been involved with, have done this. Not enough, but we know it can work. We’ve teamed to go to hearings and speak out against what we saw as wrong-headed uses or laws regarding wildlife and/or habitat. Sometimes we’re on different sides of an issue. Some environmental groups are anti-hunting in their mission. That makes it mutually disagreeable to partner. But overall, it can work. We need leaders on each side that have a better vision and can overcome past biases.

    • Ingrid says:

      Bill, yes! I agree with this: “But a much larger opportunity for wildlife conservation and habitat improvement lies with the non-hunting, non-fishing users of the outdoors – i.e. boaters, hikers, campers, birders, climbers, canoers, kayakers, trackers and wildlife watchers. Not to mention livestock owners (who use a lot of public land). If they contributed to the funding of habitat and wildlife conservation with funds specifically directed for that use – similar to the Pittman-Robertson hunting and fishing equipment taxes – there would be significantly more funding available.”


      I’m a non-hunter, wildlife rehabber, wildlife photographer and I would welcome fees or taxes on our equipment, endeavors and so forth. I’ve encountered some hunters who are against this, however, because they fear the influence we non-hunters would have on wildlife and game department decisions. Obviously, I would welcome more influence. But more importantly, you and I and the others here at Tovar’s blog, share an interest in the bigger picture. I always say that I would contribute to habitat restoration even if it meant I could never set foot on that habitat or in any way exploit it for my interests. And in many cases, that’s true. It’s an over-arching need in this over-populated world, and I’d like to see alternative sources of funding come into play.

      • Bill Koury says:

        Hi Ingrid,

        I too have heard from some hunters about the concern that they would lose influence etc. But that’s a narrow view and born of the worry that the majority will want to ban hunting. I don’t buy that.

        However it’s very problematic to get folks to accept paying a tax on gear that they never had to pay before. Or as an alternative, to pay for a license to do the things they’ve done before for free.

        Obviously I don’t have answers for that, but let’s keep the groups partnering whenever there’s a chance.

  5. Nina Hansen says:

    Great blog Tovar!

    I myself am a former vegetarian (for 13 years!). Now I live in Alaska and just this last Sunday I shot my first caribou. It was a clean shot and quick, humane death. I didn’t realize how emotional that moment would be! Now I have a freezer full of meat that is free range and organic. I can also tell you exactly where it came from and how the meat was handled. I am already looking forward to my next hunt.

    I’m glad to know there are others out there…

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Nina!

      I’m glad you found your way here. I know several other ex-vegetarian hunters. We should form a club or something! Do you know Ellen Frankenstein and her film Eating Alaska?

      Yes, my first kill was also extraordinarily emotional. Subsequent kills have been, too, though with less surprise and shock mixed in.

      • Nina Hansen says:

        Thanks for the reply,

        I am aware of Ellen’s film, but haven’t seen it. There’s actually an exhibit (I’m pretty sure it’s hers as well) at the University of Alaska Museum called eating Alaska. I’ll make an effort to see her film.

        My list isn’t as big as hers, yet.

        A club sounds like a great idea!

  6. doug t says:

    I would draw a parallel between the competitive nature of hunting as portrayed in the popular hunting media, and the “go big or go home” attitudes which pervade media covering other outdoor recreation pursuits (rock climbing, adventure travel, etc…). Apparently low tech, low adredalin activities are not worthy of our interest, whatever the activity.

    The fascination with trophy animals, big trucks, and shiny guns is very apparent on our regional hunting chat site (www.huntingbc.com). There is a strange orthodoxy which pervades this site, with several reoccurring themes; you can’t own too many guns, there is no such thing as too many recreation vehicles, gun registration is the work of the devil, and climate change is a fantasy dreamed up by radical environmentalists. I’m not at all clear to what extent this site reflects the attitudes of the majority of hunters in our province.

    I am uneasy with the concept of hunters as a community attempting to champion a conservation agenda. History is rife with examples of conservation projects, led by hunting/fishing associations with a narrow focus on the tasty animals, and a disregard for the inedible portion of the natural world. Better, I believe, to address conservation of natural habitats as an informed and concerned citizen, not as a member of an interest group.

  7. Bill Koury says:


    I don’t know the history of good or bad conservation projects in B.C., but all species, edible and inedible, benefit by setting aside a few thousand acres of land and taking it from potential development. Same for restoring a wetland or marsh for waterfowl habitat. It becomes home for multiple mammal, amphibian and insect species.

    And as much as it may not seem so, conservation and/or environmentalism is a special interest.

    • Doug T says:

      Hi Bill, perhaps I should elaborate on points made in my previous post. I guess I would differentiate between habitat conservation and habitat enhancement. It seems that in the natural world there are the generalist organisms (think Canada geese, white tail deer), and the “niche dwellers” (mountain caribou, wood ducks). When we as habitat managers start altering habitats to improve their carrying capacity for the generalists species, we will often take away the suitability of this habitat for the niche species.

      In my area of BC we have the remnants of what historically was a healthy mountain caribou population. Caribou are a notoriously difficult mammal to protect, as their needs are directly contrary to most human endeavors, including the promotion of game species such as elk and deer. Until recently, wildlife managers would carry out controlled burns, to enhance forage for deer and elk. The result was a boom in deer and elk populations, which in turn created a boom in cougar and wolf populations. The caribou suffered from loss of their preferred habitat (old growth forest, with abundant arboreal lichens), and further suffered from the increase in large predator populations.

      Of course this all becomes a treacherous mine field when we start trying to determine what is the natural structure of our wildlands, after years of fire suppression, introduced species, introduced pathogens etc…I would stand by my original point that we are more likely to approach this puzzle with an open mind if we can somehow shed our tribal affiliations (be it hunter, hiker, enviromentalist, logger…)before we start!

      • Bill Koury says:

        Hi doug,

        You make a good point. I too have seen restoration efforts with a narrow focus driven by one “tribe” or another and unfortunately, the outcome was an artificial environment with negative consequences of some sort.

        Everyone engaged in outdoor activity comes from a “tribe”. Hunters want more game, snowmobilers want more trails, hikers want more trails and trail-heads, kayakers and canoeists want more roads to access water, etc.
        People who do nothing outdoors are usually apathetic.

        Fortunately, I think about every decade the science and research seems to improve and the efforts become smarter and more ecologically effective. I see changes in the approach by, say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service to be less “tribal-driven” in their efforts. They are listening to all and trying to develop comprehensive ecologically sound plans. The same goes for our F&G Dept. and that’s encouraging. (BTW, I don’t work for any of these groups!:))

      • Tovar says:

        Thanks to everyone for the great comments!

        In connection with the thoughts shared above about the conservation efforts, fiscal contributions, and attitudes of hunters and non-hunters, I got an email from a friend, expressing the hope that Sue Morse also chides non-hunters for not doing their part, since we all benefit from a healthy environment.

        My response was this:

        “I obviously can’t speak for Sue, but I know she spends a lot of her time talking to and working with non-hunters, in her own work and in collaboration with land trusts and other conservation organizations. As I understand it, virtually all the folks who have stepped up and taken active roles in her Keeping Track programs are non-hunters.

        In contrast, I believe Keeping Track’s conservation efforts have received hostile reactions from more than a few hunters, some of whom talk about all ‘environmentalism’ as if it is a radical, left-wing, green conspiracy aimed, in part, at robbing us of our rights (property rights, the right to hunt, etc). That, I think, is the kind of divisiveness that really frustrates Sue.

        I think Sue, who is a life-member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and is active in all kinds of efforts, would be the first to agree that we all benefit from a healthy environment and all need to do our part.”

  8. Rodney Elmer says:

    How many here think Tovar will make a good hunter ed instructor? The very fact you would pass on the ideas of sportsmanship, ethics , responsibility,conservation, compassion, adult behavior, and other rights of passage to those who seek to futher their life experiences ,as you yourself become a true sportsman, gives the soul great feelings of gratification. All qualities you all seem to relate to and share. Refreshing thoughts by all !Thanks for the good reading!

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