No Pressure, None At All

Work life seeped into dream life last night: I was going to shoot a whitetail doe, but had to wait for her to walk out of the woods into a subdivision.

The map in my hands showed the hunt area boundary began right on the center hump of a cul de sac servicing the houses and extended from their back fencelines to the main road out front.

Deer country was off limits, but the shrubberies, backyards and patios were inside the kill zone.

Welcome to Bizarro World. Only it isn’t these days as animals and people shack up in each other’s worlds.

Behind me in my dream was a mess of state Fish & Wildlife folks — enforcement officers, a biologist, some flacks, heck, maybe even the Director — and a TV camera too.

No pressure, none at all.

I shifted my rifle from one hand to the other. I guess I was a Master Hunter or something and had been called in to take care of this particularly troublesome doe. I peered around a tree from time to time to track her progress towards the houses while we all fidgeted.

The only one not fidgeting was the doe, which was moving very slowly — but not towards the kill zone. This might all be much ado about nothing today, I thought.

True, I had other, more conventional deer-hunting dreams last night — chasing bucks in the hills and mountains — but this one really sticks out.

I’m pretty sure I dreamed it because of a pair of articles Jason Brooks and I put together for our February issue of Northwest Sportsman, which we sent off to press yesterday.

In the wake of late December’s Skagit Valley elk fiasco, we learned of another elk damage-control hunt being held in an even more challenging place.

How much more challenging?

Try just east of Goodytwoshoesville.

In a valley that’s even more populated.

Next to a state highway and an interstate.

In the vicinity of an outlet mall, a massive housing development, a golf course and extremely popular tourist attractions and hiking trails.

No pressure, none at all.

But since last summer, at least 16 cow elk have been culled from the growing herd by Master Hunters.

Oh, the reason you haven’t heard about it in the news? Like almost all of the rest of 2009-10’s general-season and damage-control hunts, there’s hardly anything to report – at least anything bad.

MASTER HUNTERS ARE A relatively new tool for Washington game managers to use for dealing with problem deer and elk, though Oregon’s has been in place since the early 1990s.

The programs help “promote the image of hunters, improve ethical practices and develop relationships between hunters and private landowners,” Brooks writes.

And as elk, whitetail, turkey and goose numbers continue to soar, the need for tightly controlled hunts will continue as farmlands in winter range continue to redevelop, national forests grow back in and available habitats shrink.

““We can’t just go out and catch every animal that gets crosswise and haul them out
to the forest,” says WDFW’s Dave Ware pointing to disease, parasite and animal crowding issues. “Yes, it’s out of sight, out of mind, but you’re not doing the animal any favor. Catching isn’t the answer everyone thinks it is. There’s not always a place for other animals.”

Nor can they just be stuffed in zoos.

With Washington’s enrollment period open through mid-February, Brooks and I looked into both states’ programs.

We learned they’re anything but shortcuts to big-bull and -buck tags.

“Most of our hunts are doe and cows tags,” ODFW Education Services manager Chris Willard in Salem told me.

Added Master Hunter liason, Sgt. Eric Anderson in Olympia: “While there still are opportunities for Master Hunters to get premium tags, they’re very much diminished” from the levels of WDFW’s old Advanced Hunter Education program.

For Anderson, Master Hunters are “the gold standard of hunters trying to protect our heritage.”

“Over half of the Advanced Hunters were purged from the system for violations of state fish and wildlife laws … We have a zero tolerance policy with the new Master Hunter program,” he told me.

It was always a little embarrassing to find Advanced Hunter grads written up in WDFW Enforcement’s quarterly newsletters (“AHE Hunter and Friends Party and Poach,” reads a headline from the winter 2007-08 edition).

Both states require prospective Master Hunters to clear background checks, as well as complete wildlife volunteer work and pass written and shooting proficiency tests. And in Washington, enrollees must go through Crime Observation and Reporting Training and pledge to abide by the Master Hunter Code of Ethics.

Willard says Oregon is going to try and emulate more of Washington’s program.

In the wake of the Skagit fiasco, which was an open general bow season, Capt. Bill Hebner told me that the solution may lay in Master Hunters.

Which really worries some. Writes Brooks:

Does this mean that we are going to see a trend to more Master Hunts when it comes to damage control and hunts close to the public’s eye? What does this mean for the majority of hunters?

Not everyone can put in the time, money and effort to complete the MH program, and even under the current requirements, not everyone could qualify. Are these programs providing an uneven and unfair advantage to an “elitist” group?

These are just a few questions and concerns that are brought up online and cause heated discussion.

Brooks talked to Gene Brame, who actually accounted for one of those 16 elk taken by Master Hunters that I mentioned above, on qualifying.

“I think it can be done,” said the retired Tacoma man.

Added recent Master Hunter grad Eric Bell of Granite Falls of the written test: “You definitely had to know the information, almost memorizing sections of the material.”

Despite Oregon’s program being on the books for almost two decades, there really aren’t that many Master Hunters. According to Willard, of the 5,300-plus Oregonians who’ve applied, only 1,234 have cleared all tests. And only 123 applied for Master Hunter-only tags last year.

In Washington, at the end of December 2009, there were 1,892 in the program with 395 pending aps, said Anderson; he figured three-quarters of those would clear.

To apply to be a Master Hunter in Washington, call (360) 902-8412 or email tracy.loveless@dfw.wa.gov. In Oregon, call (503) 947-6028 or email hunter.education@state.or.us.

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