December 10, 2020
This season, as you pause to reflect on all the planning, application of field skills and good fortune that culminated in killing that deer (or elk or bear) at your feet, take an extra moment before notching your carcass tag.
Use half that moment to thank the animal that will feed your family, and which ginned up so much adventure and excitement in its pursuit. Then use the other half to think about the legal and social implications of what you're about to do.
This transition between a successful hunt and everything that comes next is sacred. For me, it’s the very essence of America, nearly as patriotic as voting, volunteering for military service or paying taxes.
The moment you validate a tag, you also change the very definition of the animal you just killed. Before you ended its life with a well-placed arrow or a bullet, that deer or elk or bear was public property, owned by everyone and no one simultaneously, and managed in the public trust by your state's wildlife agency. But when you legally harvested that animal, it became yours, and while there are some specific conditions that define what you can and cannot do with its carcass, by killing it you have converted a public resource into a private one.
That’s the most American action I can think of, and it gets at the very heart of the special relationship we have with wildlife in this country. Savor that moment when you punch your tag, and think deeply about what that action, and that tag, represent.
In order to obtain a deer tag in the first place, you agreed to a number of conditions that you've probably forgotten. First, you became a certified hunter, either by passing a state-sanctioned hunter education course or by being old enough, the state figures, to have the experience and good sense to be a safe hunter.
Next, you signed a couple of boilerplate documents you’ve also probably forgotten about. They confirmed that you are not a felon, that you are legally capable of owning a gun and that you don’t owe child support. They further obligated you to hunt according to state laws and to take only your share during sanctioned seasons. Then you paid for the privilege of hunting.
In essence, your hunting license and carcass tag, for those states that have separate documents, are legal contracts. They not only confirm your eligibility to hunt, but also obligate you to follow rules.
Your license and tag also connect you to a whole system of public wildlife management. The specific hunting seasons and bag limits in each region of each state are established according to a public process. Recall hearing early in the year about public meetings to set seasons? Your neighbors went, and you could, too, to comment on proposals drafted by local biologists that are later ratified by state fish-and-game commissioners, who are appointed according to a public process. We hunters love to gripe about bag limits and other rules, like antler restrictions or doe quotas, but they are expressions of public sentiment established by public processes in which you are invited and encouraged to participate.
But let’s get back to this sacred moment before you notch your tag.
Reduced to Possession
In my home state of Montana, as in many other states I’ve hunted, the process of validating your tag is done with a sharp knife or a pair of field scissors. You cut out notches that indicate the specific day and month in which you killed the animal. Then you attach your tag to the carcass, and go about the process of field-dressing the animal or boning out its meat for transport.
This meat and trophy parts of the animal are now yours. I don’t think we hunters savor this moment deeply enough. Through our actions, which include effective field skills and accurate shooting, and following both written and unwritten rules, we have just converted a priceless wild animal owned by no one into meat that we can enjoy.
While we don’t have to ask permission to grind it into burger or cube it into stew meat, we do have some obligations, which are expressed in the language of hunting regulations. By "reducing to possession" the animal we just killed, we agree to not "wantonly" waste it. That means we are required to keep its meat clean and fresh in order that it can be shared with our families or donated to other folks who will enjoy its life-giving nutrition. If we kick it in a ditch or allow the carcass to hang so long the meat rots or turns moldy, or keep it uneaten in the freezer so long the meat gets stale and freezer-burned, we risk punishment for not living up to our side of the contract.
That's fair, since by harvesting the animal that now lies at our feet, we have deprived another hunter of the same opportunity.
If you need confirmation of the high legal standing of wild meat, then consider that most states don’t address the fate of antlers or skulls or what many of us consider the trophy parts of an animal. We can toss those away, for all the state cares, as long as we take good care of the meat.
I love hunting for lots of reasons: the restorative power of a day in the field, the application of a lifetime’s worth of experience to anticipate the behavior of wildlife, and the opportunity to bring clean, healthy meat to my family's table. But there’s a deeper reason, too, and it's contained in that transformative power of a deer tag: the ability for a simple American citizen to possess and utilize a public resource.
And that, my friend, is why I argue your deer tag is the quintessential American document, more representative of our national values than even that U.S. dollar in your deerskin billfold.