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Sports Illustrated: Americans Becoming Indoor People

Sports Illustrated – November 24, 2008
By Matthew Teague

THE TWO WOLVES emerged like specters from the tree line and crossed a field of snow. From that moment, and even after everything that followed, no one disputed their penetrating beauty. Silver on white.

Two men watched them approach. The men—a pilot named Todd Svarckopf and an aviation worker named Chris Van Galder—worked at Points North Landing, an outpost that serves local mining camps in Saskatchewan province, about 750 miles north of the U.S. border. On this particular day in November 2005 a low cloud ceiling prevented aerial surveys for signs of uranium, so the bored men had struck out, walking toward a nearby junkyard to kill a few hours looking at a collection of abandoned airplanes.

They had crossed the camp's snow-covered airstrip and started across the moss-sprung landscape when the wolves appeared. One darker, one lighter. The darker one approached Svarckopf. He yelled at it, and it retreated a few steps.

"Whatever we do," the pilot told Van Galder, standing nearby, "we don't turn and run."

Since they stood just a few hundred yards from the camp, the men tried to back away toward safety. As they did, though, the wolves grew more aggressive: The light gray one approached Svarckopf, and he turned to face it; when he did, the dark wolf moved on Van Galder, the smaller man. He shouted at the animal, but the wolf held its ground, squatting on its haunches almost within arm's reach. Van Galder called to Svarckopf, who turned toward his friend. When Svarckopf took his eyes off the light wolf, it ran at him.

Svarckopf quickly grabbed two stout spruce branches from the ground and brandished them at the wolves. Prodding and swinging, the men inched back toward the camp. The wolves, pressing forward, held eye contact and swished their lowered tails, as though stalking prey. It was a disturbing sight, and yet the men did have one statistic on their side: In more than a hundred years, only one human death in North America had even been tentatively linked to an attack by nonrabid wolves in the wild.

After about a quarter hour—an eternity, it seemed, with the wolves snarling and snapping their teeth—Svarckopf and Van Galder made it back to the camp's airstrip, where the animals broke off the hunt and returned to the woods. Moments later, in the safety of the dreary mess hall, the breathless men related their story to the miners. Van Galder had brought a camera for the walk to the airplane junkyard, and he had managed to snap a few pictures of the wolves at the camp's edge. He showed them to his colleagues.

The photographs impressed one young man in particular. Kenton Carnegie, a shy 22-year-old geological engineering student at the University of Waterloo, had flown to Points North Landing for a temporary work-study job with Svarckopf and Van Galder. He loved animals to the point of becoming a vegetarian, and the story of the encounter with the wolves intrigued him. Soon afterward he called his mother, Lori, back in Oshawa, the Toronto suburb where he had grown up.

"Oh, yeah, it's a really neat place," he told her about Points North Landing. "There's not a lot to do up here, but some of our guys saw some wolves."

A few days later, after the excitement had subsided and as the snow continued to ground flights, Carnegie told his colleagues he felt stir-crazy. He said he planned to take a walk along the lake, the way many of the miners did to stave off boredom between shifts.

"I'll be back for supper," he said.

USUALLY WHEN wild animals change their behavior and become more visible to humans, it is because they are diseased or hungry, or they have been drawn out by Dumpsters, dogs or other signs of human development and urban sprawl. These factors explain in part why there have been so many recent sightings of bears on golf courses or in suburban trees, why a herd of bison wandered into the Canadian village of Fort Providence two years ago, why deer have become a traffic hazard throughout the U.S. and why coyotes sometimes show up on Sunset Boulevard.

But over the last decade the North American ecosystem has also seen an unanticipated trend upsetting the always delicate relationship between man and wildlife: The hunters have been going away.

Surveys by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicate hunting in general has tumbled precipitously, down 10% in the past decade alone. Bird hunting has dropped by a quarter during that time, and small-game hunting by 31%.

Once common fall rituals are fading. In rural New England not long ago hunters walked logging roads, shotguns in hand, looking for grouse. On the Great Lakes hundreds once lay in flatboats amid flotillas of duck decoys, waiting for the great formations of ducks to darken the sky. And in the South men gathered in teams to hunt wild boar, to be roasted afterward on a spit. Those days are gone, or going fast, and traditions like fathers teaching their sons where to place a tree stand or how to field-dress an elk are, in many families, dying. Stricter gun control regulations have made simply owning a gun far more complicated. In some communities it is easy to find game on the golf course or your neighbor's lawn but almost impossible to find a place to hunt safely.

The news of hunting's decline will no doubt cheer those who see it as a cruel pastime. But what the critics do not realize is that as the hunters have stepped back, the animals (especially predators) have come forward—with potentially disastrous consequences for all.

Valerius Geist, a professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Calgary and an expert on the behavior of large mammals, calls what is happening "the recolonization by wildlife." The first sign, he says, "was when the herbivores returned," a reference to the overabundance of deer, moose and elk in North America. After the herbivores, Geist says, the carnivores are never far behind. "We are just now beginning to experience that phase," he says. As recently as 1994 there were about 50 wolves left in the Yellowstone region (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming), but the population there now stands at more than 1,500; in Minnesota wolves climbed from about 500 in the 1950s to more than 3,000 today.

The third phase of animal recolonization, Geist says, is "the parasites and diseases returning in full force."

ON A sunny July day, Adam Walker drives past a stately Long Island home in Westhampton, N.Y., then eases his white Chevy Malibu to a stop on a wedge of land between the main building and the water. "That's where I'll set up my shot," he says, pointing to a cedar tree. "Yeah. Good site." By day Walker, 32, works as an arborist for a Long Island tree company. He moonlights as a deer hunter.

The Hamptons, like a lot of New York State, are lousy with deer, and have been for at least the last decade. At first the animals presented a sort of graceful nuisance, wandering out of the shrinking woodlands to eat the roses behind the poolhouse. Yet with fewer hunters taking their limit and the likelihood of fewer deer dying in the generally less severe winters, the animal's numbers became unmanageable. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that Long Island's deer population is 20,000, up from about 3,000 in the late '70s. And the consequences have escalated.

In Brookhaven, N.Y., officials are pondering how to handle the deer carcasses scattered across the town's roadways. In 2006 they removed 265 deer hit by cars. Last year they found 282. This year they're on track to remove at least 370 deer, and the cost—at $400 per animal—is straining the town's budget. (Across the U.S. deer-car collisions rose 15% over the past five years, costing annually more than a billion dollars in property damage and 150 human lives.)

At the same time Lyme disease—the crippling illness borne by deer ticks—has gripped the Hamptons. Suffolk County reported an estimated 585 cases last year, up from 190 two years ago. In response, some town leaders across the area turned to what they saw as the only practical solution: They contracted licensed hunters to stalk and kill deer in the tony beach towns along the Island's North and South Forks. Some residents ask that men like Walker do their work discreetly, so that their neighbors, or even their spouses, remain unaware of exactly what's going on in their backyards. But few protests are heard, in part because the deer, which eat expensive shrubbery and virtually everything else in sight, are often butchered for venison and donated to local soup kitchens.

"I could shoot a deer every night," says Walker, as he stares out at the tree line, waiting for a deer to emerge. He is not complaining. He learned bow hunting from his father and his uncle, and he enjoys his night job, to the point of performing it as a free "friendly customer service."

THE RELATIONSHIP between the hunter and his game is ancient, a give-and-take described in its simplest terms by prehistoric men drawing on cave walls: They showed figures of deer, of man, of deer felled by arrows. The hunting half of the hunter-gatherer model came about because man's brain—the thing that sets him apart from many of those other animals—demanded meat. The brain burns through a quarter of a resting human's calories, and gathering alone couldn't provide enough nutrition to maintain "our most costly instrument," according to Harvard biological anthropologist Daniel Lieberman. "Hunting made us humans who we are."

But hunting depends on a healthy regard for the animal population, a point underscored by a previous ecological crisis. Starting in the late 17th century, commercial hunters and trappers began to fan out across the North American continent, systematically stripping the land of its wildlife. The passenger pigeon population famously declined from probably a few billion in the mid-19th century to zero in 1900, when the last wild one was shot. Buffalo, occasionally picked off along the prairie by men firing from the windows of passing railroad cars, nearly suffered a similar fate. "The game population almost collapsed," said Nicholas Throckmorton, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Reform didn't come until the early 1900s, when individual conservationists—led by President Theodore Roosevelt—pushed federal and state governments to begin enacting a set of laws that became known as the North American Wildlife Conservation Model. The legislation restricted the sale of meat and fur from wild animals, effectively curbing the commercial hunting market. Just as significant, in 1937 Congress approved the Wildlife Restoration Act, which imposed special taxes on guns, ammunition and other hunting equipment; the revenue is distributed to state governments and earmarked for state wildlife agencies, the hiring of biologists and other expenses related to game conservation. By the middle of the 20th century, the animal population had begun to rebound, and our fathers and grandfathers could again satisfy what Charles Dickens called "the passion for hunting ... implanted ... in the human breast."

But in the decades since, attitudes have shifted and hardened, and the very idea of hunting as "sport" has come to imply something cavalier. Among animal-rights advocates it indicated indifference to wildlife. In two generations the lone hunter—once exemplified by Teddy Roosevelt—found himself accused of enmity toward nature. Hunting had become a question of morality.

IN 1998 the venerable outfitter Cabela's entered the business of virtual hunting. "Cabela's video games [like Dangerous Hunts 2009 and Legendary Adventures] let you go hunting instantly," says spokesman Joe Arterburn, "so it is very appealing to hunters or hunting-minded gamers to experience the thrill of hunting as soon as the game is turned on." That thrill is, apparently, strong: To date Cabela's has sold more than 13 million copies of its games. Many people also watch hunting shows on television. They buy waxed-cotton jackets from British outfitters, or sturdy boots from Filson, that they never wear in the field. Some people—to widespread public revulsion—pay to hunt through the Internet, aiming a remote-controlled gun in some distant place, and firing a bullet by clicking a mouse.

It is not just hunting; outdoor activity in general is decreasing. Americans are becoming an indoor people. Visits to national parks have dropped steadily since 1987. Twenty-first-century Americans talk much about the environment, but they navigate websites, not rivers.

"What we're seeing among young people is, in a phrase, nature deficit disorder," says Throckmorton. "People are growing disconnected from the outdoors." Says Lieberman, "We've become so disassociated from our roots that we're shocked by things that should be natural and normal," like killing the animals that we eat. Once a year Lieberman butchers a sheep with his students to remind them where meat comes from. "Some of the students are appalled and aghast," he says, "but they think nothing of buying meat on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic."

THESE ARE boom times at the Black Bear Lodge. But that is not good news for the hunting industry, because the Black Bear Lodge is a bar on Third Avenue, in the Gramercy Park section of New York City, and young men gather there for a video game called Big Buck Hunter Pro. The manager of the place, Belle Caplis, says customers come in "absolute droves" to play the game—which involves pumping and firing a shotgun at a screen, where an assortment of deer, elk, bears and other animals die electronic deaths—on the bar's two hunting machines. There is even, Caplis notes, a "huge Big Buck culture." Some customers wear full camouflage and DayGlo orange for an evening of video hunting and organize complex online tournaments. "I've seen business guys standing there in their suits after work, or even during their lunch hours," Caplis said. "They untuck their shirts and start firing away." The game appeals to city dwellers at a psychological level that even the president of the company that designed the game, George Petro, calls "strange."

But is Big Buck's appeal really all that surprising? Lieberman describes a euphoria that overtakes humans at the moment of killing game: riveted attention, heightened senses, quickened pulse. That feeling, or even the high-tech approximation of it, may be worth the dollars that so many young Manhattanites have found themselves pumping into Big Buck Hunter Pro.

DEPENDING ON how you count them, there are still at least 12.5 million hunters in America who annually generate $22.9 billion in total revenue. Whole armies of men still rise before the sun, spray their boots with deer urine and climb trees, breathing steam, to wait for an approaching buck. One of them is Gordon Wyman Jr., of Mobile, who recently discussed the finer points of deer rifles with his young son and reflected on the family tradition. "My father, Gordon Wyman Senior, taught me," he said, placing a hand on his son's shoulder. "And I'm teaching Gordon Wyman III."

Several state governments are trying to encourage hunting. Alabama opens deer season two days early for children under the age of 16 (accompanied by an adult), so they'll have a better chance at the animals and maybe get hooked. Maine calls its version Youth Deer Day: bow hunting for children ages 10 to 16. In Illinois wildlife managers, mindful of the increase in fatherless families have begun holding hunting lessons for single moms. A nonprofit company in California runs a similar program called Becoming an Outdoorswoman, and in the past couple of years hunting-license sales there have actually risen by 3%. The federal government sees the urgency as well. In September the House of Representatives passed the No Child Left Inside Act, which aims to funnel half a billion dollars into environmental education. It awaits passage by the Senate.

A few weeks ago Wyman and his son packed up and traveled across Mobile Bay for the grand opening of the Bass Pro Shop in Spanish Fort. The store, like its competitors, Cabela's and Gander Mountain, is a huge, theme-park-like emporium, complete with indoor waterfalls, shooting ranges and enough stuffed bears and deer to populate Yellowstone. Three days after the Bass Pro Shop's grand opening eight police cars were still required to direct traffic, as thousands of people streamed into the store. Wyman and his son marveled at the selection of guns, suitable for every kind of hunting. Deer, duck, dove, boar and the category known simply as "varmint."

The father picked up a deer rifle. "Nice," he said.

THIS IS the truck we used that day," says Mark Eikel, an owner and assistant manager of the Points North camp. He climbed into a white pickup, turned the ignition key and sat a moment, staring at the steering wheel.

When Kenton Carnegie didn't return from his walk in time for the evening meal, his colleagues alerted the camp staff. Eikel took Svarckopf and Van Galder in his truck to trace Carnegie's path. The student's footsteps stood out plainly in the new snow, heading around the lake. They showed a meandering stroll, veering out sometimes onto the frozen lake, then back. The men feared for Carnegie's safety from the elements; he had worn a T-shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, a lined nylon warmup suit and jacket, but now the sun had set and the cold deepened every moment.

Eikel, following the path again one day in September of this year, slowed his truck. "Somewhere around here," he said, "you could start to see wolf tracks."

Several wolves moved on a track parallel to Carnegie's path as he entered a stand of trees. A lone wolf closed in behind him, cutting him off from the camp in the manner Svarckopf and Van Galder had described from their encounter a few days before. The small search party found a spot where the wolf tracks began to converge. It appeared that Carnegie had recognized his danger and had tried to gain a clear line of sight to signal to the camp along the lake shore. He stood no more than 600 yards from safety, but no one saw him.

He doubled back on his steps, making a push toward camp; then the wolves attacked, probably biting his heels and calves first. Carnegie apparently fell for a moment, fought them, then regained his feet and ran.

Beneath the snow, the spongy mix of peat and moss the locals called muskeg broke away under his feet, making progress difficult. The snow in a rough way recorded the story that evening, a testament to human will: Carnegie fell and rose again. Fell and rose again. Fell and rose again.

Fell and rose again.

"See these berries?" Eikel bent down and plucked one. He pinched it between thumb and forefinger, and a shock of red fluid dribbled out. Redness of another sort "was everywhere, on the snow" that evening, he said. "I couldn't tell what I was looking at."

Then his flashlight swept across something just below the path, among the trees.

Eikel had recoiled and told the other two men, "Don't look."

A short while later, as Eikel led police to the scene, he saw reflective eyes hovering in the dark. When the search party built a large bonfire, wolves howled and the men fired shotgun blasts into the air, to drive the animals away.

The government granted temporary license to shoot wolves around the camp, and within a day and a half a worker had shot two. A necropsy revealed what seemed to be human hair and "plasticised nylon" in the digestive tract of the wolves. Two years later a government inquest officially ruled that wolves had killed Kenton Carnegie.

What this means beyond the obvious symbolism is unclear, but it is a good place to stop and think about the return of animals into a world that is increasingly too small for them.

Geist has thought about that subject a lot. Until recently, he says, "I was very much of the opinion that wolves were a fairly harmless group of predators." But then the wolf population exploded. "When I walk my dog now [on Vancouver Island, B.C.], I carry a gun," he says. "My wife has been threatened by wolves twice."

THERE'S A whole industry that depends on wolves," said Kim Carnegie, Kenton's father, from his house in Oshawa. "People love wolves. Guides lead people out into the wilderness at night to listen to the wolf howls. Do you think they wanted to acknowledge [wolves] had killed a human being? Of course not."

After his son's death an obsession with wolves gripped Kim Carnegie. For a while he was planning a trip to Saskatchewan, he said, to shoot any wolves he could find. He researched the animals and their habits at great length, with murder on his mind. But in the end he called off the vengeful journey. "Wolves are predators," he said. "I don't hate them. They were following their own way."

Wolves do not make moral decisions, he decided. They simply hunt.

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