Many of you have seen the famous "Join or Die" political cartoon that predates the Revolutionary War — historians think it was done by Benjamin Franklin — and it seems to me that drawing of a segmented snake has a message for us as modern-day hunters.
This isn't the first time you have seen me write about hunter unity. In my not-so-humble opinion, it is the No. 1 problem hunters face today. That's right — not chronic wasting disease in the deer herd, not the lack of mentors for new hunters and not the anti-hunting lobby. If hunters do not get their act together, none of those other problems are going to matter.
It's time to talk plainly. Our hunting privileges in the United States of America are in jeopardy as they never have been before. It should be no secret to you that hunter numbers have dropped drastically. In 1970, more than 40 million people bought a hunting license; today that number is probably fewer than 12 million. As our numbers decrease, so do our supporters. We already are at the point in some states that every vote is needed when hunting-related issues arise.
After a career of more than 35 years as conservation officer, something that still amazes me is how sportsmen, hunters and fishermen cannot seem to agree on anything!
Hunters, especially, are our own worst enemies. Every type of hunter seems to have only that group's interest at heart. Bow hunters don't seem to be able to get along with gun hunters, muzzleloaders are often at odds with both of those groups and there is no way for a state game agency to set deer seasons that would please any of them.
I don't believe I have ever seen a group of hunters more fragmented than those who hunt with some form of a stick and string. For years, many avid bow hunters have fought the use of crossbows with an almost cult-like fervor: "Crossbows are ruining bowhunting!" "It's too easy! "You don't have to practice!" "The crossbow hunters will kill too many deer!"
I have come across these complaints in barbershops, at gun counters and on internet forums and social media for years. Many seasoned bow hunters would have you believe a crossbow is the absolute tool of the devil. There was a long legislative battle in my state of West Virginia, as in many others, to make the crossbow legal for hunting.
This problem is certainly not just with bow hunters, though. Those of you hunt with different kinds of dogs often run afoul of other hunters in the field as every year beloved and valuable hunting dogs are shot for no good reason.
Currently there is a debate going on in some states about deer management, the lowering of buck limits and antler restrictions as many hunters want to encourage the growing of bigger antlers. That is all well and good, but how about the guy that just wants to go to some public land with his kid in hopes of taking any legal deer? I don't want to tell a young hunter that he or she can't take a spike or a fork horn for his or her first deer.
There has to be leeway for both sides. Especially on public land, we have to learn to respect the wishes of other hunters.
Somehow, by the grace of God, we have got to get away from this close-minded thinking in the hunter ranks that basically says "I am right and you are wrong; my way or the highway!" You have your way of hunting that you learned from Dad and Granddad and maybe Uncle Bill. The guy in the next county over or another state may not see everything the same as you.
What we are getting down to is this, and I want you to pay attention: If the other guy is hunting in a way that is not your cup of tea but it is legal, then keep quiet about it and even offer support if someone attacks him for it.
The guy in a ground blind with a crossbow may not have your self-appointed seal of approval. The bird hunter's setter that ran past your tree stand didn't really cause all the deer in a three-county area to leave. If it is legal to bait in your area but you don't like it, then don't do it — but don't berate the guy who does.
Boys and girls, we are way past the times when we can be so picky about what another hunter does. Anything and everything we can do to get another set of boots on the ground, buy another license and spend money in a gun store is what we had better be thinking about. The well-organized, well-funded anti-hunting groups are watching, and some say all they have to do is wait for our numbers to fall below recoverable levels and move in for the kill.
Why do we make their job easier and squabble among ourselves?
Right here in my own state, a bill has been introduced in both houses that will close about 5,000 acres to public hunting by making it part of a national park. Today that land is open to anyone who has a hunting license. You don't have to ask anybody because it's yours — you are a public land owner. If the bill passes, boom, that land is gone and you are not going to get it back.
The reaction from hunters and hunting groups has been underwhelming: crickets. Truthfully, I don't think many hunters even know about it, which is more of a pity. I never thought I would live to see the day the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources would stand idly by while 5,000 acres of public hunting land went down the drain, but I have.
It is just another sign of the lack of hunter unity.
Now I want all of you to sit and think about it after you read this little sermon. I didn't coin this phrase — Aesop did: United we stand, divided we fall.
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.