Hunting elk on New Mexico public land
I walk briskly but cautiously, traversing the rugged desert mountain. I listen for the hair-raising sound of rattles as my boots land, knowing this mountain’s grassy slopes and scree piles hold their fair share of banded rock rattlesnakes. Although beautifully marked with grey and black bands, I don’t care to see this venomous native today, especially since I am hiking alone.
The vast landscape is expansive and humbling. Mountains transition into wide open plains that stretch nearly to the horizon. I’m a visitor in a wild and remote place, and slight unease gives way to heightened awareness. Out here, there are no cell phone notifications, no apps to tell you where the cliffs, cacti, or lions are.
Strongholds like this BLM wilderness study area provide wildlife and humans a welcome respite from the frenzy of a world fraught with ceaseless development. Food, water, shelter, and space are crucial factors of habitat suitable for our native deer, pronghorn, and elk. In addition, limited road access means less traffic and disruption for these animals and more solace and challenge for hunters like me.
Today, though, I am not hunting. The pilgrimage I’m making now has a different purpose. I am returning to the place where, last September, after six days of hunting from dawn to dusk, the arrow from my compound bow found its mark. I had prepared for this hunt for months to make the most ethical and lethal shot possible. I studied elk anatomy and shot placement, ensured my bow and broadheads were perfectly tuned, knew my maximum range, and shot hundreds of arrows at various distances from various positions. It’s not easy to describe my feelings in that moment. A wave of triumph, heartache, and reverence washed over me and tears streamed down my face as I walked up to my first bull elk, lying in the grass.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for hunters is to explain how we can pursue wild animals with lethal intent while also having great respect for them. Being a hunter and loving wildlife are not mutually exclusive traits. The most dedicated and knowledgeable conservationists I know are hunters, many of whom, like my father and sister, have dedicated their entire lives to stewardship and responsible use of our natural resources.
The evening I shot my bull, my boyfriend and I field dressed it and placed the quarters, backstrap, tenderloins, neck, and rib meat in game bags. We carried out half the load that night and returned early the next morning for the rest, which was carefully nestled in a tree on the canyon’s edge to cool. The weight of our packs that night was substantial, but we transported hundreds of pounds of wild-harvested meat on our backs, one strenuous step at a time.
I waited months for scavengers and other animals to pick the bull’s carcass clean. Returning, I find that bunches of purple flowers have grown around the skeleton, framing its shape. The sight is oddly beautiful, and I feel reassured that the remnants we left behind have provided sustenance for many other lifeforms. Then I locate the token I’ve come for. My broadhead is lodged in a piece of bone, and I find the arrow shaft just a few feet away. For me, this arrow is a symbol of perseverance, and of one of my greatest personal accomplishments.
We humans often eat meat mindlessly, with no regard for where the animal came from or what type of life it lived. I’ve discovered that being sustained by hundreds of pounds of meat from one animal with whom I share a story is a richer and more meaningful alternative. This bull’s sacrifice is not lost on me. He no longer roams wild, but instead provides my family with lean hormone-free meat that has sustained us for nearly a year. With the broadhead and arrow carefully stowed in my pack, I start hiking back to my truck in the heat of the day and stop under a large juniper to rest, put together my meal, and eat. For the journey, I prepped ingredients for a hearty bowl of ramen with wild game bone broth and backstrap from my elk, and I could not be more satisfied or grateful as I eat this meal.
The boyfriend who helped me harvest that bull is now my fiancé, and we will serve the last meat from this bull at our wedding in just a few weeks. We will recount stories of this hunt for years to come, reminiscing about the moments of wonderment and resolve that solidified our bond as hunters and partners.
To me, pursuing and harvesting wild game means an evolving connection to our wealth of public lands, natural resources, and the meat I consume. My story with the Luera Mountains is still being written. In September, I will once again be afforded the opportunity to hunt elk here. I will return, bow in hand, with hopes of experiencing even a fraction of the adventure of the hunt I just relived.
*This story comes to us from Edible New Mexico. Photos also by Katie DeLorenzo. Get her recipe for Wild Game Ramen.