Two weeks ago Secretary Zinke and the Department of the Interior announced that 27 National Monuments would be “reviewed” for what could result in changes meant to open land to energy development, threatening the values that make these places special. The public comment period for Bears Ears National Monument in Utah is much shorter than the others — clearly placing it in the cross-hairs of political impact. The deadline is May 26.
Today, our political landscape is fraught with misinformation, like the reasons given for scrutinizing more than 20 national monuments dating to 1996. I met fellow hunters from the New Mexico Wildlife Federation in Blanding, Utah, just outside Bears Ears’ eastern border, for few days of turkey hunting and to view firsthand one of America’s newest monuments. And to set the record straight, the hunting was fantastic.
Turkey hunting is an exhilarating, heart-pounding and skilled discipline.
Easily picking up over-the-counter turkey tags at a small market, we headed to the forested butte, which is surrounded by magnificent, colorful, high-desert canyons. After setting up camp in the dark, 5 a.m. came early, and I headed off into the woods with Jeremy Romero, a New Mexico native working on the Upper Rio Grande Watershed of New Mexico and Colorado. Romero is an experienced turkey hunter, but this was my first time.
Turkey hunting is an exhilarating, heart-pounding and skilled discipline. Between the efforts to hide from a bird with keen eyesight and hearing, to the adrenaline push when a big Tom alternates between charging and strutting directly to your location — muscles quiver, the mind and body race within, knowing any movement or noise will bust the hunt.
Hidden motionless among the trees you become part of the landscape.
Romero plucked a crow call, known as a locator call, from his pack. The sound penetrated the silent, 28-degree morning air. Before the resonating sound finished, an eruption of gobbling pushed back to us with such force and enthusiasm I was in shock.
We found good cover with our backs against a tall bull pine. The sun was starting to rise. We could hear the fluttering of big wings as the turkeys dropped to the ground from their nighttime roost high in the trees.
Romero clucked out, mimicking a hen, and the dialogue began. Never having experienced the back-and-forth conversation between hunter and turkey, my heart raced. My eyes were sharp for movement in the dense forest. My muscles rigid in fear of moving and blowing our cover.
We could hear the chatter of another hen in the area, and that Tom eventually chose her. It’s hard to blame his decision — she came to him, while our calls required that strutting male come to us.
Five times that day we talked with the gobblers, but never had a shot. And the others in the group had a similar experience. The butte was loaded with turkeys. It was one of the greatest hunting days of my life.
Exploring that sliver of Bears Ears, with abundant turkeys, mule deer, and elk all around — it was easy to see this is a hunter’s monument.
“Miracles happen within this monument, and it can happen for anyone who comes to this place.” ~ Malcom Lehi, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe
Later that day we spoke with Malcolm Lehi, of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, one of the first people to drive the completion of the monument. Lehi was on the Utah Dine Bikeyah board and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition— a collaborative group of five tribes who spearheaded the original movement for a monument here.
He told us of the sacred history of Bears Ears, its cultural importance and his efforts with the five tribes — Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian Tribe — to secure this special place for the future.
“When I came into the picture I asked my chairman to be involved because some others did not want to. They thought it was about the Navajo,” said Lehi.
“Five tribes came together, but in the past these tribes were enemies — but they came together and collaborated as one. It is a new age where we go into the future and work together and protect Bears Ears. We came together and met in each of our tribal places and culture centers and talked among the people and the people said this was unique.”
Lehi graced us with a hunter’s blessing in his native tongue. “Miracles happen within this monument, and it can happen for anyone who comes to this place,” he said.
Back at camp I was filled with an even deeper understanding of the significance of Bears Ears. The pieces fit together easily — wildlife, habitat, people, spirit and ancient history.
On the move early the next morning — a powerful wind in our faces — calling turkeys became more difficult. Snow flurries had been peppering us from time-to-time, and we could feel a larger storm bearing down upon us.
But the hunter’s blessing paid off, and Romero called in a bruiser of a Tom. It charged in on his calls like a thirsty demon, harvested by one humane shot to the neck.
“This mountain swallows your troubles.” ~ Davis Filfred, Navajo Nation 23rd Tribal Council
Later that morning we spoke with Davis Filfred, an elected official of the Navajo Nation 23rd Tribal Council. He explained the knowledge of his people, the sacred mountains of the four corners region, and Bears Ears significance within those sacred mountains.
“This place is an ideal place, with plenty to hunt,” Filfred said. “Before there were sheep and cattle, this was the place to hunt.”
Filfred is also a United States Marine Corps Veteran of the Persian Gulf War, and he compared some activities of that time to the struggles today to keep Bears Ears intact.
“When I was in the Gulf War, General Norman Schwarzkopf said bomb the runways, bridges and bases. But in certain areas he said no bombing, and people asked him why not,” Filfred explained. “He said, ‘That is their sacred ground, it is their holy places, that’s where they come and do their prayer, that is their churches.’”
“So how come we want to do that here?” Filfred asked. “Why do we want to damage this sacred place? This is our sacred place, this is our holy ground, and this is where we come to say our prayer, to lay down our offering. We want (Secretary) Zinke and the US government to say the same thing about this place, that it should not be damaged.”
“We have a lot of traumatized people,” he said. “The Vietnam veterans who went through Agent Orange and the PTS that haunts them. When they come here they relieve themselves. When you come here you forget about time. This mountain swallows your troubles.”
Filfred was right. Bears Ears had taken us in, and rewarded us with a good hunt and its magical scenery and wildlife.
It is difficult to imagine why some would not want to protect this place, along with other national monument areas. To hear some call protecting public lands a “land grab” is preposterous — the land already belongs to us — only now it is protected for future generations. Bears Ears allows hunting, fishing, grazing — and it honors existing land use rights.
Bears Ears protects 100,000 archaeological and cultural sites. Our hunting and fishing businesses rely on public lands — including national monuments. And the outdoor industry accounts for $887 billion in consumer spending and 7.6 million jobs. Diminishing or rescinding national monument designations would have serious implications for the economy, the outdoor industry and hunting and fishing businesses across the country.
It is a great time to be alive enjoying this country’s legacy of public lands. We have the power to protect these lands — the ones that already belong to all of us. Please enter your comments to protect Bears Ears this week, before May 26 using the links below. Your efforts will be an important part of history. Future generations will thank you.
My time at Bears Ears confirmed what I already knew in my heart. National Monuments are for all Americans. And, as a hunter, Bears Ears has become a new place for me where I can hunt, quiet my mind and let the mountain swallow my troubles.
THE DEPARTMENT OF INTERIOR WILL TAKE COMMENTS UNTIL JULY 10TH. PLEASE ADD YOURS AND HELP SAVE THIS HUNTERS MONUMENT AND SACRED PLACE
Lew Carpenter is the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Regional Representative for Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho, Nevada and Utah. He also works with NWF’s Austin office on restoring Louisiana wetlands.
Born and raised in Greeley, Colorado, Carpenter received a B.A. in Political Science from Arizona State University. After graduating in 1991, he launched AZ Sports magazine, which focused on outdoor recreation and participatory sports.
In 1998 Carpenter took the helm of Western Outdoors magazine as its editor, while also acting as an associate editor for Western Outdoor News, a weekly hunting and fishing newspaper reaching 70,000 sportsmen per week. Western Outdoors offered Carpenter the opportunity to write about the West, and for eight years he promoted fishing, hunting and conservation from Alaska to Baja, Mexico.
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