The hunter lay in the prairie grass, completely hidden from view of the small band of antelope bedded and chewing their cuds. His head was adorned by a skullcap, with horns and full skin attached, of an antelope he had taken on a successful hunt two moons ago.

The sweat trickled down his back and his body ached from lying in the same position for so long. The sun was creeping toward the western horizon, and he knew the antelope would soon rise and begin feeding.

They weren't in a hurry — neither was he. They had no appointments to keep or special place to go — and neither did he. All he had to do was kill a nice, healthy animal to take back to his family, which consisted of two young wives, four children, his mother and one mother-in-law.

Time does not matter

If it took two hours or two days, it didn't matter — all he had to do was take one healthy antelope back.

Slowly the antelope, one by one, rose from their beds and began feeding. Likewise, he slowly rose on all fours and moseyed generally in their direction, being careful never to go directly toward them. They noticed him at once, but since he wasn't coming directly at them, he was more a curiosity than a threat. The wind had been blowing in his direction all day, but even that was dying now as the sun began to set.

The distance between hunter and hunted was close enough now, that he, through the holes in his headpiece, could see their sides move as they inhaled and exhaled. Soon he could hear them pulling the grass and forbs. Minutes later he could hear the breathing of the fat young doe closest to him.

At a distance of 15 yards, when the doe put her head down for what would be the last time, he slowly raised his upper body and drew his bow in one fluid motion. The band of antelope exploded in all directions and thundered away — al but one.

The hunter slowly stood up — something he hadn't done in over six hours — and walked over to his quarry. He stood over the beautiful animal, his heart and mind filled with mixed emotions — gratitude, remorse, and relief. He bowed his head in thanks, to the spirit of the animal which had given its life to feed him and his family, and to the earth spirit for the bounty. Then he pulled his stone knife from its leather sheath and went to work.

As I write this, I'm sitting in my room in the Omni-Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. I am attending the 66th annual North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference. One of the main themes at this year's conference is a look at the role of hunting in North America — today and in the next 25 years.

Some of the continent's foremost wildlife leaders have met here to examine this question, in light of concerns expressed in recent years by some groups. Basically the question is, should we hunt, and if so, why?

As I have written before, anthropologists tell us that humans have existed for more than a million years. For more than 990,000 years, humans hunted for food, clothing and shelter. Increasingly, since agriculture was invented about 10,000 years ago, our need to hunt for survival has decreased.

About a century ago, market hunters nearly decimated most game species. Modern wildlife management, born shortly after that, has now brought most of the species back to abundance. But agriculture has been so efficient, most of us don't need to hunt for sustenance any more. So, why should we hunt?

Hunting is portrayed by some groups as a barbaric, blood-thirsty sport. Little wonder, when you consider that most hunting opponents have never hunted, and hunting shows and videos often portray hunters as social misfits who are more interested in the killing and taking of trophy parts than in the exercise itself.

The tight focus by the media on shooting preserves, game poachers and hunting for money certainly hasn't helped enlighten those who don't understand what motivates most hunters.

Hunters' obsession with gadgetry hasn't helped either. And, instead of addressing the disagreement head-on — instead of stating the real motivation of why we hunt — we continue to justify why we hunt on the basis of outcomes. We insist that hunters have created and protected habitat — that we need to hunt to control animal population levels — or that hunting is our right.

Have been brow-beaten

Either that, or we shun the issue altogether, and do not debate it at all. We've been brow-beaten by a few outspoken anti-hunting groups and we try to avoid the issue — even though as many as 75 percent of the American public either support hunting or haven't taken a stand — not yet anyway. In recent years wildlife professionals have skirted the hunting/anti-hunting issue by focusing on concepts such as conservation biology and biodiversity.

It's true that hunters, through excise taxes on firearms and ammo, have restored populations and habitat for both game and non-game species. It's also true that through voluntary donations to species-related organizations, we have protected millions of acres of wildlife habitat. But is that why we hunt? I don't think so. I believe most of us hunt in order to re-capitulate our heritage — to prove our self-reliance — to fulfill an instinct that few of us fully understand.

So — if that's the case, why don't we face the issue and tell it like it is? Because “they” wouldn't understand is no longer good enough. If we don't begin to portray the modern hunter as a hunter-naturalist — quiet, meditative, enlightened, educated and intelligent — if we don't explore and elucidate our philosophical motivation, we will continue to lose ground with a sophisticated, educated society — one becoming further removed from the land every passing year.