April is only a few days away which means one thing – Gobble Gobble! This is the time of year to be scheming where to focus your attention on wily, love-struck longbeards. As a recent transplant from the Midwest to the Southwest I’ve had a blast finding hidden gems of public land off the beaten path where hunting pressure is low. Here in New Mexico it seems that few folks are willing to hike several miles from the roads for Merriam’s and Rios that are looking for love in the backcountry. I like to hike anyways, but especially when cooperative birds are at the end of the trail. I usually put in some preseason scouting hikes to familiarize myself with new areas prior to the opener.
The past couple of springs I’ve talked some of my Midwestern buddies into leaving the Eastern turkeys behind for a change of scenery. Hunting mountain birds is a whole different world than popup blinds on the edges of cut corn fields. Don’t get me wrong. I like turkey hunting any way it comes, but running and gunning in vast chunks of public land is pretty hard to beat. Our hunt last spring began with a visit to my storage unit to grab gear. I traveled back to New Mexico from a work assignment in Washington DC while my buddy Scott (left) came from Colorado and Dan (right) made the trip down from Wisconsin.
Dan taking in a nice sunset while trying to roost birds for the morning hunt. After growing up farther east it’s a sweet feeling to know you can basically hunt any direction as far as your legs will take you without the need to worry about hitting private property.
When my buds and I talk about hunting the backcountry, we are generally talking about hunting in designated wilderness. There is no land on this Earth wilder than the 109,511,966 acres that currently comprise our National Wilderness Preservation System. These are places where preserving primeval wildness is the key management objective, where transportation is strictly limited to foot or pack stock, where solitude and primitive and unconfined recreation, including hunting and fishing, can be enjoyed in the absence of roads, free from internal combustion and (sometimes) cellular signals. These are the spots on the map where any member of the public can, if they choose, find adventure and earn an unforgettable experience with their sweat. Here a herd of elk checks us out while we listen for evening gobbles.
My wife Shoshana and our bird dogs often accompany me during backcountry trips. The dogs stay at camp when we’re hunting turkeys, but they sure enjoy the hiking. Shoshana is an accomplished turkey hunter herself and loves the wild country we explore together during the spring. 2014 is a special year to consider a wilderness hunt as it marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act – the key piece of legislation that established our national wilderness system.
Another buddy of mine, Jacob, on his first western turkey hunt enjoying the wilderness views. New Mexico is an especially significant place to hunt in wilderness, as this is where the wilderness movement got its start thanks in large part to lifelong hunter Aldo Leopold. Leopold’s efforts ultimately led to the establishment of the first designated wilderness, the Gila, on June 3, 1924. The Gila Wilderness boundaries encompass over 550,000 acres of high mesas, rolling hills, deep canyons, hot springs, rivers, and sheer cliffs within the Gila National Forest. The remote hinterlands of the Gila are notorious country for finding gargantuan bull elk, turkeys, and other wildlife, well-protected by their isolation. The waters within the Gila are precious habitat for vulnerable desert fish species like the Gila trout, spikedace, and loach minnow. There is no other place like it in the world – a trait common to other wildernesses. No two are the same. They are a limited commodity. More acres can be designated, but no more can be created. Leopold described wilderness as “a resource which can shrink but not grow.” In my opinion, and that of my backcountry hunting friends and family it has shrunk enough already.
“Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”
-Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949)
Fortunately Leopold wrote those words with a sliver of hyperbole. We had not then, and have not yet killed all of our wilderness. It exists, scattered throughout our nation. Nearly 110 million acres of it. Leopold’s words do hint however, that the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were, through a hunter’s eyes, partially defined by the expeditious taming, pillaging and desecration of wild places and wild things. Paint a mental picture of barbed wire, shrinking herds of bison, transcontinental trains, vanishing passenger pigeons and fleets of Model T’s rumbling to parts previously unknown.
It took another forty years for the rest of the nation to catch up with what had been accomplished in southwestern New Mexico on the Gila. On September 3rd, 1964 the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It initially established 9.1 million acres constituting 54 wildernesses in 13 states. It also created the framework for the additional congressional designations which have grown the National Wilderness Preservation System by more than 100 million acres in the years since.
Upon signing the Wilderness Act, President Johnson proclaimed:
“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”
Here is Jacob with his first Merriam’s, taken on an unforgettable morning in a landscape that gave us that “glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning”.
Elk sheds are always a possible bonus find during spring turkey hunts in the West.
Horned lizards provide the occasional reminder during backcountry turkey hunts that we are definitely not in the Midwest.
Parallel drag marks left by a strutting Merriam’s tom on a ridge top. Promising sign that makes it easy to imagine him there showing off for the ladies.
Warming up and having a snack in the morning sun. The nights can be surprisingly cold at mountain turkey camp in April, even in New Mexico. If you don’t believe me, give Dan a call.
Scotty, way down there, gathering up his first western bird after a good shot and a long flop downhill. Notice the recent burn scar across the valley. On cold mornings turkeys love to strut on the black, charred earth as it warms during daybreak. It’s surprising how far the sound of a gobbler will carry in that thin air when the winds are calm.
Fast-forward a day and Scott is grilling up fresh Merriam’s turkey breast for me, Dan, and our buddy Andrew. Thanksgiving comes early!
2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and the 90th anniversary of the Gila Wilderness designation. We as hunters should be among the most grateful for the foresight of those who came before us and thought to preserve wild lands on our behalf. We should also be among the most devoted, active, outspoken, and protective stewards of this legacy of Wilderness.
My wilderness bird hunting is not just limited to turkeys. I keep a .22 pistol in my backpack during autumn wilderness hikes in hopes of finding a blue grouse or two in the raspberry patches. Sometimes it pays off.
My ladies and another backcountry bird that I don’t think had ever heard a call before mine. Does life get any better?
Click here to learn more about the National Wilderness Preservation System, including designated wilderness near you.
Click here to learn about commemorative events happening throughout the nation to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act during 2014.
Click here for information about Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the leading voice for hunters and anglers who are committed to protecting our wildest public lands and waters.
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