Be safe out there

Jennifer Schlick For The Audubon

I like to hike on Sundays, but on this first Sunday of December, I will not hike. I stare out the kitchen window while my second cup of coffee drips through. It is a cloudless day with the subtle brightness of late fall. Lanky shadows, disproportionately long, crisscross the lawn. A diligent Red Squirrel nibbles random snacks he finds in the leaf litter, then carefully chooses a leaf. He climbs the old American Beech to a knothole where he disappears for a few seconds, emerging without the leaf, and returning quickly to the ground. This snack/leaf sequence is repeated several times, until interrupted by the neighbor who puts two small dogs out on their runners. The squirrel retreats to the safety of a high branch and watches with me as the dogs complete their business, then rush back to demand re-entry into the house, their tiny paws undoubtedly cold from the frosty grass. The squirrel resumes – snack, leaf, snack, leaf. His antics amuse and delight me, and almost distract me from analyzing my frustration about why I can’t (won’t) hike on this perfect, late fall day. But not quite.

I think back to the previous Wednesday, a day of similar late-fall perfection, a day when I thought I’d skip the gym and take a walk in the woods instead. Better to surround myself with nature, I thought. Better to breathe the fresh air, I thought. Shortly into my walk I heard a gunshot. Oh yeah. Hunting season.

I didn’t turn back. After all, I was on private property. Posted property. Surely hunters will see and respect the very new and conspicuous, bright yellow posted signs, right? I guess I am too trusting, or too na”ve.

As I walked along the trail, I saw two hunters through the woods on the other side of the property line. I don’t think they saw me. Why should they? They were hunting on the neighboring property and should have been looking onto that land for prey. A deer jumped up from his hiding spot on the neighboring property and ran onto the private, posted property where I was hiking. The deer was between the hunters and me when one of them raised his gun and shot, injuring, but not killing the little button buck. I called out, “Hey, you can’t hunt here!” They turned and walked away. I called again asking them to stop, but they continued to walk away.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against hunting. I recognize that hunters contribute in significant ways to conservation.

“Hunters are a driving force behind funding many of our nation’s conservation efforts,” a 2017 Department of the Interior Department blog says. “After the extinction of the passenger pigeon and the near elimination of the bison and many migratory bird species in the early 1900s, Americans realized the impacts humans could have on wildlife. To ensure that there would be animals to hunt in the future, hunters began to support programs that helped maintain species populations and protected habitat for wildlife.”

I get that. I harbor no ill will regarding the consumption of wild game. Over the years, I have enjoyed venison, elk, bear, goose, and wild-caught fish.

What has me rattled, based on this incident as well as stories in the news, is blatant disregard of the law by hunters. A man shoots at what he thinks is a deer after sunset, which is a violation of hunting regulations, and he kills a woman who was walking her dogs? Wow. I know that accidents happen, but this “accident” could have been avoided if the hunter had obeyed the hunting laws.

I am lucky that the incident I observed resulted only in the injury of a deer, not a person. I am lucky that the incident only took a few hours from my time to report what I saw to law enforcement officers, and did not take my life or that of another hiker.

Now the Red Squirrel seems to be on a break. He has found a perch in the sun and he carefully grooms himself. My coffee is ready, and as I take a sip, I consider my options for the day. I guess I’ve procrastinated cleaning my room for enough weeks. And Mom would like me to go with her on some errands. The Bills are playing this afternoon. I could go shopping to buy an orange vest to go along with the orange hat a friend gave me after hearing my story.

I debated whether I should tell this story in the newspaper; hunting can be a contentious issue. But, perhaps it will encourage hikers to be more aware of their choice of trails and attire. Perhaps it will encourage hunters to be more conscientious in obeying hunting regulations. Perhaps it will encourage law enforcement officials to give out more tickets and fewer warnings. Perhaps it will open a healthy dialogue about how to make all happy as they enjoy the outdoors.

Be safe out there.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

Jennifer Schlick is program director at Audubon Community Nature Center.

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