Early next month a group of 25 sportsmen will board a transatlantic jet for the first leg of a big-game hunting safari. Their destination is not Africa, India or any of the other fabled shooting grounds of the world. These hunters are Germans, Frenchmen, Italians, Britishers, and they will be bound for the U.S.
There is nothing new about Europeans spending their holidays in the U.S., but this will mark the first year when wild animals in the U.S. became a tangible tourist attraction.
A major domestic attraction, too. Surprised hunters are beginning to find targets that never used to be there right in their own backyards and are discovering signs of still more just over the hedgerow. Some species that were threatened with extinction 50 years ago are not only holding their own but show bigger and healthier populations than ever before. Others, like the whitetail deer, now populate areas well beyond their native range, often in numbers large enough to be a nuisance. Animals like the bison and bighorn sheep, heavily protected a decade ago, are legitimate game as increased herds prompt increased harvests. This fall hunters in the U.S. will enjoy more hunting for a larger variety of game than ever before.
Deer hunters in particular can look forward to plenty of meat in the freezer. A national survey just completed by Dr. Edward Kozicky of the Olin Mathieson Conservation Department indicates that deer populations across the nation have reached unprecedented modern peaks and show no signs of going anywhere but up. From Hawaii to Maine, deer hunting forecasts read like rave notices.
Whitetail populations, which broke records in 1961, are still breaking them in '62. Twenty-nine states in the white-tail's 45-state range report major herd increases; 14 have maintained last year's highs, and only two states, Connecticut and N.J., note decreased populations. In spite of this, New Jersey predicts good hunting this season.
The most significant indications of the whitetail boom are in the south, where a solid block of states from Louisiana and Arkansas to the Carolinas and Florida report major increases in annual harvests during the past decade. In 1951 hunters bagged 5,000 deer in Arkansas; last year they took home 20,000. In Virginia the 1951 harvest of 7,500 jumped to just under 33,000 last season.
The story in the Middle West is the same. West of the Rockies, where the whitetail shares its range with the mule deer, populations are so high that Montanans can take two deer in some areas, and hunters in Idaho as many as five. With about 170,000 hunters expected in Idaho alone this season, the result could be a record deer harvest. But most of those hunters will be after even bigger game. The real attraction in Idaho, and in much of the West, is not deer but a variety of other animals that are as spectacular as the countryside.
Each year thousands of sportsmen go west for elk, and each year the hunting seems to get better. Fourteen states now have open seasons. Increasing herds in Oklahoma finally drew so many complaints from farmers and ranchers that elk will be legal game this fall for the first time in 90 years. The last elk hunt in Oklahoma, game personnel claim, might have been taken by General Sherman when he was stationed at Fort Reno in what was then Indian Territory.
Elk disappeared from New Mexico not many years later, and it wasn't until 1910 that a group of 15 were transplanted from Colorado and Wyoming. Today the herd has grown to 10,000 animals and is still increasing. An alltime record of 4,439 public and private elk licenses will be issued in New Mexico this season—some of them to Europeans—and hunters are anticipating considerably more shooting than their grandfathers ever had.
Conservation pays off
In the early 1900s nobody would have bet much on the survival of the antelope, one of the continent's most prized trophies. Meat hunters did their dirty work, and by 1924 the total population of all antelope in the U.S. was estimated at only 26,000, with perhaps 5,000 more scattered in Mexico and Canada. But then the conservationists moved in, and they did such a good job that this year Montana alone has issued permits to take 32,310 antelope. Pronghorn hunting will also be good to excellent in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Antelope populations in Texas and Nebraska are at a peak. South Dakota predicts fine hunting again this year after deliberately reducing its herds from 28,000 to 26,000 in 1961.
Mountain sheep this year will be just as elusive as ever, but there are more of them, and the hunter who is willing to climb a mountain or two may find that his luck has changed at last. Colorado, Montana and Wyoming promise better than average sheep hunting, and Arizona and Idaho predict excellent chances for success. Dall sheep continue to do well in Alaska with the best hunting in the Brooks and Alaska ranges. Barbary sheep populations in New Mexico exceed 3,000 this year, all from an original nucleus of 10 transplanted from North Africa only a decade ago. The animals are doing so well that the state is issuing 400 permits this season and suggests best hunting along the Canadian River.
Mountain goats are almost as difficult to stalk as sheep and almost as highly prized by hunters. There are open seasons this year in four states (Alaska, Montana, Idaho and Washington), and the outlook in all is good to excellent. Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah (which also has a resident open season on bison) offer limited hunting of moose with surprisingly optimistic forecasts, but the real mecca for moose hunters is Alaska. From now until winter freeze-ups make hunting impossible, moose will be abundant in every part of the state, and record-class heads seem to be the rule.
In fact, hunting for all big game species in Alaska has rarely been better. Caribou arc so plentiful that hunters can drive up to herds of 80,000 in central Alaska, or, if they want to fly, they can take their pick of another 300,000 farther north.
Giant brown bears, synonymous with Alaska as far as many hunters are concerned, offer exceptionally good hunting this season on the Alaska peninsula, Kodiak Island and throughout the southeastern part of the state. Plane surveys indicate that polar bear numbers are up in the Arctic, but hunters will have to wait until winter ice breaks up next spring. There are no grizzly bears in Alaska, at least according to some authorities, but for some reason the grizzlies haven't yet got the word and hunting prospects are excellent in the 49th state. Nongrizzly hunting is inland, and some of the best is in the Rainy Pass area.
Wyoming's and Montana's modest grizzly populations are about the same as last year, with hunting only fair by Alaskan standards. Black bears, on the other hand, are in excellent supply across the U.S., with good hunting in the northern states and in Florida and Georgia. Most of the black bears taken this year will be bonuses. Hunters don't usually go out specifically for blacks, but they sometimes happen upon them while hunting other game. With 17 different kinds of big game to lure sportsmen into the field this fall, black bears have good reason to be nervous.