ATVs & Hunting: Has technology impacted the landscape?

Elk range, northern New Mexico.  BLM Photo
Elk range, northern New Mexico. BLM Photo

One hunter’s look back at his own history shows how he can better protect hunting land and the animals that live there

Max Trujillo has hunted and fished all his life, works with the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, is on the Board of Directors of the National Wildlife Federation, and has been instrumental in the establishment of two major National Monuments, a successful Wilderness campaign and is currently very involved in the battle regarding the transfer of public lands.

Over the past 40 years, I have hunted in some of the most beautiful places on God’s green earth. I remember going to our favorite hunting spot in the White Peak area of Northeastern New Mexico as a boy. My dad, brothers, brothers-in-law, uncles, cousins and some close family friends would pack up the trucks and head for the hills. After a long and rocky journey into the volcanic but fertile backcountry, we would unload our pickup trucks, set up camp and settle in for the hunt.

My family’s gear consisted of an old army tent my dad bought at an army surplus store and it was large enough to keep all eight of us warm and dry. We each had our own sleeping bags and pads to soften the cold earth beneath us. We had a large canvas tarp that would serve as a back wall and roof over our kitchen area and an old eight-foot table that was given to my brother, Tony, from the parish hall of the church we attended.

It never occurred to me that there was better gear than what we had and when I was out there with my dad and brothers, I felt like we were rich. I know now that feeling came from the richness of the memories and experiences created by being together with my family in a place only God could have designed.

The pickup trucks that got us in and out of this area were good enough to do just that and not much more. In the mornings, we all would set out afoot from camp to hunt. We were far enough into the backcountry so that the only other people hunting anywhere near us were from families just like ours who knew where the game was. Motorized travel after getting to camp was limited, and only allowed to retrieve a downed animal when it was just too far to drag it back to camp. In this case we would drag the deer to the nearest road, then walk to camp and drive back in the pickup.

ATVs changed the way we hunted

In the early 1980s, the first ATV came on the market. Honda made a 3-wheeler called Big Red. My brother Tony was one of the first to purchase one of these revolutionary machines. These machines could move across those volcanic rock filled roads ten times faster than a truck and get you to places full sized vehicles couldn’t. They were great for retrieving game and saved us hours of the painstaking labor of dragging our kill out of the mountain.

ATV have altered how hunters access the land. USFS Photo.
ATV have altered how hunters access the land. USFS Photo.

Soon after that, more of us started buying these amazing machines and as time went on the machines, like everything else, also evolved. The 4-wheeler – or quad - hit the market and changed the way we hunted forever. Hunters now had become more mobile and were able to cover more country than ever before. It wasn’t just my family who owned these machines. Guys everywhere and from all walks of life now had the ability to get to places we only could previously only get to on foot. There was no place on that mountain we couldn’t reach and when we got to those places, we would create extensions of the roads, we’d strap a chainsaw to our ATV and make our way into places we never were able to drive into. Little did we know we were loving our favorite place to DEATH.

Progress meant changing landscape

ATV users can leave a lasting impact on the landscape, especially in fragile desert, grassland, wetland or tundra.
ATV users can leave a lasting impact on the landscape, especially in fragile desert, grassland, wetland or tundra.

ATVs made travel so easy in the places we love which caused us to go up there more often.

After a few years of this behavior and use of ATVs, we realized that our success at taking game was diminishing and the game we did see was very aware of our presence. I have always been a firm believer that a hunter has to be on foot if he or she is to be successful in harvesting game. I know this to be especially true because I choose to hunt with the bow and arrow. Being on foot chasing game and getting into range for a bow shot, only to have your quarry scared off by an ATV speeding through the woods, became an all too familiar scene.

In speaking with hunters and anglers from other areas, I learned that everyone was going through the same thing that I was. It became evident that these machines that we thought were going to make us more successful were in fact decreasing our chances of harvesting game. I have witnessed with my own two eyes an active herd of elk during the rut silenced by the sound of passing ATVs. I have seen migration patterns of herds interrupted and changed by the presence of hunters and recreational riders of ATVs.

Tough questions lead to smart solutions

So what’s the answer to this quandary we’ve created, how can we make things better?

Well I believe that we as responsible hunters and anglers need look deep inside ourselves and ask some hard questions. As much as I love to ride my ATV, I know I need to get off and walk if I am to be successful in my hunting. We need to stay on the designated roads and not think we have to go an extra mile even though we are capable of doing so on our machines. We need to do the right thing even when we know nobody’s watching.

Heavily forested areas are where wildlife lives and where they find refuge. Don’t we owe respect to these animals and to ourselves? I have always hunted fair chase on public land and I have seen the “fair” go away. For the most part we have tamed the wild places and have gained what we used to feel was an unfair advantage, but nature has a way of adapting to our so called evolution.

In the end, all of my fondest memories of harvesting big game have happened while on foot, in the timber, moving quietly and as slowly as I can. Never will a ride on my ATV rival those memories of a silent stalk through the woods using all the skills that my dad taught me as a boy. I love my ATV and I will probably always own one, I’ve just come to understand the responsibility that comes with being an ATV owner.