Pronghorn pozole. Mule venison tacos. Frog legs gumbo. These and more were on the menu for the wild game potluck hosted by Arizona Wildlife Federation and Arizona Backcountry Hunters and Anglers as part of their Family Squirrel Camp 2022. And with a pack of hunters, family members, children and dogs in attendance, each of these wild game delicacies quickly disappeared, the plates were clean.
Billed as a family gathering for novice and experienced hunters to engage in squirrel hunting, the 2022 Squirrel Family Camp was also a who’s who among Arizona conservationists. Along with representation from the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) and Arizona Hunters and Backcountry Anglers (BHA), there were also representatives from the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD), the Audubon Society and public universities from Arizona.
But while surrounded around a campfire, deep in the woods near Mormon Mountain, where elk sang long into the night, these professional positions took second place to the mutual enjoyment of good company, time outdoors and, of course, hunting.
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According to the AZGFD, hunting and angling are the “cornerstones” of the North American Wildlife Conservation Model. Revenue generated through the sale of game licenses and tags makes these activities the largest source of funding for conservation in North America.
The AZGFD website reports that “through self-imposed excise taxes on hunting, angling, and shooting sports equipment, hunters and anglers have generated more than $10 billion for wildlife conservation since 1939.”
For Michael Cravens, AWF director of advocacy and conservation (and frog-leg gumbo chef), Family Squirrel Camp is more than an opportunity to teach his young children about hunting.
“It’s not that I’m pressuring them to grow up and become hunters, but I want them to have that connection to wildlife and wild places,” Craven said. “I care that they have respect and love for natural places and natural things.”
And while some may resist the idea that hunting represents “love” for wildlife, Cravens sees it differently. He said that it is a natural part of being human.
“We’ve only lived apart from these natural places and things for a very short period of time in our human experience,” Cravens said. “Hunting and eating wild animals is a clear and direct connection to these wild places.”
Along with that direct connection, Craven said there’s “a sense of satisfaction” that comes from taking a direct role in sourcing meat for food, similar to the satisfaction of foraging for mushrooms or edible plants.
“You can’t really understand it without experiencing it,” he said.
The gift of the Family Squirrel Camp is that everyone is invited to experience this satisfaction firsthand.
The first thing one realizes is that hunting is not easy. Before the hunt even begins, you should be comfortable handling and shooting a deadly weapon safely, and then have a good aim. On the day of the hunt, you wake up at dawn, probably after a night huddled in a tent, have a light breakfast, and then head into the woods.
Each type of hunting is different depending on the type of prey. Squirrels are generally not hard to find in the pines of northern Arizona: on a cool morning, their chirping sounds throughout the forest canopy. But once you’re in the right spot, you still have to find a shot.
And squirrels are small and fast. Hunting them is like looking for shooting stars. Most of the time is spent with his neck craned toward the trees, waiting for a flash of movement, then clambering through a thicket to watch for a leaping target, all the while remembering to pay equal attention to the rifle in his hand and the direction of its snout.
If you’re lucky enough to follow a squirrel that jumps to a stop, then it’s time to shoot. There is no guarantee of success. Even when bracing against a nearby tree or fallen log, your aim can be off and the hesitation lasts too long. If you fire and miss, your prey quickly disappears and you crane your neck again, watching and listening.
If you are successful with the physical challenge of hunting, then comes the emotional challenge. From the moment you see your mark fall from the treetops, you must begin to come to terms with the nauseating fact that you are an agent of death. Maybe it’s just a squirrel, but when you find its soft, furry body still warm in pine manure, it begins to resemble other things: a family pet or a beloved stuffed animal from childhood. A friend.
And when our prey’s blood drips onto your hands, you realize it’s exactly the same shade of red as the blood that fills your own heart.
This is when the transformation process begins. Having stared death in the face, you begin to carve its fruits, removing the hairy skin and revealing the purple muscles. Once you start butchering, piece by piece, death becomes meat, lunch.
It’s only when those squirrel cuts are breaded like chicken and tossed in oil for frying that your stomach might start rumbling. And then comes the last challenge: waiting for the food to cook.
“You can’t help it,” said Haley Paul, policy director for Audubon Southwest and a loving mother who, like Cravens, brought her children to participate in Family Squirrel Camp. She was glad that her children witnessed the hunters returning their prey, processing and cooking the meat.
“It’s very easy in our society to not look at or shy away from what it means to prepare and harvest food,” Paul said. “My children being a part of this is so they understand the full cycle of life and how animals can give us strength and nutrition. It is not to be taken lightly.”
In addition to the understanding that is made accessible through direct participation, compared to other ways of obtaining meat, Paul believes that hunting has observable advantages for the animals involved.
The National Society for Humane Education reports that “approximately 41 million head of cattle are slaughtered in the US each year,” adding that after one year of shelf life, most cattle are shipped to “concentrated animal feeding operations,” which frequently exhibit “overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and poor feeding.”
“If you eat meat, would you rather have it from a confined animal feeding operation?” Paul asked, “Or from a moose grazing on the grass along the Mogollon Rim?”
Between monetarily supporting Arizona’s wildlife conservation and fostering direct relationships between people and their food, Family Squirrel Camp is about spreading what Cravens called “the good word of the hunt.”
“The good word hunting is that this is an effort that brings us closer to the land and to wildlife,” he said. “We are still connected and interdependent on healthy natural resources, clean air, clean water, functioning ecosystems. Hunting is good because it reinforces these relationships and creates people who are connected and therefore care about the outdoors.”