The relationship Ed Gookin and I have is a dying one. I mean, we’re cool, and we’ll probably meet again next Sept. 1 and gab in his gravel drive until after dark, like always.
But the way we met, and what keeps our connection alive, is an endangered thing.
Here is how we met: I saw a gang of mourning doves flying around his ranch about 15 miles north of Oakdale, so I knocked on his door and asked him if I could hunt his land. Ed let this armed stranger wander his 200 acres that day, and I’ve annoyed him and small birds every fall in the decade since.
This type of interaction was common in Stanislaus County and throughout rural America for most of the past century. If you lived in town and wanted to go bird hunting, you drove around until you spotted some critters or weedy patches, found the nearest farmhouse and got permission. Now, the landowner-hunter bond is almost gone, and with it a precious link not only to the land but to each other.
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Gookin is like many longtime landowners who now close their gates to the rare wandering gunner.
“There are many reasons I do not allow hunting to strangers (anymore). No. 1 is the liability. My insurance agent (said) if someone breaks a leg, they could sue me, unless I have a waiver signed by them. That is just a headache.” Understandable.
“No. 2 is they don’t clean up their messes,” he said, talking about shell casings and empty beer cans that slob hunters leave behind. This is doubly shameful because his family has a tradition of indulging city folk. “In the ’60s and ’70s, I remember my father playing pinochle with the deer hunters at a table they’d set up under a big tree on our ranch up by Groveland,” Gookin said, smiling at the memory. “The hunters would be out all day, then invite our family for a big dinner at night, and maybe share a snort with my dad.”
In that innocent era, a snort meant a nip from a brown bottle passed around a campfire.
The reasons for the decline in hunting on private land is a “quail or the egg” argument. Fewer places to hunt produces fewer hunters, or maybe vice versa. Between 1990 and 2008, nearly 100,000 acres of “high quality” farmland was converted to urban uses in the San Joaquin Valley, according to the American Farmland Trust. The number of hunters in California has been in free fall for the past 30 years. In 1980, more than a half-million bought licenses; since 2010, we’re about half that.
Economists would call the crumbling of hunter-landowner bonds an “externality,” or cost that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost.
You, the bunny-hugging vegan, are paying a price because we lost something important. For a lot of city-dwelling hunters, contact with “our farmers” was the only direct connection to rural life and agriculture we had left. Ed is a fifth-generation cattleman and after I talk to him and walk his land every dove opener on Sept. 1, news stories about feed and beef prices stop being an abstract. I touch his stunted, withered grass and then tell everyone to buy a couple of extra pounds of hamburger.
Ed enjoys seeing more doves and waterfowl, thanks to the nesting cones and wood duck boxes I put up on his property years ago.
Hunting new private land is one of the few trends in outdoor recreation that can be easily reversed at the price of a few uncomfortable moments. With so few hunters coursing the backroads every fall, less property around our county is posted “No Hunting,” so we have a chance. The wild pheasant is becoming quite rare here, but trees bring doves, and this year we can take as many Eurasian collared doves as we want, whenever we want.
The National Rifle Association has a “Landowner Liability Waiver” that’s easy to print out and offer to landowners before they ask. So get out there, hunters, knock on some doors; and if you get turned down, I promise you’ll get an apology and a sincere, “Thanks for asking.” If you get on, pick up your empties, and give a few details before you offer your landowner, and new friend, a snort.