Family Squirrel Camp Shares the ‘Good Word’ of Hunting in Northern Arizona

Pozole de pronghorn. Mule deer tacos. Frog leg gumbo. These and more were on the menu at the Wild Game Potluck hosted by the Arizona Wildlife Federation and Arizona Backcountry Hunters and Anglers as part of their camp family squirrels 2022. And with a slew of hunters, family, children and dogs in attendance, each of these wild game delights disappeared quickly, dishes licked.

Billed as a family get-together for hunters new and experienced to partake in squirrel hunting, the 2022 Family Squirrel Camp was also a who’s who of Arizona conservationists. Along with representation from the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) and Arizona Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), there were also representatives from the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD), the Audubon Society, and universities. Arizona public.

But as they were circled around a campfire, deep in the forest near Mormon Mountain where elk howled late into the night, these professional positions came after the mutual enjoyment of good company, time spent 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. Revenues generated from the sale of permits and tags make these activities the primary source of conservation funding in North America.

The AZGFD website reports that “Through the self-imposed excise tax on hunting, angling, and shooting equipment, hunters and anglers have generated more than $10 billion for the wildlife conservation since 1939”.

For Michael Cravens, AWF’s Director of Advocacy and Conservation (and Frog Leg Okra Chef), Family Squirrel Camp is more than just an opportunity for him to teach his young children to hunt.

“It’s not that I’m pushing for them to 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 might resist the idea that hunting represents “love” for wildlife, Cravens sees it differently. He said it was 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. “The hunting and consumption of wild game is a clear and direct link to these wild places.”

Alongside this direct connection, Craven said there is “a sense of satisfaction” that comes from playing a direct role in obtaining meat for sustenance – similar to the satisfaction of foraging for mushrooms or plants. edible.

“You can’t really understand without experiencing it,” he said.

The gift of Family Squirrel Camp is that everyone is invited to experience this satisfaction directly.

The first thing you realize is that hunting is not easy. Before the hunt even begins, you need to be comfortable handling and shooting a deadly weapon safely, then aiming correctly. On the day of the hunt, you wake up at dawn, probably after a night huddled in a tent, have a light breakfast, then head out into the woods.

Each type of hunt is different depending on the type of prey. Squirrels aren’t usually hard to find in the pines of northern Arizona—on a cool morning, their trills echo throughout the forest canopy. But once you’re in the right place, you still have to find a shot.

And squirrels are small and fast. Chasing them is like watching shooting stars. The majority of the time is spent with your neck craned into the trees, waiting for a flash of movement, then dashing through a thicket to keep an eye out for a bounding target, while remembering to pay the same attention to the rifle in your hand. and the direction of its muzzle.

If you’re lucky enough to follow a leaping squirrel to a standstill, then it’s time to take the shot. There is no guarantee of success. Even when you’re leaning against a nearby tree or a fallen log, your aim can falter, the hesitation lasting too long. If you fire and miss, your prey hastily disappears and you go back to craning, watching and listening.

If you succeed in the physical challenge of hunting, then comes the emotional challenge. From the moment you see your mark falling from the treetops, you must begin to come to terms with the nauseating fact that you are an agent of death. It may just be a squirrel, but when you find its soft, furry body still warm in the pine down, it starts to look like something else – a beloved pet or stuffed animal ever since. childhood. A friend.

And when the blood of our prey runs down your hands, you realize it’s the exact same shade of red as the blood that fills your own heart.

This is when the process of transformation begins. After staring death in the face, you begin to carve its fruit, peeling away the hairy skin and exposing the purplish muscles. Once you start butchering, piece by piece, death turns into meat, into lunch.

It’s not until those squirrel bits are breaded like chicken and tossed in frying oil that your stomach may start to rumble. And comes the final challenge: waiting for your meal to cook.

“You can’t be shy,” said Haley Paul, policy director for Audubon Southwest and a loving mother who, like Cravens, brought her children to Family Squirrel Camp. She was happy to see her children see the hunters returning with their prey, processing and cooking the meat.

“It’s so easy in our society not to look or turn away from what it means to prepare and harvest food,” Paul said. “Involving my children is so that they understand the full cycle of life and how animals can give us strength and nutrition. This is not to be taken lightly. »

Besides the understanding made available through direct involvement, compared to other means of obtaining meat, Paul believes that hunting has observable benefits for the animals involved.

The National Humane Education Society reports that “approximately 41 million beef cattle are slaughtered in the United States each year,” adding that after a year of life in range, most beef cattle are shipped to “digging operations”. ‘feed concentrates’, which frequently feature “overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and substandard feed.

“If you eat meat, do you prefer that it comes from a confined breeding? Paul asked, “Or an elk browsing the grass along the Mogollon Rim?”

Between financially supporting Arizona wildlife conservation and promoting direct relationships between people and their food, Family Squirrel Camp is all about spreading what Cravens called “the good word of the hunt.”

“The good word about hunting is that it’s a business that brings us closer to the land and the wildlife,” he said. “We are always connected and interdependent on healthy natural resources, clean air, clean water and functioning ecosystems. Hunting is good because it strengthens those relationships and creates people who are connected and therefore care about the outdoors.