The Oregon Hunters Association’s first conservation director aims to sell millennials and urban dwellers on an age-old practice.
When Jim Akenson was a kid in suburban Beaverton, Oregon, he dreamed of being either a backcountry forest ranger or a rancher in remote Montana like his uncle. Instead Akenson, 59, has managed to mix those two diverse career aspirations. As the first conservation director of the 10,000-member Oregon Hunters Association, Akenson has a job that few might envy, yet one in which he is called to balance the perspectives of rangers and ranchers while he advocates for the role of hunters as latter-day environmentalists.
As a middle-aged white guy living just outside the town limits of Enterprise, in the state’s sparsely populated northeastern corner, the ruddy-haired Akenson might seem an unlikely candidate to represent postmodern hunting’s new soul. Yet Akenson’s calm and professorial demeanor allows him to fuse somewhat contradictory personas, making him an obvious candidate to drive hunters’ interests in an increasingly urbanized, millennial and animal-rights-driven state and country.
To wit: An expert backwoods bow hunter and mule packer, he is happy not making the kill as long as he’s out in the wilderness. On a recent mule-packing trip in the Wallowa Mountains, for example, his three-man, five-mule hunting group trekked six miles and had several close calls with elk — but no kills.
“That’s bow hunting!” he says cheerfully.
Akenson is also a dedicated Teddy Roosevelt acolyte. He reveres the 26th president as one of the first to understand the finiteness of natural resources and the difficult balancing act that wilderness conservation and human enterprise engenders. In addition, Akenson’s wife, Holly, is a commissioner with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, an agency whose conservation-funding model is dependent in large part on revenues from hunters.
Akenson juggles these different aspects in his role as conservation director at the OHA, a position the organization created last year.
To save both hunting and wild places, he says, hunters need to leverage the history of the sport and promote their role as conservation leaders.
“The message we are trying to get to our [OHA] chapters and out in the world is that we want to bring conservation as a tool into current times,” Akenson says during an interview at his modest ranch-style home outside Enterprise. “We want to modernize the use of that phrase and also get it out to the general public that sportsmen have applied conservation actions for more than 100 years.”
The idea of hunters as conservationists isn’t new; it has faded in and out of consciousness since Roosevelt coined the idea in the early 1900s. Yet Akenson is determined to give the hunter/conservation paradigm a new boost, and he sees promising new hunter streams — women, locavores, bow hunters — in need of encouragement.
Ushering in this new hunting generation is a daunting task. While the state’s population has grown, the number of hunters (as measured by hunting-license purchasing) has declined. In 1982 almost 400,000 people in Oregon hunted. Now the estimate is around 265,000. At the same time, however, hunting and angling (as part of the tourism industry) have grown more vital to rural communities as a source of cash and jobs, and to the conservation efforts of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Hunters and anglers have an economic ripple effect of $1.8 billion to Oregon’s economy, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. These groups can prove they directly contribute to conservation, unlike simple wildlife watchers, because license and tag fees contribute to ODFW conservation projects — about 50% of the budget. Excise taxes from the purchase of equipment also bolster agency coffers.
But it’s not enough. The agency now faces an $80 million budget shortfall per biennium. One way to fill the gap, Akenson and his allies say, is to bring hunting back to its roots.
“People may view hunters and anglers as extractors, but they don’t understand the funding model that currently exists,” says Chris Willard, ODFW’s recruitment coordinator (his official title is deputy I&E Administrator). The broader model, the North American Wildlife Conservation Model, comprises the historical perspective that hunters say most nonhunters distinctly lack, he says.
“Without that model, created in the 1940s, we wouldn’t have the wildlife species we now have.”
Jim Akenson with a cow elk he shot during a hunt near Enterprise (October, 2014). | Photo provided by Akenson
Akenson agrees. His own views on conservation and hunting were created from a distinctive combination of education and experience. When he and Holly married in their junior year at Eastern Oregon University, she made a surprising pronouncement to the relatives ready to purchase wedding gifts. Don’t buy us electric appliances, she warned. We may not have electricity where we’re going.
That pronouncement soon came true. Graduating with a degree in environmental studies, Akenson worked short stints with the Bureau of Land Management and the ODFW. But when in 1982 he and Holly were offered by the University of Idaho to be the first managers of a field location called Taylor Wilderness Research Station in the remote central portion of the state, they both knew it was their chance to live, work, and try to thrive in deep wilderness. They would do so for 21 years in two separate periods.
Those first eight years of backcountry living — mailbags were dropped off by plane, household water was brought in by bucket — solidified the Akenson ethos.
“In the Idaho backcountry, it didn’t matter your occupation or your politics,” he says, wistfully. “What mattered more was your commonality, being on the inside of the backcountry. We were so connected to nature — as the only ones in the entire [Big Creek] drainage, 20 miles by trail and eight hours by horseback from the next neighbor. What became important, for example, was what you did to keep your hydropower system up and running.”
At Taylor, Akenson was in his element, with hunting for fresh meat — usually elk or deer — as a natural piece of an overall lifestyle. He conducts 90% of his hunts by bow, though he also does rifle hunt. His typical hunts unfold over many days in the wilderness, where he packs gear on mules, uses a handmade traditional “recurve” bow that requires expert archery skills — he has a small archery practice area in his backyard — and deploys extensive animal behavior knowledge to make a kill.
Over 45 years of hunting, Akenson estimates he’s shot close to two dozen mule and black-tailed deer with bow and arrow, and over 20 elk when using a bow-and-rifle combination. He’s also hunted moose, caribou and Sitka deer in Alaska, and red deer, chamois (a type of goat-antelope) and Himalayan Tahr (a relative of the wild goat) in New Zealand.
The Akensons’ two decades’ worth of work, research and adventure at the Taylor ranch ended in 2010; they returned in 1997 after a seven-year break specifically to monitor the reintroduction of wolves in Idaho. Holly, whose long hair and smile exude a certain “mountain woman” vibe, took a position as director of Wallowa Mountain Resources in Enterprise, and Jim eventually became executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and president of the Professional Bowhunters Society (unpaid). He then applied for a field director position at OHA and convinced the board during interviews to let him devote half of the position to conservation.
It was a game-changing hire for an organization that has been around since 1983. OHA’s new motto is “protecting Oregon’s wildlife, habitat and hunting heritage,” a multifaceted slogan perhaps best exemplified by a project that currently consumes much of Akenson’s time and energy: rethinking elk management on the Zumwalt Prairie, a unique grasslands piece of the Wallowa Forest Reserve established by Roosevelt in 1905.
Hurricane Creek runs through the Akensons’ property and into the Wallowa River. Akenson says he often sees salmon spawning in the creek. | Photo by Pete Grady
The backstory is complicated and involves multiple stakeholders.
Over the past 10 years, elk have increased in the Zumwalt, zooming past ODFW’s optimal management number of around 700 elk to an estimated 1,500. The herds’ distribution has also changed, with the elk moving from public, U.S. Forest Service land, where they can be hunted during the appropriate season by anyone with a license and a tag, to private ranch lands. This movement of the elk makes the hunting less accessible, and also consternates Zumwalt ranchers like Clint Krebs, who doesn’t like his cattle having to compete for forage with the elk.
“As a private landowner, I need these elk numbers reduced,” says Krebs from a sun-infused bunkhouse set at one edge of his Zumwalt ranch, where he gathered a half dozen hunters and locals to talk about the Zumwalt elk issue in late September.
Krebs is no stranger to collaborative juggling himself. As part owner of the grassy plateau near Cecil that is now the site of the large and lucrative Shepherd’s Flat wind farm, Krebs has wrangled with clashing family, business and government agendas throughout his ranching career. Now he spends most of his time on his second ranch near Enterprise, and he doesn’t like the damage to native grasses he says the increased elk herds are causing.
“In March and April, the June grass starts growing right under the snow. It’s wet and sloppy, and 1,200 elk come on there and the hooves start destroying those grasses,” Krebs says. “We are losing our native grasses on these ridgetops.”
The Nature Conservancy also owns a 33,000-acre parcel of the Zumwalt adjacent to Krebs’ place, and project steward Justin Jones says native shrubs and Aspens especially suffer from the elk overpopulation. TNC leases its grass to cattle grazing, so this environmental organization supports hunting increases. “The high number of elk adds a variable that makes it hard to manage the grasslands,” Jones says.
Bow hunters are only a small portion of hunters as a group; estimates are that about 2.2 million people bow hunt in the U.S. The sport is very regulated, with a special season separate from rifle hunting. A new era of increasingly technically sophisticated bow-and-arrow equipment — especially lightweight compound bows and the even more effective new crossbows — continues to generate controversy. While the crossbow can make hunting more successful — even and especially for hunters with physical disabilities — it is not currently allowed in Oregon bow hunting. “The ODFW Commission considered it several years ago and chose not to make any allowances for their use,” says the agency’s Chris Willard.
Through coordination with private landowners (including TNC) and the ODFW, the number of hunt periods and the number of elk tags issued have gradually been increased. Now the OHA and Akenson, along with the U.S. Forest Service and the Nez Perce tribe, are turning their focus to incentivizing elk to wander away from private lands and back to federal ones.
The Zumwalt project shows “there can be a middle ground, and especially with environmental groups involved in land and water protection,” Akenson says. He favors some of the same things the landowners do in getting the elk to move, like controlled burns and fertilizing on Forest Service property to encourage the “candy” grass elk love. But he also favors road closures to create wildlife corridors, an idea that landowners definitely don’t like. It’s an ongoing negotiation.
“We want success on Zumwalt Prairie as a pilot project that can be used as a banner for our working together to have fairly large populations of ungulates and good hunting, but not disturbing the local agricultural economy,” he says.
His colleagues attest to Akenson’s collaborative skill set. Getting the elk to move is “a really hard nut to crack,” says elk hunter and OHA board member Paul Donheffner, a Salem resident who comes out to Eastern Oregon for hunting. But, says Donheffner, “Jim is doing a great job of working with the Forest Service, ODFW and landowners trying to get more elk back onto public land.”
Backyard corral: Akenson and his mules. | Photo by Pete Grady
Akenson has a unique combination of in-depth science knowledge and on-the ground experience, says OHA president Mike Ayers. “Jim, and Holly for that matter, they just don’t give opinions, they cite studies, and their in-depth knowledge of those studies is impressive. He has helped reenergize our organization and our direction.”
Success stories like Zumwalt are only the first step, Akenson says. OHA must then package the stories and distribute them widely on social media channels to make hunting more desirable to a broader swath of Oregonians. Herein lies opportunity, yet also controversy.
Both Holly and Jim say an opportunity exists to cultivate a “utilitarian” hunter stream, a demographic “that is looking for meat sources that are beyond organic, from animals that eat local vegetation and are part of the ecosystem,” says Holly.
That type of thinking — or, rather, branding — may be the key to winning the hearts and minds of urban eaters increasingly conscious about where their food comes from. Camas Davis, founder and owner of the Portland Meat Collective, which gives classes on butchery and “meat education,” says learning to hunt as an adult is challenging but also a natural progression for the type of urban dwellers who take the Collective’s classes. Davis did have early hunting exposure from her dad.
“Then I grew up and became your typical urban young person,” Davis says. “Now that my dad has become a bow hunter, I’m looking to hopefully get back into it.”
Cindy Rooney, a probate paralegal at Dole Coalwell Attorneys in Roseburg, says she gravitates to hunting as a way to get local, organic meat and also as a quality-of-life feature. As a woman hunter, Rooney is part of a national uptick — females now make up 11% of the hunting population in the U.S. In Oregon the stat is even higher, with females constituting 18% of new hunters. But Rooney does express dismay that many social media hunting images are of the “trophy” variety.
“A lot of time from Facebook and media portrayal you get an idea that it’s just about the harvesting of the animal and less on the camp and outdoor life,” she says. “But we’re not coming out here just for a single weekend’s hunt. It’s a lifestyle that we come out for all year round.”
Rooney, like almost all hunters when you talk to them long enough, uses a word that illustrates the divide between urban nonhunters and urban or rural hunters. That word is “harvest.” It is, of course, a euphemism for the word “kill,” which is what hunters do, whether they use a bow and arrows or firearms. And for animal-rights activists like Lindsay Dadko, a spokesperson for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Foundation in Oakland, killing via hunting is a cruel blood sport.
An elk herd takes advantage of a watering hole on the eastern plain pf Pregon. As part of the Zumwalt project, Akenson and OHA conduct aerial counts of local elk herds. | Photo provided by Akenson
“At its root, hunting is displaying a callous attitude toward animals as sentient beings that can feel and suffer,” Dadko says. “The idea of hunting as a conservation method is kind of a farce.”
Akenson, who during our interview individually introduced the pack of mules that inhabit their small backyard corral, agrees that animals should not suffer. He divides hunters into four classes: backcountry hunters, meat hunters, trophy hunters and poachers — and puts himself most strongly in the first and second categories. But he doesn’t feel there can be much “middle ground” with animal-rights activists. “They lack both understanding and appreciation for the evolution of the conservation movement and [its] accomplishments, and the lead role played by hunters over the past 110 years,” he says.
Though there’s a large buck’s head with significant antlers prominent on the living room wall, it’s the only direct evidence of his and Holly’s pastime. And when asked about “the kill,” Akenson often steers the discussion back to conservation. “If I take something, I want it to be a culminating nice bonus. The driving factor is to interact with nature.”
If there is any issue that demonstrates the difficult juggling act a hunter-conservationist like Akenson must confront, it is wolves. Akenson supported the wildlife commission’s recent decision to delist wolves as endangered species. Holly, as a commissioner, had an important vote on the issue. As an OHA staffer Akenson normally would provide input (as long as he doesn’t realize financial gain), but he recused himself from giving any testimony because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The wolf issue definitively pegs Akenson, who lived among three wolf packs in Idaho, as a conservationist but not a preservationist. He gives humans primacy in ecosystems, which puts him at odds with organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity (see sidebar below).
“I respect the recovery of wolves to our ecosystem,” he says, “but they need to be managed in balance with other social considerations, such as hunting opportunity, and agricultural concerns. OHA adheres to the Wolf [and Conservation] Plan because it identifies a need for managing this species like we manage cougars and bears — with a carefully regulated harvest strategy.”
Akenson’s position is actually more hard-line than other hunting organizations like the Oregon Outdoor Council, which tags itself as “Restoring hunters’ rights in Oregon” and is rigorously prohunter. “I would not say that the time [for wolf hunting] has arrived,” OOC president Dominic Aiello says. “Wolves are still federally listed, and we need a more robust population first. But as that population grows, we need hunting to remain an option.”
In the next three to five years, Akenson and OHA aim to double membership to 20,000. That may sound like a stretch, but Willard, for one, sees hunting already climbing. The “deepest valley,” he says, was in 2010, and since then, there have been about 40,000 new hunters, many of them women and also millennials. Willard says he thinks constant social media and a newer focus on online hunting education, as well as collaborations with groups like OHA, is starting to bear fruit.
Another strategy is to highlight the wildlife commission’s conservation funding gap: Through House Bill 2402, the state legislature is in the process of trying to identify new and stable funding sources for the state agency. In a case of turnabout is fair play, many hunters wanted an excise tax imposed on outdoor equipment, so nonhunting outdoor enthusiasts (the REI set), businesses and nonprofits do more to proactively fund fish and wildlife management. The Outdoor Industry Association, which has a seat on the ODFW, is opposed to this type of tax, and that solution has been tabled for now.Photo by Pete Grady
“I’m fine with the tax,” Akenson says. “However, I feel it should not replace the role of time-tested funding methods such as the tax on hunting equipment and supplies.”
In yet another, albeit intensely personal, effort to document the conservation-hunting synergy, Akenson and Holly recently published a jointly authored book, chronicling their (epic) experience at the Taylor ranch — where among other wildlife experiences, they observed and radio-collared wolves, cougars, bobcats and a black bear nicknamed Wheat Thin.
Writing 7003 Days: 21 Years in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness (Caxton Press, 2016), Akenson says, brought home the uniqueness of his Idaho experience, as well as a bittersweet realization that he can’t really go back to the backcountry. Instead, he’s like a messenger from the wilderness, hoping to evangelize the importance of those wild places. He might not convince everyone, but he is trying to forge as many connections — between rural and urban, environmental conservationist and hunter conservationist — as he can.
A case in point: Akenson sees last year’s occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as having at least one positive outcome. “It made a lot of people — more like a majority of people — realize that the land is ‘mine’ as much as ‘theirs,’” he says.
Finding a middle ground where all Oregonians can meet and agree about hunting and conservation may seem to be a big stretch. But Akenson himself embodies the possibility of collaboration. “Western counties that have denounced federal land ownership and say states need to take over?” he shakes his head. “Teddy Roosevelt fought so hard for public domain, and that is our special treasure.”
Wolves at the door?
Akenson sides with ranchers like Krebs regarding the need for controlled hunting to contain wolf numbers. But they are in the minority compared to most Oregonians. A Mason-Dixon poll in October 2016 found that 67% of Oregonians oppose hunting wolves to maintain deer and elk populations, and 63% are opposed to the removal of wolves from Oregon’s endangered species protection, which happened last year. Amaroq Weiss, the West Coast wolf organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity, says the idea that hunting wolves is a solution to cattle and other animal depredation just isn’t looking at the science.
“In the case of wolves, the science is becoming ever clearer that killing wolves does not resolve conflicts; at best it only stops them for a year or so and, in fact, can result in increased conflicts,” she says. Managing wolves, Weiss says, needs to involve nonlethal solutions, whether traditional measures like guard dogs or experimental hazing techniques. And Weiss says ideas like Akenson’s that hunting wolves is essential when currently there are only 100 to 150 in the entire Oregon population is a classic case of jumping the gun. (There are currently approximately 3,000 wolves in Minnesota and 800 in Wisconsin.) Allowing hunters to kill wolves sends a social signal, she says, that wolves have no value. “Maybe we’ve got 150 wolves ranging across 12% of the Oregon habitat ODFW claims is currently suitable, and occupying only approximately 8% of their historic range, so why the heck are we talking about hunting wolves?”