On Mule Deer, Passion & Obligation

By Jessi Johnson, Artemis Coordinator and co-founder

Looking back, I have come to realize that it was hunting that connected me to my work in conservation. I was always aware of the importance of landscape health and the precarious balance of wildlife and human interest due to my nomadic ranching background. However the spark of passion, and the obligation to protect our wild lands and wildlife was not fully lit until a moment four years ago. I was standing, arrow nocked, 27 yards from a healthy mule deer buck as the last of shooting light slipped away. It was this moment when I found my path.

I will never forget my first hunt. Two years of practice, frustration, and sheer awe of how clumsy humans can be culminated in a long stalk on my hands and knees pushing my bow ahead of me through sage brush and prickly pear. A few hours later it ended with the most overwhelming feeling of melancholy and elation.  I had spent months out on the sage brush hills watching this group of deer, learning their movements.  This was a deeply personal hunt and it changed the course of my life forever.

When you take the life of an animal to sustain your own there is an imperceptible shift of your world.  It is as if a blindfold is removed and suddenly you slide a little more into the landscape. You become dependent on the big sky touching the horizon with nothing but mountains and prairies to obscure your view.  You put yourself in the hoof prints of the deer that spooked over the ridge and wonder what it would be like if someday that ridge was gone, covered by houses and scarred by roads. To experience a hunt that ends with the life of an animal, carves in stone your obligation to the landscape and the ecosystem that now sustains you.  It sets your course.

Now, I work for Artemis and the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, my world has shifted to the path that first hunt set me on.  The last 4 years have been a direct result of staring at those hoof prints headed over the ridge and wondering what it would be like if I knew my home was disappearing, followed by shock and realization that it actually was.  It is not the deer’s habitat alone, it is our home, our land, and our tether to what makes us a part of this world. We are all animals whose life depends on unmarred wild spaces filled with a thriving population of wildlife. The only difference between us and the mule deer is we are arrogant enough to think we can survive without it.

Last year I testified in front of a committee of people who have forgotten the value of large swaths of open and accessible land and the wildlife who call it home.  I spoke on the importance of those ridgelines without development and the rights of the animals (humans and mule deer alike) to those vast expanses of “empty” space. I sat and was respectful as I was patronized and instructed that I did not understand what was going on and what was important.

My testimony was one among many who advocated for our public lands, waters and wildlife.  Dozens spoke of treasured personal experiences and implored the committee to preserve what is dwindling, only to receive similar dispassionate treatment.  I sat there in a room full of people speaking as I did to a committee of five who refused to listen.

When I left that room I could not have known a few months down the road, after hours of testimony, hundreds of written letters and personal stories the amendment we were so ardently opposed to would be killed, never to be introduced during the legislative session.

What I learned from that day was that passion born of personal experience, obligation, and the courage to tell your story is stronger than any political position.

I can never know what each battle for the conservation of our wildlife and wild lands will be or how it will be won or lost. I cannot predict the outcomes of bad legislation or the reactions of tone deaf legislators. What I can ensure is that every step of way I will be remembering those hoof prints on the ridgeline, the smell of crushed sage and dust, and the feeling that I am inexplicably tied to this land and its protection. My story will be my map along the way.

Because of learning, loving, and taking the life of a mule deer I will carry with me the obligation, the knowledge of belonging, and the passion that comes with the job of protecting something that is infinitely more valuable than myself.  Hunting lead me to conservation but it was a mule deer and those sage brush hills that set the course.