It’s a story about life, death and the human condition. Hunters are inexorably tied to that eternal triad. And so it was in the days and months following the Yarnell, Arizona wildfire that claimed the lives of 19 firefighters June 30, 2013.
This is not a story of heroism, but rather an account of how life’s many threads become woven into the social fabric that is tremendously stronger, broader and more intricate than the sum of its individual strands. Hunters are an integral part of that tapestry – always have been, right from the start. Yes, it is a tale of hunters doing what hunters do, which is much, much more than simply hunting.
Bison huddled together on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota in sub-zero temperatures; wind-whipped spitting snow piling on their thick, furry backs is antithetic to the dry, hot midsummer wildfires in northwestern Arizona’s high desert mountains. Yet the hellish fate of 19 brave firefighters a short year ago now, coupled with the humanitarian penchant of a longtime SCI member and the altruistic nature of the Oglala Sioux mystically came together in ways unique to the ethic of the hunter among humankind nestled in the bosom of Mother Nature.
Following the wildfire tragedy in Arizona, fundraising efforts to benefit the families of the fallen firefighters were launched from numerous quarters, including an effort by hunting/conservation organizations and activists to help in their own ways. Among the groups were local SCI chapters and the National Wild Turkey Federation. These groups coordinated efforts and solicited donations of hunts and services to be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to aid the firefighters’ families.
One of the donations was a bison hunt offered by Oglala Sioux Parks & Recreation on the sprawling 3,468.86 square-mile Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Enter Tucson, Arizona attorney Eric Sparks, longtime SCI member and humanitarian. Eric was the successful high bidder for the hunt, so the money went to the families of the firefighters and Eric went hunting (auction was in August but hunt didn’t happen until the following January).
Before discussing the bison hunt, it is necessary to understand how Eric fits into global hunter/humanitarian efforts. For example, SCI’s first official project to honor war veterans happened at Eric’s Sukses ranch in Botswana – the effort in 2006 having been designated Operation Freedom Safari.
Operation Freedom Safari was the first official free African contributed hunt for American combat veterans from the conflicts
in Iraq and Afghanistan. It began during a discussion in a truck as Sparks, outdoor personality Jim Zumbo and the author were leaving Sparks’ ranch where Zumbo had filmed some episodes for his television show.
Sparks said that we, as hunters, needed to do something to help and honor the veterans, and hence the discussion began. Sparks said he would donate an African safari on his ranch, and then SCI auctioned off two spots on the hunt. The Outdoor Channel covered the event, and after that, other organizations and interests followed suit by offering hunting adventures to veterans.
Hosted on the very successful Operation Freedom Safari was former U.S. Army Sgt. Joe Tormala of Michigan.
Whether it involved the 51 children left without fathers following the Arizona wildfire; or helping wounded veterans, Sparks has been there to help and hunting is always part of the equation.
And so, on those bitterly cold days this past winter, Sparks was with the Oglala Sioux on Pine Ridge, completing the hunt and tying together the strands that ultimately made that weave of life’s tapestry complete.
The bison is many things, sometimes seemingly incongruous to the uninitiated or uniformed. First, the bison may appear to be an anachronism – out of synchronization with the rest of the world. In some ways, the bison seems like a vestige leftover from prehistoric times. Yet in other ways, this amazing bovine may actually be ahead of its time. To suggest the species is a living, breathing dichotomy is an understatement.
To some American Indians, the bison is perfect and humans are flawed. This is logical, because for eons, the bison has been basic to those people and their culture. And these creatures, both physically and spiritually, continue to hold their own unique presence in the overall scheme of things.
Without question, the bison is a noble beast that provides superb table fare as well as hide and hair that have myriad uses. As much as the bison normally is uncommonly docile for a wild animal, it also is big enough and strong enough to do significant damage to any object of its attention, be it animate or inanimate. Few fences can corral them when they want to get to the greener grass beyond.
The bison is not difficult to hunt, but can require significant energy to take down. There are few sights in all of hunting as subtly powerful as that of a bison on the open prairie in an overcast, steel-gray winter storm, exhaling fleetingly small clouds of vapor from its nostrils as snowflakes dancing in the wind accumulate, blanketing its head and back. Its dark, sparkling eyes pierce its surroundings and see all, but mysteriously, it normally does little or nothing in response. The bison is comfortably at peace with itself and its surroundings. At such moments, all seems well with the world. Everything is as it should be, and the shot is short.
So it was on this hunt. Both the shot and the kill provided the logical conclusion of all that had gone before. For a couple of days, we covered vast areas of open plains, deep cuts and brush-choked canyons, looking at literally hundreds of bison in the process. Sometimes there were entire herds, other times just a few or only one – but there were bison throughout the area. When the “right” one appeared among a herd of many, Sparks and guide Al Fast Wolf moved afoot into position and waited until the shot was clear. With the shot, the saga was complete.
In the warmth of a tribal office building later, the hunting party discussed conservation and hunting programs on the vast reservation with tribal representatives.
“As the men who know the buffalo tell it, there is a mystery to the buffalo – spirit and the buffalo,” the tribe explains. “There is always a prayer before the hunt and usually one (bison) will come out from the herd and present himself. It is unlike anything (else).”
“It isn’t just a kill,” explained Ralph Bear Killer, of the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority Buffalo and Elk Division. “There’s a lot to it. The buffalo gives his life for the people.”
“People who come hunting with us become our friends,” noted Al Fast Wolf, of the OSPRA Buffalo and Elk Division. “And they come back to hunt again.”
The Oglala Sioux Parks & Recreation Authority serves to protect the natural environment of the Oglala Lakota homelands. OSPRA enforces tribal and cultural laws to safeguard buffalo, elk and other wildlife. Plants, fossils, geologic formations and archeological treasures are also protected within the bio-system.– Steve Comus