Bluegrass Wildlife: Gifts are all around us, and KY’s public lands are a gift that keeps on giving

By Dr. Howard Whiteman
Murray State University

Sitting on the top of a sagebrush-covered ridge with my hunting buddies, I marveled at the rocky terrain that surrounded us and the horizon that was hundreds of miles away. I realized at that moment that I had been given many gifts, and for me these are among the greatest gifts anyone could ever receive.

The gifts became apparent much the same way as physical gifts: it felt like I was ripping the wrapping paper off of a birthday present to see what is inside. A great gift is often surprising but also satisfies some need or want in your mind, without even knowing you had those feelings. The gifts that I received on that mountain were unwrapped when I realized how special it was to be where I was, doing exactly what I was doing.

The first gift was that I was hunting with my son, a strapping young man that has come into his own. My own father trained me to hunt and fish and took me on many adventures across multiple states and Canada. The fact that my daughter likes to fish and my son enjoys hunting adventures will always be a gift that I will treasure. Having children and watching them grow up are gifts, but sharing these sorts of memories adds a great big bow.

Family, friends and public lands are among the many gifts we should savor every day. (Photo by Howard Whiteman)

The second gift was having a spouse who understands that being in the wilderness chasing wild things is part of my DNA. My wife and I have always allowed each other to be independent, but as special as she is in so many different ways, she has always been particularly supportive of my adventures. Her continued support is an amazing gift for anyone to have been given.

The third gift was our guide for this hunt, a former student of mine that has become a brilliant scientist who just happens to have a job in the heart of some of the best big game hunting in the entire world. He and I started hunting together when he was a graduate student and we never stopped. We have packed out each other’s game and shared our harvests as well as our friendship. His generosity over the years has been a gift for which I can never thank him enough. All of our friends are gifts, whether they are hunting buddies, friends we go to shows or games with, or those that always have a couch for us to sleep on, and they all deserve our appreciation.

The fourth gift is the one that made the first three possible. Here we were, three humans in the mountains of Wyoming, hunting on public land that is open to each and every person in the world, and brought to you by the foresight of Theodore Roosevelt, the Boone and Crockett Club that he founded, and his conservation-minded colleagues in the U.S. government. It has been maintained by similar politicians, the hard-working employees in the Department of the Interior that manage it, the treasure of every U.S. taxpayer that pays for them, and groups like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers that ensure our public lands are managed appropriately.

This gift is particularly special because, besides all the people wrapping it for us, few other countries have a public land system like the United States. You cannot hunt, fish, hike, or camp on public lands in most of the world the way you can in the U.S.

Public lands are the gift that keeps on giving, because it’s the reason that I was able to teach my daughter to fish, my son to hunt, and find a hunting buddy out of a student. Without public lands, those gifts may never have happened.

It is also the reason that my parents were able to teach me to hunt and fish in the first place. That’s probably true for many of you as well, even if you are more into hiking, biking, camping, or birding than hunting and fishing. Someone got you interested in the outdoors, and when they did it is likely they took you to public lands, and you probably continue to enjoy those things because of public lands.

There was a final gift that day, and one that we all share but often take for granted: life. Life is our greatest gift. We all exist because of the intricate interactions of biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics that play out each day in our cells, and that together make the human organism into the mobile, thinking thing that we are, one that can hike for miles and savor life and other gifts with others.

Perhaps appreciation of the gifts in each of our lives should be a daily occurrence, rather than inspired by amazing vistas. When we are reminded how wonderful life is, whether it be on public lands or in a city street, with our family or friends, or alone in a quiet moment, we realize that we have been lavished with gifts our entire lives, and it is up to us to open up their memories and understand how generous these gifts have been.

As the saying goes, it is always better to give than to receive. While hiking back to camp, I also thought about the gifts I can leave for others, whether they are my family, friends, fellow citizens, or the planet and its wildlife. Being a mentor is one way we can give to others. There are many people that would enjoy the outdoors if given the opportunity, and perhaps you are the person to make that happen.

Gifts are all around us, if we just look for them. What gift will you unwrap today, and what gift will you give tomorrow?

Dr. Howard Whiteman holds the Commonwealth Endowed Chair of Environmental Studies at Murray State University where he is director of the Watershed Studies Institute and a professor in the department of Biological Sciences.

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