Hunting season has just ended in Montana, bringing to a close an annual marketing melee that was, as usual, as lunatic and relentless as a mossy-horned bull elk in rut. On the radio an elk bugled for a washer-dryer combo at Orv's Appliance in Florence. And ads for Remington ammunition appeared on the daily Missoulian's religion page, as if endorsed by God.
For five weeks every fall, commerce revolves about the men who lovingly clean their weapons, unearth sleeping bags and coolers from the basement or garage and go off, beyond summoning, to perform mysterious wilderness rituals. Last year a free gun could have been yours just for buying a new piano, but music stores are silent when the elk are bugling in the mountains. Compared with that shrill beckoning, a piano is a feeble siren.
Hunting is as inseparable from Montana's soul as pickup trucks, red beer and black ice on the highway. The obsession is evident everywhere: In the Missoula Yellow Pages there's one listing under "Taxicabs" and 19 under "Taxidermists."
But should you be among the unfortunate who do not hunt or understand the compulsion—47% of Montana men and 7% of the women partake—you'll still find hunting inescapable. Try leaving the state by car, and you'll be waylaid by slow, ungulate-laden pickup trucks turning off at highway check-stations where orange-clad men in funny hats hobnob with game wardens about their triumphs and near misses. Try to get out by plane, and you'll be delayed while an airport baggage attendant snips up lengths of garden hose to shield antler points and argues with bearded men bedecked with big knives about security policy and the extra freight charge for a frozen elk.
Hunters say their sport is an excuse to be in the outdoors with their buds, and that they enjoy the meat. But this doesn't account for the strange blending of religion and commerce that attends the season. Normally taciturn John Wayne types lose their composure and get all mushy at the sight of a fleet of antelope crossing the prairie. Local magazines feature stories, written in worshipful prose, about old-timers with trophy rooms filled with animal heads. And woe to those who speak against the hunt: In October a spokesman for the Montana Wood Products Association had to eat crow after he suggested that the state's elk season be shortened to allow for more timber harvesting. Headlines in the Missoulian screamed, HUNTERS DEMAND APOLOGY, then APOLOGY'S NOT GOOD ENOUGH and finally, in the paper's Letters to the Editor section, YOU'RE DAMNED RIGHT—AN APOLOGY'S NOT NEARLY ENOUGH!
The hunt may be sanctified, but it's also lucrative. In Montana—a state that is one-third public land, with a population of only 860,000—hunters spend about $160 million annually on their sport, and that doesn't include the cost of license fees. Starting next year, out-of-staters who hunt with a licensed outfitter will pay $835 for a big-game combination tag. And landowners could be paid up to $8,000 a year by the state's department of fish, wildlife and parks for allowing hunters on their property.
Even in-state hunters spend a lot. Tags can cost as much as $78. Then there's $400 and up for a gun, ammo, groceries, gas, clothing, butchering, trophy preparation ("Wildlife Preservation Begins at Buckhorn Taxidermy!"), vehicular wear and tear, and accessories such as a "sports saw"—not a long story about your favorite team, but a tool for cutting through animals' bones. It comes with a holster.
So why do hunters do it? An anthropologist might say that hunting in Montana serves an important social function and is critical to the survival of the family: It gets men the hell out of the house before deep winter and cabin fever set in. How else to explain why hunters dance the night away at Hunter's Balls in saloons across the state on the eve of opening day, when, if they were serious, they would be hunkering into position for a shot at that big bull elk at dawn?
Some 87% of Montana hunters are male, and they are notoriously averse to the presence of females on hunting trips. They tell women they're too sensitive to see an animal die. But that rationale smells of a ruse. Montana women are a pretty tough breed.
In any case, hunters' wives have their own compensations: Midnight Madness sales at department stores are de rigueur during the season. And saloons know their female clients aren't the type to sit home and mope. In Missoula this season, one honky-tonk's enticing marquee read, WHILE THE BUCKS ARE HUNTING, THE DOES COME HERE.