Late December, southern Arizona, Coronado National Forest. Like most experienced Mearns’ quail hunters, I’ve slept in this morning to give the coveys time to wake up, move around, and lay down some scent for the dogs. I’ve chosen the place my wife, Lori, and I plan to hunt from a half-dozen possibilities we passed on the drive north from our winter home, not because I think there are more quail here but because I’m sure fewer hunters have been there to bother them.

I usually hunt this cover twice each season, the maximum amount of pressure I’ll let myself apply to each of my favorite spots. The vast basin could handle more, but we each need to draw the line somewhere. It’s the first hour of the hunt that makes me love the place, precisely because it’s so unlovable—straight up through cat’s-claw and unstable rock, a climb that has cost one regular hunting partner a broken nose and Lori and me one banged up shotgun apiece. The dogs never seem to mind the climb.

I’m sweaty and pleasantly tired by the time we break out on top of the ridge and head for the basin. Here the going is easier, “easier” being a relative term in Mearns’ quail habitat. At least my feet are no longer sliding out from under me with every step, and I don’t have to hang on to something with one hand to keep from going over backwards when I stop to rest. As if to celebrate our arrival, one of our wirehairs’ beeper collars has already started to sound off somewhere in the oaks ahead.

I didn’t have to join a club or pay a trespass fee to enjoy the eight coveys of quail the dogs will point before we declare victory and stagger back down the mountain. The endless miles of prime quail habitat rolling away in all directions belong to me—and to you, and to all of us.

That’s exactly who needs to be concerned about public lands right now—all of us. Landowners should care about their property, public land owners included. That’s especially important today. The current partisan, toxic political environment has spawned a serious effort to divest American citizens of the land they own in order to turn rich wildlife habitat and an enduring source of national pride into income streams for a powerful few.

Like it or not—and I don’t—all wildlife today is political. Most of us would rather be reading about covey rises and bird dogs than politics. Believe me—I’d rather be writing about them. Unfortunately, if hunters don’t stand up and fight for what’s right, the future of hunting in America will be grimmer than that of a quail in the clutches of a Cooper’s hawk.

Two points stand out in a review of my personal history as a hunter of both public and private lands: the degree to which that ratio has changed with time and location, and the increasing importance of public land to me as a hunter.

I began my wing-shooting career as a kid in upstate New York. We didn’t do much public land hunting because there wasn’t much public land. (There weren’t any quail, either.) As residents of a small rural community, my family knew almost every farmer in the county. If the land wasn’t posted, we could hunt it, and even if it was a knock on the door would usually lead us to good grouse and woodcock cover.

Then we moved to Washington State, where we found a lot of public land (and a lot of California quail). Urban residents for the first time in my life, we lacked the personal contacts I’d always enjoyed with landowners, so we hunted a lot of public land and shot a lot of birds there.

After completing my long medical education, I wound up in eastern Montana (not by accident). There were all kinds of gamebirds (but no quail!) and public land, but as a small-town physician I knew farmers and ranchers from all over the area and spent more time on private land than public, at least when I was hunting birds rather than big game. Then it was off to Alaska, where almost all land lies in the public domain. As long as I kept track of Native Corporation boundaries and stayed off the road system, which I did anyway, the whole state was my oyster.

I returned to a different Montana from the one I’d left, and those changes have only intensified in the decades since. Over half the private land in the state is now owned by non-residents, and those folks didn’t buy Montana property so they could watch it snow. No Trespassing signs now blossom along backroads. The outfitting industry has exploded, bringing a dramatic increase in the amount of leased hunting land. While I still maintain some old friendships that allow me to hunt private property (for which I will be eternally grateful), I increasingly became a public land hunter even though that meant shooting more blue grouse and Huns than pheasants. (Unfortunately, Montana still doesn’t have any quail.)

The freedom of hunting public land grew so appealing that Lori and I started spending our winters in Arizona, nearly 90 percent of which lies in the public domain. We enjoyed the hunting so much that we bought a winter home there, which gave me the first opportunity to be a serious quail hunter that I’d enjoyed in 50 years. Now I was hunting with pointing dogs and 20-gauges again—all thanks to an abundance of public land. I do not intend to stand by idly and watch a few powerful interest groups destroy those opportunities. I hope you don’t either.

There are important reasons to become involved in the protection of public lands even for those who predominantly hunt private property. Hunter numbers are experiencing significant decline at a time when elements of our society are openly questioning the right to hunt—anywhere, for everybody. Amidst all the hand-wringing over this development, numerous potential explanations have arisen: urbanization; the rise of single parent families; lack of mentors; video games; vegetarianism; animal rights propaganda. In my opinion, the most significant reason for the decline in hunter numbers is simply the growing lack of places to hunt, especially for kids, few of whom will experience the freedom to roam that I enjoyed 60 years ago. Take public land hunting out of the equation and hunting as we know it may be over for all of us.

Granted, public land hunting opportunities are not distributed equally about the country, largely as a function of history. The East was settled and surveyed long before most western states became states. A lot of western land poorly suited to agriculture or development wound up in government hands by default, since no one else really wanted it. Even excluding Alaska, the eleven states west of a line drawn between Montana and New Mexico now contain approximately 75 percent of the land managed by the BLM and Forest Service. Include Alaska and that figure rises to 90 percent. That’s unfortunate for eastern hunters, but you don’t need a passport to drive from Ohio to Oregon. We all have a dog in this fight no matter where we live, the default position is that we’ll likely lose it unless we collectively take a stand. That’s why it’s critical for all hunters to become involved in the defense of public lands.

Organized support for public lands and access by hunters will be crucial to keeping hunting opportunities intact, but it’s all too easy to assume that someone else is taking care of this responsibility. All too often, “someone else” isn’t.

Most of us belong to one or more of the hunter-driven conservation organizations that have done so much for wildlife and habitat over the last century. Several habitat organizations that I belong to have adopted stronger public lands advocacy positions in the last decade because of membership input. Quail Forever has clearly elevated the public lands issue. Make your voice heard. Join the conversation by voicing your support of public lands with elected officials.

It’s also important to realize that access to public lands is just as important as ownership. Public lands can’t offer public hunting if you can’t get to them. I’m not calling for building more roads. The issue is legal access, especially along historical easements that are increasingly being closed as patterns of ownership change on adjoining private land. Approximately 9.5 million acres of public land in the West are not legally accessible, and that number is going up rather than down. That’s a lot of gamebird habitat the public should be able to hunt but can’t.

In Arizona, Quail Forever chapters have played leading roles in the fight to maintain legal access to lands already in the public domain.

My point here is not to make a list of all the good guys, which would inevitably include far too many omissions, but to emphasize the importance of identifying groups that are engaged with public lands issues whether they are national, state or local—and then supporting them.

Doing so would make Teddy Roosevelt proud.

This story was featured in the Fall 2019 issue of the Quail Forever Journal. Like what you read? You can subscribe by becoming a member today.