Photo 1 - An elk hunter lines up his shot on MPG Ranch in early November 2020. (Jake Jourdonnais Photo)
My first attempt at harvesting a deer ended with a wounded white-tailed doe. Intensively searching for the deer didn’t end with recovery. I was 12 years old. My heart ached for that deer. This experience jolted me into spending more time behind my firearm. I wanted to crush any chance of this happening again. The next time I looked through my rifle scope, I expected total comfort and confidence.
Wounding loss sickens the conservation-minded hunter to the core. Most veteran hunters have a wounding loss story. We examine how it happened and work to minimize the chance of it ever happening again.
As a hunt coordinator on MPG Ranch, I’ve been privileged to chaperone numerous deer and elk hunters. I’ve witnessed the accuracy of these hunters during archery and rifle seasons. I wished their shooting proficiency matched their delightful personalities. Most of the hunters I’ve chaperoned haven’t memorized the ballistics of the ammunition they carry.
Photo 2 - A Montana hunter poses with her first mule deer buck.
For example, they’re unaware of how far their bullet drops at 200, 300, or 400 yards, yet they shoot at big game animals from those distances. Guessing where to hold your reticle feeds wounding loss.
I’ve listened while hunters explain how one box of ammo gets them through the sighting-in process and a hunting season. A box of large-caliber ammo contains 20 rounds. You’ll never become proficient with any firearm or bow if you only shoot 20 rounds or arrows per year.
Accuracy with a firearm or bow fades in the absence of practice. The more you shoot, the more comfortable you become with your firearm or bow. Repetition and persistence at the range starve wounding loss.
My experience suggests shooting 300 rounds/arrows a year in multiple shooting positions is a minimum effort to maintain proficiency. Shooting 500 or more rounds/arrows a year, you settle into your firearm or archery equipment. Shooting over 750 projectiles a year allows you to become “one” with your weapon.
Why practice in various shooting positions? Shooting in a relaxed manner from a bench, prone at the rifle range, or standing on level ground with your bow has little in common with shooting in a hunting situation. Rugged terrain, awkward shooting positions, elevated heart rate, and excitement all lead toward lower proficiency for a person who doesn’t train for those situations.
Field train at the range by positioning yourself in hunt-type scenarios. Run some wind sprints or bounce out ten burpees or jumping jacks just before you shoot. Use a bipod, shooting sticks, and your backpack or shooting bag to gain a steady shooting platform. Archery hunters need to find stability when shooting from a standing or kneeling position. Equally important, breathe! Control your breathing but don’t hold your breath during the trigger pull process. Finish with steady pressure on the trigger or arrow release. These shooting fundamentals remain constant regardless of technology.
Recent technology advancements in archery and firearm equipment allow for accuracy at longer distances. The qualifier is that this applies only to those hunters who practice sufficiently to benefit from this technology. Long-range shooting proficiency requires discipline. Consistent accuracy at long ranges, 50-80 yards for archery and 350 yards and longer for a rifle, requires highly tuned shooting mechanics and an abundance of practice.
Photo 3 - A mature bull elk suffered a poor hit by an archery hunter in September 2020 in the Sapphire Mountains of Montana. The hunter did not recover this bull.
Great shooting is a tight marriage between equipment, ammunition, the environment, and the shooter. When things aren’t going well, you need to pinpoint the issue. That’s a weakness for some folks.
Inexperienced shooters blame their equipment when they don’t hit the bullseye. The best shooters blame themselves. Once you have your bow or firearm set up correctly, the shooter often becomes the most significant error source. Substandard accuracy is often linked to poor shooting mechanics, misjudging wind direction, and speed or distance to the target. Everyone is not a sniper.
As ethical and conservation driven hunters, minimizing wounding loss is an obsession. Our mission is to enjoy the sport and honor the critters we hunt by supporting quality management and ethical pursuit. Wounding loss flies in the face of quality management. However, identifying the influence of wounding loss on a big game population is tough.
Data collected during research designed to record wounding loss for deer and elk ranges from 15 to 30%. That means for every 100 deer or elk killed by hunters, 15-30 of those animals die, unrecovered due to wounding loss.
Montana biologists compiled hunter harvest information from 262 radio-collared cow elk and 40 radio-collared bull elk. They identified seven cows and eight bulls as hunter-caused wounding losses. However, identifying the source of mortalities on radio-collared elk was not the primary goal of these telemetry projects; hence these data are anecdotal at best.
Information becomes scarcer regarding deer or elk wounded by hunters but surviving those wounds. They may live a full life, or injury may compromise their ability to evade predation. We don’t know.
Occasionally wounding is an ‘unforced error’. An arrow in flight hits a twig. A rifle scope’s zero-point shifts when a hunter falls and bounces it on the rocks. We don’t control much in the great outdoors. Unfortunate situations happen.
Photo 4 – Shooting instructor and student discuss the best approach to a hunting scenario during a shooting clinic held on MPG Ranch in June 2020.
However, we do control our actions and preparation. We can minimize wounding loss with attention to a few crucial behaviors.
First, become proficient with our weapon of choice. Proficiency includes shooting in awkward positions, under stress, and knowing the ballistics of the ammo and arrows we shoot.
Secondly, test and understand the limits of your firearm or bow. Establishing these limits requires lots of practice. Once we set the limits of our shooting proficiency, commit to staying within those limits.
Third, attend a shooting clinic or ask an experienced shooter to mentor you at the range. Understanding great shooting fundamentals reduces wounding loss and increases hunting success.
How do you eat the proverbial elephant? One bite at a time. How do you reduce wounding loss? One primer or arrow at a time. Practice more wound less. We owe it to the critters we hunt and an activity we cherish.
Craig graduated with a B.S. in wildlife management in 1982 and completed his M.S. degree in Range Management in 1985 from the University of Montana School of Forestry. Craig worked seasonal wildlife tech positions with U.S. Forest Service, Bitterroot National Forest and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks during his college career. Craig completed his Master’s research using prescribed fire and cattle grazing on a rough fescue winter range to improve elk forage conditions on the Sun River Wildlife Management Area. Results from this research are published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin.
Craig spent the next 33 years working for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. He spent one year on the East Front Grizzly Project, 3 years as a state game warden, 15 years as a statewide wildlife video production specialist and his remaining tenure as the area wildlife biologist in the Gallatin, Madison and Bitterroot Valleys.
Craig works as a youth hunt coordinator and big game researcher for MPG Ranch. Craig spends his time away from MPG Ranch with his family hunting, fishing, floating and hiking. He is a competitive swimmer and coaches U.S. Masters swimming, teaches big game management for One Montana’s Montana Hunter Advancement Program, and serves as Big Game Committee Chairman for the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association.