JOSEPH — Kirk Skovlin lives at the base of the Wallowa Mountains outside of Joseph. He has been a hunter for a little more than a half-century, starting when his dad, Jon, took him on his first hunt at age 10.
For most of that time, Skovlin has been a bowhunter and for most of that time, he’s hunted in Wallowa County. These days, he hunts elk in the Eagle Cap wilderness.
“It’s more like I pack my camp in with horses, and then I haul my camp out with horses,” he said. “I need to connect with the wild and be absorbed in the mystique of nature. That’s the main reason for doing this. It’s only about every four years that I take an elk.”
Skovlin prefers bowhunting because it’s quiet and it requires understanding the animal’s habits and habitat.
He uses a traditional bow, and said that to shoot, he needs to be within 25 yards (75 feet) of an animal to ensure a lethal hit that will take the animal down with one arrow. Skovlin makes as much of his equipment as he can.
“I make my own arrows, my own drawstring and my bow is a basic recurved design made of wood and fiberglass that was made for me by a friend,” he said.
How do you ensure a successful hunt if you have to be less that 75 feet from your quarry?
“I’ve learned to think like an elk,” Skovlin said. “They are very, very quick thinkers because they are a prey animal and they rely on their speed to get away. Especially with the wolves out there now, they are on high alert. You’ve got to know what they are afraid of, and what they need. That’s cover and food and water and other elk. They are rarely ever alone. Knowing how they think is knowing what they need.”
Elk rely on each other, he said.
“The toughest cow absolutely leads the band," he said. "Whenever they discover danger, there’s a certain way they move and it’s usually a circuit that covers several square miles. They have a route. And they’ll move along that route until they feel like they are out of danger and then they’ll stop. But if they get bumped again, they’ll continue around their route.”
Other things that help ensure a successful hunt, he said, include being aware of wind direction, understanding his quarry’s habitat needs and observing their motion — or lack thereof.
“Noise is a factor," he said. “But if you are close to them and you step on a branch, they’ll probably just think it’s another elk.”
Skovlin said that he understands and supports the coming designation of archery as a controlled hunt.
“The technology used now in a lot of the equipment has gained a lot of ground, and bow hunters are a lot more successful than they used to be,” he said. “As a sportsman, I want to help all the people who hunt. There’s a lot of opposition to hunting, but I think it’s a necessary sport for keeping tabs on the populations of the different species and their balance.”
Skovlin is concerned about the number of wolves that prey on game animals, especially mule deer.
“I’ve seen so many wolf kills, and the wolves are really heavy out there," he said. "Sometimes I’ve been calling an elk, and acting like an elk, and doing a good enough job that I’ll be surrounded by wolves, and they are in 'hunt mode,' and they are looking for me. It’s something to be out there listening and hear several different packs vocalizing. I don’t know exactly what they mean. I’m kind of anxious to find out. They are very successful hunters. I don’t want them abolished, but I do think there’s too many of them.”
Skovlin noted that on a recent camping and scouting trip to an area east of the USFS 39 road, where there are usually lots of mule deer, there were none. He thinks that is a bad sign for the number and health of the "muley" population.
“We saw no deer. We saw no tracks, no sign of any kind. It’s deer country. But there’s almost no mule deer anymore. It’s an emergency for mule deer right now,” Skovlin said.
He'd like to see ODFW take mule deer off the tags for their Pine Creek, Imnaha, Snake River and Minam units.
Is he planning an elk hunt this year?
“Oh yes,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation.