Published: Wednesday, November 28, 2007 at 3:34 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 9:00 p.m.
Mike Sutsos walked through a field of wet sorghum, shotgun in hand, and stopped suddenly as his dog, a German shorthaired pointer named Angel, stood stone still, pointing at prey.
With a noisy fluttering of wings, the cornered pheasant took off, its slim neck stretched toward a protective fog bank over nearby San Pablo Bay.
Sutsos, who has hunted Sonoma County the better part of four decades, swung his barrel, squeezing off a round that shattered the early morning calm. The bird fell to earth in a swirl of blood and feathers.
"That bird's dead," Sutsos said. "Go get it, Angel."
Hunting season opened this month for pheasants, turkeys and pigs and last month for ducks, filling bay lands and farmland with hunters practicing a sport that has been part of the county's rural tradition for more than a century.
But the sport -- a mainstay back in a time of wide-open ranches and grazing land -- has been criticized lately by people who don't like the sound of guns near their homes, often built near choice wildlife areas, such as Laguna de Santa Rosa. And some environmental advocates view hunting as incompatible with keeping the land pristine.
The hunting tradition, in short, is rubbing up against urban living, reflected in the dwindling number of hunters on the North Coast and a significant drop across California.
Far fewer hunters
The state Fish and Game Department issued 301,655 hunting licenses statewide in 2006, compared with more than twice that -- 609,072 -- in 1974.
In Sonoma County, there were 4,323 licenses in 2006 compared with 6,924 in 1992. Mendocino County showed a decline as well, with 2,009 licenses in 2006, down from 3,473 in 1992. Lake County had 1,052 in 2006, down from 1,689 in 1992.
The anti-hunting clamor doesn't bode well for sportsmen like Sutsos, whose family has owned the 1,000-acre Black Point Sports Club near Sears Point since 1964.
He said development and population growth are claiming what little land remains, endangering a sport hunters say is rooted in a love of the outdoors.
"People say hunters don't appreciate nature," Sutsos said. "That's so wrong. We started the environmental movement. We just choose to get our own meat. But it's become tougher for hunters because of urban sprawl and it's not as socially acceptable, especially in this area."
Some critics say hunting is cruel and barbaric and no longer fits the increasingly urban North Coast. Others go so far as to say it should be outlawed.
Betty Beavers, who lives in Santa Rosa near Annadel State Park, cringes at the sound of distant gunfire. It's an annual rite she'd like to bid goodbye.
"I am strongly opposed to hunting, in part because I'm an animal lover," the retired special education director said. "But even more so because of what it does to humans. To find fun in killing something doesn't seem like it's the right direction to go."
From its bay marshes to its coastal mountains, Sonoma County offers a bounty of wildlife -- wild pigs, deer and assorted fowl, including wild turkeys, ducks and quail.
Hunters flock to parts of Laguna de Santa Rosa for duck season and hike the hills around Lake Sonoma to hunt deer and pigs.
Most hunting is on private land in such far-flung places as Annapolis and Cazadero, but the federal government opens about 9,000 acres at Lake Sonoma during various seasons. Hunting also is allowed on Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service land in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Cow Mountain Recreational Area near Ukiah is one of the top deer spots on the North Coast.
Joel Miller, an Army Corps of Engineers ranger, said fear of liability has closed many private ranches surrounding Lake Sonoma that once allowed hunters the freedom to roam to the coast.
There also is less land for hunting because new notions of conservation frown on killing animals for sport.
Miller said large swathes of land are being passed down to younger heirs who want animals and plants to flourish on the open space.
"It's a changing culture," he said. "People are treating land as if it's a preserve. They don't allow anything to be killed. And that causes friction because they know what we're doing on our side of the fence."
Hunters are adding to their own image problems by leaving behind animal carcasses and trespassing on private land, some veteran hunters said.
Calls to police
Police get calls from people upset about gunfire or inquiring about the legality of hunting, said Loree Camden, a dispatcher with the Sebastopol police.
Camden said she tells callers that hunting is legal in parts of the laguna during the season. About half say they object to the sport on principle.
"I tell them there's nothing we can do about it," Camden said. "A lot of people are new to the area and they don't realize this thing goes on. I don't think people are prepared for what they're going to find in the country. Usually it involves animals."
In days largely gone by, hunting groups were an important way of life in Sonoma County, bringing together friends for social and business connections.
Bob Bailey, a retired Santa Rosa dentist, said hunting was a larger part of the social fabric in the 1950s when he joined a hunt club and spent weekends with friends in a rustic Mendocino County cabin, "having a few drinks, playing cards and telling stories."
"It was the camaraderie that attracted me. The fellowship," said Bailey, 81. "And yet, I enjoyed the challenge of the hunt, too. You get a thrill out of being in nature and looking for game."
Today, hunters are adapting to a world in which some people view them with hostility.
Doug Vallance, a longtime Sonoma County hunter, has turned to the crossbow, which he said kills quicker and provides more of a challenge.
It also gives residents one less reason to complain.
"They don't hear the guns going off," said Vallance, who moved from Santa Rosa to Morgan Hill in 2005 but returns to hunt. "And I found archery is a more humane way to hunt."
Like many hunters, Vallance views himself as a conservationist. Fees from his basic $37.30 license and supplemental game stamps go to such things as bag limit and poaching enforcement and protection programs meant to ensure land and wildlife are available for generations.
He said he hunts because he enjoys the sport of chasing game, but also because it provides his family a source of organic meat.
"Anti-hunting people tend to not like the thought of actually killing an animal themselves," Vallance said. "They don't visualize what happens in a processing plant. Somebody kills the animal to put it under cellophane in Safeway. People have lost touch with how we get food."
Another hunter, Charlie Galea of Windsor, said people have called police on him when he hunted legally in the laguna. Non-hunters don't understand the need to thin game populations to keep them healthy, he said.
"They have no clue on hunting," Galea said. "If birds or deer don't get taken, they become overpopulated and die. You take a few out of the herd and it's better for everybody."
But hunting critics argue the sport damages eco-systems with hunters tramping through sensitive wetlands and other wilderness areas, leaving behind discarded ammunition containing toxic lead and trash.
Dian Hardy of Sebastopol, co-founder of Sonoma People for Animal Rights, shares that view.
"I would like to see the hunters put down their guns," Hardy said. "Hunting is very violent. It's a terrible violence on earth."
Nicole Matthews, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said less than 5 percent of the U.S. population hunts anymore, possibly because people feel it is insensitive and unnecessary.
"We always encourage people to consider that hunting basically takes a very minimal human interest and trades it for a animal's very interest, which is surviving and being able to raise their animal in peace," Matthews said.
Hope Bohanec, editor of Vegan Voices, a newsletter that goes out to about 500 people in Sonoma County, said it's disturbing to see parents encouraging children to kill wild animals.
"This should not be considered something fun and family-like to do," Bohanec said. "It's really an outdated, very cruel sport. I wouldn't even call it a sport."
Matter of heritage
On a weekday morning near the start of the season, the wood-paneled lobby of Sutsos' club is filled with hunters sipping coffee, waiting for the fog to lift.
They fanned out at about 9 a.m., dogs in tow, searching for pheasant Sutsos imports from Modesto and releases on the property every few days.
The future of the club, one of the few in the county, is in question because the property owner, a conservation group, wants to restore native wetlands, Sutsos said.
"You know, if you lose too much of the old, you forget where you came from and who you are," Sutsos said as he propped his .410-gauge on a shoulder. "We're the endangered species."
His hunting partner for the day, Ukiah real estate appraiser Michael Golick, chimed in: "There's a heritage this country was founded on. This is a little way to hang on to it."
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 762-7297 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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