After a morning of army crawling up and down hills through brush, mud and muck, and two unsuccessful early attempts, first-time hunter Harley Gonzales finally had a pronghorn in her sights.
“We crawled up a hill and the does started to sniff us out and were staring us down and huffing at us, which was really nerve-wracking,” she said. “At that point, the buck was at the crest of the hill and creeping over it, so we decided to take another position.”
Finally in a spot where they could see the buck clearly, the Casper resident sighted him at roughly 75 yards. She asked guide Austin Luikens the best place to shoot and decided to aim for the chest.
She lined up her shot and took him down with one bullet.
“I was very nervous with the first two antelope we saw, but by the third I was able to take a deep breath and take the shot without thinking about anything else,” she said. “It felt really good to be able to do it cleanly, because my biggest concern was hurting an animal. I absolutely love animals in all capacities. I wanted to get it in one shot and not make it painful.”
The Annual Women’s Antelope Hunt
Gonzales and her hunting partner Becky Rodriguez of Buffalo both filled their tags during the 11th annual Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt last weekend at The Ranch at Ucross, about 20 miles west of Buffalo in the foothills of the Bighorns.
The all-women’s hunting event develops new hunters by offering scholarships and hunter education to women who otherwise may not get the opportunity to hunt, and pairs them with conservation-minded guides and experienced women hunting partners for maximum learning opportunities.
“My favorite part of the weekend every year is watching all of the different women come in that have never experienced something like this and it’s totally new for them,” Rodriguez said.
History Of The Hunt
The annual hunting event was founded in 2013 by the Wyoming Women’s Foundation as an opportunity for mentoring and developing camaraderie between women.
Marilyn Kite, the first woman appointed as a Wyoming Supreme Court justice, along with Donna Wichers, Lynne Boomgaarden and Karey Stebner, approached the foundation with the idea.
“There is a men's-only hunt that happens in Lander, and she and some of her colleagues came to us with the idea to make an event that's put on by women to benefit women and for women,” said Rebekah Smith Hazelton, director of the Wyoming Women’s Foundation. “It's a fundraiser for us, but it’s also about those firsthand interactions and mentoring relationships that we set up.”
The hunt links to the foundation’s overall mission, which is to help women achieve economic self-sufficiency and provide opportunities for girls. And while the group found various sponsors right away, it took awhile to get the word out to women about the event that first year. It’s since continued to grow.
“As word spread about the event, we had more sponsors interested and hunters interested,” Hazelton said. “The first year, we actually had trouble even getting enough scholarship applicants to do it. Now we have over 200 applicants for 10 to 15 slots, and I think it has a reputation as being a positive experience for women that want to learn to hunt.”
This year 45 hunters from 10 states participated, including 20 first-time hunters. Participants received comprehensive training on every aspect of hunting, from shooting and harvesting to processing. Mentors guided them throughout the hunt, fostering a supportive environment in which new skills can be honed and lifelong friendships forged.
“It's a really satisfying thing for sure,” Hazelton said. “There's a lot of work to it, but we have over 300 alumni of the event which we call ‘Sisters of the Sage.’ That's exciting to have that network of so many that have done it before that can continue to try to keep connected and continue their hunting journey.”
Roads To hunt
After her mom participated the previous year, Gonzales decided she wanted to experience the hunt as well. The Hat Six Travel Center in Casper sponsors an employee to attend the event, so she applied and was eventually selected.
“I was very excited because I've never gotten to go hunting even though I did 4-H when I was a kid,” she said. “I did shotgun shooting, trap shooting and archery, but I never actually got to go hunting because it was more guy time.”
Rodriguez has participated in the event as part of the Merlin Ranch team, which was put together by Wyoming first lady Jennie Gordon.
“My husband Kevin works for Mark and Jennie Gordon and manages their ranch here in Buffalo,” she said.
Rodriguez is no stranger to hunting, having gone with her family and husband throughout the years, but she didn’t go through the hunter education course until seven years ago with her son. It was that year she began to participate in the hunt.
The event also is something she can share with her husband, who has guided for the women’s hunt since the first year.
“It's something we do together and we just have the whole weekend out there,” she said. “It's something that both of us look forward to.”
When hunters arrived, they spent the day sighting in rifles and going over information with guides and members of the Game and Fish Department. Hazelton said the time is meant to get the first-time hunters ready both emotionally and physically for the hunt. Later that evening they attended a welcome dinner where hunters were introduced to their partners and guide.
Gonzales and Rodriguez were paired with guide and landowner Tiffany Greear, whose property the women hunted on. Later, Greear’s son-in-law Luikens joined them.
“Our guide is a landowner and expressed how it can be difficult for women to get into the hunting industry and fit into that type of industry,” Rodriguez said. “So, it's a lot of fun to see all of the women come together and experience all of the new things together.”
More Than Just A Hunt
After Gonzales got her antelope, it was Rodriguez’s turn.
“I had to work for mine a little bit more,” she said. “But the area that we were in and the land we were on they actually have quite a few antelope out there, which was a very different story from the rest of the hunters all weekend. We were not without antelope.”
For hunters who didn’t fill their tags that Friday there was another chance the following day. For those who were done there were various other activities including processing their animals and cooking demonstrations. There was also the chance to talk and share with the various participants.
“Being able to see other women finding independence and being able to have this experience they've never been able to have was my favorite part,” Gonzales said. “To talk with women that have had very different experiences and see them achieve what they were hoping for and learn something in the process.”
Gonzales saved the hide from her pronghorn, is having the skull mounted and will soon have the meat from her animal. She hopes to hunt again, possibly at the Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt, or one of the other hunts some of the alumni from the event get together and do.
“Since my mom went last year, I would love to get her out again and maybe instead of a guys’ trip it would be a girls’ trip,” she added. “Becky also invited me to go hunting with her next year if I felt like coming back to Buffalo, which was very cool to make that connection as well and I would love to take her up on that opportunity.”