She shoots like a girl

Kalie Swails

An SDSU senior finally shot the trophy bull elk she’s been waiting for.

Senia Hiltunen collects holiday Barbies, she has a hot pink cell phone and she hunts bull elk.

She considers herself pretty girly.

Hiltunen, 23, was the recipient of one of the most highly sought after hunting opportunities in South Dakota: an any-elk tag. The South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Commission approved only 865 total permits this year, down 200 permits from 2010 and 1,800 from 2005.

Her tag was one of only 125 any-elk licenses available for the southern Black Hills elk unit. She spent the past decade earning the preference points required to draw the coveted tag.

Accompanied by her father, grandfather and a guide, Hiltunen tracked a herd of 100 elk near the southern Black Hills town of Pringle, which calls itself the elk capitol of South Dakota, in pursuit of a trophy bull.

On the first day of her second trip, Hiltunen bagged her first elk—a five-by-five bull that scored a 260 on the Boone & Crockett scale. The journey to her bull was long, taking two trips across the state, walking for miles on end and climbing mountains.

Her Browning .270 barked, the bullet travelled just 120 yards to lodge in the huge animal’s shoulder. A second shot brought down the massive bull to the ground.

Hiltunen filled her elk tag on Oct. 20, a date with special significance to her.

Eleven years ago to the day, Hiltunen lost her cousin Michael O’Brien in a tragic car accident. He was just 15 years old. She harvested her first elk using his gun strap to carry her rifle.

“It just seemed to work out really, really well. The wind was straight up my face so the herd had no clue we were coming at all,” Hiltunen said.

“[The bull] came up on the fence line and part of me wanted to not shoot him because I wanted a bigger bull, obviously, but with the day being what it was, I felt like he may not have been the biggest bull, but he was the right bull at the time. I totally believe my cousin just set it all up for me … It was nice to feel like we got to hunt together.”

Hiltunen has been hunting since she was 12 years old on family land in Howard, S.D. While she was too young to carry a gun, she went on family hunts for elk and pheasants as a walker.

“My dad taught me how to hunt. Something he always drilled into me was that [hunting] is not about getting the animal, it’s the experiences you share with the people around you,” she said.

Hunting is a long-running tradition in her family. Many of her family members hunt together. Those who don’t hunt enjoy spending time together cooking wild game.

This season Hiltunen, her aunt and her grandfather, who turned 80 this year, all had tags to fill. She said filling her first elk tag while her grandfather filled what was likely his last was a special experience. The rifle she used to take her bull is a family heirloom passed down from her father, a testament to the family tradition.

Hiltunen has always preferred hunting with the boys and cooking what they brought home. Since childhood, she has enjoyed being outdoors and tracking game. Now as an adult, Hiltunen takes pride in challenging the stereotype that hunting is a male only sport.

“It really surprises people when I tell them I hunt,” she said. “It’s weird for people to put together a girly-girl hunting big game … but I like shooting prize-winning animals. I love the whole experience.”

After she graduates in the spring with a journalism degree, she hopes to work in communications for a women’s associated non-profit organization or in sexual assault awareness and advocacy.

Hiltunen plans to stay in South Dakota, where she feels she has much left to accomplish both for women’s rights and in hunting.