The morning fog had finally burned off and Tonya Lewman could now see everything, the sagebrush glittering as the frost melted, the hills rising from prairie and a small group of antelope near a draw in the distance. She, her hunting guide Kellen Little, who owns the land, and another hunter, walked almost silently up the draw. Only the slightest breeze disturbed the landscape, causing the grass to lightly shimmy as Lewman started to crawl up a hill. She was slowing her breathing when in the distance another shot rang out. Everyone in the group froze, faces pinched in excitement, sagging to disappointment. The animals she’d been stalking took off. Another failed attempt on Lewman’s first day of antelope hunting.
Lewman was one of 45 women taking part in the Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt Oct. 6-9, based on the Ranch at Ucross. She had never hunted, but came to the country’s only all-women antelope hunt for a trophy to mount above her fireplace, but also for something deeper: confidence, pride and a reminder she could do things for herself after years of caring for other’s needs.
Six years ago, Marilyn Kite, of Jackson, then the Chief Justice — and first woman — on the Wyoming Supreme Court, was hunting with her sister-in-law Karey Stebner, of Rawlins, in the Red Desert. Kite shot an antelope at about 300 yards.
Stebner said she should sign up for the annual One Shot Antelope Hunt in Lander, a celebrity event that is traditionally men-only. That led them to think, what if there were a similar event, just for women?
The Wyoming Women’s Foundation heard the idea. Members of the foundation board saw offering a women’s-only antelope hunt as a way to foster camaraderie and teach a Wyoming tradition to the other half of society. In its fourth year this year, the hunt drew 45 women, including 17 from out of state. Of all those attending, 15 had never hunted big game, or anything at all, before the event. The Ranch at Ucross hosts the hunters and local landowners act as guides and allow access to their properties, situated in an area where normally many antelope permits go unused.
The women’s hunt has grown far beyond what Kite and Stebner envisioned. It’s become an event about more than hunting, about empowerment and self-sufficiency, Kite said. Each year women approach her, often crying, saying the event is one of the most important things they’ve done in their lives.
For Lewman, the hunt felt like a turning point.
When Lewman was younger and pictured her life at 50, she saw herself at home, married, maybe with hobbies like sewing and cooking.
“It didn’t turn out that way,” she said.
A path to empowerment
Lewman grew up in Nebraska and married her high school sweetheart. She had five kids when she was in her 20s. She and her husband divorced after 25 years of marriage and Lewman began almost immediately dating the man who would become her second husband.
Last November, she went through a hysterectomy, on a doctor’s recommendation, to prevent cancer. Around the same time she’d gotten braces, her crooked teeth becoming a health issue. Then she separated from her second husband in January — after just two and a half years of marriage — and suddenly found herself alone for the first time in decades, her 50th birthday approaching in March.
Lewman found herself single, with braces and unsure of who she was or even what she liked to do.
“Now I’m learning to just like myself and what I like to do, something you don’t think about as much when you are with someone,” she said.
She’d felt distant from her children since she remarried and wanted to find a way to reconnect. When her second oldest son, William Lewman, of Rawlins, complained he didn’t have a hunting partner, she volunteered. He looked at her skeptically, but hunting always intrigued Tonya. For most of her life, she thought of it is as man’s activity. Not anymore. This was her year of change. She signed up for a hunter’s safety course and then applied for a scholarship for the Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt.
That’s how she found herself belly-crawling through the sagebrush on Oct. 7.
It was still dark when she left the Ranch at Ucross at 6:45 a.m. An unusual fog settled in on the prairie, shrouding the buttes and hills and hiding the antelope. For much of the morning her hunting party drove and walked searching for animals. Lewman was quiet, too nervous to talk much. She was doing the hunt for herself, but couldn’t help thinking of everyone else.
She wanted her guide to feel successful. She didn’t want her hunting partner to get bored waiting for her to get a shot. She even worried about the reporter along on the trip getting a good story.
“I didn’t want to fail,” she said. “I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.”
On her first real stalk, her breathing was ragged with nerves. Adrenaline made her head pound. False alarm. The animals had long spotted the hunting group creeping in the brush and took off.
Then came the antelope the other shot scared off.
Mid-afternoon she saw several does that they’d seen earlier in the day. Some people only want a buck, but Lewman said she was ready to try for a doe after her unsuccessful morning.
She crept across the landscape and spotted a buck she hadn’t seen earlier, with the does. The animals saw her and ran, but not far. She quietly crawled again up a hill, only to watch the animals bound away again. She almost started to walk back to the truck when the hunting group spotted the small bunch of antelope on the other side of a hill, right below them.
Lewman inched her way forward and aimed her gun at the buck. Then she waited. She slowed her breathing. She adjusted her gun. She watched the animal and then pulled the trigger.
It went down immediately. Lewman’s face turned bright red. She wheezed for breath, and her hand started slapping the dirt.
“I hit it. I hit it,” she gasped.
She tried to keep her gun trained on the buck, in case it got up and she needed another shot, but it lay still.
Before she started to field dress the animal, she petted its fur.
“He’s perfect,” she said. “He’s so pretty.”
She found the bullet hole in his lung. It was a good, clean shot.
Lewman plans to eat the meat and mount the head.
“I have a fireplace and nothing above it,” she said. “At least not yet.”
She hopes the antelope will remind her of what she accomplished, and also the year she turned 50. It wasn’t at all what she had pictured, but that’s OK. It might just end up being better.