Women’s Antelope Hunt Celebrates 10 Years of Empowering Women

Participants find confidence through “life-changing” event

Cheyenne hunter Angie Lebeda poses with her buck after harvesting it during the 10th Annual Women's Antelope Hunt on Oct. 8. (Courtesy photo from Angie Lebeda)

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

BUFFALO, Wyo.—Amber Murphy shaded her eyes against the early afternoon sun as she swapped stories with her hunting partner, Angie Lebeda, about belly crawls through sagebrush and scaling steep cliffs and ravines. The two stood on the clipped lawn of the main ranch house located on the sprawling grounds of the Ranch at Ucross, about 20 miles west of Buffalo in the foothills of the Bighorns.

Angie Lebeda, 48, and Amber Murphy, 38, have formed a lifelong friendship after teaming up for the antelope hunt. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher).

Up until two days ago, the women had never met. Now they consider themselves close friends after teaming up for the 10th annual Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt last weekend. Murphy, 38, and Lebeda, 48, were two of 46 participants from 12 states selected for this year’s hunt, which was sponsored by the Wyoming Women’s Foundation.

Lebeda was back from her hunt with an antelope in tow and was working off her post-hunt high as she handed a Snickers coffee drink to Murphy. The coffee is a reward for Murphy’s first successful big game hunt, and neither knows the origins of the drink. Their guide, Caleb Rodriguez, told them that you get a coffee when you fill your tag.

Murphy had stayed back that morning to process her antelope, so Lebeda caught her up on the details of her hunt.

Lebeda said she wasn’t sure if she could pull off the required shot, but she credits the supportive environment for the kill more than her hunting skills, which haven’t been put to the test for the past eight years.

Lebeda has hunted a lot in her life, but it was always with her husband and family. This was the first time she went with a female partner and was surrounded by women.

“This is the best hunt I’ve ever had in my life,” she said. “It’s an entirely different experience. It’s so much more than just hunting.”

Fast-growing demographic

The Wyoming Women’s Antelope hunt debuted in 2013 as a vehicle for mentoring and developing camaraderie among women. Marilyn Kite, Wyoming’s first female Supreme Court Chief Justice, was among its “founding does.”

The intention of the antelope hunt is to foster mentoring opportunities for women to become more economically self-sufficient, according to the foundation’s executive director Rebekah Smith.

In addition to the guided hunt, the four-day event included group activities like fly fishing, skeet shooting and wild game cooking demonstrations. Participants received hunting education, loaner rifles and other necessary gear, and they were paired with experienced hunting partners to maximize learning opportunities.

Professional chef Jamie Teigen prepares an antelope heart during her wild game cooking workshop. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

This year, there were 16 first-time hunters—no surprise given the steady uptick in female hunters in Wyoming and beyond. In 2010, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department sold 10,442 hunting licenses to women for big game hunts. In 2021, that number crept up to 12,967, according to the department.

The highest year on record for female hunting licenses in the state is 13,530 in 2020. The department’s public information officer Sara DiRienzo said that number could be attributed to the pandemic when outdoor activity increased across Wyoming.

Interestingly, 14 to 17-year-olds are the fastest-growing demographic of new female hunters, followed by 18 to 24-year-olds. In 2020, female teens between the ages of 14 and 17 accounted for about 200 of hunting licenses, the data shows.

Group hunts are perfect opportunities to encourage women to hunt on their own, said Jamie Moralez, director of the Wyoming chapter of the Dallas Safari Club. Historically, the barrier to entry for women has been lack of female mentoring, she noted, as women relied on men to teach them hunting skills and guide them in the field. Organized programs for women to mentor other women in hunting are relatively new;  Moralez’s group also offers events to train women to venture out on their own.

To date, there are over 250 alumnae of the annual antelope hunt. They call themselves “Sisters of the Sage”—and 118 of them were first-time big game hunters.

Empowering women

As they stood arm in arm in front of the ranch house, Lebeda and Murphy agreed that the promise of camaraderie and empowerment can’t be overstated.  

“Everyone is your biggest cheerleader,” Lebeda said, who was greeted by congratulatory cheers when she returned with the animal.

The women hunt and bunk together for the long weekend. The package costs $3,500 per person with about a third of the participants – including Murphy and Lebeda – attending free on scholarships.

Angie Lebeda and Amber Murphy surprised themselves with their ability to navigate steep terrain during the antelope hunt. (Courtesy photo from Angie Lebeda)

Both Murphy, who came from Fort Lupton, Colorado, and Lebeda, who lives in Cheyenne, were sponsored by their employer, Magpul Industries.

Murphy heard about the hunt several years ago from other participants who’d returned with glowing stories.  “One woman told me it was life-changing,” she said, “and I wanted to experience that for myself.”

Before the hunt, Murphy doubted she had the physical and emotional stamina to pull it off.

But she was confident about the shooting skills she’d gained through a women’s shooting group over the past few years. Aiming at paper targets was one thing, she said, but it’s quite another to point a gun at an animal.

Murphy surprised herself, by remaining really calm and confident.

“I pretended I was shooting at a target,” she said. “My heart was racing, and my adrenaline was pumping, but I just took a shot and it went down.” 

Murphy, too, credits the supportive hunters for giving her the confidence to actually do it. It wasn’t enough for her to shoot an antelope; she wanted to field dress and process it herself. Apart from about five minutes of dry-heaving as she gutted the antelope, Murphy found the processing part to be easier than she expected.

Now, Murphy has a freezer full of meat that she’s procured herself.

“This is the most confident I have ever felt in my life,” she said with a shy smile.

Along with the sponsors, dozens of volunteers help run the event.

“It’s really great to be part of helping women, especially the first-time hunters, get their confidence,” said Hannah Leonard, 30, who drove down from Wilson to help participants sight-in their rifles. “We want to make sure they leave feeling like rock stars.”

Leonard started hunting five years ago for health reasons. She has Crohn’s disease and found that ground beef didn’t sit well. When someone offered her a taste of venison stew, she liked the flavor and found it didn’t negatively impact her digestion.

From there, Leonard decided to become self-sufficient and get her own meat: “It was a need to hunt for myself, and I really wanted to know where my food came from.”

Now, she fills her own freezer with whitetail deer from Montana. Bird hunting might be next.  

Sustainability and conservation are big parts of hunting and the antelope event, she noted, along with empowering women.

“It’s really changed my life,” Leonard said.

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