November 30, 2021
Let’s call him Clay. He was a senior colleague and one of my mentors in thinking about hunters’ obligations to wildlife. He could hold a room in rapt attention as he discussed the finer points of our North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. He could wax eloquent over a campfire about the spiritual connection between humans and wild animals.
He was also an occasional hunting partner. So, when he took a snap-shot at a running mule deer buck, I was surprised. But then when Clay refused to follow up on his "miss" to confirm there was no evidence of a hit, I was irked.
"Probably just a flesh wound, if anything," he rationalized.
I had been taught to confirm every shot at an animal, even when it appeared to be a clean miss. To Clay’s consternation, I hiked the couple hundred yards to the spot and found shards of bone, a swatch of hair, and enough blood and meat to confirm what I had seen in my binocular. Clay had hit the buck, probably low in the front shoulder. I walked back with the news.
"Let’s keep moving. There’s more where that one came from," Clay said. "That’s the reward of good management."
That incident remains so clear because it’s one of the starkest examples of the disconnect between the abstractions of conservation and the real-world application of it. We talk a lot about "fair chase" and "ethical harvest," but those are just squishy ideas unless they’re implemented in the field.
Your state’s hunting regulations will let you know in exhaustive detail what is illegal. The unwritten rules that guide interactions between us sportsmen and -women are even more extensive. But we also must follow the silent commandments of conservation, one of which is to keep the welfare of animals we hunt as a top priority. Another equally powerful commandment: exercise restraint.
ETHICS IN PRACTICE
I’ll give you a few examples of how this plays out in the field. Obviously, Clay’s unconcern for injuring that deer is a stark reminder that we should do everything in our ability not to inflict needless pain and suffering on wildlife, but sometimes the lines governing our behavior get fuzzy.
Take party hunting. In my home state of Montana, it’s expressly forbidden for one hunter to fill the bag limit for another. I cannot, for instance, shoot a doe whitetail for my daughter. If she holds the tag, she must be the one to fill it. That rule is also in effect for waterfowl, but the total number of birds allowed by a group’s size sometimes wrongly governs shooting instead of individual limits.
Consider our response to the sense of competition we feel when we hunt or fish on public ground and water. This is one of the timeless tensions in our sporting traditions. We love the idea of more hunters and anglers joining our community of sportsmen and -women, but we hate to see them in our places.
I’m as guilty of this as the next guy, racing a stranger’s pickup to the sign-in box so I can have first pick of spots, or setting up too closely to another hunter’s blind at a public waterfowl refuge. Those are either subtle or stark violations of our unwritten rules of conduct in the field, but they can also lead to safety or resource implications. How does such behavior square with our public pronouncements that we are game-sharing conservationists?
Other examples of this include erection of treestands or blinds on either public or private properties. I’ve hunted the fencelines of places where I had permission and found stands placed just on the other side of the fence. Legal? Yes. Ethical? Maybe not.
Some of these violations of codes of conduct are intentional. Others probably aren’t, though they can seem like it at the time. I’ve gotten up unnaturally early on a cold, windy morning, slogged through icy water in the dark to set up decoys in a public marsh, and waited in eager anticipation for legal light only to have the first flights of birds working my spread scattered by "slob" hunters pass-shooting from the peripheral dikes.
Are they really "slobs"? Or are they hard-working hunters taking advantage of an opportunity, same as me? As with the rest of these ethical lapses, it’s situational.
LISTEN TO YOUR INNER VOICE
If you hunt or fish long enough, you get a sense for limiting your impact on a given resource. You exercise restraint. You don’t keep all the big bluegills, or you let that buck walk if you are concerned that you won’t be able to get all of his meat out of the backcountry without spoilage.
And you call out your buddy’s excessive or unseemly behavior. This can be among the hardest things to do, as I was reminded in a hunter-education class I taught in my hometown. I had mentioned to the students that one of the bravest things a beginning hunter can do is to point out a mentor’s bad behavior, whether it’s driving off established roads, trespassing or over-shooting a limit. After the class, as parents were arriving to pick up their kids, one father asked his son what he had learned that day.
"I learned that you do a lot of illegal stuff, Dad," the kid blurted out. The father flashed me a dark look and hurried his kid into the pickup, but I hope that moment made a difference.