April 27, 2020
The mule deer could barely walk, but there he was, sniffing does and bristled up like any other rut-addled buck in mid-November. His hip was obviously broken, probably by a collision on the highway adjacent to the wide-open hayfield where he was attracting a crowd of fellow hunters.
This was no ordinary buck. He had five towering points on each side of his wide and heavy rack, and a drop tine like a black comma hung from his right beam. His front shoulder and back hip were raw and bloody from his run-in with the bumper, and he dragged a back leg like it was a gunnysack full of anvils, but otherwise, he was a fine specimen of a Montana mule deer.
The handful of hunters watching him from the fence line talked about what he might score, or how they could get permission to hunt the private field. No one suggested that killing the buck, in his impaired state, might not be ethical. But neither did anyone mention that killing the buck, which was clearly not going to heal before the winter or a coyote killed him, slowly and painfully, might be the most ethical action a mercy-minded hunter could take.
Welcome to the gray area of hunting in America.
When we buy a hunting license, hunters accept a wide range of legal conditions. We agree not to trespass. We agree to hunt during legal hours and to abide by any bag limits, as well as weapon, species and season restrictions. As much as we like to complain about the dizzying complexity of hunting regulations, they generally are black and white.
But life and death in the field isn’t as clearly defined, and this chasm of situational fuzziness is what we call "fair chase." Its precise meaning differs from person to person and even from hunt to hunt, but to me, it means that we hunters give the game we chase a chance of escaping that’s equal to the chance we have of bagging it. That tension between success and failure is what gives hunting its delicious edge. If we guaranteed that we’d kill every animal we hunted, every time, then there would be no challenge to hunting, and I for one would quickly lose interest. Similarly, if we never had success in the field, hunting would become a joyless pursuit of the impossible.
A friend of mine has a different definition of fair chase. He claims it’s similar to pornography: You can’t necessarily define it, but you know it when you see it. He sees fair-chase violations where many of us don’t: when hunters use bait and when predator hunters use thermal technology to hunt at night. Another friend considers treestands to be a fair-chase violation since deer didn’t evolve with airborne predators. Yet another friend thinks food plots are unfair, because they are “unnatural” attractants.
I may think those are perfectly legitimate, legal and accepted hunting methods, but the power of personal ethics is that they are, well, personal.
So, how do we even the odds? How do we give wildlife a chance to get away? One way is by limiting our lethality and not taking undue advantage of wildlife.
The Importance of Self-Restraint
Consider, for a moment, all the advantages that modern hunters have over the animals we hunt. We have all-terrain vehicles to transport us in comfort to the field where we use magnified optics atop far-shooting rifles to extend our lethal capability for hundreds of yards. We have remote cameras to identify individual animals, GPS technology to find our way home, and space-age textiles to keep us warm and dry. We have compound bows carved by CNC machines to launch carbon-matrix arrows tipped with titanium blades.
Given all those advantages, we can demonstrate fair-chase behavior by simply imposing limits on our actions. Maybe that means not taking a 500-yard shot, even though you have demonstrated your proficiency at that distance, because the animal doesn’t even know you’re in the neighborhood. Maybe it means not hunting the rut, because a distracted bull or buck has compromised survival instincts.
Restraint itself is a modern notion. Do you think Native Americans exercised restraint when they stampeded bison off cliffs? Or when Congolese hunters trapped bushbuck in spear pits?
But our ability to restrain ourselves is a product of our successful North American system of wildlife management. A huntable surplus of animals means that we have the luxury of letting some animals get away, because we can reasonably assume that we’ll encounter others.
Ethics Litmus Test
If you aren’t sure if your action is ethical, then it probably isn’t. In this way, it’s useful to apply my friend’s pornography definition to your actions. Are you proud of the game you bagged, because it challenged you and tested your skills? Are you surprised at your successful outcome because it was so unassured? Those are good indicators that yours was fully a fair-chase experience.
The opposite is also true. Are you slightly sheepish about the big bull you shot because you cut a corner, maybe because you took an overlong shot to kill him or because you shot him in a rancher’s haystack? Are you less than satisfied with the limit of geese you bagged because you went out with the expectation that you’d get your limit, and anything less would have been disappointing? Those little whispers of discomfort are important. Listen to them. That’s fair chase talking.
One of the great values of developing a code of personal ethics is that it keeps you honest to yourself, and coincidentally to the whole sheaf of legal regulations that guide us. But it also keeps you honest to the game you cherish. Think about all the gifts that wildlife provides: food for our families, adrenaline for our veins, challenge to our instincts dulled by technology, surprise at unexpected behavior and a constant reminder that we are all temporary residents on this earth.
What do we owe wild animals in return? Room and tolerance to share our landscapes, fair pursuit, and a quick and painless death.
With those considerations in mind, let’s return to that broken-hipped buck. There’s no right or wrong answer about whether or not to pursue him, assuming you adhere to the law. But as you think about your own response, ask yourself two questions. First, does your decision depend on the size of his rack? Your answer to that question will help frame your action as one stemming from fair-chase principles, or taking advantage of a situation, or acting out of human mercy.
The second question gets at that little silent voice in your ear. Would you be proud to display the mounted antlers of that buck on your wall? Nobody can answer that but you.