Thursday, January 7, 2010

Has "Fair Chase" Changed?

Is “fair chase” still fair? I am not so sure it is. Perhaps the notion of fair chase that so many of us grew up with has started to undergo some changes that none of us could have possibly foreseen a decade or two ago. I raise this point because I was sitting out this storm by watching some outdoor TV programs while I sorted receipts (tax time, ugh). In one program, the hunter, a thoroughly charming and very pretty blond with her hair tied up in a bouncy pony tail that brought to mind Chantilly Lace and the Big Bopper, was deer hunting from a camouflaged hunting blind. The deer were thoroughly accustomed to the blind because it is a permanent fixture of their world. Doused, as I am sure she was, in scent killer and wearing camouflage, the only skill required was a good sight picture, trigger squeeze and the patience to wait for a “killer buck.” When it appeared, she waited until it was clear of any does and within easy range, then sighted through the scope and killed the buck. Whoopee and hand slapping, the deer ran across the field and fell over dead. She didn’t even need to negotiate a climb down from a tree stand.

Now, let’s be clear—I have hunted from tree stands, elevated blinds (hides) for deer and other game and I have killed my share from them and until just recently (actually, as a product of digging deeper into Eaton’s writing) I hadn’t thought too much about hunting from big game blinds. Now, as the universe of hunting is assaulted on all sides I am having second thoughts about some of the accepted methods of hunting—id est, the hunting blind that is a permanent fixture in the small universe that is the deer’s world. Thinking back on some of my African hunting experiences I have realized that the most rewarding, and the hunts that became the basis of my articles and short stories, were the hunts when we (Professional Hunter, tracker and me) stalked the quarry, whether it was a kudu, waterbuck or lion and accepted the rigors of the stalk as the hunt. Does the mean I am opposed to the use of stands for big game hunting? Not at all. There are many, many places where still hunting and an attempt to stalk an animal is to guarantee an empty tag.

I am not claiming a moral high ground here. I’ve killed several meat hogs that wandered into range of my rifle on their way to a feeder that was scattering corn on the ground. They were feral pigs and for me meat hogs only. I had no desire to slosh around in the swamps to stalk them. On my wall, however, hangs a trophy boar that I killed with a single shot to the head from my .270. My shot was between the boar’s eyes at a range of about five yards. If I would have missed I’m sure he would have gleefully ripped my legs to shreds because I’d been stalking him for hours and my rifle was an H&R single shot.

What I am asking is whether we need to seriously begin to rethink our claims of fair chase. Where is the dividing line between the fair chase of a tree stand and an elevated permanent box stand? Does fair chase demand that all of my hunts be still or stalks on the ground? Is a feeder outside the boundary of fair chase and if that is true what about some of the attractants that are becoming popular?

I, for one, believe there ARE answers to these questions, but the answers, as with all philosophical questions, come in the form of answers. We cannot ask a question of ourselves or our actions until we’ve asked questions about the actions and events that precede that question. If there are, as I believe, answers to the questions that trouble fair chase and hunting’s future then we must be willing to delve into ourselves and what is motivating us both as individuals and as an industry and ask much deeper questions than perhaps we’ve been willing to do.

In an email to Dr. Eaton I suggested that I would like to see a group of thinkers in the world of hunting meet someplace to engage in the activity of “thinking” about the questions of today’s hunting and hunters. This would be a time to ask questions about these issues and go much deeper into understanding them than we have ever before plunged. I had planned to bring the project up to some of the manufacturers I would be seeing at the SHOT Show later this month. Unfortunately I will not be attending the SHOT Show. Some health issues have conspired to keep me away from the show. To accomplish at least a little of my original plan I do plan to send the new issue of The Pines Review to the show with a friend who has agreed to give out copies of the review on CD. In my editorial for this issue I challenge the industry leadership to have the courage to help fund and organize a symposium of outdoor thinkers. I believe its time has come. It wouldn’t hurt for people to begin thinking about who should be invited and what form such a symposium should actually take.

What do you think? glg


NorCal Cazadora said...

Interestingly enough, the specific question you pose - still hunting/stalking v. blind hunting - is a debate that was taking place a century ago, at the time "fair chase" was developed. And then as now, the fair chase principle was needed to improve the image of hunting because of the rightful beating it was taking for the impact of market hunting on the game populations. (Dr. Andrea Smalley at Northern Illinois University has done a lot of interesting historical work looking at women in hunting that coincidentally covers this subject.)

As a duck hunter, I obviously hunt a lot of permanent blinds (and I can tell you that ducks view them as a natural part of the landscape from which blazing steel erupts on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays). And I watch the same kind of shows you were talking about and I can tell you spending eight hours in a deer stand doesn't seem like my cup of tea - not that it could be, because we don't hunt blacktail deer the way the rest of the country hunts whitetail - it's a different game. Nor am I interested in hunting over bait, though if my survival depended on it, I would do it in a heartbeat - screw the gentlemanly impositions of "fair chase."

I've said this on other blogs (including my own), but I'll say it here: I think it's dangerous for any of us to assume we know precisely where the "morality" line should be placed in the hunting spectrum, because it's not a simple matter of Ted Nugent hunting over bait in high-fence ranches versus Tred Barta flinging home-made stone-tipped arrows from his home-made longbow at game (that he usually misses). Most of us think of Tred Barta as an extreme because he imposes very primitive requirements on himself. But Tred Barta could rightfully say, "Look, I am the most righteous hunter - you should all hunt like this." Then we'd have five hunters left. I'd like to be able to hunt like he does, but since I'm not independently wealthy, I don't know that I'd have the time to convert to that lifestyle and practice it diligently enough to bring home food. But I sure as hell don't want to be told that's the only way I can hunt. His is a method appropriate for a hunter-gatherer society in which people don't have to work at jobs to pay $2,500 mortgages. That is not, however, American society. (cont’d in next comment)

NorCal Cazadora said...

(Continued from first comment) My own hunting ethics are driven by two principles: 1) Follow the laws, because they are designed to ensure the preservation of species. 2) Do my very best to ensure the fastest possible kill (which in my 3+ years of experience has been way easier with big game than with birds - what a shame I love duck hunting, eh?). I think the animal I have just shot doesn't give a damn if I chased it or hunted it from a blind, if it was in a food plot or high fence ranch or open range. It's life is ebbing away just the same, so the key question is how much suffering have I inflicted on it?

There is a third question that I wrestle with: Do I feel good about the hunt? I have not hunted in a high fence, but I have hunted pigs on the perimeter of one, in an area where pigs could get through the fences, so in effect, they were unfenced. I did not feel bad about that. But when I hunt planted pheasants (which is the dominant kind of pheasant hunting in California because we don't have as many wild ones as we used to), I am feeling less and less comfortable. I'm a new hunter so I need all the opportunity I can get, and I don't turn down planted-bird hunts when they're offered. But I don't feel great about them because I know all the birds will die that day, either at my hands or the hawks' claws.

So let's get rid of planted-bird hunts, right? We can all train our dogs on bumpers and they can get their field experience with the precious few wild pheasants we have here. And we'll have fewer hunters, but that's OK if the old people who can't do true wild hunts anymore stay home, and the kids who are learning to hunt don't have a place where they can rack up some experience, even though it's not the olden days and they can't do it the way our forebears did - spending a lot of time in the field - because they HAVE to go to school. And all those able-bodied adults can just move to South Dakota if they want to hunt pheasants all the time. Who says they have to keep their families and jobs in California?

Yeah, see, that's where these discussions make me nervous. Much of the way we hunt is designed to accommodate hunting within the society we've created - one in which most of us have jobs and responsibilities. (This, of course, excludes some of hunting's great thinkers, who are holed up in cabins in the wilderness that are home bases for their honorable hunts.) We are not hunter-gatherers who can do everything the old-fashioned and honorable way. So we have planted birds and feeders and permanent stands so people can fit this into their lives.

Sorry, long rant. But that's how I feel about this. I'll await the arrows now.

SimplyOutdoors said...

I think it becomes difficult to define a person's ethics. My way of ethical hunting could be different than your way of ethically hunting, but does that make it wrong?

I think not.

I've killed animals from a portable blind, a permanent blind, from an elevated treestand, while running, while standing still, and a variety of other ways. So who decides which way is ethical and the "right" way to hunt? That mindset scares me a little.

I'm with Holly. If you hunt using a legal method, and you do your best - through practice, practice, practice - to execute the quickest, most humane kill then I say go for it.

Who am I to define what your ethics are?

Phillip said...

Dammit... a post I have to actually read and consider?

Let me lead off with this... there's nothing "fair" about the predator/prey relationship. Doesn't matter if we're talking lions or humans, the balance is ineherently unequal. With that in mind, "Fair Chase" is a uniquely human construct, arbitrary and subjective from one hunter to the next.

I understand the idea of "sportsmanship" and "ethics" as they apply to hunters, mostly because I understand as well the PR value of maintaining a certain level of "honor" in the way we pursue game. How the non-hunting public perceives us can certainly have an impact on the future of our sport. There are more non-hunting voters than there are hunters. That's a simple fact that we can't ignore.

At the same time, what is the real purpose of "Fair Chase"? It's a concept drawn from a time when game populations were dwindling fast as a result of uncontrolled market hunting. "Ethical hunting" was more about preserving the remaining wildlife than about living up to some noble standard. Does it have a place in modern, sport hunting?

As I've said before, there's a big risk in this attempt to portray hunters as uber-ethical sportsmen under some increasingly narrow definition of ethics. Not only is it an impossible standard to uphold, it doesn't apply to all hunters. Every exception becomes the example used for anti-hunting arguments. We come off looking dishonest, and maybe we are.

I'm not sure I'm a "great thinker", and I'm certainly a nobody in the industry, but I'd love to take part in a discussion like you're proposing. I'm not so sure what would come of it in the "real world", but it would be a great intellectual exercise and could provide some serious talking points to bring back to the hunting community.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Phillip, I disagree - I think you are one of the great thinkers in hunting, precisely because you don't just take everything that's handed to you. You think things through, and you do so very honestly. I think that's needed.

Galen Geer said...

Hey Guys, I wrote a response to your comments because they are all really good, thinking comments.
Holly, I want to read more of Dr. Smalley's work, do you have some titles?
I'm hoping my response keeps your comments going (coming?).
I'm really serious about pushing for the symposium. I'd like to start putting together a list of names of people who should be sent invitations. By the way Phillip, don't sell yourself short. See NCIS for the rule number.

Anyway, I'm going to post my comments and hit the sack. Can't think any more today because of the meds.

native said...

Phillip and Holly have pretty much mirrored my thoughts on this subject Galen.

* So I will just simply say: Yes! to your question because the times have changed as well.

But on another path here, the idea of Non/Anti hunters sitting in their sterile, climate controlled cubicles (all payed for by our tax dollars, including their salaries).
And creating a set of Hunters Ethics along with the regulatory restriction's which come about after their meetings.
Well, that image just doesn't sit very well with me at all.
The Natures Conservancy immediately comes to mind when I ponder upon that thought.

I would have to whole heartedly agree to the idea of a summit, and meeting of the minds from some of our Hunting Thinker's.
Like yourself, Holly and Phillip!

Galen Geer said...

You hit a real problem square on the nail's head--non/antis actually writng the regulations and trying to influence what they believe is ethics. What they don't understand is that ethics is not a law but law's come from the study of ethics. If we have to think of ethics at all it is as that unseen hand from our mind that tugs on our shirt sleeves. The idea of "skill and nature" being the foundation is rooted so deep in human history it has become the source from which we should be writing the laws that govern hunting but if the person writing the law has no conception of the relationship of either "skill" or "nature" they should not be writing any laws governing hunting and hunters or any other outdoor participant activity. g

Chas S. Clifton said...

This all reminds me of a conversation that I had with Berkley Bedell (sp?), who founded the Berkley fishing tackle company.

It was about their scent-impregnated "grubs," etc. (We were fly-fishing for bluegills at the time.)

He took the line that it was OK to make fishing easier to get people in the door, whereupon they could switch to flies, etc., if they wanted.

Now of course he sold the "grubs" in packs of 12, but I really do think he cared for fishing as fishing too.

An analogy to deer stands?


Galen --

You bring up something I've wrestled with all my life.
The "sport" of hunting, and making it "sporting", has always been tied in modern society to activities like football and baseball, but to me when I first had a chance to hunt it meant so much more.

When I get a tag from DFG, that means it's my duty as a hunter to take a deer and fill that tag: it also means the first big meaty deer I can find, not the necessarily the one with the biggest rack.

DFG's done the research and come up with a number that says: for this herd, this number of deer must die so that the famine pendulum doesn't swing too far, over stressing the herd as a whole.

That to me, means that it's also my duty to kill the deer as efficiently as possible. For me that's a rifle. Because I was sniper-trained and deployed during the Central America War, I can shoot very long ranges that others might not do so efficiently. It's a very big controversy when a hunter can shoot consistently out to 800-900 yards to make a kill on a deer. Would I suggest to the average shooter to do so, without out any training, any practice? Hell, NO!

Would I suggest the same for another with similar practiced skills? Hell, YES! If you watch the "Best of the West" show on the Outdoor Channel, you've seen hunters using the proper tools with .5 to 1MOA shooting rifles with perfectly calibrated BDC scopes.

Often those who say it's not "fair" to shoot an animal that far, are those who still think of hunting as a "sport". For the same reason, I totally agree with hunting over bait, whether for deer, pig or bear. If DFG says these animals need to be taken, then, they need to be taken: and not wasted.
(cont'd in next)



If DFG is just doling tags to make money, as many might think (especially as anti-hunters imagine), then an investigation needs to be done on DFG so that all the tags that are available, or all the game and fish limits that are set, are set according to proper biological and environmental statistics.

With regards to hunting over bait, realizing there's no "fairness" in dying, I'm very happy to see a hunter sitting in a tree stand or tower, with a solid rest, a clear view of the target, a sighted rifle aimed by a practiced hand at a wild animal well within the shooter's comfort range--I'd never push that hunter to increase those limits in the field (Practicing at the rifle range that's another story).

I'd be much more unhappy to see a sudden quick shot at a surprised buck as it flees from a hunter stumbling upon it, the hunter tired, weary and unsure of his/her sight picture, perhaps wounding the deer in the process and not recovering it: I also think that every state should allow dogs for hunting, as done in Sweden, Germany and France, to ensure a deer that might be crippled or well hidden upon its death can be sniffed out and recovered--California and some Southern states are the only ones I know of presently that allow such practices.

Dr. Randy Eaton as you know is a strong proponent of hunting with a bow and arrow and feeling an energy shoot out from your heart into your prey's heart like the arrow from your bow at very close range. I've hunted with bow, from crossbow, compound bow, to my favorite the easy to carry long or flatbow. We have a great episode on making one here with Baser Bows, two Choctaw/Cherokee bowyer cousins: Very much fair chase in that primitive way.

I understand that spiritual connection to the kill. Even talked about it in my piece I did for our mutual friend, Dr. James Swan's book "The Sacred Art of Hunting" (2000), called "Moose Hunting, Healing Heart", where I recanted a moose hunt in Alaska that I was party to with a Tlingit/Athabaskan medicine woman that led to my understanding of how important hunting is to the human mind and spirit.

By the time the moose "offered itself", it was only 10 feet away. Well within my comfortable range of 20 yards for shooting an animal with a traditional long bow. What did I have in my hands? A scoped .280 Rem. Dropped it with a single shot to the head.

So close, with a such an advanced weapon that I could easily shoot out to 500 yards with a normal 4-Plex reticle--was it sporting? Was it fair chase?

All I know is that Alaska DFG gave me a subsistence license that said I should take a spike bull, or a bull with a spread of 50inches or above, and when the tender spike bull hit the ground, I used everything from the feet to the antlers and hide: tasty Irish cubeen from the feet, most comfortable knee-high mocassins from the hide and buttons and eating utensils from the antlers, not to mention the best tasting meat and innards to make sausage. The stomach even became a medicine drum for the next healing circle after it dried on its hoop.

Has "Fair Chase" changed? Yes, and I hope it goes more towards an understanding of how important hunting is to wildlife conservation, and not just an activity or sport for people to get together and cheer, or call foul.

Semper Fi,

P.S. Dr. Randall Eaton will be teaching the "Sacred Hunt: Animals as Teachers" 3-day workshop with Naturalist John Young in Pescadero in February that I'll be covering for my column:

Anonymous said...

I think the definition will continue to change as hunting continues to become more of a luxury sport and public access to hunting declines.

My father has no interest in traveling out of state or even out of the local area to hunt. To him it's kind of perverse to travel so far to get meat. He has his line but it has more to do with geography than anything else.

While I don't really agree with him, he is my dad and his philosophy wears at my conscience.