Feds To Ban Import/Export Of Captive Deer?

June 12, 2014

I’ve been following several developments around the captive deer breeding industry of late, and things are getting interesting (to say the least).

In Missouri, there’s an effort to transfer the management of captive deer and elk to the Department of Agriculture, and take away the authority of the state’s wildlife agency.  This is in response, apparently, to recent proposed legislation by the wildlife agency that would impose strict limitations on the farms, including import restrictions and tougher rules about containment fences.  I don’t have all the details here, and I don’t even know what kind of impact the farmers would be looking at, but the conflict definitely illustrates some of the challenges facing the deer breeding industry overall… as well as the challenges to the states to manage the health of native, wild populations.

And, on the federal level, several state representatives, led by U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Virginia, have submitted a letter (click here to download and read the letter) to the Secretary of Agriculture requesting a federal-level ban on interstate import of captive cervids.

While I’ve got some personally mixed feelings about the industry, particularly the inconsistent regulation around health inspections and management of captive herds; I also find some of the justifications behind the proposed bans and management questionable.

For example, in the letter to the USDA, an entire paragraph is couched in loaded, negatively-charged language aimed at the emotional arguments against high-fence hunting.  Just take a look at the way this thing is worded:

Interstate commerce in captive cervids has exploded in recent decades, as canned-hunting facilities seek to increase their profits by breeding deer and elk with abnormally-large antlers and stocking large herds so they can guarantee a kill. Animals raised at canned-hunting facilities often are accustomed to human presence and therefore do not flee at the sight of trophy hunters. The lack of fair-chase in these operations has led hunting groups like Boone Crockett, Pope Young, and the Izaak Walton League to oppose such unsporting activities.

Because I know that the folks who craft these communications are professional spin-managers, I also know that it is no accident that this emotionally-driven, non-scientific claptrap is delivered before any factual or scientific arguments are made.  The obvious intent is to prejudice the reader (because not only did this go to Secretary Vilsack, it was meant to find its way to the general public as well).  It’s a tactic heavily used by anti-hunting organizations such as HSUS and PETA, and its use in this letter makes me question the real agenda behind the effort.

What’s even more critical here, is that the paragraph that purports to address the scientific justifications for the ban appears to entirely draw its conclusions based on a series of articles from the Indianapolis newspaper, the Indy Star.

According to a recent series of investigative reports by the Indianapolis Star, and supported by multiple scientifc studies, deer and elk kept in these confined breeding operations are particularly susceptible to chronic wasting disease (CWD), a prion infection related to Mad Cow disease that is always fatal to deer and elk (whether wild or captive) and has been found in 22 states. Further, Bovine Tuberculosis has been found in at least 50 captive deer and elk herds across the country, having spread from captive-bred deer to cattle in four states already. Captive-bred cervids are kept in close quarters and thus are particularly susceptible to acquiring and transmitting these infectious diseases, which are known to affect wild cervids and livestock and which could evolve to infect humans that consume venison from CWD infected animals.

Now I read this “investigative series” a little while back, and even commented on it here on the Hog Blog.  As I said then, I found the piece interesting, particularly in regards to the history of the deer farming industry.  I also thought some of the questions it raised about disease were compelling, and certainly worth review.  At the same time, I questioned the general slant of the piece as a pretty obvious bias became clear about halfway through the four-part series.  But whatever else it did, it raised more questions than it answered, and it sure as hell doesn’t serve as any sort of factual basis for federal, regulatory action.

The overarching conflict here is no surprise to me, and it certainly shouldn’t come as a shock to the deer farming and high-fence hunting industries.  It’s been boiling up for a while, particularly as the arguments about CWD have raged back and forth.  Unfortunately, as always happens with this kind of topic, the discussion has become overly politicized and emotional.  The issue has become a rallying flag for agenda-driven organizations, whether Boone and Crockett or HSUS (and in this debate, I think the lines between the two get blurry… there, I said it) and the conversation becomes a matter of public opinion rather than science and logic.

There is no question that captive deer breeding facilities and high-fence ranches have the potential to negatively impact both the wild environment and agriculture… whether they’re raising deer, elk, or wild boar.  It stands to reason that these risks need to be mitigated, and that mitigation requires consistent regulation.  Some regulation is already in place, but it is not as consistent as it needs to be.  Both the states and the federal government should be working on this, with industry input.  The traditional livestock industry already lives with this model.  Why should the deer or exotic game industry be any different?

At the same time, the risks need to be realistically gauged, and regulation should be commensurate with the science… not with the panic generated by people and organizations who have an agenda to push.


Droning On About Drones… Some More

May 6, 2014

Drones and hunting.  Drones

It’s a hot topic, no doubt, as we see states like Alaska and Colorado moving to ban the use of drones for hunting, while hunting/conservation organizations are mobilizing their memberships in opposition of the technology.

I’m no expert on drones, outside of a couple of cool sales demonstrations, some YouTube videos, and social media advertising, so I try to temper my own response accordingly.  But I can’t help wondering, how much of this ado is about nothing?

For example, how, exactly, do the opponents of drone technology see these things being used by hunters?  It’s easy to fantasize about possibilities, of course, but what are the realities… even given a few more years for the technology to develop?

I’ve considered the most obvious.  You fly your drone out until it spots game, then you run (or drive) to the location and shoot the animal.  This is similar to how some folks have used traditional aircraft in the past, and the tactic was so successful (and controversial) that most states have banned the practice.

But when you consider that scenario… along with the technological limitations on commercially available, civilian drones… it really should give you pause.

My first question is how much advantage would a drone, with a line-of-sight range of around a mile, give a hunter?  Would it be that much better than simply getting to a high point with binoculars or a spotting scope?  Wouldn’t using quality optics (at a fraction of the cost of a high-end drone) actually improve your ability to locate distant game animals… not to mention presenting far less likelihood of spooking the quarry with the noise of a small aircraft?

I think that some of the dissonance here probably comes from a public perception of drones that is driven by images from the Middle Eastern war… the idea of drones circling silently for hours or even days, providing high-resolution telescopic and infra-red visibility to the movements and locations of “targets”… and, of weaponized drones delivering deadly payloads on these “targets”.

First off, let’s immediately dispense with the idea that weaponized drones will ever be legal for civilian use in the United States.  Outside of some hobbyist videos (of questionable authenticity), that sort of thing isn’t going to happen.

The reality is, in the civilian market, the war materiel we see on the evening news is not the kind of technology that’s currently available to JackLittle drone or Jill Hunter.  And what is available is either going to be a nifty version of existing model aircraft, or it’s going to be pretty closely regulated by the FAA.  As you might imagine, it’s unlikely that the skies over America are likely to be filled with unmanned, personal aircraft with the size and capabilities that would be required to create an appreciable, ethical dilemma for US sportsmen.

The FAA has been tasked with the challenge of producing a comprehensive set of rules for unmanned aircraft by September of 2015. The primary consideration is public safety, and restrictions will more than likely include the requirement to fly these aircraft within physical sight of the operator at all times.  This means that, while a hunter may fly his device over a canyon or woodlot, he’s not (legally) going to be sending it on missions over the tundra to track caribou, or out across the Rocky Mountain wilderness in search of distant elk.

So what, then?  Using drones to drive animals to the shooters?  I guess that idea has some sort of merit to it, because it is, at least, theoretically plausible.  I could envision flying your Orthocopter out to the far side of a thicket, and slowly buzzing overhead to push the deer out of cover.

But is it unethical?  By what measure?  Wouldn’t that same thinking suggest that using hounds to drive game is equally unethical… if not moreso?

Given the glut of technology currently available on the hunting market, I simply can’t see why the drone issue has become such a hotbed of controversy.  With game cameras that can transmit wireless signals over the cellular phone networks and long-range rifle systems capable of making kills at 1000 yards (or more), the fantastical suggestion that drones are somehow a breaking point seems sort of ludicrous.

The whole thing gives rise to another thought, out on the darker, cynical edges of my mind.  Is the drone (non)issue, due to its high visibility, actually just a vehicle for recruitment by the conservation organizations who are raising the battle flag?  With social media providing a free, high-traffic platform for promotion, are the organizations simply taking advantage of the situation to generate support and rally membership?

Is it because it’s such an easy win, unlike more divisive topics such as high fence hunting and baiting?  In social media discussions, the opposition to the use of drones for hunting is practically unanimous.  The handful of folks, like myself, who challenge the status quo do so not because we support the concept, but only because the idea itself is so unlikely (and because legislation to pre-emptively ban an imaginary boogie-man is destined to misfire).

So are these organizations (and has anyone else noticed how many there are, all of a sudden) simply preaching to the choir, building up a furor until the collection plate can be passed around?

I don’t have the answers… just my thoughts.  But the whole drone thing seems to be much more of a tempest in a tea cup than a substantial, ethical consideration.

Don’t we, as sportsmen and conservationists, have more important things to deal with?

Is It Hunting?

April 7, 2014

Last week, my brother and I spent two full days at Crystal Creek Bowhunting, a high fence ranch over near Del Rio, Texas.  Our plan was to target axis deer and hogs.  The package we paid for also allowed us to shoot a turkey.  We could swap the axis for any other exotic we encountered, which could have included sika deer, blackbuck antelope, or various sheep (ramboulet, mouflon, aoudad, or hybrids).

Each of us spent one arrow, shot at wild hogs during the last light of the first night’s hunt (neither of us connected).  Each of us also passed up a single shot opportunity at a “wild” sheep during the trip.  I got caught flat-footed by a big tom turkey that snuck in through the brush and suddenly appeared, five yards away.  Other than that, we had no shot opportunities and spent the majority of the time in the field enjoying the plethora of birds that flock through Texas during the spring migration.  I may have napped a little in the warm, spring morning sun.  Neither of us killed anything except time.

During the trip, the contentious debate about high fence hunting kept running through my mind.  In particular, I kept thinking about the insistence by some folks that high fence hunting isn’t hunting at all.  The argument centers on the fact that high fence hunting is easy, and that the animals don’t have a fair chance of escape.

So is it the difficulty of the hunt that makes it “hunting”?

I’ve got a spot at the Tejon Ranch, back in California, where I could guarantee a shot at a wild hog.  Even better, I could just about pinpoint when the animals would appear, and where they’d show up first.  Everyone I ever took to that spot had at least one shot opportunity.  I am certain that, had I wanted to do so, I could have laid around camp all day long, driven out to that spot in the last half hour before sunset, and killed a hog (if I shot straight)… every trip.

Tejon isn’t a high fence ranch.  There were no feeders, and no food plots.  Was that “hunting”?

When I was guiding for mule deer out at Coon Camp Springs, in California’s eastern Sierra, my clients had a 100% shot opportunity rate.  Once I learned the lay of the land, I had specific areas that almost always produced deer.  By the time the clients showed up, I could usually have them tagged out within two days… often sooner.

Coon Camp Springs is about 7000 acres of unfenced land, surrounded by millions more acres of public and private property.  With the exception of some habitat restoration work, there is nothing unusual there to specifically attract or hold deer.  But the hunts were typically easy.  Was that “hunting”?

A few years back, I joined my brother on his first elk hunting trip.  The first morning, the sun came up on us about four or five miles into the Uncompahgre Wilderness.  We were surrounded by elk.  Fifteen minutes later, my brother had a 320″ bull on the ground.  The next morning, I set up on the edge of some dark timber while the guide and wrangler took the horses down to pack out my brother’s bull.  By the time they got back up the mountain to where I was, I had almost finished skinning and boning out my own bull.  Sure, it was a fairly long hike in and out, but it wasn’t what I’d call a “hard” hunt.  In fact, it was far easier than some high fenced, hog hunts I’ve been on.  Was it “hunting”?

Enough with the redundancy, then.

Besides the relative ease of all of those hunts, high fence and low, they share one other thing in common.  I enjoyed them.  Even the ostensibly “fruitless” bow hunt on the high fence ranch was a great time.  I had fun, and really, isn’t that what hunting is about?

There are people who would tell me that my visit to that high fence ranch wasn’t “hunting”.  But I have to say, it sure felt like it to me.  As I sat there with my release clipped on, waiting with ragged breath and racing pulse for the spotted boar to take just two more steps… it felt like any other time or place, sitting in the same position with the same apprehensive tension.  Or leaning back in the stand, nearly dozing under the late morning sun… I could have been on any hillside in any place.  And later, around the skinning pole with the guys who were successful, it was the same jokes and banter that I’ve heard around skinning poles in every state and setting I’ve ever experienced.

No, I was there… and I’m pretty certain I was hunting.  I am also dead sure that I enjoyed the experience, and it makes me wonder; in what world ruled by reason and logic could anyone tell me that I didn’t?

Isn’t that a foolish thought… to tell someone else that they couldn’t have enjoyed an experience because you wouldn’t enjoy it yourself?

Is it hunting?  It is to me.  Maybe it doesn’t meet your definition, but that’s alright.






Friday Mixed Bag – Pig Man On Discovery, And Deer Farming “Investigation”

March 28, 2014

It’s one of those days where I really can’t decide what I’d rather write about.

First of all, it’s hardly news now that the Pig Man, Brian Quaca, has apparently hit the big time with a new show on the Discovery Channel, Boss Hog.

Here’s the story, according to the press release that I (and pretty much anyone who’s ever written about hunting or shooting) received yesterday.

BOSS HOG, premiering on Discovery Friday April 11 at 10PM ET/PT, follows Brian “Pigman” Quaca and his crew as they take on Texas’ wild hog problem, building his own “pig empire.”

In recent years, wild hogs have ravaged Texas, causing an estimated 1.5 billion dollars in agricultural damage annually. Where most see this as a nuisance, Pigman sees it as an opportunity, making money off every aspect of the pig – from booking clients on high-end hog hunts and customizing hog hunting bows, to stuffing and mounting trophy boars.

Expanding Pigtime Enterprises’ hunting empire, Pigman has also partnered with local barbeque joint, Wright’s BBQ. At the helm of the BBQ business is Quita, helping Wright’s serve up delicious BBQ to Texas for the past 50 years. Whether she’s trying to curb Pigman’s big business ideas for Wright’s or just keep tabs on Pigman’s wacky dad, Dap, Quita’s partnership with Pigtime has become a lot more than she bargained for.

Although Pigman’s hands are full building a successful business, it seems like most days are spent managing his hair-brained staff. No one tests Pigman’s patience more than his dad, Dap, who runs the Pigtime hunting ranch.

“With Dap, if it’s not one thing it’s another, but somehow he always gets the job done – he just has a unique way of solving problems.”

Above everything else, Pigman has one main goal in life: to provide for his thirteen year old son, J.D. Pigman’s every ambition stems from the idea that he’ll one day pass on his pig business and pig legacy to his son. Right now, Pigman’s doing everything in his power to build on that legacy and take his pig empire to the masses.

So, imagine Duck Dynasty with hog hunters.

Look, while I may not have enjoyed every episode, I’m generally a fan of Brian Quaca’s, Pig Man, The Series program on Sportsman Channel.  When he’s doing what he does best, hunting and eradicating hogs, he’s entertaining and often educational.  He makes no bones that killing hogs isn’t just about sport hunting, but he also doesn’t pretend he isn’t having a great time.  I respect that.

But I’m not nuts about anything that Discovery has applied their sensationalistic, lowest-common-denominator approach to “reality”, spin on.  I hope Quaca and his team will rise above that, and I might even break my personal boycott of Discovery to catch an episode or two… with the clear-eyed realization that this is supposed to be entertainment, not reality.

The bright side is, Pig Man will continue to appear on Sportsman for the time being.

Now, to an entirely different topic…

A few folks on my Facebook feed have shared this “investigative series” on deer farming and high fence hunting from the Indy Star.  The piece purports to “expose” the harmful and unethical practices behind this industry, and while I think it gets off to a reasonably good start, by the end of the last segment (there are four “chapters”), it’s easy to see that the mantle of subjectivity has slipped a bit and the agenda starts to drive the content.

Nevertheless, I strongly recommend giving it a read if you’re at all interested in the topic.  The first chapter does present some interesting history about the deer farming and trophy deer breeding industry, and the next three chapters offer some food for thought.  But I also advise reading it critically, because there’s a good bit of speculation mixed with the facts.

And, in the spirit of full disclosure for anyone reading this blog who doesn’t already know this about me, I am not opposed to high fence hunting, or game farming.  While my preference will always be a rugged hunt in the backcountry, I do enjoy many kinds of hunting experiences, including high fences and planted bird preserves.  But probably the most important thing to know about my position on this topic, is that I absolutely believe that none of us has the right to define the experience of the hunt for anyone else… as long as it is reasonably safe, legal, and does not threaten the natural resources.


Does Hunting Make Us Human? – Discussion At Center For Humans & Nature

March 4, 2014

How to begin?

I’m not sure I’ve ever even heard of the Center for Humans and Nature before today (or maybe I have and didn’t remember), but from the sounds of it, it’s kind of intimidating.  It sounds like a place full of lofty thinkers and deep conversations about Leopold, Audubon, and Thoreau.  So when these guys announce an open conversation about hunting, and bring in writers like Mary Zeiss Stange, I felt a little hesitant to toss in my two cents.

There is little doubt that hunting played a decisive role in our species’ evolution. But with the spread of agriculture and the domestication of animals, eventually the necessity of hunting diminished. This raises the question: Does hunting still contribute to our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to nature? Do we need hunting for that purpose? In many different cultures, hunting has inspired an ethic informing hunters’ engagement with prey, arguably one of the foundations of modern environmental ethics. But is the hunter’s ethic still a necessary component of broader environmental ethics?  Should it be?  We invite you to join the conversation and return as new responses are added each week.

But then, it’s the Internet and my two cents didn’t cost a penny… so of course I couldn’t resist.  The conversation is essentially a blog format, so it’s not too hard to jump in with your comments.  However, as you may expect, my comments ran a little long.  And since I sort of needed an easy post today, I figured I’d just add them here… for those of you who don’t want to go read the whole conversation (but you really should, as there are several excellent writers involved, including our friend, Tovar Cerulli).

Here’s what I had to say:

I’ve thought a bit and decided.  It’s not so much that hunting necessarily makes us human.  I think the more important reality is that hunting reminds us humans that we are animal.

I am neither scholar nor philosopher… biologist nor anthropologist, but I have some ideas about the sorts of things that make us, “human.”  Lay aside the basics of taxonomy, as there’s not much to add there, and think more about the concepts of self-awareness and the ability to rationalize.  Consider the determination expressed by much of human culture and society to distance our species from the rest of nature… to set ourselves above all others.  That conceit?  That’s what makes us human.

Throughout human history, for as far back as we can really look, the general thrust of humanity has been to drive us further from our “animal” nature.  That drive is, arguably, responsible for the formation of society and culture as we set laws and mores that inhibit the “savage” tendencies and enable us to live together.  You don’t fight, you don’t kill, and you don’t breed with your neighbor’s mate.  The Ten Commandments, the Seven Deadly Sins… social controls all, and intended to set us humans apart from the beasts.

The tale is long and convoluted, but it brings us to a time when the most “civilized” societies are also the most separated from nature… and more importantly, from their natural selves.  The animal part is still there, of course, as evidenced in everything from our business and political practices right down to our children’s games (what are Tag and Hide-and-Seek if not basic training for little predators?).  Still, how many people recognize it for what it is?  How many would celebrate it if they recognized it?

And how many, seeing it, try to squash it?

Squashing it…

Squashing the animal out of our very nature…

It’s an exercise in futility, of course, but exercise builds strength.  The more we distance ourselves from the animal, the more we divide ourselves from nature.  Too many civilized humans already think of nature not as a vital part of ourselves, but as some nebulous construct… as some abstract state that is different from us.  It is “other”.

I think, thankfully, that there’s always been a subset of the population that recognizes that nature is not separate, but it is integral to everything that we are.  Outdoors-folk, naturalists, environmentalists… we all recognize (and some of us evangelize) the importance of interconnectedness.  And we recognize this because we choose to be part of it… even if we don’t all perceive our parts to be the same.

Of all the participants in that subset, hunters connect at the most basic level.  We actively participate in the continuum of life and death… predator and prey.  Put aside the confounding cloak of modern trappings and technology, and look at its bloody essence.  When we hunt we feel ourselves, even for those brief moments in time, animal.

Good or bad?

I don’t know.  Value judgments are easy when you’re judging someone else.  They’re not quite so simple when you’re looking in a mirror.  I can’t speak for anyone else.

Personally, I feel it is a blessing to recognize the animal in my humanity.  It’s grounding.  I embrace it.  I think it’s absolutely important to understand that at the most base level; we’re not that different from the other creatures… and no more or less vital to the world around us either.  Each of us wants life, but none of us really has much say in the matter.  It’s bigger than the rabbit or the deer.  It’s bigger than me.

And when I stand with bloodied hands over the carcass of my prey, I know that his blood is my blood too.  Our origins are the same.  We defy genealogy.  For a moment I am wild… I am untamed.  I understand more than ever the meaning of Whitman’s barbaric yawp.

Women Hunters/New Hunters Making Headlines

February 27, 2014

It’s hardly like news anymore, it seems, to see a (relatively) positive piece in a major news outlet about hunting.  Between “locavores” and “hipsters”, or youngsters and women, there’s been a steady stream of press over the past couple of years that would suggest a swelling of the hunting community by a host of non-traditional participants.

For my own part, I haven’t had a whole lot to say about the “phenomenon”.  On the one hand, I certainly do relish the thought that more new hunters means more political and economic clout for our community.  Likewise, I am cheered by the fact that we’re seeing a largely positive spin on hunting.    These new participants tend to bring with them a strong ethic with a practical perspective (healthy food and a renewed relationship with our role in nature) and this plays well with the non-hunting public.  It’s no secret that the best way to counter the lies and myths of the anti-hunting propaganda machine is to get our real stories into the popular press… let non-hunters read about hunters who aren’t poachers or drunken oafs.

But there’s a flip side.  Even as these bright-eyed neophytes come into the sport (and the press) with professions of high ethical ideals, the spotlight that follows them also shines into the darker corners, threatening to illuminate the reality that all hunters don’t hold to the same, high, ethical standards.  That’s not to say that the “old guard” is a bunch of scofflaws or heartless killers, but it is fair to say that we’re not all in this for the same reasons… we don’t all eat what we kill, we don’t all agree on the concepts of “sportsmanship” or definitions of “fair chase”, and all of us don’t see the kill as some particularly sanctified event (sometimes it feels like a damned inconvenient part of the whole experience, to be honest).

It’s a weird sort of conflict, no matter how you think about it.  All this time we’ve wanted positive press, and now there’s a chance that the lights might shine a little too brightly on the contrast between lofty, ethical ideals and a sometimes, harsh reality.  How do we reconcile this… or do we even try?



Droning On About Hunting With Drones

November 15, 2013

DronesIf you listen to people talking, the damned things are everywhere.

They’re patrolling the borders.  They’re patrolling the coastal waters (including search and rescue operations).  They’re patrolling enemy-controlled territory in foreign lands, and occasionally blowing up “bad guys”.  They’re swooping down canyons and along waterways looking for polluters, and hovering over feedlots and slaughterhouses looking for illegal discharges.  They’re even flying around backyards, swimming pools, and neighborhoods…


At their core, they’re just remote-controlled aircraft.  With the right technological upgrades, they can pretty much become a platform for anything, from research equipment, to cameras, to weapons.  They’re also pretty easy to use (getting simpler all the time), and reasonably available to anyone with a few hundred extra bucks laying around.  So it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that it was just a matter of time before hunters (and anti-hunters) figured out a use for them in the field.Little drone

Not too long ago, PETA announced that they would be using drones to spy on hunters, ostensibly to catch us breaking the law and behaving unethically.  By and large, the threat carried little weight because most commercially available drones are limited in range and payload.  In order to get close enough to actually spy on hunters, the activists would likely have to tresspass on private land, or they’d have to carry their gear into the backcountry.  All the time, they’d be at risk of having an enraged hunter shoot their equipment out of the sky.

In fact, anti-hunting activists have experienced this sort of equipment loss at least twice while flying their cameras over a couple of pigeon shoots… one in South Carolina and another near Philadelphia.  I have very little doubt that similar fates will result in any other drone observation of hunting activities.  I can only hope that the anger and frustration will continue to be directed only at the mechanical devices, and not at the operators.

On the pro-hunting front, we haven’t really heard much about the actual use of drones.  Some organizations, such as Orion, are already stepping out to the forefront of the issue, decrying their use and calling for legislation banning drones for hunting.  It’s been a topic of conversation, mostly idle, in some of the hunting media as well.  But for the most part, the conversation has been hypothetical or satirical, like this article from Wired magazine.

It’s not all theoretical though.

Sometime back in 2010 or 2011, a couple of engineers in Louisiana developed a drone with night vision video to use for hog depredation.  By using the device to locate hogs, the men could then deploy to the field with rifles and thermal scopes and kill the hogs.  It’s a great idea, particularly for depredation hunting where the traditional ethos of the sport hunter doesn’t really apply.  In an interview, the engineers (who design this sort of technology for the US Air Force) said it wouldn’t be too tough to affix a firearm to the drone as well, but conceded the common sense reality that armed drones in the hands of civilians would probably not go over very well.  The reality is, that even if something like this were developed, the law would almost certainly strike it down immediately… if for no other reason than general safety.

But the possibilities of drones, even if they’re not armed, raise concerns from hunting ethicists and others concerned about protecting the “image” of sportsmen.  Using a drone to track down an animal and lead hunters to it, for example, would certainly conflict with most hunters’ concept of “fair chase”.  Similar practices using manned aircraft are already illegal across the country (for example, you aren’t allowed to fly over and locate a herd of elk, and then direct hunters to them).  A federal law, the Airborne Hunting Act prohibits hunters from hunting in an area within 48 hours of flying over it.  This came about as a result of bush pilots locating game and then setting down close by to allow the hunters to go kill them.  And of course this sort of thing absolutely conflicts with the traditionally presented ideals of fair chase and sportsmanship.

It’s all starting to come together now, with Colorado poised to become the first state to specifically prohibit the use of drones in the use of scouting, aiding, or taking of wildlife.  There are questions about whether such a law is necessary, either because the practice is generally addressed by existing legislation, or because the reality of this type of activity on any large scale is highly unlikely.  The law would be very difficult to enforce, but it would provide an additional penalty when perpetrators are caught.

Personally, I’m sort of ambivalent.  I definitely see no problem using drones as one more tool in controlling problem wildlife.  That’s not supposed to be “sporting.”  And I can see legitimate hunting uses, such as mapping property and locating geographic features from the air.  But the technology certainly presents a big opportunity for abuse.

Most of the time, when it comes to ethics I tend toward the laissez faire as long as the activity is safe, doesn’t endanger the resource, and doesn’t harm the habitat.  But I do think you have to draw lines somewhere.  In 2005, I drew that line (along with many other people) at Internet hunting.  The more I think about it, the more I think I might have to draw another line at using drones to find and kill native game (I think exotics and invasives are a different story altogether).





The Shot Not Taken

November 12, 2013

The shot not taken is the one to:

  1. Regret
  2. Be thankful for
  3. Revisit in your dreams for years to come
  4. All of the above

As someone who has made a career out of designing and developing training courses, I’ve always hated multiple choice questions that end with, “All of the above.”  I dislike them nearly as much as, “None of the above.”

It just seems lazy.

But that’s neither here nor there, I guess.  The correct answer to the question is, “Depends.”

Doesn’t it?  There are any number of reasons to hold your fire, resist that pulse in your index finger, and let it walk.  Some reasons are better than others, and some seem foolish to anyone except the person who made the call.

It’s nearly dark.  The clock on my cell phone tells me that I have about four minutes of shooting time left.  25 yards away, in a spot I call “the Murder Hole”, a nice-sized doe is silhouetted against the rocky, white ground.  It’s so dark, and so quiet, she doesn’t notice when I stand up on the platform and raise my bow.

The pins barely glow in the fading light.  I can’t really see the crease behind her shoulder, but I draw and center the 20 yard pin right at the top of where I think it should be.  The doe continues to feed, head down, as my finger inches toward the trigger of the release.  With a touch, in less than a quarter of a second a razor-tipped shaft could slice deep into her chest.

Instead, with all the strength I can muster, I let off and slowly lower the bow.  The doe, oblivious, browses for a few minutes and then wanders off into the cedars.

I’m about 95% certain I could have killed that deer.  If my shooting had been better earlier in the season, my confidence would have been even higher.  But it didn’t matter.  I never loosed the arrow.

I know that, under those conditions it was easy to make the choice I did on ethical grounds.  I couldn’t really see, and was aiming where I thought the vitals were.  I would not have been able to see the arrow’s flight or impact, or the deer’s reaction to the hit (if it was hit at all) so I wouldn’t really be sure of whether it was a clean killing shot, or something less ideal.  And on a purely selfish level, I really didn’t feel like spending my night bloodtrailing a deer.  I know some people would have taken the shot, and I don’t think I’d fault them for it.  But for me, at that moment, it wasn’t right.

It’s not always as clear-cut, though.

It’s 09:00 on a beautiful Saturday morning.  I’ve been in the stand since 05:30, and haven’t really seen anything since legal shooting light.  I’d be discouraged, except it’s just such a nice day I don’t mind lazing in the branches of this oak tree.

Behind me, from the edge of the horse pasture, I hear the sound of rolling rocks and tentative footsteps.  I know without looking that it’s a deer, and I also know that it’s going to walk directly under my stand.  I freeze, resisting the urge to snatch up the bow.  And I wait.

He appears in the edge of my peripheral vision, a young buck with two long spikes that curve inward, almost like an antelope.  He’s a regular on these trails, and shows up frequently on my cameras… sometimes alone, and sometimes with a little bachelor group.  I strain my ears as he walks by, listening intently for signs that the other bucks are with him.  He’s alone.

The buck passes under my stand and enters my shooting lanes.  He’ll crawl under the fence at the corner of the pasture like they all do, and when he stands back up he’ll be exactly 20 yards away.  He idles along, but eventually comes to the corner and follows the script.  He kneels to pass under the slick wire, and then stands and looks around carefully.  He’s in a textbook position, broadside at a slight angle, and he has no inkling of the predator perched overhead.

I ease the bow up, and when he turns to look out over the pasture, I come to full draw.  The sight pin drops into the center of the peep and hovers over the deer’s beating heart.

But I don’t shoot.

Maybe I just wasn’t hungry enough.  Maybe I’ve gone soft.  I don’t know.

All I know is that I let him walk, and then passed on him again the next day in a similarly ideal setup.  It was about as easy as any shot in archery can be, and I had the whole day to trail, recover, and process him.  But I didn’t.

There’s an awful, powerful sense of finality in the decision to take the shot.  I think a lot of us have a level of something, reluctance maybe, that delays that trigger squeeze sometimes… makes us hesitate a half-beat before calling up death.  In its most powerful form, I think it even causes us to pull a shot and miss the easy target (or maybe that’s just me making excuses).    For me it’s always been there, although I think I feel it more as I’ve gotten a little older.

There have been a lot of shots I didn’t take for which I later kicked myself.  I’ve passed shots at big bucks and boar hogs, and then replayed the images over and over in my mind with the solid conviction that I could have made a clean, quick kill.  But sometimes that’s just hindsight playing tricks… or that’s what I tell myself so I can finally go to sleep.

I’ve hunted with a lot of people over the years, and I’ve been right beside many of them when the time came to make the shot or pass.  Without fail, it seems, there’s that moment of doubt.  Some people are openly vocal about it, doubting their abilities or the capability of their weapon, second-guessing the range estimation or the angle.  Others internalize, but I can see it working in their minds and their fingers as the mental battle rages.

I’ve had clients apologize to me after not taking a shot.  Usually, there’s a reasonable justification, but sometimes they can’t get past the argument that, “it just didn’t feel right.”

So there it is…

I believe it is never wrong to pass a shot, no matter the reason.  As the person with the finger on the trigger (or release), it is the hunter’s responsibility not only to kill cleanly, but to do so with a clean conscience.  If your doubts are too strong, then don’t shoot.  If you just don’t feel the need to kill an animal, at that moment, then let it walk.

Taking a life should never be a thoughtless act.

Black Rhinos And The High Price Of Conservation

November 2, 2013

What is the price of conservation?

What is the value?

It’s a fact of this modern world that everything comes with a price.  It’s also a fact that if you want to get someone’s interest in something, you have to provide a payoff.  Altruism still exists, but by and large it’s a practice reserved for little things… the intangibles like sparing a kind word for a stranger or moving a flock of ducklings out of traffic.

I guess I should focus first, before I wax too esoteric.

About a week ago, the Dallas Safari Club made big waves with the announcement of an auction for a permit to shoot a black rhinocerous.  Ripples spread quickly from news sites to blogs.  The argument is that the sale of this permit will generate somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million, 100% of which would then be turned around to fund conservation and protection of these endangered species in their native home.

According to what I read (I’m no expert here), there are about 4000 black rhinos left in the wild.  About 1800 of them live in Namibia, which is where this hunt, along with four others, will take place.  As part of the country’s management plan, five mature, male rhinos will be taken in the coming season.  The argument is that the males selected will be past their prime as breeders, but may still be capable of severely injuring or killing younger rhinos as they fight over mates.  Taking these animals out of the herd may preserve several others.

What I’ve also read, and something about which I am only slightly more informed, is that the biggest threat to the survival of the black rhino (and to most endangered African species) is poaching.  Because most African countries are fairly poor, fielding the personnel required to police the huge areas of wild lands to protect game from poachers is a daunting task.

Selling the various parts of endangered species, such as the horn of the black rhino, is big business and can provide significant income… and poachers are willing to kill anyone who tries to interfere.  Stopping the poachers, therefore, requires more than the lightly armed, solo game warden with which most US hunters are familiar.  It takes a small army, equally armed, to patrol the countryside.  Small armies are not cheap.

An important source of the funding for African conservation is the dollars brought to the country by travelling sportsmen.  Hunters from all over the world travel to Africa to hunt the exotic species that can be found there, and they often pay top dollar to do so.  The more exotic the species, the higher the tab.  As with any commodity, short supply drives the price tag higher.  With this in mind, some African countries provide extremely limited opportunities to hunt endangered species.

Of course, even for some of the hunters among us, this practice raises a flag.  Selling hunts for endangered species?  How does that even make sense?  Who would shoot an endangered animal?

Part of the problem is purely perception.  When a species is listed as “endangered”, that doesn’t mean there are only one or two animals left.  What it means is that, left unprotected and unmanaged, the population is in danger of collapse.  And really, in many cases at least, hunting is one of the few ways that both of those requirements, protection and management, can be achieved.

Of course, it would be wonderful if folks felt the urge to just open their checkbooks and send a few hundred thousand bucks over to Africa for wildlife conservation.  There certainly are a handful of charitable organizations trying to accomplish exactly that.  But the best way to get someone to part with their money is to offer them something in return.  That’s just how it is, and hunters are just like anyone else.

Which brings us back to where I started…

Hog Blog Friends In The Field – John’s AZ Elk Hunt

October 22, 2013

My friend, John (JAC) pops in here from time to time, usually to keep me honest when I’m off on a rant about lead-free ammo or other such stuff.  But he also gets out for an occasional hunt, and this season he was fortunate enough to get after an elk in his home state of Arizona.  As I requested, he sent me a write-up about the hunt.

Events in the field often don’t play out quite like we plan them.  This was the case for John, and as you’ll see, he had to do a little internal processing after all was said and done (as evidenced in the title he gave the piece).  I’ve been corresponding with him via email, so I’ll hold off on repeating my comments just now.  I’d love to hear what some of you folks think, though. 

How to fail massively and wind up with 265 pounds of elk venison

I went elk hunting last week in hopes of finally filling my freezer in accordance with my desire to eat no meat but that which I’d hunted myself.  I had only two rules: first rule, don’t shoot a cow with a calf, and second, don’t violate the first rule.  

My excellent friend Steve has a place in Payson, Arizona, and last year, he and I hunted mule deer on the high desert that falls away from Payson toward Phoenix and he agreed to help me again this year.  He is excellent in the sense that he is good at being a friend, and in the sense that he is good at being a compassionate person working in the morally and legally complex field of law enforcement.  You guys would get along, actually.  Like you, he has a pick up truck that is 72 feet long.  Like yours, It has a big, happy dog in it a lot of the time.  He sees game when it’s too far away for me to see it the way you do. And like you, he runs off in pursuit of it.  I told Steve about my rules and he said not to worry, there were so many elk around I’d tag out the first morning after picking my shot.

I bought a 30-06 last year in case I was ever drawn for elk.  I took it to the range this Spring to sight-in for the first time.  I fired ten times over the course of an hour and then went out to the concession and bought a bottle of water. When I came back I was on the right side of the rifle for the first time and I saw a six inch scratch running lengthwise under the bolt-knob.  I first thought someone handled it while I was gone and dropped it against the table.  But that would be such an egregious, unimaginable violation of etiquette, I decoded instead that I must have pulled it from the case against the zipper and scratched it myself.

Beginning in August, I loaded lots variations of rounds with Nosler E-Tips and the first time I went out and ran them over a chrono and checked their accuracy, some of the groups were perfect little clover leafs and I figured I was one seriously dangerous elk hunter.  The next time I went, however, the groups opened up to several inches and the scratch felt rough when I wiped down the stock.  The third time out, after a few shots, the scratch grew and forked.  There never was a scratch of course, the stock had fractured during the first few shots.  So last Tuesday I took my 7mm-08 to the range with a box of reloads made by Stars & Stripes Ammunition and a lump in my throat.  I’m a great worrier and I was seriously worried about the diminutive cartridge for elk.  I salved my worry by writing friends (sorry you were one) and pointing out that the 7mm-08 is more powerful at 200 yards than a 30-30 is at the muzzle.  Pretty thin gruel for my ravenous anxiety, but it’s what I had.  Apropos of your post on copper projectiles last week, those Stars & Stripes rounds fired 140 grain Barnes TTSX bullets at 2863 fps.  The rifle shot two sub MOA groups like it usually does and I went home and cleaned it.  Wednesday morning I went to the range and fired two fouling shots and spent the day getting supplies I needed.  When I was loading up Wednesday night, the moon was big and bright.  I’d not been paying attention to it and hadn’t noticed it during the week and I hoped it was waning.

I drove up to Payson on Thursday.  Leaving dinner that evening, it was clear the moon was waxing instead of waning.  It was sitting hugely on the horizon.  At 4:30 a.m. on Friday, the moon was fully up and casting shadows.  The wind had picked up too making the 32 degree temperature feel especially ugly.  We drove out to a 125 yard wide electrical line easement that ran for miles, off loaded Steve’s Polaris, and drove off into the cutting wind, no headlights necessary thanks to the moonlight.  The plan was to get up high and glass so after stashing the ATV, we bombed up several hundred feet of a nearby slope, Steve demonstrating how he got the nickname Big Diesel.  That guy doesn’t race, but he doesn’t slow down either.  Ten minutes later, fully warm I settled in to wait for dawn.  Fifteen minutes after that, fully cold, I was silently rooting for dawn to hurry the hell up as I pulled my fingers into a fist inside my gloves.

The sun eventually rose and the cold abated, but he wind never relented.  We glassed a long time, then Steve made a big loop through the canyons to see what he could see.  I stayed behind in a shady spot, my rifle resting on my monopod and glassed the easement.  The area seemed likely.  There were ravines falling away on both sides of the easement, filled with a mixture of oak, pine and spruce.  There was a lot of elk scat.  I stayed in the field all day, still hunting up and down the ravines and eventually found a narrow draw in the easement where the ground fell away pretty quickly to a floor of fresh grass.  There was even some clover growing there.  I sat up on the edge in the afternoon shadows with the wind straight into my face.  Around 3:30 in the afternoon a big coyote with a beautiful red plume at the end of his tail came over the lip of the far side and trotted down the slope.  At 60 yards he did the National Geographic front legged hop and stomp, lunged in after whatever he’d stomped up, pulled his head out of the grass and tossed something into the air, caught it, chewed it and then tossed his head back to swallow.  For the next five minutes that handsome boy raced around a little blue spruce, lunging in here and there, sometimes upending himself to get an whatever he’d found.  He eventually came straight down into the bottom of the draw and crossed away from me to the other side, his tail looking the color of a red-headed baby in the sunshine.  After the coyote left, I watched iridescent blue jays gathering food the rest of the afternoon.  We don’t have birds like that in Phoenix and I don’t remember them back in Missouri either.  II spent a pretty nice afternoon and I headed back to meet Steve at the truck in the gloaming.  Steve had taken his quad on a loop of several miles but didn’t see any mammals himself.  

Saturday morning we hunted a place named Walnut Flat.  There was one truck in the pullout and another high up the mountain when we pulled in. The moon was insanely bright.  We waited until 5:30 then got on the quad and drove off into the moonlight.  As the first glimmer of daylight started to change the color of the horizon we headed off on foot.  Walnut Flat is beautiful.  It’s a large grassy mesa surrounded by ravines and there is a pond at the interior edge.  We glassed, moved off and glassed again, hopping from juniper to juniper.  We came across a ground blind situated to watch a huge open area.  We spent the next hour, maybe two skirting the edge of the ravine to get over the edge of the mesa out of the blind’s field of fire.  Around 9:30, Steve headed back to the quad to check on his dog back at the truck.  I snuck along through the forest for a couple more hours.  There was so much scat on the slopes above Walnut Flat that if I wasn’t standing in glistening black elk droppings, I needed only to take a step left or right to crush some.  I don’t know where the animals were that left all the scat though.  I didn’t hear any rifle shots either.  

Saturday afternoon we headed out for a place called Hardscrabble Mesa.  We took the National Forest road until it dead ended at an engineer’s dream of a gate.  It was made of a rectangle of 4″ box steel with 4″ box steel cross supports.  It’s end posts were sunk into concrete and guarded by gambion boxes filled with head-sized river rock which was cemented inside the wire.  We left the quad and clambered past the gate to take a look a the road beyond.  To our left were rock wall cliffs rising a couple hundred feet and to our right a drop off of lots of hundreds of feet.  I never really got close enough to look straight down because I am somewhat, but not completely crazy.  The warning signs said the road was unstable and it was hard to dispute that as we made our way down the hill toward a sharp curve guarded by k-walls.  It looked like the monsoon rains had washed away the pavement and undercut the cliffs on the inside of road.  We only walked for a few minutes past the k-walls and when we turned around we could see why they were there.  There were four, maybe five crushed cars that had gone off the road.  Those cars had free-fallen as little as 60 feet and as much as several hundred feet.  The results were the same for all the cars, though.  Gauging by the cars’ age, the road must have been built by the 40′s and the k-walls placed in the 70′s.

We took the quad to the top of Hardscrabble Mesa.  That is a sunny, windy place without any water we saw or could find on the maps.  Steve wandered off the utility roads once and reported that there was as much scat as on Walnut Flat, only it was all white with age.  A couple hours killed, the sun heading for  the horizon, we headed for the truck.  If you are into zooming, terrifying quad rides, hop on Steve’s on the top of a mountain mesa with 45 minutes till the end of shooting light.  Holy mackerel.  As we loaded up, I figured that I’d seen a coyote, some beautiful jays and had had the ride of a lifetime.  It was a good weekend already.

As I turned in Saturday night, I didn’t need to turn on the bedroom light, the moonlight sweeping in was plenty bright.

For the third morning in a row, my phone lit up and sang at 3:23 a.m Sunday.  Steve had picked a third spot, near the East Branch of the Verde River and we lumbered out.  It was as cold as the first day but the air was still.  As we pulled off the highway, the headlights settled on three elk cows.  A really big one, a medium sized one and a smallish one.  There must be more, I figured but whatever else, I admonished myself, don’t shoot that mommy elk.  I was suddenly very enthusiastic about the place Steve had picked.  The pullout was u-shaped and we went back to the highway and found another.  We left the quad and headed into the forest sneaking from moon shadow to moon shadow.  We picked a big shadow behind a big cedar and stood still waiting for dawn.  We could see the highway and watched two trucks pull off within sight of Steve’s.  I was pretty unhappy since I had a proprietary feeling about the spot.   We moved into the forest away from the people with elk rifles and ATV’s behind us.  Steve was hunting, I think I was mostly thinking about putting trees between us and the people I could now hear coming up behind.  

At 6:20 I saw a big white rump up the slope ahead of us.  I had my rifle unslung so I couldn’t pull up my binoculars, Steve looked through his Swarovskis and said “That’s an elk.”  I dropped to a knee, but Steve reminded me that we can’t shoot from, to or over roads, even logging roads.  I think he reminded me by saying “Get off the road!!” so I scrambled off the road and stuck the stock of my rifle on a cedar branch and cushioned it with the rubber sling.  I dialed my scope up and saw an elk turning left and looking my direction.  Steve, watching through his binos behind me and a few yards to my right said, “I’ve got her, take her.”  I clicked off the safety, settled the cross hairs into the dark crease low behind her left shoulder and fired.  I couldn’t see her as the scope rocked back, but I saw two elk bounding up the slope away.  Steve saidJohn's cow elk she’s down.  

I found her in my scope and she had gone straight down on her legs but her head was moving like she was trying to get up.  My body was shaking pretty violently, my voice was involuntarily modulating.  The sound of an ATV rumbling up behind stopped as Steve waved the other hunters off.  

Then, to my exquisite horror, a small elk walked over to the one I’d shot and just stood a few steps away, obviously unsure about what to do.  That little elk stood there a couple minutes while the head of the one I’d shot craned again and again as she tried to will her body to get up.  That little elk stood there until the ATV behind us started up again and drove into her view.  Steve was still behind me glassing and telling me not to shoot again.  I only remember saying that this was 100% of what I didn’t want.  I don’t know if we talked while I watched that elk through my scope except for Steve letting me know where the humans were.  For several minutes after her calf left, I watched her and I just kept thinking I’d broken both my rules in my haste and excitement.   I’d shot precisely the elk I didn’t want to shoot.

Five or so minutes after she finally laid her head down, Steve and I methodically made our way straight to her.  There was a single drop of blood on her right side where the bullet exited.  The Cedar tree I’d used as a rest didn’t have a John-sized branch so I was hunched when I fired.  I’d pulled the shot up and left but, to be precise, it could have been bad shooting rather than the tree.  The bullet caught her at the junction of her neck and body, passed through the near lung, struck the spine and caromed down, I guess, through the off-side lung and out.  There was a thumb sized hole in the offside lung, a little one in the near lung.  The spinal injury had paralyzed her and kept her in place till the lung wounds killed her.   I hate to think how far she’d have run, leaving no blood trail, if her spine hadn’t been damaged.

The Payson-area processers were either full or not accepting elk with their hides on, so we hightailed north it to a mobile elk processing unit run by Miller Southwestern Processing, a Queen Creek (near Phoenix) operation.  My elk was 10 percent larger than average.  She dressed out at 265 pounds.

Some notes on my personal experience with Barnes’ bullets:  I’ve now killed three big game animals using Barnes bullets; a pig in California with a Barnes TSX, an axis deer in Texas using a TTSX and this cow elk also with a TTSX.  The pig was 60 yards down a steep slope and I pulled that shot up and left too, catching it under the jaw, and destroying its spine.  It went down so fast, and the shot was at such an angle, that I saw the pig drop through my scope.  The petals came off that bullet and I found them in the meat.  The axis was a country mile off, but I was able to shoot prone with my rifle resting on its neoprene sling.  I hit it in the chest, I know, because we found lots of frothy blood, but I don’t know how the bullet performed because we never found that buck.  My cow elk died of the lung wound caused by the TTSX, though not in an acceptable time period.  There was no blood at the entry wound and a single drop at the exit site.  We ranged that shot at 121 yards.  That bullet was traveling around 2570 feet per second when it hit her.  It’s performance should have been optimal and we found no petals.  But the holes in the lungs were’t at all what I expected and the larger off-side wound may have been the result of a tumbling bullet, for all I know.  Steve, who has seen the insides of lots of shot animals, didn’t believe it was the lung wounds that had killed her and the debate wasn’t resolved until his lovely friends, a veterinarian and his wife, dropped by and gave the expert opinion that it had to be the holes in her lungs that were the fatal wound since the artery under the spine would have caused death in seconds, not minutes.

I went to bed last night thinking about the despair and terror to which I consigned that baby elk, and the weird fortuity of making a bad shot that was probably much better than the one I’d intended given the little TTSX wound channel.  I took the wrong shot and made a bad shot.  I did everything wrong.  And yet, in the kitchen this morning, there is an iced cooler with five pounds of liver, an elk heart, and a tenderloin I need to take care of.


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