I Was Going To Join Backcountry Hunters And Anglers But…

September 8, 2014

I’m really not a big “joiner”.

I’ve been a part of a handful of organizations of course, over the years, but I don’t really spend a lot of time looking for new causes.  When it comes to conservation and hunting organizations, I’m particularly cautious about throwing my hat in the ring until I understand a little better what I’m getting tied up with.  For example, I’ve been a member of Ducks Unlimited since childhood (my dad bought my first few memberships, and I sort of kept it going from there).  I know the work that DU does, and I really like their focus.  It’s the same reason I joined California Waterfowl when I was in CA.  They do good work with minimal, overt political agenda.  A few years ago, after some hemming and hawing, I decided to send a few bucks a year to Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation… mostly on the same grounds.  RMEF is focused on elk and elk habitat, and that’s what I want my donations to go toward.

Recently, I’ve been looking into a fairly new organization, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.  When I first became aware of this group, I was pretty sure it was something I may want to join… at least inasmuch as dropping the annual membership fee, and maybe attending the annual “Rendezvous” when I could.

It sounded like the organization shares a lot of the same values as I do.  In particular, we share a passion for the backcountry and wilderness areas, as well as a desire to protect them.  Even though I don’t spend as much time hunting and wandering public lands as I used to, I am a strong believer in the need to keep those lands open and accessible… not just for hunting and fishing, but for everyone.

Here are the key points from the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers mission:

  • ORV Abuse: BHA works to protect traditional, non-motorized hunting and fishing experiences and the lands that support those activities. While we recognize that Off-road vehicles (ORVs) are useful tools used by many people, BHA works to protect fisheries, clean water and wildlife habitat from excessive motorized traffic and abuse. BHA educates the public on proper and legal use of ORV’s and the importance of enforcing fines and regulations for illegal use that impact fish and wildlife habitat, migration, and breeding.
  • Gas, Oil, and Mining: Oil and gas leasing is important economic activity, but America’s hunger for energy must be balanced with our responsibility to pass on healthy land and water for future generations. BHA will address energy development projects that impact fish and wildlife habitat, migration, breeding, and sportsmen’s hunting and fishing opportunities, by educating decision-making agencies, legislative bodies, and local stakeholders. Mining: We all use minerals in our daily life and mining is important. However, if done irresponsibly, mining can leave lasting scars that pollute water and degrade habitat. BHA will address mining projects that will impact fish and wildlife habitat, migration, breeding, and sportsmen’s hunting and fishing opportunities, by educating decision making agencies, legislative bodies, and local stakeholders.
  • Education and Outreach: Part of BHA’s mission is to educate people about safe, enjoyable and sustainable backcountry hunting and fishing. In particular, we educate the next generation about this ancient tradition. The Backcountry Journal, our quarterly publication available to all members, and our national gathering, the North American Rendezvous, are our main educational activities. The Backcountry Journal is a 16-page glossy magazine with educational stories, hunting and fishing tales, project updates, and public land issues updates. The Rendezvous is a weekend of camaraderie, hands-on seminars, speakers, banquet dinner and auction. BHA also visits numerous sports shows around the country to visit face to face with local sportsmen about the issues they are facing and the work BHA is doing in that state.
  • Backcountry: BHA’s members greatly value the remaining undeveloped, natural areas of our national forests and other public lands. We work to maintain the backcountry values of solitude, silence, clean and free flowing rivers and habitat for large, wide-ranging wildlife. We work to deploy a variety of legal and administrative tools to maintain those values, including the Wilderness Act, where appropriate.

I can’t find much to argue with there.  I “Liked” the BHA on Facebook and started following the discussions.  For the most part, I appreciated what I was seeing.  There seemed to be a mix of folks sharing backcountry experiences and some discussion of important issues, such as the movement to handover ownership of Federal public lands to the states… or worse, to privatize public lands.  The very idea that the states can, or will, manage these huge public lands is naïve at best, and generally ridiculous.  That’s a cause that seems, to me, to be pretty damned well worth fighting for.

So I started fondling my checkbook.

But then the conversations took a different tack… the conversations turned to contentious, ethics topics like high fence hunting, banning drones, and long-range hunting.  And, as with any discussions of ethics, the holier-than-thou, elitists showed their true colors.  I put my checkbook away.  This was going to require some more consideration.

I read some of the BHA leadership’s comments in regards to these topics with some dismay.  It isn’t so much that these guys express their opinions.  I value that, even if I don’t agree with them.  What bothers me is that the organization appears to be willing to leverage the power of its membership (and the members’ dues) to influence laws and regulations which, to my mind, have nothing to do with the focus on backcountry hunting and angling… or with the protection of the backcountry.   Drones, for example, are an issue about which the BHA has been quite vocal.  They have lobbied legislators and state governments to enact bans on the “use of drones for hunting.”

Now, generally, that doesn’t seem all that bad.  To the general, uneducated public, it seems like the use of drones for hunting would be a bad thing.  But the truth of it is that drones are a non-issue.  I’ve written about it before (here and here, at least) so I’ll spare the extended discourse… but in short, the drones available to the general public are barely useful as hunting tools in any way that would provide a meaningful advantage to hunters in any setting.  In the real backcountry, they’d be about as useful as tits on a boar hog, since you’d have to carry the damned things in, deal with limited battery life and range, and manage the additional challenges of operating a line of sight system in rugged country.

What’s worse is that most of the legislation is vague and barely enforceable.  It’s a waste of time, energy, and money… and it has almost nothing at all to do with the concept of backcountry hunting and angling.  (I do, however, agree with certain restrictions on these devices in national parks and other places where the thoughtless and inconsiderate operators are negatively impacting the experiences of other visitors… not to mention harassment of wildlife.  But that’s really a different thing… more akin to problems associated with OHV use and mountain biking.)

And then there are the divisive topics like high fence hunting.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with having the discussion.  There’s nothing wrong with having a strong opinion, one way or the other.  But unless the BHA can make a damned, solid argument about how this debate has any real bearing on the backcountry, I question the value of the organization’s involvement.  Let the individual members hash it out to their hearts’ content, but is it really in the best interest of an organization to segregate itself from a fairly significant potential constituency by taking some arbitrary, moral/ethical position?  Where are these guys headed, in the longer run?  Do I want to give my money or my name to that organization?

Don’t get me wrong.  These organizations absolutely should be involved in issues that are relevant to their mission statements, no matter how controversial (as long as their positions reflect the will of the members).  For example, RMEF has been very active in the discussion about delisting wolves and hunting them to control their numbers.  It’s a hot and divisive subject.  But it makes sense that RMEF would take a stance, because failure to control the wolves could very well upset all of the progress RMEF has made in restoring elk and elk habitat… not to mention the impact these predators would have on other species.  This is right in line with the organization’s Mission Statement.

And I have no issue when organizations like the Pope and Young Club or Boone and Crockett want to take a strong position against practices like high fence or long-range hunting.  They can set their ethical standards as high as they like, because they are using those standards as rules for inclusion in their record books.  In this case, it makes sense to draw firm, ethical parameters (because that’s what rules are, isn’t it?).  And if you join one of these groups, you know what you’re getting into.  That’s why I am not involved with either of these organizations.

With Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, I get the feeling that they’re stretching a little too far.  Maybe it’s because there’s a perceived need to make a splash, and hot topics like drones and high fence hunting get a lot of attention (and thus, drum up more membership).  Or maybe it’s that some of the BHA leadership want to follow their personal agendas and drag the organization along with them.  So they take a popular position on a hot issue, and it plays well with the general, knee-jerk activists on social media.  It gets people talking.

But what I see, standing here with my wallet in my hand, is a bad case of scope creep (or mission creep, if you prefer).  I see a message at risk of being diluted.  And I see an organization that may not be quite clear on where it wants to go… or even where it wants to be right now.

And so, here I am.

I recognize some basic realities… not the least of which is that my individual membership in BHA really isn’t going to amount to much one way or another.  I’m not some mega-rich patron with the potential to fund big programs.  I’m not a widely read outdoors writer with an audience willing to go where I point (and spend their money while they’re at it).  I’m just some guy… albeit, some guy who really likes the idea of a conservation/environmental organization founded and directed by hunters and fishermen that is dedicated to the protection of our wild places.

But I also recognize that, to borrow from Tyler Durden, I’m not a unique and beautiful snowflake.  If I’m thinking these thoughts, then someone else is probably thinking them too.




How Big Is Big Enough? The Caliber Debate Reprise.

August 26, 2014

There’s been some interesting discussion going on lately amongst a couple of the gun writers I follow, as they delve into the hotly debated question of “enough gun”.  Although Dave Campbell comes at it one way, his fellow gun writer and author, Richard Mann takes a different tack.

Now both of these guys know their stuff.  That’s pretty much beyond question, and they have the masthead credits and bylines to prove it.  Whenever I read anything they’ve written, I seldom come away without gleaning some nuggets of valuable information.  So, of course, this topic got my attention because it’s such an active conversation.

Dave’s blog column takes a look at whether or not the .223 (5.56) is a valid deer cartridge.  This is a controversial argument (.22 caliber firearms are not even legal for deer in every state), and one that has grown with the increasing use of the AR platform as a hunting tool.  There’s not a lot new in Dave’s piece, at least not to anyone who’s ever participated in this particular discussion.  It boils down to the conclusion that yes, the .223 can be a viable choice for deer under the right conditions (range, bullet construction, shot placement).  What I inferred, whether or not it was implicit, is that Dave still doesn’t necessarily think it’s a great choice.

I don’t know about the intent, but Richard Mann’s blog reads like a rejoinder to Campbell’s commentary.  As he rightly points out, there is no definitive answer to the question of, “what is ‘enough gun’?”  Unfortunately, while it’s hard to argue with any of his points, he boils his commentary down to the banal and badly abused argument that it’s really a question of shot placement and penetration.

It’s absolutely true, of course.  A bullet that penetrates well and hits the vitals will kill.  Disconnect the central nervous system, upset the cardio-pulmonary functions, or deflate both lungs, and the majority of animals will expire post-haste.  And there’s no doubt that a .223 with a good bullet can deliver these goods on deer-sized game at appropriate distances.  Hell, a .22 magnum can deliver these goods… all else being equal.

But now I’m going to repeat something I’ve said so many times I’m sick of it… but I bet I’ll be saying it again soon.

It is NOT all about shot placement.

Yes, of course we all strive for perfect placement every time we shoot at game.  Yes, of course, a little deviation from perfect is, usually, still adequate.  But until we start hunting with self-guided, smart bullets that always find the heart from the ideal angle, we’re not always going to make perfect shots.  It just doesn’t happen.

Sure, we practice.  The most conscientious of us practice a lot.  We hone our skills, tune our weapons, and remove as much of the element of chance as we can before we hit the field.  That’s great.  It’s the right thing to do.  But here’s the caveat…

There’s no one out there teaching that buck to freeze, slightly quartering away with his near-side leg stepping forward to expose the “pocket”.  Nobody taught the brush to move aside, or instructed the wind about the appropriate time to gust.  Nobody hipped you to the possibility that, despite the near-religious ritual drills of the top three offhand shooting positions during every range session, your shot opportunity will take place as you balance flat-footed on a 40-degree, rocky slope with the animal appearing at approximately five o’clock behind you.

There are a handful of hunters with the restraint and composure to pass all but the ideal shot opportunity.  I don’t think I know any of them.

We take chancy shots… too far, no rest, bad angle, off-balance, nervous, breathless, and so on.  We get excited.  We over or under-estimate range and wind drift.  We blink and flinch and jerk the trigger.  These aren’t just my observations of other people… I’ve done all of these things myself.

While I may not have the experience of some of the widely-published gun writers, I’ve done a lot of hunting.  I’ve shot a lot of animals (and shot at some as well).  I’ve accompanied scores of other hunters as they took their shots too. Beyond that, over the past couple of years working in the processing house, I’ve disassembled more than my share of game animals.  So trust me when I say, unequivocally, that for every perfect heart/lung shot I’ve seen, there are at least five or six marginal hits (probably more, but I don’t keep records).  I would estimate that at least two thirds of the animals brought in to be processed required multiple shots to bring them to hand.  If it really were all about shot placement, many of these guys would be eating tag soup.

Enough rambling.  The point is, hunting is not an exact science where you can perfect a formula and get identical results every time.  The perfect shot happens, but it’s not something that I think a hunter should count on.  The better bet is to prepare for the imperfect… and part of that preparation includes selecting a caliber that provides a little extra leeway.  There’s nothing wrong with a little bigger wound channel, a bit more kinetic energy, or that extra oomph to pass through a hindquarter and still plow its way to the vitals.

Like Dave Campbell and Richard Mann, I cannot define “enough gun,” because the truth is, almost any gun can be “enough”.  But if nothing else, consider this. With all of the quality, proven options available on the market these days, why would any hunter purposefully handicap himself with something that is, at best, adequate?

In sport fishing, I understand the allure of fighting big fish with little tackle.  It’s challenging.  It’s exciting.  Likewise, I recognize the challenge and expertise required to consistently kill big game with a little bullet.  Kudos to the marksman who succeeds unfailingly.  But when the fisherman loses, the fish swims away, little the worse for the experience.  This is not the case when you shoot an animal.




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.

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