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.





14 Responses to “I Was Going To Join Backcountry Hunters And Anglers But…”

  1. Ben Long on September 8th, 2014 16:06

    Thank you for your thoughtful feedback about BHA. I am national co-chair and appreciate your frank criticism. I don’t want to dispute you, but perhaps add some context.

    BHA strives to be a grass-roots organization and the state chapters have pretty broad leeway to define “backcountry” in ways that fit their local states. “Backcountry” in New England may mean something different than what I think it means in Montana or what our members think it means in Alaska.

    Our members are concerned about conserving fair chase and the North American Model of Wildlife Management, which BHA believes are fundamental to the future of ALL hunting and fishing in the US. Those state chapters, with OK from the national board, have pursued regulations on drones. These came after some initial complaints about drones being used in the field. So far, Alaska, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico wildlife commissions have limited use of drones in hunting. While that may be premature, it may also be better than “too little, too late.” Drone technology is advancing rapidly. Most of these rules are simple clarifications about existing bans on hunting from aircraft.

    I don’t believe BHA has taken any formal actions against high-fence hunting, although I agree our members have strong opinions on the topic. (Myself included.) BHA does believe it’s beneficial to have a forum to discuss these hot button issues even though honest sportsmen may disagree on some of them.

    At the same time, I appreciate your larger point about the danger of drifting off-mission. BHA strives to be the “sportsmen’s voice for our wild public lands, waters and wildlife” with a boots-on-the-ground focus That’s a complicated task. Thank you.

  2. Phillip on September 8th, 2014 17:29

    Hi, Ben, and thanks for chiming in. I sort of hoped you would.

    A couple of things here… I am all about discussion, and I am not always right (although if I didn’t think I was right, I wouldn’t bother writing this stuff down).

    With that in mind, I do appreciate your response and the spirit in which it’s intended. My commentary was definitely intended to be more about the big picture than the fine points.

    As I’m already well on record with my personal positions re: Drones and most other “fair chase” discussions, I won’t belabor any of it here except to say that it’s a largely arbitrary and never-ending spiral… and there’s simply no tangible reward. What was really accomplished with the drone bans? For an organization to allow itself to be distracted by debates and arguments that can’t be won, when there are real and achievable goals to be pursued… well, it’s folly. It’s bad money after good.

    I’m not saying to quash the discussions. Absolutely not. Let’s talk about these things. Let’s learn from one another. Let’s have an occasional knock-down-drag-out around the campfire (virtual or otherwise). Encourage folks to think for themselves, and to act accordingly. But providing a forum does not have to be the same as proselytizing.

    BHA has an excellent mission statement, and one that I think a lot of folks like me would get behind. You can fulfill that mission if you stay focused on it. Your members can have their opinions and their ethics, but don’t let the organization try to be the arbiter of that. There’s no need to mire the mission in the creation of divisive or elitist “rules” of behavior, nor is there cause to endorse such rules. That’s a dangerous path. Look where it got the Sierra Club.

    Remember, just like “backcountry” means something different from one place to the next, so does “fair chase”.

    Anyway, I know I’m not going to single-handedly change the direction of BHA. That’s up to you guys. But I had to have my say and hope some seed finds fertile ground.

  3. Joshua Stark on September 8th, 2014 16:43

    Interesting points. I’ll add that, after a couple of rants about the inability of the conservation community to honestly and sincerely engage in California, BHA was one of only two organizations to contact me (the other was DU, by the way).

    This also tells me something else: You are a unique and beautiful snowflake, Philip, and hiding behind somebody’s wise-crack about life doesn’t lessen that fact. You have a decent soap-box here, you do get readers who appreciate your opinions. You can put together a cogent argument and yes, sway people.

  4. Phillip on September 8th, 2014 19:57

    Josh, thanks. That was awful nice of you to say (write).

    As far as BHA, I think they have a ton of potential, and I think it’s a generally good organization. From what I’ve seen, read, and been told, they’re still pretty true to the “grass roots” moniker. My concern, as a potential donor/member, is that they’re on the edge of slipping into the realm of dictating ethics. Let the membership debate ethics. But let the organization focus on what they say they’ll do.

    That is all.

  5. I Was Going To Join Backcountry Hunters And Anglers But… | on September 8th, 2014 18:57

    […] I Was Going To Join Backcountry Hunters And Anglers But… […]

  6. Chad Love on September 9th, 2014 09:44

    That’s why I like you, Phillip, you’re not afraid to be a contrarian…:)

    Obviously I disagree on the drone issue. I do think it’s going to become an issue as drones become more pervasive and people devise methods to use them in ways that really push the boundaries of what’s generally considered fair chase, but of course there’s the rub, what the hell is “generally considered” fair chase, right? So I see your point, even if I don’t necessarily agree.

    On the high fence issue, again, we’re mostly on opposite sides of the, uh…fence, but again, I can also understand your position as it relates to ethics. To be honest my opposition to the high-fence movement actually has less to do with hunting ethics and more to do with a fundamental philosophical belief in- as Ben Long mentioned above – the principles of the North American Model, and I personally think high fences, and the underlying philosophy behind them, are a threat to that. But I have been accused of being somewhat radical in my beliefs…

    Anyway, from one contrarian to another, good post…

  7. Phillip on September 9th, 2014 11:15

    Thanks, Chad.

    On the drone issue, to be clear, I do see a day when these things may become more of an issue. And when that day comes, I’d think the right thing to do is address the specific behavior. But to simply, pre-emptively ban them? It seems ridiculous, and a waste of time and energy. Honestly, a pair of good binoculars or a good hound gives today’s hunter far more advantage than a drone ever will.

    And to high fences… maybe I need to come up with a new post about this… but in short, I absolutely agree with and support the North American Model, and I oppose the use of high fences (or any other means) to restrict the movement of wild, native species. But that’s far different than a blanket condemnation on hunting behind the fence (and the associated, broadbrush name-calling and denigration of the participants). And I guess that’s sort of the real point… I don’t like blanket condemnations, especially when they’re so often passed by folks who are really ignorant on the issue. It’s way too often driven by knee jerk reactionaries who are informed by prejudice, rumor, and myth. It’s not a short discussion, and this is only the top layer. I’ve probably got more to come.

    But everything I write is open for discussion. That’s really the point of bringing stuff like this to the Hog Blog, even if it may not always seem that way. I’ll tell you what I think, but I’m not interested in telling you what you should think… just think for yourself and make up your own mind. If someone picks up a little education along the way, well that’s even more better. And sometimes, contrary is the only way to get there.

  8. Dave on October 23rd, 2014 00:58

    I agree with what is being stated here about the drones. They don’t really provide an advantage for the average hunters. For outfitters, they are already using Cessnas to scout anyway.

    My concern with the drones, however, as I have noticed with increased usage by the GoPro and photography crowds, is the noise they make. Elks sure don’t like the noises so much, and I noticed they are more skittish if there is a drone zooming around in the area. Again, it’s not hunters who are using them, but non-hunters who are trying to get a good footage of the oil-and-gas developments in the area.

  9. Phillip on October 23rd, 2014 15:00

    They are annoying things, no doubt. That’s why I’m sort of glad to see the restrictions in National Parks. But then, that’s not a theoretical problem, it’s real.

  10. Dave on October 23rd, 2014 17:05

    Yes, to invoke drones in the topic of fair-chase is more ideological or speculation more than anything else.

    One of the reasons why I like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers as an organization is they actually use scientific papers to back their stances; I prefer them to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. However, to be honest, the RMEF have done more for habitat management and land-purchases than any other organization.

    But it’s the wolf-hatred which turned me away from it. Yes, theree are chapters (eg. Alaska) who are more vocal about the issue, but largely the national organization didn’t really take a stance on it. I only say this, not as a wolf-lover, but as someone who is from a family with trapping history who depended on pelts as an income. To manage the wolf-population for the whims of recreational hunters means an end to our livelihoods.

    But the whole debate about long-range hunting and drone-usage is based on ethics, not science. I come from a part of the world where long-range shooting is the only option for coyotes and pronghorns. I don’t condone it, but I don’t condemn it either. So, to see the organization to take a philosophical stance without any PDFs to cite bothers me.

    Without those papers, it just make us hunters look like Luddites to non-hunters; especially in the day and age where non-hunting gun-owners have stronger lobbying power than we do.

    I would like to see BHA to return to their roots of using the scientific approach to push for sound policies.

  11. Dave on October 23rd, 2014 17:07

    I apologize.


    “But it’s the wolf-hatred which turned me away from RMEF. Yes, there are chapters (eg. Alaska) who are more vocal about the issue, but largely the national BHA organization didn’t really take a stance on it.”

  12. Phillip on October 23rd, 2014 17:29

    I’m with you, generally, Dave.

    When it comes to the wolf issue, I freely admit I have not educated myself enough to feel strongly on one side or the other. I believe in science-based wildlife management, and if wolves need to be managed through hunting, then let’s manage them. If not, then hands off. Beyond that, I have no informed opinion. When it comes to RMEF, I like their record on habitat restoration and management and I’m happy to have the bulk of my membership dollars going there.

    BHA, on the other hand, seems like a fractured organization with a lot of siloed priorities. Maybe that’s the nature of a grass roots organization, but personally, I don’t see a good use of membership… and that’s reinforced when I see their public stances on non-issues like drones, or even subjective issues like long-range hunting or high fences. But those are my personal reasons. My only advice to anyone else is to do your research and make up your own mind… and that’s the same for any fund-raising organization.

    All that said… I think pushing for scientifically sound and valuable policies would be a positive step indeed, and would probably go a long way toward gaining my support.

  13. Mark on October 31st, 2014 21:48

    I found this discussion while researching criticisms of BHA, which I am considering joining. Salient points here, well considered and expressed. I have belonged to RMEF since before wolf restoration was a bone of contention there. I oppose their position on that topic. However, I endorse their grassroots activism on behalf of habitat shared by elk and other wildlife, their advocacy for fair chase, their opposition to habitat loss to energy and residential development.
    Given that all grassroots organizations are in flux, actively debating their platforms along with the values and ethics that underlie them, do you feel BHA is worthwhile in the main?

  14. Phillip on October 31st, 2014 23:06

    Hi, Mark. Glad you found the post, and I hope it was helpful. My response to your question, though, probably isn’t as helpful.

    “Worthwhile” is absolutely subjective. As I said in the title of my post, I’ve chosen to abstain, at this time. That doesn’t mean I don’t support the crux of BHA’s mission statement. It doesn’t mean I don’t share a lot of their stated beliefs. All it means is that I, based on the criteria I laid out in my post, don’t feel like this is an organization where I want to put more of my hard-earned money. Those are my values, though. I have several friends who feel differently… in some cases, strongly so.

    Another consideration is the extent to which you plan to get actively involved. I know I don’t have time or energy, right now, to do much in the way of field work or attend meetings that might help drive the agenda in a more agreeable direction. I’m down in the Texas Hill Country, where there’s not a heck of a lot of public land to protect, and private land owners take a pretty narrow view of other people telling them how to manage their ranches… or the wildlife that lives there. If I were still in California, or in Colorado where I think there’s an opportunity to put boots on the ground and to be involved in deciding how the organization spends its time and resources, I might feel differently about membership.

    I think that’s worth thinking about.