Is Fair Chase A Liability To The Future Of Hunting?

September 28, 2012

Yeah, I know.  That’s a pretty sensational headline.  It’s really not a new thing, though… at least not to me.  The recent passage of California’s SB1221, outlawing the use of hounds for hunting bears or bobcats just brought it back to the fore.

I’ve made the argument before.  The deeper hunters get into constructing this mythology of a Fair Chase ethic, the further we get away from a couple of realities.  First of all is the reality that, when it comes down to it, there’s a lot of variation in motivation and method across the hunting community.  One hunter’s tabu is another hunter’s standard operating procedure.  One man hunts for spiritual fulfillment, another hunts because he enjoys the meat, and another hunts as a way to escape the pressures of the workaday world.  What is important to the former may be utterly meaningless to the latter.  “Fair” is an individual concept.

The other reality is the simple reality of the field.  Nature doesn’t follow our agenda, and hunters often find themselves in a position that may conflict with their stated ethical mores.  Maybe it’s the shot that’s just a little longer than we’re comfortable with, or the animal’s refusal to offer a really good shot angle.  Or perhaps it’s that one day when the birds simply won’t flush, and the only way to bring home dinner is to ground sluice, or knock one out of a tree.   It could be the day we’re invited to a hunt where it turns out the status quo doesn’t mesh with our usual standard. 

We are all masters of justification.  There is little we cannot rationalize, especially when there is no one around to argue the point.  Which all comes down to another way of saying, we can all talk a big game when we’re hypothesizing and pontificating, but when the decision comes to pull the trigger or loose the arrow, we’re simply not all that consistent.  Some hunters are, to be sure, but there are enough exceptions to cast real doubt on the sincerity or credibility of the whole.  We begin to look like hypocrites.

Fair Chase is an ideal, and it is rooted in some pretty fertile, moral ground.  The concept has been defined many times, with a few variations and by better wordsmiths than me.  But at its essence is the argument that the animals we hunt for sport deserve a certain amount of respect, including the right to a “sporting chance”.  It comes, in its modern form, from a time when men still found sport in fighting chained bears with dogs, chased wild turkeys with greyhounds or shot them off the roost at daybreak, and when market hunters with punt guns slaughtered entire flocks of sleeping waterfowl.  It came as a justification for recreational hunting.  It was a defensive tactic to morally segregate the sport hunter from the market hunter and the subsistence hunter.  It is purely an elitist construct. 

Nevertheless, I can get behind the philosophy of Fair Chase, inasmuch as I do find the most challenging hunts to be more rewarding.  I get the idea of “the honorable hunt.”  I think the parameters this concept defines are certainly worth aspiring to on a general level.  I have great respect for the individual who holds himself to the highest level of ethical behavior. 

But as a “rule of the hunt” and a standard by which to judge other hunters… I think it is sorely flawed.

I’ve already mentioned the reality that hunters are driven by a wide variety of means, motivations, and methods.  We don’t all see things, even basic things, the same way.   We certainly don’t all behave the same way.  But I’d wager that most of us, in our own minds, see ourselves as pretty ethical hunters. 

The issue, as I see it, comes when we (the hunting community) lean so heavily on ethics, and specifically on Fair Chase, as a justification or defense of the sport of hunting.  As a public relations tool, it’s certainly useful to paint the picture of the “noble sportsman”.  The idea of giving animals a “sporting chance” and attendant trappings of sportsmanship and “fairness” does blunt the sharper edge of the image of blood sport. 

The problem is that this carefully cultivated image is easily turned against us.  In the recent California decision to ban the hunting of bears and bobcats with hounds (and several insidious attachments to this law), a leading argument was that such activity does not meet the standards of Fair Chase. 

From a recent article about the new law in the LA Times:

 “It’s typically a high-tech hunt that results in an animal being shot out of a tree, which is unsporting and the equivalent of shooting an animal in a cage at the zoo,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.”

The same logic is being applied to efforts to ban other types of hunting, from high fence to mourning doves.  And it’s pretty effective at affecting public opinion.  Non-hunters often tolerate hunting based on little more than their impressions of the sport.  Studies show, time and again, that public opinions are highest when they believe the hunters eat their kill.  Results are also positive when the hunt is portrayed in terms of fairness… of giving the game a “sporting chance.”  And they tend to be quite negative toward behavior that doesn’t fit that image of sportsmanship and utilization. 

Justification of hunting on the basis of “fairness” is a dangerous road which, if followed to its end, gets steadily narrower and narrower until there’s very little left.  If it’s not fair to chase and tree a bear with hounds, how fair is it to shoot one at several hundred yards with a high powered rifle?  A common cliche in the anti-hunting argument is, “why don’t you be a real sport and hunt and kill the animal with your bare hands?”

It’s a ridiculous suggestion, of course, but it’s also logical if we are indeed so enamoured of the idea of fairness.  At what point is the playing field between hunter and hunted truly level?  If you think about this from the perspective of the non-hunter, isn’t that what the whole concept of Fair Chase and sportsmanship is really suggesting? 

And how do the tenets of Fair Chase apply in cases where hunting is a management tool, for reducing or controlling wildlife populations?  Is Fair Chase in conflict with itself, when it calls for both a humane kill and giving the wildlife a “sporting chance” to escape?  Consider wingshooting.  Challenging indeed, and few bird hunters would enjoy the sport as much if the object were to ground sluice birds, or snipe them from a distance.  But it also carries a relatively high rate of wounded and lost game. 

In most cases, the most humane kill can only be ensured under very non-sporting conditions.  This is, in my opinion at least, one of the strongest arguments in favor of baiting big game animals.   Bring them in close and distract them with food while you wait for the best shot opportunity.  This is hardly the epitome of Fair Chase, but the result is hard to argue.

The thing is, Fair Chase promotes a false standard that many hunters simply don’t follow.  When the apparent message is, “this is how all hunting should be,” then what do you expect people to say when it turns out that all hunting isn’t like that at all?  Is this really the kind of foundation on which we’d build the defense of our sport?  What will we do when those walls come tumbling down?





4 Responses to “Is Fair Chase A Liability To The Future Of Hunting?”

  1. shotgunner on September 28th, 2012 18:26

    Regarding waterfowl crippled and wounded birds. USE BIGGER SHOT. Everyone says use modified choke & #4 hevi-shot (#2 steel) on ducks. I hit lots of birds using this configuration. I also chased or lost too many. I switched to B for all my hunting. Geese are over dekes so easily killed with B and ducks are mostly pass shooting over dekes. so with B size Hevishot I drop almost all my hits now.

    Regarding fair chase? I shoot ’em on the water too. Hell I do it for the meat and that is always a clean kill!

  2. Bruce on September 28th, 2012 20:34

    Historically, fair chase was largely a fabrication of the aristocrats, the landed gentry who had plenty of food at home and plenty of money to buy food in the event they came home empty-handed. Back then, fair chase was largely like the rules for badminton or football—it provided consistency and a regulatory framework for competitive sport. If you look at hunting as strictly a sport, the taking of game being entirely secondary, then I suppose that imposing fair chase limitations makes sense. But if hunting for you is a means of obtaining food and is not entirely sport, then fair chase is not as important.

    But there is another aspect to fair chase regulations and that is in terms of conservation and the economics of hunting. Fair chase is important in this respect because it means that hunters adhering to fair chase are less likely to take a game animal and each game animal that is ultimately killed therefore generates more revenue. Elk, for instance, generate huge revenues for the local economies of states such as Colorado and Montana. Strict fair chase regulations mean that the elk herd can support far more hunters and generate far more $$$ than if hunters were allowed to take elk using any method they choose and under any circumstances they choose.

    A lot of people confuse fair chase with humane kills, which is nonsense. Fair chase has nothing to do with the ethics of a humane kill. Here on the Big Island, Hawaiian hunters pursue hogs with dogs and when the dogs catch a pig and hold it and harass it, the hunter sneaks in with a long knife and starts stabbing. Sometimes the kill is quick, sometimes not. Dogs are often badly injured. But it is Hawaiian tradition, going back to long before the Hawaiians had the luxury of firearms or bows/arrows and back to a time when getting food was serious business.

    I personally don’t support any hunting method where the game animal is harrassed or driven to exhaustion. I don’t support any form of hunting where the animal is not cleanly killed. In my old age I’m beginning to lean toward Karma and I feel it is my responsibility as a hunter to keep suffering to a minimum.

    I think we should be less concerned with strict rules of fair chase and more concerned with marksmanship, tracking skills, stalking skills, and ultimately making a humane kill.

  3. shotgunner on September 29th, 2012 09:45

    Awesome essay Bruce! I wanna come to Hawaii and hunt cattle!

  4. Dan on October 20th, 2012 07:17

    While we may have an atavistic desire to hunt, modern culture does not deem this as acceptable, regardless of how fundamental the instinct may be. Thankfully you and I have chosen to disregard the ignominy that society would cast upon us, but I have found that many young hunters mask their desire to hunt with all of the prerequisite ethics and morals that mainstream compunction throws at them. In recent times, say the past 30 years, the morality of killing another living thing has been dominated by what may have started as well-intentioned pacifism but quickly digressed to what is today’s protectionist and liberationist set. What a load of garbage. As much as society wants to run from the horror that is death, it’s inevitable and should be understood not relegated as barbaric.

    Killing things, whether you like it or not, is a fact of life. Forget morals and ethics, and as you’ve stated in your post, who is to decide what fair chase really is? Just learn to do it humanely and efficiently; a skill set that unfortunately has lost relevance for some. They just don’t understand the world spinning beneath their feet, where their food comes from, man’s innate ability to alter his environment, how our material world is created and how technology has come so far. They truly don’t understand…

    There’s no point in trying to justify or distinguish hunting as fair chase or otherwise, there is no point as they won’t be told and their minds are closed to any alternate view. Whether you’re a meat hunter, a trophy hunter or culling vertebrate pests , it doesn’t mater. Hunting and the motivations behind it, the impulses that propel it and how it unfolds out in the bush – where no one can see you or judge your conduct and actions – that’s what hunting is all about; that’s where the sportsman’s character can be tested. And if hunter’s want to maintain their relevance, I believe we need tell it like it is, and at the same time, show the greater community that as hunters we are “normal people” and are driven to hunt regardless of our gender, age, race or occupation. We are children and parents, employers and public servants. Guns and hunting cut across every demographic and while the western world is democratic, our rights to own guns and to hunt should not need any justification other than that.

    I really should go to bed!