A Shot in the Dark

Tougher regulations aim for the elusive fair hunt.

A few years back, I was sitting with a friend in a duck blind. It was a slow day of hunting, and we were discussing the recently passed Colorado initiative outlawing the spring bear hunt. The new law also prohibited baiting while pursuing a bear -- a good thing, I argued. The practice, I maintained, was repugnant: Who could honestly say that tossing an artificial lure out in the woods, sitting down in a hiding spot and waiting for your quarry to show up was really hunting? It was high time, I concluded righteously, that people finally recognized how unfair the trick was.

My buddy laughed at me. "Careful," he said, nodding to the dozen decoys floating in front of us. "You just described a good duck hunt."

I thought of our conversation again a couple of weeks ago, after the state Division of Wildlife announced changes in regulations for mountain-lion hunting. The new strictures aim to stop so-called canned hunts -- a scheme in which a commercial outfitter would release his hounds on a lion's trail. Then, once the cat had been pursued and treed -- often after many miles of chase -- the outfitter would call the paying customer, who would be driven to the tree to shoot the lion.

Christopher Smith

"That violated the basic precepts of fair chase," notes Todd Malmsbury, a spokesman for the DOW. "There's much more to hunting than actual killing."

According to the updated code, it is now illegal for anyone to prevent a treed or cornered lion from escaping for the purposes of waiting for the hunter to arrive and slay the quarry. (Outfitters used to do this by tying their hounds to the tree or by starting a fire underneath the lion to scare it into staying put.) The regs now also require the triggerman to have been "a member of the hunting party"; that is, he has to have participated in the actual chase (although the law leaves the definition of what constitutes being "a member" up to game wardens).

As with all unsavory hunting practices, canned mountain-lion hunts have been confined to a small number of hunters and outfitters. There are only an estimated 5,000 lions in Colorado; on average, about 375 are killed each year by hunters. Still, the tradition has by no means been unheard of -- even in places where it is prohibited. Utah has outlawed canned hunts for many years. But Rudy Musclow, who heads up enforcement for the Utah Division of Game Management, says he still makes a handful of arrests in such cases every year.

The worst he remembers happened about six years ago, in eastern Utah, where an outfitter, working with dogs, trapped a mountain lion in a tree after a long chase. While the outfitter kept the lion in place, the paying customer was flown in from Colorado. Once in Utah, the would-be shooter still had to take his hunter-safety course. Meanwhile, after a full three days and nights in the branches, the desperate lion finally decided that the dogs below were less of a threat than whatever might be coming, so it leapt out of the tree and ran away.

You would think that ethical standards for hunting would be absolute. After all, what's morally right when it comes to killing an animal should be the same everywhere: A bear in Maine ought to enjoy the same rules of honorable pursuit as a bear in Wyoming or Colorado. But that's not necessarily the case.

Few people have thought about this more than Jim Posewitz has. As the head of Orion: The Hunter's Institute, a Montana-based nonprofit organization, Posewitz often is called on to give ethics seminars to hunters. "We've been legislating fair-chase proposals since colonial times," he points out. The most obvious example is limiting the number of game licenses sold in a given year.

Other game-management laws, Posewitz adds, strive to strike a "balance between an animal's ability to escape and a hunter's ability to take one now and then." Among hunters, the idea that the pursuer and the quarry should be on more or less equal terms is known as the doctrine of fair chase.

Over the years, a handful of these rules have become universally accepted and uncontested, because the advantage to the hunter is simply too great to allow. Jack-lighting, or spotlighting, an animal -- shining a bright light into its face in order to paralyze it long enough to line up a good shot -- is illegal in most, if not all, states. Same with dynamiting fish or hunting from an airplane.

Yet once these obvious rules of engagement are out of the way, the specifics of what constitutes a fair chase become more of a moving target. Hundreds of years ago, the idea of what was sportsmanlike wasn't so hard to figure out. Even if he'd wanted more of an advantage, a man with a spear pursuing a deer on foot really did give the animal a sporting chance.

The invention of the gun tipped the balance against the beast for good, of course, and today huntsmen must accept artificial limits on their ability to kill prey. Even so, dozens of companies race to introduce the latest gear designed to make the hunt easier and more successful. "There is a constant flow of products developed to provide advantages to hunters," Posewitz writes in his seminal book Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting. "Sights, scents, calls, baits, decoys, devices and techniques of infinite variety fill the marketplace."

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