A Shot in the Dark

Tougher regulations aim for the elusive fair hunt.

But which of them is fair and which is not? The answer is not always clear. In his book, for instance, Posewitz notes that "the mechanized pursuit of wildlife is high on the list of violating fair-chase principles. We have invented machines to carry ourselves over land, sea and air. Evolution of the animals we pursue cannot keep pace with these inventions. If we are to pursue animals fairly, the ethical choice is clear -- we pursue them on foot."

Fewer and fewer people do, though. In reality, if you speak to any hunter or guide in Colorado, he will tell you that the arrival of hunting season inaugurates the sound of ATVs racing through the woods as much as it does the appearance of bright-orange safety vests. These days, undertrained, overweight or merely lazy hunters have substituted the machines for the physical preparations that once made the contest between man and animal a challenge.

Still other game-seekers refuse to accept limitations seen as infringing on other, peripheral rights; one person's unfair advantage is simply another's lawful hobby. I've spoken to woodsmen whose preferred tool is the .50-caliber sniper rifle, an increasingly popular sport gun. But it is difficult to find the fairness in mounting a rifle on a tripod, lining up an elk in the crosshairs of a scope and blowing a hole in the animal's chest from nearly a mile away. Sophisticated armies of trained men still can't see this coming: How could a deer?

Christopher Smith

As technology has advanced, the line between what's fair and what's not has only become blurrier, and in many cases, the gizmos and techniques game managers declare unprincipled sit only a split hair from that which is ruled to be acceptable. Luring in a duck with a handheld calling device is a time-honored tradition. But it is illegal in most states to record a tape of the same duck call and broadcast it over loudspeakers.

The truth is, the definition of ethical hunting is more a matter of what the locals consider tolerable at any given time than it is any widely accepted statement of noble principles. Traditions vary by region, and the borders between states can make all the difference. Consider:

Hunting mountain lions with dogs is legal is both Utah and Colorado. But Colorado restricts the number of dogs to eight; Utah sets no limit. (In Washington, hunting lions with hounds was banned by public initiative in 1999, but the ban has since been relaxed, and a handful of permits are sold each year.)

Trapping is severely circumscribed in Colorado. Not so in Utah.

As of 1993, taking bear with bait has been illegal here. In Utah, baiting is allowed (although it is strictly regulated, as compared to, say, Maine, where there are almost no restrictions on the type or placement of bear bait).

Deer baiting, usually with salt, is illegal in Colorado. While it has been uncommon, the practice is permitted in Utah. (In Texas, meanwhile, baiting deer is taken for granted.)

As is the case with organic food, when the ethics of hunting are being debated, the arguments often hinge on what is "natural" and thus good. But the definition of what actually occurs in nature is elastic. For instance, throwing a pile of fish out into the middle of a field to attract bears is considered unnatural baiting and therefore reprehensible; fish don't just appear in the middle of fields.

Fair enough. Yet if one should happen to shoot an elk (legally, natch), field-dress it and leave a gut pile in the same field -- and a bear should happen to be attracted to the alluring smell of blood and death, and a hunter should happen to be there waiting with his gun -- well, that would be a much harder case for a game warden to make. Elk is a bear's natural food. Never mind that the meal was prepared and left for him by a human.

On our state's eastern border, meanwhile, definitions play a big role in determining whether a pheasant is lucky. Colorado laws demand that the upland game birds not be hunted over grain whose primary purpose is attracting birds. If a pheasant or two happens to be lured to someone's legitimate grain crop, however, and some guys who've paid for the privilege happen to be waiting around with guns, that's just good hunting. But the perpetrator shouldn't let the game warden then catch him not harvesting. In this state, a farmer has to at least go through the motions of being one.

Step over the line into Nebraska, however, and pheasant hunting is a different story. There, planting a crop strictly to attract pheasants for the pleasure of hunters is all part of the package. After all, points out state game-conservation officer Jeff Clauson, "That's a natural agricultural purpose." Clauson is quick to add that you can't go scattering the grain all over the field -- the predator technically can't help the birds eat. That's not natural.

"The commerce in hunting," Posewitz maintains, "is the problem. The hide hunters are back. They've just got a new business model." Indeed, more often than not, it is money and trade, not scruples, that drive the ethical standards of a given hunting community. In Wisconsin recently, the state wildlife board approved a statewide ban on deer-baiting in an effort to prevent the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease. But under pressure from hunters and bait manufacturers, the board backed down, agreeing to the ban only in areas where CWD was already prevalent.

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