Christopher Smith

A Shot in the Dark

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.

"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."

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?

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.

Most paid guides and outfitters are scrupulous, because they love hunting and respect the creatures they are paid to stalk. But it's naive to insist that money doesn't have an influence. When a customer with only five days off from work is paying top dollar for a trophy animal -- a guided lion hunt can cost upwards of $4,000 -- the pressure can be intense to make damn sure something is killed before the hunt is over.

So the outfitter struggles to make the trip a success. But what is a fair allocation of effort? The updated mountain-lion hunting laws here simply demand that a hunter put in some work before he puts a bullet into his feline. Yet who will measure how much sweat equity is enough to deserve the final shot?

What, for that matter, really constitutes a canned hunt? How about the elk hunter whose paid outfitter sends him videos of trophy scouting missions, picks him up at the airport, sets up his camp, loads his wide ass onto a horse, calls in a bull and then hands the rifle to his client? Or what about the goose-hunting ranch where the decoys are set out before you arrive and the proprietor calls in the birds while you sit in your pre-constructed blind and drink hot coffee, waiting only to pull the trigger?

Certainly all can agree that an ethical hunter at least eats his quarry. The notion that one always eats what one kills at least gives lip service to the ideal that hunters are carrying on a long and proud tradition of providing for themselves and their families. Just to make sure modern meat-seekers remember this, it is also against the law in most states to shoot an animal and then leave it there.

But let's see a show of hands: How many mountain hunters stalk big cats for the meat? Lester Mundy, a longtime houndsman and lion-hunting guide, claims that lion meat is a sweet delicacy. Even so, he adds, only about a fourth of successful lion hunters ever eat it. Most are in the pursuit of venery for the trophy.

Clinically speaking, of course, a canned hunt -- or any scheme that greatly enhances our obvious dominion over animals -- won't matter much to the species. Even a lion treed and kept captive for three days will probably be killed by a licensed shooter with a legitimate tag at some point. But hunters diminish themselves when they take undue advantage of an animal. Real sportsmen don't need a law to tell them when they've violated the spirit of the hunt, and in the end, the dishonor always falls to us.


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