Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should: Hunting ethics

by Jeff Barnard, AP environmental reporter in SW Oregon for 30+ years (now retired)

As I head into the woods for general rifle deer season, I am thinking about how to be an ethical hunter. My primary motivation in finally trying to fulfill my childhood desire to hunt was to have a new and more intense relationship with the wild that comes from finding and cleanly killing a deer to take home to eat. So to be true to that experience, I have to be sure to be ethical. What does that mean?This is not a discussion of whether hunting is ethical. By trying to be a hunter, I have decided that it is for me.

For some guidance on what to keep in mind to hunt ethically, I called Ken McCall, field director for the Oregon Hunters Association (http://www.oregonhunters.org ). He said it comes down to some simple principles: respect your quarry, fair chase, be safe, obey the law, and don’t be a slob.

When it comes to respecting your quarry, that means a few things: Practice enough to be proficient with your weapon, whether it is a centerfire rifle, a bow, or a muzzleloader. Be able to hit your target and only take a shot if you are within the range of your ability. And if you wound the animal, track it down, finish the job and take home the meat.

McCall figures if you shoot an animal, but can’t find it, you should consider your tag filled and stop hunting.

“It’s relatively obvious, but some people don’t think about it,” said McCall. “You are in fact taking a life, the life of an animal you should respect.

“The real key is thinking about how you would feel if you wounded an animal simply because you were poorly prepared and had to chase that animal for a day or two. You are ethically charged with retrieving the animal you killed. That is with the ideal of a one-shot kill we are all looking for. You owe the animal the courtesy of taking it humanely.”

For me, that will mean limiting any shot I take to about 100 yards. With no experience, I don’t want to try something outside my abilities. And I will not try to take a shot offhand unless it is very close. So I will use some sort of rest, like a tree or rock, or get into a stable position, like sitting, that I have practiced. And I will be using a rifle powerful enough to cleanly kill a deer.

In his introduction to the collection of essays, “A Hunter’s Heart,” Richard K. Nelson talks about learning to hunt with the Inupiaq people of Alaska’s Arctic Coast. There he got the blunt advice, “When you hunt walrus, you must not act like a man. Do not be arrogant. Be humble.”

That’s pretty good advice for life in general.

That feeds into something Jim Akenson, conservation director for Oregon Hunters Association, has noticed a lot of lately. Young hunters crashing around the woods with no regard for other hunters. He horse-packs into wilderness to hunt, so expects to get away from most of the pressure.

“They are very disruptive because they don’t settle down and hunt in a stealth manner, which I feel archery is designed to be,” he said. “They don’t learn about bow hunting from the quote “elders” like myself and others but from DVDs, television, podcasts and YouTube, which are all about success, not all about hunting etiquette.”

He also won’t take a shot over 30 yards with his recurve bow.

Akenson also objects to people favoring accuracy over killing effectiveness by using too light an arrow with too small a broadhead.

On the subject of fair chase, McCall figures that generally means pursuing an animal on its own terms, and not breaking the law in ways that would constitute poaching, such as spotlighting a deer.

Though I can’t find a direct reference to what constitutes fair chase on the ODFW website, Oregon law is tougher on this issue than a lot of other states. But one thing I don’t see is any specific prohibition of feeders for deer and elk in Oregon, though it seems to be frowned upon. I saw a hunting show once where the celebrity hunter got up early on his ranch, drove out to his tree house, and waited for the deer to show up at his feeder. The feeder ran, the deer came, and Bang, he bagged his whitetail. That is not the experience I am after. And I think it goes against the idea of fair chase.

The Boone and Crocket Club, the folks who keep trophy records, wanted to separate itself from market hunters when it formed in 1887, and adopted this definition of fair chase: “The ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild, native North American big game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals.”

The latest definition includes:

· Obey the law.

· Respect local customs.

· Exercise a personal code of behavior that reflects favorably on your abilities and sensibilities as a hunter.

· Practice so you have the skills necessary to make the kill as certain and quick as possible.

· Do not dishonor yourself, the prey or the environment.

“Recognize that these tenets are intended to enhance the hunter’s experience of the relationship between predator and prey which is one of the most fundamental relationships of humans and the environment.”

The Pope & Young Club, which keeps records on archery big game hunting, gets more specific. A lot of these are prohibited by law in Oregon anyway.

No taking a game animal in a trap, deep snow or water, or on ice; no spotlighting; no use of tranquilizers or poisons; no taking an animal inside a fenced enclosure; no using a plane to land next to or inform a hunter about a game animal; no using power vehicles to drive game animals; no using electronic devices for attracting, locating or pursuing game.

McCall considers safe firearms handling to be part of any ethical hunting standard. So that means remembering the four basic rules: Keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. Assume all firearms are loaded. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot. Be sure of your target and what is in front of and behind it.

To obey the law I read over the hunting regulations booklet again. A few highlights: You can’t start hunting until a half-hour before sunrise, and have to quit a half-hour after sunset. No hunting from a motor-propelled vehicle unless you are handicapped. No drones. You have to wait eight hours before hunting if you got dropped off by an aircraft anywhere but an airport. Unload your rifle before carrying it in a motor vehicle, including an ATV or snowmobile. You have to preserve evidence of the sex of the animal you kill. Details are in the regs. If you kill an animal, you have to pack it out and not waste it, unless it is a cougar, for which you have a tag, in which case you can leave the meat, apparently because the head and pelt are what you are after (though some hunters do eat the meat). You cannot sell or barter game meat. No shooting from or across a road. No hunting on private land without permission. Carry your tag. No hunting within a city, public park or cemetery. Mark your tag immediately.

As for not being a slob, a lot of people have trouble with this, but it should be obvious. No trespassing, no littering, no drinking booze or smoking dope while you are hunting. No shooting up signs or trees or buildings for the hell of it. It is OK to leave behind a gut pile without burying it. Something will eat it.

For McCall, the key issue here is respecting property. A lot of private and even public land has been shut off to hunters because of slobs.