Wednesday, February 18, 2009

For Discussion: Wanton Waste and Going Above and Beyond Beyond Fair Chase

Wanton Waste and Going Above and Beyond Beyond Fair Chase

I admit I have been feeling uncomfortable, even troubled by the recent attention being paid to the issue of wanton waste as it pertains to hunting. States such as Vermont are considering legislation to make it a crime to “waste” animals. I take it that the intent of such legislation is to motivate hunters to search longer and harder for downed animals before giving up the search.

But I believe that the idea of creating a “law” against wanton waste may open up more problems than such laws might solve. Part of the difficulty as I see it is the nearly-impossible task of defining such basic concepts as “waste” and “use” as these terms typically are employed in discussions of hunter ethics.

For example, consider the website for the Oregon hunting advocacy organization, Back Country Hunters and Anglers. The group credits Jim Posewitz of the Orion Institute with advising them on organizational matters, and their site includes the following excerpt from one of Posewitz’s books on hunting:
Field Dressing an Animal, (from Beyond Fair Chase):

In the beginning, humans hunted to live. Today some still live to hunt. Originally it was a matter of survival to utilize what was killed. Today, using what is killed is essential to ethical hunting.

After you have taken possession of the animal you have killed and taken time to appreciate it, it is then time to care for your gift. The task at hand will vary. For some animals it is simply a matter of putting it into your game pouch and continuing. For big game there is field dressing and properly caring for all the useable parts.

Under all circumstances, the ethical hunter cares for harvested game in a respectful manner, leaving no waste. Field dressing has several advantages. It reduces the risk of spoiling edible parts, and it returns parts of the animal to the earth where it found life.

Field dressing begins the natural recycling process that involves scavenging birds, insects, and decay as the unused parts return energy and nutrient cycles to the ecosystem. This is a marvelous process of renewal, and surplus parts of what you harvest should be thoughtfully returned to the earth ( ).
Now, in what follows, I don't mean to pick on Posewitz or to appear as overly-critical of his book, which I greatly admire. But what caught my eye was the apparent contradiction in the first paragraph:

“Under all circumstances, the ethical hunter cares for harvested game in a respectful manner, leaving no waste.”

This absolutist admonition to “leave no waste under all circumstances” is then followed by a paean about recycling the dead animal’s body parts to the earth. “Field dressing has several advantages,” Posewitz intones. “It reduces the risk of spoiling edible parts, and it returns parts of the animal to the earth where it found life.”

Here is where I believe hunters such as Posewitz are inconsistent in their views about “full utilization” of the resource. Notice how Posewitz defines an ethical hunter as one who conscientiously uses the animal he/she kills. But there is an unaddressed threshold question here for Posewitz: where should we draw the line between conscientious use and wanton waste?

Consider the fact that for many bird hunters, “breasting out” the bird is the norm. I myself consider the practice to be fairly abhorrent. But I am also aware that for serious waterfowlers who may shoot and consume upwards of 100 ducks in a season, the idea of laboriously plucking each and every duck in preparation for oven roasting seems to be an unrealistic expectation. Would Posewitz insist that as a moral rule, “under all circumstances, the ethical hunter cares for harvested game . . . leaving no waste” should apply to the dedicated waterfowler who only breasts out his ducks ? What about the drumsticks? What about the feet? (my wife showed me a recipe for Casserole of Braised Duck Feet in the cookbook, Working a Duck –perhaps I’ll post it here).

Or take big game hunting. Is Posewitz really insisting that under all circumstances, the moose or elk hunter must leave no waste? What about the tongue? Heart? Other organ meat?

Or what of the bone and sinew? One could always save every bone to make soup stock. Why not clean the intestines and save them for use in making elk sausage? “Under all circumstances . . . leave no waste.”

That’s a pretty all-encompassing moral injunction. But a fairly hopeless one it seems to me.

The plain fact of the matter is that industrial factory farming practices do a far better job of “full utilization of the resource” than recreational (or subsistence) hunters will ever do. As William Cronon’s history of the Chicago meat-packing industry shows, meat companies like Armour and Swift have always excelled at using 100% of the animals they killed: “The meat packers used every part of the pig except the squeal.”

And aboriginal peoples don’t necessarily do any better than today’s recreational hunter. “In the beginning, humans hunted to live,” Posewitz tells us. “Originally it was a matter of survival to utilize what was killed.” Well, as anthropologists have shown, survival doesn’t necessarily guarantee utilization. Shepard Krech’s book, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History, provides numerous examples of buffalo being killed by American Indians just for their tongues and other select body parts, with the rest of the animals’ bodies left to rot. Thousands of buffalo stampeded over the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump were likewise left to rot—although this was likely more an indicator of Indian butchers having run out of time than of any conscious intention on their part to waste meat. The point being, however, the fact that nineteenth century market hunters were not the only ones who could waste buffalo meat. American Indian hunting done for survival (not sport) was no guarantee that hunted animals would be fully utilized.

Yet Posewitz concludes that leaving an animal to rot—or at least, leaving the parts of an animal that you don’t want—is a natural part of the cycle of life:
Field dressing begins the natural recycling process that involves scavenging birds, insects, and decay as the unused parts return energy and nutrient cycles to the ecosystem. This is a marvelous process of renewal, and surplus parts of what you harvest should be thoughtfully returned to the earth.
Why is leaving any animal parts to rot, even if “thoughtfully returned to the earth,” morally okay? By that logic, why wouldn’t leaving MORE animal parts to rot be even better? After all, wouldn’t scavenging birds and insects benefit even more from a bigger amount of unused parts being returned to the ecosystem as energy and nutrients?

In short, there seems to be nowhere within Posewitz’s ethical framework to draw a line between “leaving no waste under all circumstances” and “leaving an appropriate amount of waste in all circumstances.”

So where does this leave us with wanton waste laws? Clearly, as hunters we all want hunters to eat or otherwise utilize whatever they kill. But I don't think we necessarily want to make it a crime for hunters to leave a gut pile in the woods. Or to leave duck legs in the swamp. Or make it illegal for a hunter to leave the heart, liver, or other organ meat of a dead animal if he simply does not care to eat the organ meat of the animal he has killed.

The problem is that one man’s edible drumstick is another man’s wanton waste. Where one hunter sees pickled moose tongue and stuffed elk heart, another hunter sees food for carrion beetles and “the marvelous process of renewal.”

Here is another example where by all means we should try to persuade hunters to “use what they kill.” But by the same token, we should stay out of the business of making it a criminal law to force hunters to “use what they kill.”

I believe that in general we should stay away from wanton waste laws and from preachy sermons about leaving no waste under all circumstances.

Moreover, I also believe that the question of what constitutes “full” or “appropriate” utilization of the resource is best seen as something that ethicists call supererogation. Supererogation is the ethical idea of performing morally commendable acts that are not morally obligatory—rather, such acts are voluntary. The idea of supererogation is well captured by the phrase, “going above and beyond the call of duty.”

An act of charity, for example, is clearly a morally commendable behavior. And yet we as a society do not morally require people to give ten percent, or twenty percent, or ninety percent of their income to charity each year. Instead, we leave it to each individual to decide for herself how morally virtuous she will be each year when it comes to her being charitable. A voluntary act of charity is thus a supererogatory action, in that it is (a) voluntary, and it is (b) good, but it is (c) not morally required.

I believe that the full utilization of a downed game animal similarly belongs in the category of supererogatory actions. A hunter's full use of the hunted game animal is a morally commendable and morally admirable action. But I would argue that the full use of a hunted game animal does not belong in the category of a morally required behavior.

Now, with that said, using as much of the hunted animal as you possibly can is undeniably a morally virtuous act. But we need to remember that the question of how much use constitutes “full use” will vary with each individual hunter. Whereas one hunter might utilize 95% of the animal, another hunter may only use 25% of the animal.

(And, as an aside, how we would measure such a thing anyway? By weight? by biomass? Viewed this way, anyway you slice it, a conscientious and ethical elk hunter would still end up wasting more than a slob quail hunter. And surely, that can’t be right.)

In any event I would argue that the question of wanton waste and of the full utilization of animals that are killed is largely (but not always) a question of supererogatory behavior— behavior that is morally commendable, behavior that should be encouraged, and behavior that we admire—but not behavior that we need or want to force or compel others to follow.

An book review of Beyond Fair Chase makes the point succinctly:
Posewitz, though well meaning, sets back our understanding of ethical hunting by confusing "difficulty of taking" an animal with ethics. He further does not seem to know that "fair chase" is a term created by the Boone & Crockett Club to describe their tournament rules for entering animals into their record books, much like golfing's rule that mechanized golf carts cannot be used by contestants. In spite of this, no one seriously suggests that it is unethical for recreational golfers to use golf carts, however. Ethical hunting is hunting that is: (1) Safe, (2) Conserves game populations for future generations, and (3) Respects the choices and rights of other hunters within the same boundaries. Whether I hunt with my bare hands, walking miles to get to the game, or select some easier way has nothing to do with ethics. Posewitz is entitled to hunt as he wishes, but he should not try to impose his views on others (John London (USA) - February 3, 2001).
I believe that Mr. London has it roughly correct in this evaluation of Beyond Fair Chase. Posewitz is indeed entitled to hunt as he wishes. It is another thing entirely to try to impose his ethical views on others through legislation, ballot referendum, or other politically coercive means.

This holds for other hunters and their views. Nuisance hunters of woodchucks, prairie dogs, coyotes, or foxes rarely eat what they kill. Must we therefore conclude that the hunting of nuisance species is unethical?

Some but not all hunters utilize the pelts of some but not all of these animals. Must we therefore attempt to draw a line between ethical pelt users who go above and beyond the call of duty and unethical wasters of animal carcasses who simply leave dead "varmints" to rot in the sun?

I for one don't think we should go there, at least not if we don't have to. Again, I think hunters tend to be their own worst enemy: I don't like the way you hunt, so let's pass a law against the way you hunt.

I simply believe we need to come up with better arguments than that.


  1. Tantillo makes some good points concerning where do you draw the line on how much should be utilized and should it be a regulation or left up to the individual hunter. In the proposed Vermont rule we explicitly stayed away from forcing utilization. We did require making a reasonable attempt to find and retrieve any animal that you attempted to take. And required that the animal be made part of your bag and taken from the field. Exceptions were made here for animals killed doing damage. Once you get the animal home it is your property and you can use it as you see fit. Just as you could by a pig and eat it or feed it to your dog - no difference under this regulation.
    We also made it illegal to abandon carcasses on public or private land. (This part of the draft rule needs to be clarified as to what is a carcass, the eatable parts, bones, guts, etc?) Currently if you throw out animal parts on your neighbors lawn it would not be a littering violation, if there was a scrap of paper it would be. We talked about amending the littering law but that is a statute and would have to go to the legislature.
    The issue of whether harm has been done is critical to deciding if certain behavior should be made illegal. The concept of harm v offense is what has to be decided. Just because someones actions are offensive is not enough to make it illegal. In a democracy we put up with lots of offensive things. If the actions do harm then it does justify law making. The other question is who is being harmed? In the case of a hunter shooting at a buck, not bothering to walk over and see if he hit it or not, or not taking the time to try and blood trail it - I would say other hunters are harmed. I would also say if this behavior becomes known to the public it harms the future of hunting through loss of support by the non-hunting public.
    How much weight to put on cumulative harm or harm that may come from today's actions sometime in the future is tricky. It seems to me that we do have to give up some individual choice for the greater good or even to lower the odds of future problems.
    Bottom line to me is it is our responsibility to draw the bottom line for behavior. Drawling it as low as we can with out appreciable harm is better than being overly restrictive. In the Vermont situation there is a political reason to act. If we don't pass a rule the word is the legislature will take it up and pass a law that they feel will be best. It seems to me we hunters and trappers can do a much better job than our mostly non-hunting trapping legislators can do.
    In defense of my friend and colleague Jim Posewitz, his books and writings have served very well to raise the awareness of hunter ethics and has served as a beacon for responsible behavior. I don't believe anywhere that he advocates for more regulation. He does advocate for more education and understanding of natural systems and the place of hunters in that system.

  2. Eric,
    thanks for the thoughtful comments--I have been thinking a lot about this issue of "honoring" the game animal that has been killed, and the utilization up to and including the meal is probably the most significant and important ritual to honor the animal. But we can honor the animal in other ways, too: taxidermy for one. So I'm leery of laws or of political pressure generally that insist we must eat what we kill 100 percent of the time.

    With that said, I also hope it doesn't look like I was picking on Jim Posewitz personally--I am more interested in the argument he expressed in the statement, “Under all circumstances, the ethical hunter cares for harvested game in a respectful manner, leaving no waste.” I don't think we should articulate such rigid and inflexible rules, generally speaking.

    As an aside, however, I also don't think it is exactly correct to say "I don't believe anywhere that he advocates for more regulation." Posewitz has been an outspoken opponent of so-called "canned hunting" and was apparently very active in getting the Montana ballot referendum against high fence hunting approved.

    See e.g., Greg Benning's article for the Minnesota DNR, "On the Fence." Benning credits Posewitz with a very active role in advocating for more regulation:

    "Posewitz and other hunters successfully organized a referendum, passed last fall, to ban canned big-game hunts in Montana. Posewitz quotes Roosevelt again: 'The professional market hunter who kills game for the hide or for the feathers or for the meat or to sell antlers and other trophies; market men who put game in cold storage; and the rich people, who are content to buy what they have not skill to get by their own exertions -- these are the men who are the real enemies of game.' "

    Anyway, these are interesting questions to think about.

  3. Great commentary by Mr. Tantillo. I could not agree more. When one legislates ethics, it no longer becomes ethical.

  4. I, too, appreciate Tantillo's argument and agree with it, though I sympathize with Posewitz's aesthetic.

    I do believe, though, that lost in Tantillo's libertarian leaning "Don't Tread on Me" manifesto is the importance of impression management. Nuse hints at this in his comment. Harms toward the future of hunting are inevitable when an anti-hunting public get wind of piles of squirrels killed at a sportsmen's club fundraiser "squirrel derby", which end up in dumpsters or, perhaps somewhat better, in coyote baiting piles of rotting flesh.

    I agree that we don't legislate on the issue; but beyond legislation lies the domain of cultural norms and mores that must become codified within the hunting community so as not to be perceived as "wanton wasters." Here Posewitz does us a great favor.

    The livestock agriculture community grapples with this. It is not illegal to leave a dead cow at the end of your farm's driveway, stiff and with legs in the air, for the renderer to retrieve (I have witnessed this in my community). But it is distasteful to some, even offensive, and results in front page coverage that significantly harms the vocation of farming. For a look at how the ag community attempted to encourage internal, self-regulating rather than legislating practices, see:

    I am glad this venue exists to exchange these ideas, and, from my perspective, the best way for Tantillo and Posewitz to reconcile the finer points distinguishing their respective positions is for them to hunt together. There is an open invite at my duck blind. Be advised, though, that I mostly breast my waterfowl.

  5. AT Tidball says "...agricultural producers can expect public relations challenges.

    Examples of those challenges include angry nonfarm neighbors writing a steady stream of scathing letters to the editor about a farming practice. Or worried consumers challenging the safety and soundness of pesticides used on their families’ fruits and vegetables or flowers and shrubs. Or dedicated animal rights groups stealing livestock right out of farmers’ barns or lobbying your state’s governor to dump milk as a state beverage. Or eager environmentalists painting inaccurate pictures of loggers’ harvesting practices. Or …

    How you deal with challenges such as these is highly relevant to your business, and should be part of your overall business plan. You may choose to ignore these issues, and you might even get angry about them. But those responses are nonproductive.

    Instead, you need to identify the day-to-day image that you and your employees want to present to the public, and you also need to create a strategy for dealing with any public relations crisis, long before it comes knocking at your gate."

    Seems like some excellent advice for the hunting and trapping community. Unfortunately we a fractured into multiple specialized groups with very few broad based organizations left. A bit like the demise of moderate republicans or democrats.

  6. I recently overheard a few guys talking about hunting snowshoe hares. One went into great detail describing how he and some buddies had been out chasing hares with dogs and shotguns. He concluded by saying he didn't eat them: "When I'm out there, my goal is just to put them on the ground."

    The hares he was hunting weren't "nuisance animals" bothering his farm or garden. He pursued them in the woods, shot them, and used exactly 0% of his kill. He didn't even bother to pick them up.

    As a hunter, I find that appalling. I'd be glad to see it made illegal.

    For us as hunters to have any credibility with non-hunters--or among ourselves, for that matter--we have to do more than put forth a good public image. We must be willing to condemn unethical behavior and legislate against its extremes.

    If jacking deer with lights and hunting them with rocket-propelled grenades were currently legal, would we try to defend such behavior as an aesthetic choice? Would we resist legislation aimed at stopping such behavior?

    If hunters refuse to draw any new lines defining what is acceptable (and legal), then it will become increasingly difficult for anyone to believe our frequent claims about the ethical nature of the "hunter's code" and about how most bad acts are committed by just a few bad actors.

    Moreover, if we don't step up and draw those lines, I suspect that--in the long run--the non-hunting public will do it for us. And I'd be hard pressed to blame them. Someone needs to do it.

    The risk of such a scenario is, of course, that all hunting will be defined as unacceptable and illegal. Given the number of fine hunters out there, that would be a shame.

  7. Anonymous confuses the two issues of (a) making aesthetic or ethical normative choices and arguments in favor of those choices, and (b) making laws to enforce those aesthetic or ethical normative choices.

    "If jacking deer with lights and hunting them with rocket-propelled grenades were currently legal, would we try to defend such behavior as an aesthetic choice? Would we resist legislation aimed at stopping such behavior?"

    Consider the fact that it is acceptable to use lights and highpowered rifles at night in many jurisdictions to hunt many species. Coyotes for one. Substitute "coyotes" for "deer" and "high-powered rifles" for "rocket-propelled grenades." (As an aside: While rocket-propelled grenades is a nice rhetorical flourish, there has historically not been a cultural tradition that has employed such grenades, whereas highpowered rifles are commonly used in hunting.)

    Try the argument out now:

    "If jacking coyotes with lights and hunting them with high-powered rifles were currently legal, would we try to defend such behavior as an aesthetic choice? Would we resist legislation aimed at stopping such behavior?"

    My answer here would have to be, yes, we should resist legislation aimed at stopping such behavior.

    This is not to say that I wouldn't argue until I was blue in the face that there might be other more rewarding and more aesthetically pleasing techniques to hunt coyotes (I don't know what, I don't hunt coyotes).

    One of the things I think we should all be wary about as hunters is the tendency to give in to moralism on these issues.

    The great hunting writer Philip Bourjaily has this to say in Country Matters:

    "Not all dogs are fit to hunt nor, in the same way, are all men gratified by it. Nor, for those of us who share this dog's pleasure of hunting (if you will), do I ask special tolerance or understanding. We are as we are, and if we seem to you to act immorally, it is certainly your right to feel so. But I say most seriously that you exceed your rights when you urge that laws be made in the shape of your conscience to block pleasures permitted by mine. When you prevail you commit a crime against freedom, and that is the greatest immorality I know."

    I agree with Bourjaily. I think freedom is a higher value that trumps the fact that some hunting practices are seen as objectionable or offensive to other hunters.

    So with due respect, Anonymous, I would have to say I disagree with you.

  8. Anonymous says "He concluded by saying he didn't eat them: "When I'm out there, my goal is just to put them on the ground."

    The hares he was hunting weren't "nuisance animals" bothering his farm or garden. He pursued them in the woods, shot them, and used exactly 0% of his kill. He didn't even bother to pick them up.

    As a hunter, I find that appalling. I'd be glad to see it made illegal."

    I agree this type of dis-honoring the hunted animal should be illegal. I used to think the primary reason was because it was a waste. But I've come to think that that is a distorted anthropocentric view. Because knowing how things work in nature, the dead rabbit will be used by something, if not a coyote then beetles and bacteria. My opposition now comes from the thought that if this "hunter" cares so little for the hare, how can he possible care for the hunt and the future of hunting? He has to know at some level that very few hunters agree with this behavior and no non-hunter will condone it. Yet he does it anyway and even has the audacity to talk about it. I'd say this guy is more of an anti-hunter than PETA members and is doing more harm than any of them.
    The Warden I used to teach Hunter Ed with used to say that the only wrong thing to do when faced with such behavior, was to do nothing. I hope, Anonymous that you spoke up and let this guy know what you thought...
    PS - If you have been following this Blog, you know that the VT Fish and Wildlife Board has proposed a rule that will make shooting and leaving game illegal. The proposed rule was drafted a bit to broadly, but should be fixed during the public input process.

  9. Hi -

    As a hunter and ex-vegetarian-antihunter, I support the spirit of Vermont’s proposed retrieval and utilization rule. And I agree with Eric’s thoughts on honoring and respect.

    While I can sympathize with you pro-freedom arguments, Jim, I’m concerned by where they seem to lead.

    Are you arguing that humans should be legally permitted to shoot animals simply because they want to, without any other purpose being required and without any obligation to track a wounded animal or make use of its body? If so, would you have this legal permissiveness extend to the treatment of all game animals, including big game? Going back to your point about lights and rifles and coyotes above, would you argue for the legalization of all forms of hunting for which there is a cultural precedent?

    Personally, I don’t think we can leave everything to the dubious normative power of the so-called “hunting community” any more than we can leave all choices regarding the treatment of companion animals to pet owners.

    At some point, when the behavior is sufficiently egregious, the law has to step in.

  10. Great "conversation" here, and on a worthwhile topic. For what it's worth, many states already do have wanton waste laws on the books, although enforcement is necessarily limited (with the exception of Alaska, which has very strict regulation on the recovery of "usable" meat. I'll leave it to the AK authorities to define that, but I don't think it includes entrails.

    Personally, I've hunted with and guided some folks who go way beyond the norm to utilize the game they killed... right down to stripping intestine and paunch. I was quite impressed, and pleased to see that level of utilization. At the same time, I've hunted with folks who strip prime cuts and leave ribs, necks, shanks, and other lesser meat for the coyotes and condors. To the best of my understanding, I couldn't say either party had a lesser or greater appreciation of the hunt, or of the animal they killed.

    For my own part, my level of utilization varies depending on circumstances. When hunting big game at home, within a few hundred yards of the barn, I'll bring an animal to the skinning pole intact, and take my time to strip off as much meat as possible. I also take the hearts, but I don't eat liver or kidneys, and seldom have the wherewithal to collect the tongue. I often take the skin as well, and send it to be tanned if I can afford it.

    On the other hand, when I'm in the back of beyond and faced with a large carcass, I tend to bone the animal out, and often leave behind a fair amount of "salvageable" meat and organs. In either case, I can't say that my appreciation of the hunt, or my sense of honor toward the animal was any less.

    I've been shamed by certain hunter/cooks for my penchant for breasting out small waterfowl, despite my argument that there's so little edible meat on legs and wings, those parts end up in the garbage anyway. I do like to pick my quail and doves, as those birds are most wonderful to my tastes when cooked whole. But I can understand the hunter who prefers to breast them, especially when faced with a limit or more of these small birds.

    The point is, I think we tread dangerous ground when we start to try to cast our "ethical" lines around the utilization of game animals. That ground becomes even more treacherous when we move to pass legislation to enforce these lines. The extent that one utilizes a game animal truly is a personal aesthetic, and I believe it should be... within limits. Of course I'd agree that "Thrill killing" should be illegal when a game animal is not utilized at all (exceptions for depredation and pest control, of course), as should killing game animals simply for the trophy. I believe the ethical hunter makes an honest effort to track and recover game, but how you would legislate such a requirement... much less enforce it... eludes me.

  11. John shutter acts like a total POS on huntpa. He is also often wrong about the laws when he addresses others questions on them. Mighty odd considering the position he once held. Must be altzheimers.

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