Friday, October 26, 2012

Ends And Means - Ethics Vs Wildlife Management Goals

There's a thought that's been running around in my mind for a while now, but I can't seem to get it into coherent, written form.  The following opens the door for a conversation.  It is not meant to be my "final answer."
Let’s turn a cliché on its head.  Instead of proposing the question, “why do you hunt,” let’s ask, “why can you hunt?” 
The latter should be a shorter discussion, filled with some arguments that are a bit more quantifiable than the emotionally loaded responses typical of the former question.  Sure, there are some relatively intangible explanations, such as preserving the “heritage” or the “traditional use” of natural resources.  And there are some that cross-over both discussions, such as the argument that the money generated through hunting is largely ploughed back into wildlife conservation. 

But I also believe the conversation could shine an interesting light on some contradictory attitudes, particularly in regards to the ethics discussion.  For example, if population control is one of the key considerations for liberal hunting regulations, then doesn’t a strict, ethical high-road that effectively reduces the likelihood of the kill (the "sporting chance") run counter to that purpose? 

I have a hard time getting past this feeling that a lot of hunters have bought into a package of ideals.  When I read comments from these folks, or talk to them in person, there’s a recurrent thread of uber-ethics and an insistence on doing things the hard way (at least theoretically).  There’s a disdain for taking the “shortcuts” such as baiting, food plots, or using hounds.   There’s a lot of talk about this concept of “Fair Chase.” 
And I get that perspective.  Lord knows there’s nothing wrong with having a high level of respect for the animals as individuals, the animals as a resource, and for the aesthetic sensibilities of the hunter.  That’s an awesome stance, and kudos to the hunter who strives to abide fully within the tenets of fair chase and the honorable hunt.  

Still, I believe you have to temper those high standards with pragmatism.  Just as most of us have personal goals in the hunt, there are other goals that are sometimes equally important.  In fact, I’d argue that in some cases, wildlife management goals should supersede the individual aesthetic. 

I could hear the mental flags popping up at that last statement.  Good.
I’m not suggesting that the hunter who is strongly opposed to baiting should go out and buy a feeder.  And if you honestly feel wrong killing an animal you’re not going to eat, then you don’t have to go out and start hunting varmints and predators, or trapping for furs.  If you live in a place overpopulated with deer, but instead of filling all of your tags you really only need one deer for your larder, you don’t have to go shoot more just to donate to the food bank. 

Here’s the thing, though.  Other hunters will do these things.  Many want to.  Don’t condemn them or their methods simply because their moral compass points a few degrees askew of your own.  It is legal for a reason.  If one of the valid justifications of the hunt is our role in wildlife management and population control, then someone has to do the things you may not want to do.  Or, to fall back on cliché, sometimes the ends do justify the means.


  1. Phillip - Thanks for pointing out the balancing act we in the hunting/wildlife management community have to be aware of. There are lots of examples where hunters and managers have been conflicted. The doe hunting wars that have occurred in nearly every state with white-tail deer, use of rifles and electronic calls for snow geese, feral hog culls using helicopters all come to mind.
    Part of the problem for hunters is understanding and differentiating our preferences and motivations for hunting from our obligation and duty as a tool in managing wildlife. This can be a dilemma for many of us. For example - I prefer to hunt bucks by tracking, but to reduce deer numbers where they are causing damage I should hunt does over bait (or better yet with a light at night). Here in Vermont neither of the latter options are legal so I hunt doe with my muzzleloader and bucks during the rifle season.
    I agree with you point, "Don’t condemn them or their methods simply because their moral compass points a few degrees askew of your own." However this doesn't always work. We tried the live and let live philosophy on deer baiting in Vermont. We don't have an over population problem in the majority of the state. But what happened was the bait piles got larger, they were out longer and they shifted the deer's normal habits and range. This led to conflicts between landowners and hunters that preferred other methods of hunting, especially tracking in the snow. Ultimately the threat of CWD in New York State lead to outlawing baiting and feeding.
    My take is we should have a live and let live attitude for other hunter's preferences, but biological/ecological considerations should prevail when they are in conflict.

  2. I think you nailed the key right there, Eric... the appearance of CWD (or any disease) is a valid reason to ban baiting, especially if there's no need to increase harvest to manage populations. It's just as important to curtail practices that are harmful to the resource or habitat as it is to enable practices that help achieve management goals. It's definitely a two-way street.

  3. I am only sad that the government tries harder and harder to keep us from hunting all together. Yes, there needs to be regulations, but it should be a right to bear arms and provide for a family. Guns,trapping supplies and many other things are going up in price because the government makes them more and more illegal/difficult to get a hold of.

  4. Where are you located, Toby? I'm not sure I'd agree with the argument that "government tries harder and harder to keep us from hunting", but I do recognize that legislation in some states definitely has a negative impact on hunters. At the same time, most of these efforts aren't generated by the government, but by citizen organizations who are often motivated and possessed of the resources and connections to manipulate legislation. It's important to identify our common enemies, rather than casting too wide a net that ensnares our potential allies as well.

    There are governmental agencies that definitely do recognize the value of hunting, both as an economic force and as a tool for wildlife management. There's an entire coalition of politicians that exists to protect the rights and privileges of sportsmen. And several states have introduced amendments to state constitutions that enumerate hunting and fishing as protected rights.

    It's an ongoing conflict, and honestly, the forces aligned against hunting and shooting have the upper hand... especially in the political theater. The non-hunting public is easily swayed when it comes to propaganda and media manipulation. They don't understand hunting, and it doesn't take much to make it look like a bad thing.

    Sportsmen are a weak and widely divided force when it comes to political power, which is the biggest reason that public relations is one of our biggest challenges. Many of us recognize the need to promote a positive image of our sport so that the general public will not be swayed by the negative slant of anti-hunting and anti-gun activists.

    However, my belief is that we must promote ourselves using honest and pragmatic arguments, rather than relying on esoteric and inconsistent ideals to paint a picture that few of us can really live up to.

  5. I usually feel like I'm somewhere in the middle on this, and I guess I am. I guess the most basic ethics are about safety, and respect for the animals and environment. After that it gets murkier.

    Often there is an interrelationship between regional ethics that are legislated and those traditional in the area; laws often follow custom, but custom also follows laws. In my area, we aren't trying to reduce the deer population so doe hunts are unheard of, we don't hunt in the rut, and baiting is illegal. This has informed my view of things, but really, from a personal standpoint, I'd only have issue with baiting. Not for sporting reasons, but because it distorts behavior and teaches bad habits as Eric mentioned.

    That said, I've found myself writing to the governor to try to save hunting bears with hounds, not because I like it (I don't like most activities that involves a bunch of noise and groups of people running around in nature) but because it helps maintain the quota we need to maintain a reasonable bear population. I also hated the precedent. "And then they came for me..."

    Other ethics like shooting ducks on water, bows vs rifles, and the like I could care less about. I think hunting with a bow is admirable and challenging, but don't find it more ethical. I could argue a shot with a decent sized caliber rifle through the heart is arguably more "fair". The folks who suggest that selecting for large antler size is somehow an ethical issue especially lose me.

    Regardless of that, we, as in we hunters are often judged collectively whether we like it or not. They say ethics is what you do when no one is looking, but we do need to act as though everyone is looking, in terms of respect and general behavior. That doesn't mean an unrealistic moral high ground of esoteric practices but it does mean that each of our behaviors should be defensible- because like or or not we are at war for the hearts and minds of the majority of the voting populous with a small group of extremely savvy extremists who really do want to end hunting. Phillip, you know I respect your honest and pragmatic approach to hunting. The good news is that between the very basic idea of getting your own food firsthand in nature combined with the use of hunting as a management tool, hunting is pretty defensible, even admirable. We just have to be aware enough not to screw that up.


  6. Thanks, Neil. Great comments and good points.

    I agree that we are judged collectively, and I also agree that our public image should be an important consideration in how we conduct ourselves. This is exactly why I believe we need to hold ourselves to a practical standard, based as much as possible on empirical qualities. The moment you begin to argue from an inconsistent, arbitrary, or unrealistic platform (uber-ethics), your argument is weakened by every exception.

    This is exactly how the hound hunting ban was run through in CA. The idealized ethos of "sportsmanship" became the Achilles heel for houndsmen. It's not hard to argue to the uneducated public that bear and cat hunting with hounds doesn't meet the common definition of sportsmanlike behavior... that it's "unfair" and "inhumane." Hell, even many hunters agree with that argument.

    I'm treading old ground here, and repeating things I've said over and over again. But I feel like it bears repeating. The fact that we (hunters) have serious challenges finding common ground when it comes to "fair chase" and "ethics" should stand as all the evidence we need to demonstrate that these are not the criteria by which we want our collective actions to be judged. We don't have a collective standard.

    I think the discussion (or at least consideration) about WHY activities and practices are legal is a valid and useful way for us to converse amongst ourselves, and they should inform our discussions with non-hunters. Hunting definitely is defensible at its most basic, commonly understood levels... food and management. The rest, fair chase, sportsmanship, etc. are simply painted-on flowers... pretty trappings to some, and gaudy accoutrements to others.

    1. I can't figure out how to edit my comment here, but if I could, I'd remove the comment that "We don't have a collective standard." Of course we do, and it's the basis of most game laws as well as a general code of ethics.

    2. A couple things about deer, bear, and hunters as tools for wildlife management. In most of New England deer can be and are managed at responsible population levels by regulated hunting. It is all about managing the mortality rate of adult females, and where winter does not take too many, state biologists determine how many does that hunters should take to keep a population from becoming too abundant for its own good, and also from a deer-human conflict perspective. However, you do not have to go too far west or south to find where regulated hunting is not capable of reducing deer populations well enough - maybe from 75 deer/sq-mi down to 35 deer/sq-mi, but not down to 20 deer/sq-mi. It's not that hunters provide no service in these situations, just that it is not enough. This has been covered plenty in published literature, and we should be seeing a new article in The Wildlife Society Bulletin pretty soon. For such a situation, it is actually time to start thinking of things like market hunting once again - in a carefully regulated fashion. An alternative solution could be state-funded night-time roving lethal deer removal crews, but $ is needed to support any increased effort by a state wildlife agency. NE TWS has plans to convene a working group to help address this topic for its states by issuing a position statement, presumably with some good ideas.

      Meat from any such program could be used locally, and the locavore argument will always be a good one for big game hunters. I prefer local venison but don't always have it. I like a good beef steak once in a while and try to make sure it is local meat. I have seen first hand how the rangelands of western U.S. are historically abused to bring beef steaks to people. And yes, there has been many tropical forestlands slashed and burned to feed Americans their beef - at the cost of how many species nobody knows - extinction is a big word, the biggest.

      Bears. New England states seem to be sharing a common phenomenon these days, and that is that they cannot get enough bears harvested to quell population growth - to the point that a few states feel they might now have too many bears. The states need all the tools they can muster to manage bear populations, and hounding is the best tool to keep an expanding bear population out of people's yards and kitchens. If anyone feels that something like a spring hunt is not exactly "fair chase" b/c anybody can shoot a bear over a beaver carcass, a state agency might not care about that - they are responsible for managing populations for the good of the resource and the people. Besides, spring bears are better to eat, and those with young-of-year cubs can be readily identified and mitigated by rehabbing if necessary.

      When hunting effort declines, like that for bears for a variety of reasons (like our economy), sometimes more effective tools are needed. Similarly, if you have way too many deer given existing hunting efforts, a wildlife manager will need to ask: how can killing deer be made easier for hunters, and how can we get them to expend more effort, or both? If that's not enough, it's time to get creative..... Shawn

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