Friday, March 28, 2014

Trying to find the bright line in a pile of sand...

At the recent Orion and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers joint Board meetings this issue came up as it relates to smart rifles and other technologies. Below is a slightly edited post that was on this Blog in 2012 as it relates to canned hunts:

In a recent article, “Canned Hunting: Don’t Call It Hunting!” outdoor writer David Petersen discusses the difference between fair chase and canned hunts, and he quotes Orion founder Jim Posewitz approvingly. 

“A fenced shoot,” Posewitz writes, “is just the sale of a fabricated image to people who have neither the skill nor the inclination to obtain the real thing.”

Petersen agrees, and argues, “There is honorable hunting, and there is cowardly captive killing. The motivations and characters defining each are as distinct as day and night.”

Petersen is wrong.  The motivations and character of hunters are NOT as distinct as day and night.  There is no distinct line between canned hunts on the one hand, and fair chase on the other.

The difference between honorable hunting and cowardly hunting does not depend on the presence or absence of a fence.  Ideals of honor and cowardice, however, as well as ideals of fair chase, depend crucially on the hunter, and upon the hunter’s skills and aptitude. 

Fair chase has traditionally been defined relative to the animal—in particular, to the animal’s ability to escape. 

What’s missing in most debates about fair chase is the awareness that we need also to define fair chase relative to the human hunter—and to be specific, to the individual hunter’s ability to hunt. (And here we also know that hunters come in all shapes, sizes, interests, and abilities.)

Furthermore, we must acknowledge that there is a fundamental ambiguity to the very concept of fair chase. This ambiguity involves the philosophical problem of vagueness, a problem that has long been identified by philosophers as the sorites paradox, from the Greek term meaning “heap” or “pile.” 

The paradox is this:  start with a pile of sand, and begin removing the sand, one grain at a time.  At what point does the pile or heap become a “non-heap”?

The thought experiment can also be run in reverse: start with a grain of sand, and add to it another grain of sand. Do you now have a pile of sand?  Of course not.  Now add a third grain.  Is it a heap yet?  Of course not.  Now, continue adding sand, one grain at a time . . .  at what point do you have a heap of sand? 

The upshot is that there is no clear dividing line between having one or two grains of sand (that might constitute the concept dust) and having a pile, or a heap, or even a mountain of sand.  Thus the very concept of heap or pile or mountain is ambiguous.

Baldness is another inherently ambiguous concept (my own baldness, however, is clearly unambiguous). Begin with a full head of hair and remove it one hair at a time. When do you cross the line from having hair to being bald? (For me, it was around the age of 20!) 
Author Jim Tantillo
Trying to define fair chase is exactly like this—like trying to define “baldness” or “pile.”

So what does all this have to do with hunting?

On the one hand, or to be more precise, on one end of the spectrum (and spectrum, a term from physics, is exactly the right term to use) we have hunting practices that are clearly akin to a single grain of sand or to my gloriously bald pate. 

To illustrate the point: imagine a deer chained to a post in a 10’x10’ chain-link enclosed pen, being shot at close range. Clearly this is not fair chase:  the deer has no ability to avoid death, and the hunter needs no ability at such close range either to pursue or to shoot the tethered animal.

Remove the tether.  Now the deer is in a 10 x 10 enclosure, but can move around.  Is this fair chase?  Clearly the hunter is at more of a disadvantage than in the first scenario: the deer may jump at precisely the same moment as he/she squeezes the trigger, and the hunter may wound the animal or possibly even miss entirely.  It may take two shots to bring the animal down, particularly for a poor marksman.

Does this second scenario constitute fair chase?  Clearly not, the animal is still enclosed, and little to no skill is needed on the part of the hunter.

Let us now imagine that we expand the enclosure—how about a full acre?  And while we are at it, let’s add an acre’s worth of brushy vegetation.  The deer has the ability to roam about, but the hunter must still stay out of the fence to shoot the animal.

All the hunter need do in this case, is wait patiently for the deer to come along within view inside the fence, and take a killing shot.

Is this fair chase?  Probably not, although now the lines are getting a little more fuzzy.  How does waiting outside the fence differ from an archer sitting and waiting in a tree stand?  But I’ll leave that question for another essay.

Let’s keep going, trying to get closer to fair chase.  Let’s put a gate in the fence, and allow the hunter to enter and pursue the animal within the one-acre confines of the enclosure.  The animal can still move around and has plenty of early-successional shrubland (let’s go ahead and fill the enclosure with thorny multiflora rose and honeysuckle) in which to hide.

Now it takes the hunter the better part of a morning to locate, stalk, and shoot the deer.  But after several hours of patient stalking, the hunter is successful.

Does this “hunt” now constitute “fair chase”?  Observe that we have come a fair way from shooting the animal that was tethered inside what was essentially a dog pen.  

Most hunters still would not be comfortable labeling the one-acre stalk on a deer--multiflora rose or not--as a fair chase hunt.  And yet notice that some hunters might . . . .  We can imagine hunters with disabilities, for example, who might be content with such a one-acre stalk if confined to a wheel chair. Or a young hunter, just starting out, may appreciate and learn from such an experience.

Note that I am not implying that this necessarily would be a good hunt, for young hunters or hunters with disabilities.  I am simply suggesting that the hunt might provide sufficient challenge to each individual hunter, and each hunter might possibly go home satisfied with their hunting experience. 

Now let’s continue the sorites part of our thought experiment.  Let’s rerun the thought experiment a thousand times, adding one additional acre with each repetition.  First the hunter pursues the deer in a two-acre enclosure, and then in a three-acre enclosure . . . and so on, and so on, and so on.  (And let’s, for the sake of argument, assume there is only a single, individual deer to be pursued—not legions of overpopulated deer as occur in many areas of the country.)

At what point does the enclosure become large enough that we cross a line between canned hunting and fair chase?

Perhaps never, for some hunters.  For them, hunting inside a fence is always unethical.  But for others, trying to pursue a single deer in a 1,000-acre enclosure, or a 5,000-acre enclosure, or a 20,000-acre enclosure, would be challenging and fair regardless of the proximity of the fence. 

So now let’s just remove the fence.  And imagine the same, solitary, single deer roaming about unrestricted over a 20,000-acre, or 50,000-acre, fenceless area.  Would this hunt now constitute fair chase?

I’m pretty sure if you plunked down a hard-core deer hunter, and took away his tree stand, and made him stalk a single deer over 50,000 acres (that’s 78.125 square miles!), he or she would most likely call that a fair chase hunt.

While I myself might never hunt a captive animal in a high fence setting, unlike David Petersen I am not about to tell someone else that they should not do so.  As long as a hunter conscientiously strives for a clean, quick, one-shot kill, and does so safely while respecting the law, then that hunter acts ethically and morally.

The difference between canned hunting and fair chase is like the difference between a grain of sand and a pile of sand.  When viewed on each end of the hunting spectrum, fair chase and canned hunting are clearly different.  But there is no distinct line, no clearly unambiguous boundary, to be drawn between fair chase and canned hunts, or between honorable hunters and cowards.

Jim Tantillo is the Executive Director of Orion, The Hunters’ Institute. He has M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Cornell University, where he currently also teaches ethics and environmental philosophy in the Department of Natural Resources.

A grouse hunting purist, Jim will generally argue until he is blue in the face that the One, True, Correct Way to Hunt Grouse is with a 16 gauge Parker double gun over the staunch point of a well-trained English setter.  In the spirit of political toleration, however, he also argues until he is equally blue in the face that his retriever- and spaniel-owning friends be permitted to hunt grouse legally as they see fit, despite their aesthetically misguided preferences for flushing dogs or 12 gauge autoloaders!


  1. This looks familiar, but timely of course as the echoes of the recent Back Country Hunters and Anglers conference bounce around the country.

    I am in full agreement with Tantillo here (no surprise to anyone who's heard or read my words before). And while I feel a bit of shame in saying so (because he's an excellent writer), I've written David Petersen off as a blowhard who is so caught up in his personal ideal of "ethical hunting" that he's lost touch with the reality that he is not the only hunter in the field.

    When do we, as individuals, get to define the experience of another person?

    1. Philip,
      "When do we, as individuals, get to define the experience of another person?"
      Great question. The easy answer is stick to the bottom or the top of the pile and leave it up to individuals and groups to decide where their line is. I've read (I think it was an English guy, Lord Moulton) said that the measure of a countries greatness was how large the gap is between what society says you must do and what you could do but don't.
      In defense of David - he is a sincere guy and I think serves an important role in laying out a position that we should all think about even (and probably most important) if we disagree with his position. There are plenty of folks on the other extreme pushing for what they think they want that undermines responsible hunting.

    2. Eric, that's a good way to think about Petersen - a good reminder to me, as I've always said in politics (in a previous career), the outliers play an important role, even when they drive me insane.

    3. Eric, I reject your defense of Petersen. Anyone who stoops to that rhetorical level deserves neither respect nor credibility... no matter how sincere he may think he is. It's one thing to put a position on the table for debate. It's another altogether to ignorantly cast dispersion and paint stereotypes.

      You must know, and I definitely do, that high fence hunters represent a spectrum of hunters. In my experience, both as a high fence hunter and guide, I've led neophytes to their first kill, and I've guided experienced wilderness hunters who were simply out for a weekend away... or the opportunity to kill something that doesn't (and shouldn't) run wild in our native forests. I've seen all skill levels, and a range of ethical standards that rivals anything you'll ever see in any other hunting environment.

      Voices like Petersen's aren't a positive force in any real discussion. They're divisive, ignorant, and destructive. The statements he made reek of the language of the anti-hunters, and carry the same amount of truth.

      I believe in having passion, and in holding strongly to a personal ethic. With this in mind, Petersen is, at least, consistent. But if the intent is to bring people to the table and build consensus, his rhetoric is exactly what the discussion does not need.

      My last effort at response disappeared... hope this doesn't show up as a double post.

    4. I'm with Phillip on this one.

  2. Great piece, Jim. Also not surprising coming from me, because my initial knee-jerk opinions about high-fence hunting were changed by Phillip's challenges.

  3. Good thread, all. And I do appreciate Jim's sorites paradox , but don't see how it addresses the "fence" from an equally important perspective -- "who owns it"?. Regardless of where you draw the "bright line in the pile of sand", the fence either is, or isn't there, and if it is, how could it not convey private ownership of wildlife regardless of the size of the area it encloses? Notwithstanding sensitive issues -- as Jim also alludes to -- for people permanently disabled, I don't see how the fence squares with the North American Model for managing wildlife as a public trust resource or how the fence can be divorced from that consideration. I am coachable though, so welcome thoughts.
    Dave Colavito

    1. Dave, I'll tackle some of this.

      First of all, many states explicitly forbid the trapping of wild, native species by erecting a high fence (and those that don't, should). In the case where native species, such as whitetail deer and elk are raised in the enclosure, they are generally introduced, captive-bred, and managed as livestock ("hoofstock" is a commonly used term). As such, it doesn't really represent an encroachment on the North American Model... any more than raising cattle or sheep.

      Are there exceptions? Sure. Just like there are poachers in the hunting community at large, there are individuals who abuse the law in the game ranching industry.

      Also, an aspect of the high fence discussion that seldom gets consideration is exotic, non-native species that are frequently managed and hunted behind the "fence". These are animals like the wild boar and various Asian and African deer and antelope that should not be running loose in the North American habitat. High fence ranches provide a unique and sustainable hunting opportunity for these species, with the side effect that some species, such as the scimitar-horned oryx and the blackbuck antelope have been preserved in great numbers, even as their native populations have declined or even disappeared.

      It's not a simple conversation, and my argument remains... what does it harm? It is not taking wildlife away from the public. It is not creating toxic waste dumps like some livestock operations. And even the contentious issue of CWD and other diseases hasn't been conclusively linked... and if it were, disease risk can be mitigated by proper regulation.

      Unfortunately, it is still an under-regulated industry. While I do support high fence hunting in general, I believe the industry needs consistent regulation and operators should be kept accountable, not only for the welfare and management of their own stock, but for impacts on the wildlife and environment outside their fences. This is where the discussion should be centered... not on denigrating and vilifying the hunters who choose to use these facilities.

    2. Thanks Phillip ... I appreciate your comments more than you may realize.
      And I completely agree; it's enormously complex -- I certainly don't pretend to have all the answers.

      But to your implied answer in your question though, "... and my argument remains... what does it harm?" , that too (at least for me) gets complicated quickly, and as of now is an important consideration in a book I'm contemplating.

      You sound knowledgeable on the subject, and I'd be grateful if you, or someone reputable you might recommend, would be willing to provide me with the privilege of an interview -- I see so much advertised, and it's hard for me to sort it all out. I'm really trying to give this "fence thing" an ample and honest consideration.

      Either way, no sweat about an interview ... I appreciate your input from the thread.

      Take care,

    3. Thanks, Dave. With the caveat that, while I have some experience, I'm not an "expert" on the industry, I'd be happy to share what I do know.

    4. Much obliged Phillip ... I'm at 845-794-1964. When you get a chance, let me know when we can touch base -- or if you prefer, how/when I should contact you (I'm assuming you don't want your phone/email posted). Initially, I'd at least like to fill you in on some of my preconceived notions ... maybe that will help you point me in the right direction -- should take much time, and in a way, your prior post already helped do that.


    5. my burp Phillip ... meant to say "-- SHOULDN'T tack much time, and in a way ..."

    6. Dave, I'm off to serve my civic duty today (Jury duty), but will try to reach out when I get back.

  4. "This is where the discussion should be centered... not on denigrating and vilifying the hunters who choose to use these facilities."


  5. I’m of two minds here, but at least I’m familiar with the terrain having covered similar ground in the sport/trad debates in rock climbing thirty years ago.

    There are those ethics which concern oneself and those which constrain the greater community in which one exists. I try to keep the two separate in my own mind.

    I have hunted the La Plata county that David Petersen mentions and seen at least one of the high fence operations. It much more closely resembles the 10x10 enclosure than the 78 square mile one. Elk are kept in a very small pasture under almost feedlot type conditions until being moved to larger acreage to be hunted. The elk seem tame.

    My difference with David lies in that while I personally reject high fence hunting as well as many other styles I’m not willing to adopt, I believe there are pitfalls to imposing one’s own values on others participating in what is after all a legal activity. Further, employing the language of the anti hunter aligns one with those who wish to abolish some or all hunting for everyone. Such divisiveness allows anti hunters to say, “see, this is the type of hunting I can accept, as long as you live in a small cabin in the San Juans and bow hunt only ungulates I’m ok with hunting”.

    Colorado has been experiencing a shift in available hunting tags away from the public and into the hands of private landowners allowing them to sell hunting for well over ten thousand dollars per hunter. The tags are for methods of take and time of the year unavailable to the public and on public land. The ranch cum resorts advertise 100% opportunity, meaning they guarantee the opportunity to shoot an elk. What would you call these? Fenceless canned hunting? I call them a greater threat to the North American Model than some large exotic game reserves in Texas.

  6. Anon and Philip,
    The issue of private land and the rights of landowners vs the public's wildlife and access to that wildlife is a tough balancing act. Both sides are continually probing the edges. Should the landowner who hosts and feeds wildlife get a direct benefit to encourage access and good husbandry or should it be considered a price of owning land and the presence of wildlife is reward enough? I personally think they should be rewarded, but in a democratic way that benefits us all.
    I disagree with Philip " And even the contentious issue of CWD and other diseases hasn't been conclusively linked... and if it were, disease risk can be mitigated by proper regulation." The evidence is very clear that captive cervid facilities do spread CWD. Proper regulations and enforcement can help mitigate this, but gambling the profit by a few against the health of our wild cervids is a bad gamble and in my mind is a reneging of the trustee role of government to our public trust wildlife.

  7. Eric, the only "clear" evidence is that CWD spreads quickly when it occurs in captive facilities... which, of course, should result in a big, "d'uh." When you have that many animals in close proximity, whether a winter yard or a captive feedlot, any outbreak is going to be exacerbated... whether it's CWD, EHD, or anthrax. There's still no way of knowing that the CWD wasn't first transmitted into the captive herd from the outside.

    And it's also true that many of the cases in wild populations have occurred where there are captive populations. That, of course, doesn't speak to the occurrences where CWD has shown up and there are no deer farms. The causal link remains to be established and is tenuous at best.

    And, as always, I'll point to Texas which has probably the largest concentration of "captive" cervids in the US, and yet the only CWD cases to date have come along the New Mexico border in WILD mule deer.

    I'll point as well to New Zealand, where numerous deer and elk farms provide venison to restaurants around the world, including the US. It is a country where these cervids are not found in the wild (or at least not naturally), and there is no CWD.

    But again, if hoofstock were managed and regulated like any other livestock, then disease risks are mitigated. If you have an outbreak of pseudorabies on your pig farm, or mad cow disease in your cattle herd, you eradicate the animals, decontaminate, and start over. It shouldn't be any different with CWD in captive cervids, and it's certainly no more of a gamble than grazing sheep and cattle in wild habitat.

    There are other solutions than simply shutting down the industry, especially when the arguments are so often based, like Petersen's, on denigrating the participants. At least the CWD and other disease arguments offer real substance in the discussion.

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