Keeping the ‘Hunt’ in Hunting

Story written by David Lien, chairman of Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers

At the recent Backcountry Hunters & Anglers North American Rendezvous in Denver, we were joined by many dedicated and accomplished hunters and anglers from across the U.S. and Canada. But few are as well known and respected as Jim Posewitz, founder and director of Orion-the Hunters’ Institute. In fact, Jim received BHA’s “Mike Beagle Chairman’s Award” for his decades of work promoting wildlands conservation, free-flowing rivers and fair chase ethics in his home state of Montana and nationwide.

However, even a boatful of awards wouldn’t do justice to Jim’s lifetime of work on behalf of wildlands and wildlife. Posewitz is an army veteran with a Master of Science in Fish and Wildlife Management. He founded Orion-The Hunters’ Institute in 1993, after 32 years with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and gave it a vital mission: “To protect the future of hunting, Orion provides leadership on ethical and philosophical issues to promote fair chase and responsible hunting.” In his writings about hunting ethics Jim emphasizes the following points:

1) The ethical hunter knows and respects the animals hunted, follows the law and behaves in a socially acceptable manner; 2) Fair chase is fundamental to ethical hunting because it addresses a balance that allows hunters to occasionally succeed, while animals generally avoid being taken; 3) Fair chase is important to hunting because the general public will not tolerate hunting under any other circumstance; and 4) Failure of following high, ethical standards and fair chase risks doing what is right for wildlife, risks the opportunity to hunt and risks the self-respect of the hunter.

Jim Posewitz speaks on hunting ethics at a recent BCA event. Photo by David Lien.
Jim Posewitz speaks on hunting ethics at a recent BCA event. Photo by David Lien.

Through Orion and his lifetime of ethical hunting practices and promotion, Posewitz is following in the footsteps of perhaps two of the world’s greatest hunter-conservationists: Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Roosevelt and Leopold led the way in promoting wildlands and wildlife conservation and hunting ethics– a tradition that Posewitz and Orion are defending and perpetuating for future generations. But the generally excellent hunting we enjoy today was by no means certain a hundred years ago.

Starting in the late 17th century, commercial hunters and trappers began to fan out across the North American continent, systematically stripping the land of its wildlife. The passenger pigeon population famously declined from probably a few billion in the mid-19th century to zero in 1900, when the last wild pigeon was shot. Buffalo nearly suffered a similar fate. “The game population almost collapsed,” said Nicholas Throckmorton, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s estimated that there were only about 30,000 turkeys, 12,000 pronghorns and 40,000 elk left in the U.S.

Theodore Roosevelt was a pioneer in promoting wildlife conservation and hunting ethics.
Theodore Roosevelt was a pioneer in promoting wildlife conservation and hunting ethics.

Reform didn’t come until the early 1900s, when individual conservationists—led by President Theodore Roosevelt—pushed federal and state governments to begin enacting a set of laws that collectively became known as the North American Model of Wildlife Management. Congress joined the effort to protect game with the passage of the Lacey Act in 1900, which outlawed market hunting. The legislation restricted the sale of meat and fur from wild animals, effectively curbing the commercial hunting market.

The North American Model also uses excise taxes on hunting/fishing equipment and license fees to pay for habitat improvement, and to fund fish and game management. Although the money comes almost exclusively from hunters and anglers, it benefits all Americans. The nation’s 34 million hunters and anglers pay $1.75 billion annually for wildlife conservation.

Aldo Leopold bowhunting.
Aldo Leopold bowhunting.

In 1905 Theodore Roosevelt said, “The genuine sportsman is by all odds the most important factor in keeping wild creatures from total extinction.” According to Aldo Leopold, in “Game Management”(1933), because of the “Roosevelt Doctrine” of conservation, the “game hog” and the “market hunter” were “duly pilloried in the press and banquet hall, and to some extent in field and wood, but the game supply continued to wane.”

In 1928 Leopold accepted a position with the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI), which offered to fund a national survey of game conditions. Although the mission sounds tame today, it represented the nation’s first systematic effort to bring scientific principles to bear on the study of wild game. In 1933 the University of Wisconsin made Leopold the country’s first professor of game management.

Posewitz-Jim-Beyond Fair Chase (1)

In the late 1800s, many states formed wildlife agencies charged with enforcing game laws. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that Aldo Leopold basically invented the field of scientific wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin, which spread to universities across the country. Many students were trained in the principles of managing wildlife and state agencies hired them. During the late 1950s/early 1960s, one such student was Jim Posewitz, and in “Beyond Fair Chase” Posewitz lists five important things about our role as hunters:

• The opportunity and privilege to hunt is ours by virtue of our citizenship.

• The animals we hunt are the result of conservation efforts of recreational hunters who stopped market hunting and commerce in wildlife.

• These early hunters began the restoration and conservation of wildlife that continues to this day.

• We have a responsibility to future generations to see to the conservation of the animals we hunt.

• We have the responsibility to be safe and ethical hunters.

The single most critical element facing the future of hunting is the continued public acceptance of recreational hunting. When hunting is viewed as a fair and ethical endeavor in support of science-based game management programs, the voting majority (non-hunters) accept hunting. When hunting is viewed as unfair, unethical and disrespectful to wildlife, these favorable attitudes turn against hunting.

Great hunter/conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold and Jim Posewitz have laid the foundation for our present-day ethical, fair-chase hunting practices and related laws/regulations. It’s up to us to follow in their footsteps and continue their work, so that we may always keep the “hunt” in hunting.

This story written by David Lien. Lien is a former air force officer, chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and author of Age-Old Quests II: Hunting, Climbing & Trekking.

6 Responses

  1. I think it’s worth pointing out that Roosevelt, while he certainly did great things for conservation and preservation of public lands, hardly fits the “ethical hunter” archetype. Like so many other myths related to historic figures, the realities (many found in his own books) belie the legend.

    Roosevelt, the hunter, apparently gave little thought to the constructs of “fair chase”… whether he was running turkeys with coursing dogs from horseback or shooting them off the roost in mass slaughters… or shooting wildly at running game on the African plains (Keep shooting, there’s always hope as long as there’s lead in the air.), he was hardly a paragon of what most of us today would consider ethical behavior. It was Roosevelt, in fact, who encouraged the wannabe sportsman to get out there and kill some game, while there was still some left to kill.

    Not intending to tilt at anyone’s sacred cow here, as Roosevelt wasn’t doing anything that wasn’t considered “common practice” at the time. His ethics were, if anything, situational… pragmatic. He made his decisions with his finger on the trigger. And that is the reality of hunting ethics for all of us.

    I can understand, from a philosophical perspective, the allure of the “ideal”, whether it’s hunting ethics, citizenship, or environmentalism. I also get the importance, when you’re talking about a fringe activity like hunting, of managing our image to create the most positive, public opinion possible. If we could each be the paragon, if we all strove toward the pinnacle of virtue, then there’s a belief that much of the resistance to our sport would be assuaged.

    But that’s not realistic, and the truth is, if such perfection were the requirement, hunting participation would drop to abysmal lows because few people would be able, or willing, to live up to it. And if folks continue to try to advertise this idea that hunters are supposed to be ethically perfect (whatever that means), the reality would belie that advertisement. People will, and do, see right through the façade.

    I can accept that there are some fairly universally shared ethics. “Observe safety rules and be careful not to hurt ourselves or other people.”

    “Don’t damage property, public or private.”

    How about, “don’t wipe out the resource?”

    That’s a good one, I guess, unless you’re talking about invasive non-natives. If I’m hunting feral hogs, should I still be constrained by hunting ethics? I guess it’s good that popular media has demonized the feral hog enough that many people are willing to see them killed, but there are still a number, including hunters, who protest that methods used such as night hunting or aerial shooting are not “ethical” or “fair chase”.

    There are also far too many arbitrary and conflicting constructs. “Hunters strive for a clean, humane kill.”

    If that’s the case, then shouldn’t we tree every bear, or shoot every deer at powder-burn range over a bait station? And what about wingshooting? Even the best of us can’t guarantee an instant, or even quick, death when we sling a packet of tiny pellets into the air at a fast-moving target. Or what about archery, a technology essentially designed to kill by exsanguination… blood loss. Since I, as a modern human, have the option to choose the bow or the gun, isn’t my choice of a bow contrary to the ethical standard? Shouldn’t I restrict myself to the most effective tool available to guarantee that quick, humane death?

    And “Fair Chase”? I suppose that using some narrowly defined set of rules is fine if you’re setting qualifications for inclusion in a record book (B&C, P&Y). But conceptually, it makes no real sense. What’s “fair” about telescopic sights and supersonic projectiles? Seriously, what’s the real difference between shooting an unsuspecting elk at 300 yards in the Rocky Mountains or shooting an unsuspecting elk at 50 yards on a hunting preserve? (And which of these scenarios more closely aligns with the concept of “quick, humane kill?”)

    Look, I’m not at all opposed to promoting ethical ideals, or even the concepts of Fair Chase. I get that it makes some people find the hunt more “pure”, more challenging, and more rewarding.

    And I absolutely understand that it’s important to manage the public image (and opinion) of hunting. The non-hunting public carries a lot more political clout than hunters, and if their opinions are negative, hunting tends to lose out at the ballot box.

    I understand these things, but at the same time, I’m also aware (as we should all be) that the real opposition to hunting is driven by people who are opposed to one key thing… killing animals. The truth is that they don’t care so much how or why we do it, but only that we’re doing it. No matter what sort of pretty trappings we use to placate these people… ethical purity or fairness… they still oppose us killing animals, and they will continue to fight to make us stop. They will use any methods and every opportunity to turn public opinion against hunting based on simple, emotional reaction. And a great propaganda tool is exposing hypocrisy.

    When organizations who purport to speak for hunters make their claims of high ethical standards and argue that we should all follow their version of Fair Chase doctrine, they’re really trying to construct a thin wall between what they want to show the public, and the reality of modern, sport hunting. The constant honing of the ethical ideal is creating a finer and finer edge, and more and more hunters find themselves being sloughed off as their practices and beliefs run afoul of the “party line”. “With us or against us,” is become the norm in almost every debate about hunting ethics, and especially in regards to the arbitrary and capricious concept of “Fair Chase.” Sooner or later, this approach is going to implode.

    Anti-hunters see through the façade, and they’ll be more than happy to lift the curtain for the rest of the non-hunting public to see as well. They’re quick (and right) to point out the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the organizations who try to use hunter ethics as a defense of hunting, when so many hunters openly follow a different set of rules.

    The hardheaded insistence that all hunters get on board the “one right way” philosophy is not going to make the curtain thicker… it will only ensure that more hunters become alienated by the elitism of the “true believers.” It’s time to drop that approach, and focus on the ethics and beliefs we do share, rather than the ones that divide us.

    The legacy that Theodore Roosevelt left to American hunters wasn’t one of arbitrary rules of ethics or Fair Chase. It was a legacy of conservation… of protecting our natural resources to ensure that they remain healthy and plentiful for future generations. I believe that’s a legacy and a goal that the majority of hunters support and are willing to work toward. I also believe that’s where the emphasis of organizations for and by hunters should be focused.

    1. Phillip, Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed reply. Again, I appreciate the exchange of ideas on this issue. I’m glad David’s article has inspired further conversation on this topic.

  2. David Lien provides a superb summary of the vision, energy and contributions of three sterling hunting ethicists: T Roosevelt, Leopold and Posewitz. I met Posewitz at an Orion conference in 2011, I think it was. The years go so fast!! I read his book and have incorporated his insights and wisdom into many of my lectures and writings. I suggesting adding a few points to Lien’s fine article:

    Without qualification I endorse Posewitz’s mission statement: “To protect the future of hunting, Orion provides leadership on ethical and philosophical issues to promote fair chase and responsible hunting.”

    Let’s look at Posewitz’s emphasized points # 3 Fair chase is important to hunting because the general public will not tolerate hunting under any other circumstance; and # 4, Failure of following high, ethical standards and fair chase risks doing what is right for wildlife, risks the opportunity to hunt and risks the self-respect of the hunter.

    These two assertions are rather abstract. Many questions are raised. What is the group, the general public? How does the general public get its information? Who speaks for the general public? Indeed, how can one gauge what the ‘general public’ thinks? And, why does it matter what the general public thinks, to the extent there is a general public and to the extent that ‘general public’ thinks at all?

    I suggest the notion of the ‘general public’ is too amorphous to be useful. If you are talking about political power, then, fine, but let’s talk politics, and let us acknowledge the reality that much of politics is not based on reason, justice, fairness and or prudence. All this applies to hunting politics. As for #4, it seems Posewitz pulls his punches. There is not question, no issue, no contest, that the failure to act ethically risks the losses Posewitz identifies. I go farther. The failure will GUARANTEE doing wrong for wildlife, decrease hunting opportunities and demolishes the hunters’ self respect except for the most sociopathic among the group.

    Most needed is a mode of reaching hunting constituents and non-hunters to persuade that hunting has value and virtue; a persuasion based on more than Leopold’s and Roosevelt’s notions of conservation and animal husbandry. Needs is the persuasion of insights that the moral character of each individual hunter and sporting arms user impacts the survival of hunting and the shooting sports, including the right to self defense. Leopold’s ‘land ethic’ only has value to those that value the land. The challenge for ethicists such as Posewitz is to persuade others that hunting ethics should be obeyed and that that others should support hunting when hunting ethics are obeyed. The general public, such as it is, should not be handed the power to determine hunting’s future.

  3. Michael, Thanks so much for taking the time to submit this detailed reply. I’m glad you enjoyed David’s story, and perhaps this post will generate further conversation on ethics, fair chase, etc. This is a topic that deserves further exploration by all of us as sportsmen.

    1. Jerry: thank you for your affirming comments. Ethics and fair chase are vital for sustaining and enriching hunting and the shooting sports. I write for about ten hunting and firearms magazines and lecture on ethics to lawyers, hunter education instructors and conservation groups. I welcome correspondence and critiques. Please keep in touch. MGS

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