Hunting Ethics & Fair Chase


“If the purpose of hunting is only to kill an

animal, then the process is moot; we contain the

technological ability to kill all animals.”

-Allen Morris Jones

The phrase “fair chase” has a very specific meaning in the hunting world. The Boone and Crockett Club defines it as “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.” This means fair-chase hunters pursue their quarry on foot; hone their skills so they make quick, clean kills; and obey the law.

Jim Posewitz, the founder of Orion, The Hunter’s Institute, writes (in Beyond Fair Chase) that fair chase “addresses the balance between the hunter and the hunted. It is a balance that allows hunters to occasionally succeed while animals generally avoid being taken.” The principle of “fair chase” is revered by ethical sportsmen and a cornerstone of the American hunting heritage.

Roosevelt enjoys a hunt in Colorado
Roosevelt enjoys a hunt in Colorado’s backcountry.

It was President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hunter of big game, who in 1887 joined leaders such as George Bird Grinnell, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Gifford Pinchot to form the Boone and Crockett Club, a group of sportsmen dedicated to stemming the destruction of America’s natural resources and wildlife at the end of the 19th century. Together, they worked to save Yellowstone, advocated for the principles of fair chase, and embraced the principles of science-based management of natural resources.

The Boone and Crockett wildlife creed became national policy when Roosevelt became president in 1901, and TR practiced what he preached. In Nov. 1902, Roosevelt traveled to Mississippi’s Yazoo Delta to hunt bear, and his voluntary decision not to kill a bear during this hunt led to a national outpouring of admiration. When members of the hunting party led Roosevelt to an exhausted bear that had been chased down by hounds and then lassoed and tied to a tree, dismayed by the bear’s helpless state, Roosevelt declined to shoot it.

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At a time when bears, like most large predators, were widely regarded as vermin, Roosevelt’s decision attracted considerable attention from the press as a remarkable example of sportsmanship. A cartoon sketching the event by Clifford K. Berryman ran in The Washington Post soon after, and American toymakers took notice. The original teddy bear was produced in 1903 and now resides in the Smithsonian.

This cartoon that appeared in The Washington Post led to the creation of the first "Teddy Bear" stuffed toy.
This cartoon that appeared in The Washington Post led to the creation of the first “Teddy Bear” stuffed toy.

Today, like in TR’s time, hunting ethics and hunting laws are not always one in the same. In Nov. 2011, a Colorado man shot a 703-pound black bear after he tracked the animal to its den in Moffat County, saying he shot the bear from 6 feet away after entering the den. When the state wildlife commission got wind of it, they decided unanimously to draft a rule banning the hunting of bears in dens. Commissioners said they’d never heard of anyone “den hunting” in Colorado because it’s considered unsportsmanlike. “We don’t go out and hunt bears in dens. It’s just not done,” said Scott Limmer, a regional director for the Colorado Outfitters Association.

In a letter to the Craig Daily Press (“Sportsmen Back DOW,” 1/10/11), the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers said: “Last November, a Colorado ‘hunter’ tracked a black bear to its den, where it was likely preparing to hibernate for the winter, then shot it in the den. Such an act, although not currently illegal, is an unfortunate example of excessively poor judgment and a complete lack of fair-chase ethics, and Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers fully supports the state wildlife commission’s plans to draft a rule banning the hunting of bears in dens.”

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To ethical hunters, “fair chase” also means not participating in “canned hunts,” where animals are kept in captivity for the purpose of hunting them, or hunts of animals baited with food. In essence, fair chase implies the need for hunters to learn about the land and the animals they pursue, to spend time developing not just their shooting technique, but also their wilderness skills so that their trophies are not measured merely in points but as landmarks in a lifetime of learning.

The Boone and Crockett Club and Pope & Young Club have fair-chase rules that disqualify trophies taken from anything but wild, free-ranging animals. In the words of founder Saxton Pope: “The true hunter counts his achievement in proportion to the effort involved and the fairness of the sport.”

Recently, drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles) have been making news in the outdoor world. Multiple states, Colorado included, have passed laws to prohibit their use in hunting. In January, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission banned the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in that state for hunting or scouting. Orion, The Hunter’s Institute, went on record last September against the use of UAVs in hunting. Drones “give an unfair advantage to the hunter over game and are a clear violation of the principles of fair chase,” the organization said. The group urged states to “immediately ban the use of UAVs in hunting before they can become established.” The Backcountry Hunters & Anglers added: “BHA believes drone technology represents a widespread opportunity for abuse, and if not regulated poses a significant threat to fair-chase hunting and fair distribution of hunting opportunity.”

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For most hunters, fair chase is not an issue. We’re out on public lands hiking on our own two feet happily busting our butts in pursuit of free-ranging wild game. And as America’s first conservationists, hunters have a century-old tradition of policing our own ranks. The “den hunting” and drone-hunting regulations adopted by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission protect our hunting traditions by ensuring fair chase and fair distribution of wildlife.

In the words of big-game hunter and retired Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist, Tom Beck: “Most hunting can be ethically defended. Some cannot. Change, where necessary, is our only hope of survival. Antihunters may hold a spotlight on our behavior, but through our behavior we control what they see.” And new technology will always present opportunities and challenges.

Fortunately the ethics of hunting in North America has a solid foundation. “The mechanized pursuit of wildlife is high on the list of violating fair-chase principles,” Jim Posewitz wrote in his book, “Beyond Fair Chase.” “If we are to pursue animals fairly, the ethical choice is clear—we pursue them on foot. The ethical hunter never chases or harasses wildlife with a machine.”

When he penned those lines in 1994, Posewitz surely didn’t have drones in mind, but such wisdom is timeless. And if hunting is to continue enjoying support from a majority of the public, it will be critical to apply such ethics consistently and persistently from season to season and generation to generation.

____________________________ 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

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>