Hunting Ethics
Changing values in changing times

By Mitch Lane - Administrative Sergeant
Published in Utah DWR Magazine -- Wildlife Review: http://wildlife.utah.gov

It's a cool fall afternoon during the deer hunt, and you've been hiking all day. You're looking for a big buck and have decided to hike a little farther than the rest of your hunting party. You've shot several small deer in years past and now you want a "trophy".
Hunting Ethics
You're in prime deer country and you've seen a lot of fresh sign. It's rugged terrain-just the place to find an elusive, mature buck. You left camp several hours ago and the short fall day is coming to an end.
Then you see him across the canyon. It's the buck you've been picturing in your mind the whole time you've been hiking to an area few hunters would dare go.
As you kneel down to survey the situation, thoughts begin to race through your mind. You don't have time to sneak up on him. By the time you get close, if you even can get close, it will be too dark to shoot. You could shoot at him from where you're at, but the shot will be well over 300 yards and most of your target shooting practice has been at targets not more than 200 yards away. If you hit and injure him, you'll never be able to track and find him because it will be dark by then.
Do you take the shot and chance wounding the buck and never finding him? Or do you not take the shot and return to camp with another story about the one that got away?

Defining ethics
Young hunters today are taught the importance of being ethical. Teaching young hunter's ethics helps ensure the image of hunters and hunting isn't tarnished in the eyes of those who either oppose hunting or merely chose not to participate themselves. The idea of ethics in hunting isn't new, but what constitutes ethical behavior has changed over time almost as much as hunting itself has.
So, who is and isn't an ethical hunter today?
To understand what an ethical hunter is, we must first define the word "ethical." The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ethical as "involving or expressing moral approval or disapproval." The words "moral" and "ethical" are used synonymously in the dictionary, and an ethic is defined as "the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group."
Stated in simple terms, ethical behavior is that which is accepted as good rather than bad and right rather than wrong. Unfortunately, because of everyone's unbringing, past experiences, personal beliefs and values, what is ethical to one person might not be ethical to someone else.

Ethics change over time
Not only can ethics vary from one person to another, but ethics also change over time as society and its values change. For example, at one time, market hunting (killing animals and selling them for their meat) and hunting to sustain your family were generally approved and were probably thought to be ethical. Eventually, due to changes in social and biological attitudes, people began to approve less of these activities. Now they're considered unethical and are usually illegal.
A more recent example is "party hunting." Party hunting happens when hunters take game, not only for themselves, but also for others in their party who have a license. Party hunting results in some hunters taking an over limit of game and other hunters in the party unlawfully lending their permits to them. Party hunting allows some hunters to take more than their legal share of game, while other hunters don't get a chance to take their legal share.
While this practice has always been illegal, it was generally approved of and was quite common only a couple decades ago. Today the biological and legal ramifications of party hunting are more widely understood, and most hunters know that party hunting is both unethical and illegal.

Ethical hunting issues today
Many other ethical dilemmas also face hunters today. For example, is it ethical to use off-highway vehicles to pursue big game? If so, at what point does OHV use become unacceptable? Most hunters agree that OHV use is unethical when it damages the environment or when the vehicles are used in a manner that provides hunters with an unfair advantage over the game they're pursuing. But what about the gray areas in between?
What about the use of bait to attract or lure wildlife into the effective shooting range of a waiting hunter? In many cases, such as in waterfowl hunting, baiting is prohibited by law. In other hunting situations, however, baiting is not prohibited and is a commonplace practice in some areas of the country.
What about long-range hunting, where hunters take aim and shoot at game that can be several hundred yards away? These hunters use large-caliber rifles, usually with precisely hand-loaded cartridges, and spend many hours practicing long-range shooting. They can shoot game without stalking the animal and before the animal even knows it's being hunted.
Another ethical dilemma involves the use of traditional equipment versus more modern, technologically advanced equipment, such as electronic range finders, in-line muzzleloaders, and electronic decoys and game calls. Some of this equipment takes away the need to acquire skills, abilities and knowledge that a traditional hunter must have to be successful.
Do these modern devices provide hunters with an unfair advantage? Do they detract from the original concept of hunting, in which the skills, abilities and intelligence of humans were necessary to outsmart and stalk a wild animal and make a well-placed shot?
People used to hunt out of necessity and learned and developed the most effective methods to provide for their needs. Now people hunt mainly for sport, recreation or trophies. We do this by choice and not by necessity, yet we are still intent on employing the most effective method to give ourselves the greatest advantage over our prey.

A virtual hunting reality
One of the latest controversies regarding hunting ethics is the advent of Internet hunting. Now hunters don't have to leave their home or office to hunt. They can log on to a website and shoot an animal from the comfort of their computer terminal, using a rifle that is connected to a computer and a web camera.
The California legislature recently passed a bill prohibiting the use of computer-assisted hunting sites and the import and export of any animals taken by such means. At that time, 14 other states and Congress were also considering similar legislation.
Groups in support of the legislation claim Internet hunting is unethical and unsporting. Those opposed to the legislation say the Internet could provide hunting opportunities to people with disabilities who might not be able to participate in hunting activities otherwise.

Fair chase
With all of the ethical questions facing hunters, and the many more that will arise as technology advances, now more than ever, the fundamentals of ethical hunting-fair and good rather than unjust and bad-must be kept in the forefront of hunters' minds.
A good basis to determine whether a hunting practice is ethical is the concept of fair chase. Fair chase forms a balance between the hunter and the hunted in which a wild animal usually escapes unharmed but is sometimes taken by the hunter. Fairness to the animal and its chances to escape unharmed could be the best way to measure whether a behavior is ethical or unethical because any practice that tends to give the hunter an unfair advantage over his prey is often deemed unethical.

Instilling ethics in young people
In hunter education classes, students are taught that to be a true sportsman, they must adopt and adhere to their own code of ethics. A code of ethics is a set of rules based on respect for what is safe and fair. Students are taught to respect wildlife and its habitat; landowners and their rights; other hunters and non-hunters; and game laws and firearms. These students are taught that to be ethical, responsible hunters, there are unwritten laws, as well as written ones, that they must follow.
Even as good as the hunter education curriculum is, by the time these students are the age when they can legally hunt, chances are great that their ethics and morals have already been formed. Hopefully by this time, family members and others they know will have taught and exposed them to positive attitudes and behaviors that will help them become ethical hunters.

You must decide
If these young students could be taught that the difference between ethical and unethical behavior in the same as the difference between legal and illegal behavior, what's ethical and what's unethical would certainly be easier for them to understand. Unfortunately, the laws and rules that govern hunting only set guidelines within which every hunter must make a personal, ethical decision. Even though most hunters probably consider most infractions of the law unethical, there are many acts that are not illegal that many hunters still consider unethical.
Each person develops their own ethical standards, but it's the collective decisions and behaviors of all hunters that will dictate how hunting is viewed by other hunters and non-hunters in the years to come. The actions of one hunter, good or bad, affect how all hunters are viewed. Aldo Leopold summarized the complexity of hunter ethics best in A Sand County Almanac when he wrote: "A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. What ever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than by a mob of onlookers. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this fact."