Hunting ethically is good, hard work

A sportsmanlike, lawful pursuit of free-ranging game ensures a fair chase

April 26, 2023 8:38 am

There is a difference between what is legal and what is ethical in hunting free-ranging game. (Courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

Colorado’s spring turkey hunting season started recently (on April 8), and I was able to spend some time chasing toms in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. While hunting mountain Merriam’s turkeys, Rocky Mountain elk or any other wild game in the San Juans, I generally endeavor to meet up with Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers founder David “Elkheart” Petersen.

David is a renowned trad bow elk hunter, hunting ethicist, and former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot. While discussing elk hunting with David at a local watering hole a while back, I mentioned a recent hunt that included 50 hours and 50 miles of “armed hiking” through 14,700-plus feet of elevation gain without seeing or hearing a single elk — saying it was “good, hard work.” David agreed, and we concluded it’s a key component of ethical hunting.

Fair chase

The essence of ethical hunting is fair chase. 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.”

The Boone and Crockett Club was founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt and his hunting buddies. Fifteen years later (when Roosevelt was president), after an unproductive outing for black bear in Mississippi, one of the guides ran down a bear with dogs, then dragged the creature into camp for Roosevelt to shoot. He declined in disgust, explaining the principles of fair chase.

During November 2010, 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 six 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.

Tracking a bear to its den in the snow and shooting it potentially involved some hard work, but was it a good (i.e. ethical) thing to do? The Division of Wildlife (now Colorado Parks and Wildlife) didn’t think so. Neither did Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. In letters to the Craig Daily Press and the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel we emphatically stated our position: “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.”

Legal vs. ethical

“Some hunters are willing to say, ‘If it’s legal, it’s ethical.’ But the problem with this is that neither ‘legal’ nor ‘ethical’ are fixed, timeless boundaries,” Jan Dizard and Phil Seng wrote in the Spring 2021 Backcountry Journal. “We hunters have to be ever mindful of how our actions are perceived by the 95 percent of the population that does not hunt, a proportion of which is skeptical not about hunting but about the character of hunters.”

“The animal should have a chance,” explained David E. Petzal, Field & Stream magazine’s field editor. “If you shoot at an animal from 500 yards or farther, you’re depriving him of his tools. You negate his eyesight and his hearing and his sense of smell.”

In an August 2014 Field & Stream story, “The Line Between Hunting and Long-Range Shooting,” Petzal added, “… if you plan at the outset to shoot from the next ZIP code and substitute ballistics for legs and lungs and patience and skill, you are no hunter at all.”

I’m a rifle hunter, but plan for shots of no more than about 200 yards. Like David Petersen and David Petzal, I prefer to get closer vs. shooting farther. Perhaps hunting ethically doesn’t always have to involve getting closer and “hard work,” but it is “good” when it does.

And I would add, there’s a fine line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, between actual hunting and mere killing. Of course, we’re all welcome to our opinions. Mine is that ethical hunting is defined by good, hard work.


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David Lien
David Lien

David Lien of Colorado Springs is a former Air Force officer and co-chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of “Hunting for Experience: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation” and during 2014 was recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation.”