Fair Game

As More Women Take Up Hunting, Is This Deadly Sport Becoming More "Ethical"?

Is there such a thing as “ethical hunting”? A growing number of outdoor sportsmen (and, increasingly, women) say there is, and they decry the tendency to lump all hunters together as thrill killers motivated by bloodlust.
“We’ve been tolerant of the negative portrayal for too long,” says Mary Zeiss Stange, a hunter, author and religion professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. “Hunting is not the problem. The problem is with hunters.”

A profusion of game fuels the image of the insensitive human predator. As whitetail deer search for tulips in suburban backyards, Canadian geese sully golf courses and western states deal with record elk herds, some hunters see themselves as a necessary form of pest control. In South Carolina, you can shoot two deer a day for 90 days, though you’ll have to move around to different counties to remain legal.

“Pest” proliferation leads to a credo of “whack ‘em and stack ‘em” hunting, often accompanied by the technical vocabulary of wildlife managers, who talk about “harvesting” or “culling” wildlife. Oblivious to ecology or the ways of natural systems, some hunters have simply shot their way through record numbers of game. Clearly, something needed to change.

In 1988, scorching drought and burning lodgepole forests forced bison out of Yellowstone National Park in search of food. But they were met by a firing line of hunters, most of them with legitimate Montana bison hunting licenses.
These shootings did not sit well with Jim Posewitz, a retired Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist. “That style of hunting is antithetical to the ethical hunter,” he says. “It’s liquidation.” Posewitz went to the Montana legislature to lobby for a change in the rules.

“We got the public out of the bison-killing business,” he says. He went on to write a book, Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethics and Tradition of Hunting, which has become, to some, the bible of ethical hunting. It has sold 220,000 copies and the Helena-based Orion, Posewitz’s educational organization, conducts ethical hunting seminars in 17 states.

Posewitz defines ethical hunting as “the fair chase pursuit of free-roaming wildlife in a non-competitive setting with full utilization of the animal as food.” At the top of his list of ethical violations is shooting captive or domesticated big game animals in commercial killing areas where a person with a gun is guaranteed an animal to shoot. He also decries “the mechanized pursuit of wildlife.” When in doubt, Posewitz suggests, the advantage must go to the animal.

Ethical or not, such codes strike many animal advocates as “intellectual blather,” as activist Joy Williams puts it. And like that overused phrase “paradigm shift,” the term “ethical hunter” can also be used as convenient window dressing. Andrea Lococo of the Rocky Mountain office of the Fund for Animals makes the point that “most hunters I meet profess to be ethical hunters. It matters little to the animals that it’s killed by a poacher or by an ethical hunter. To us, the lives of individual animals are of the utmost importance.”

Still, Lococo says she works with hunters, “although we are against all hunting. We are trying to clean up the most egregious errors. We’ve worked with hunters in Michigan to get initiatives prohibiting bear baiting passed and against pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania. We’ve also worked with hunters on protecting endangered species.” While she applauds any action that helps save animals from suffering, including the work of Orion, Lococo says she gets exasperated with Posewitz because he won’t take stands on issues she considers clearly unethical. “When we’ve challenged Orion to take positions against bear baiting and live pigeon shoots, he says, ‘We don’t advocate, we educate.’”

Posewitz defends that position. “We’re trying to be Socrates, not Solomon,” he says. He cites the work of Ducks Unlimited, which does very little advocacy work on behalf of hunting, but has protected over eight million acres of land and 15,000 miles of shoreline.

One of the biggest hurdles in promoting ethical hunting is the “hook and bullet” magazines. Three years ago, Stephen Byers, then editor of Outdoor Life, resigned rather than accept a corporate decision not to rile a hard-core, pro-hunting readership. At issue was an article, yanked before publication, entitled “A Failure of Spirit,” in which Colorado biologist Tom Beck questioned the use of bait to hunt black bears.

Ethical hunting advocates the minimal use of high-tech gadgets. The lifeblood of most hunting magazines is advertising the very-extraneous stuff that groups like Orion condemn. In both ads and copy, most of these magazines carry the same message: how to bag big racks with the least amount of effort. This translates to game farms, focus on technology (bigger, faster, better), obsessive trophy hunts and All-Terrain-Vehicles.

But the magazines are changing—slowly—and so, thankfully, is hunting. A few months ago, Sports Afield’s lead story was “The New Hunter.” While the attractive woman on the cover holding a large-caliber rifle was intended to boost sales to female readers, the symbolism was right on target: Women are hunting. According to Stange, author of Woman As Hunter, about 10 to 12 percent of all hunters are female. “That’s double the number of 10 years ago,” she says, adding that there are about two million women hunters in the U.S.

Surveys reveal that women hunt differently than men, too. “It’s the exception for a woman to grow up in a hunting culture,” says Stange. “Most women become hunters as adults. When you approach ethics in that light—from an adult perspective—you raise different questions and make a differently informed set of decisions,” she says.

Regardless of the gender involved, for ethical hunters, the spirit does matter. As Milan Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test…consists of its attitude toward those who are at its mercy: animals.”