"Sport" Hunting

The term “sport hunting,” emerged at a time in history when our society had awoken to the plight of wildlife, and commercial market hunting was rightfully being rejected. Sport hunting was used to describe hunting for personal reasons and not for profit; a form of hunting with an honor code that defined the rules of engagement based on the quality of the hunt, not the quantity of game taken. The “sport” in sport hunting, was never intended to imply hunting was a sport. It meant only a sporting approach to hunting, a way to distinguish the true hunter from the market hunter.

A sporting approach recognizes the advantage of human capabilities, including technologies, and represents a desire to constrain ourselves by limiting our advantage to give the animals we pursue a legitimate chance to escape. It supports the no-guarantees nature of hunting, which is the hallmark of a sportsman; one who carries with him or her a sporting approach.

A Shot Too Far

“If there is a sacred moment in the ethical pursuit of game, it is the moment you release the arrow or touch off the fatal shot.”―Jim Posewitz

Long-range shooting, extreme long-range shooting, sniper hunting—call it what you will, but there is no denying this trend is pushing the limits of ethical hunting and fair chase, leaving us with more questions than answers. The first is, why should we care?

The simple and obvious answer is, as sportsmen, we have a responsibility to hunt ethically and that includes quick, assured, humane kills. Extreme shot distance bends this probability curve exponentially.

Our firearms have long had the capability of sending bullets downrange to distances over a mile. Technology has improved to more reliably know where these bullets will hit. Neither of these things are in question. What is in question is where does hunting end and shooting begin?

Any study of this question leads to the fact that the answer cannot be measured in yards. What’s too far for one person is within the comfort range of someone else. This is to say each of us have our own comfort zone, or our maximum effective range. But there are other variables: prevailing conditions such as wind, elevation, barometer, shot angle and the body size of the game we’re hunting. Then there is the degree of skill, experience and practice each of us has. There is also what each of us seeks from our hunting experiences. Some like the chase, the chess match; engaging the animal and getting in close, even if well within their maximum effective range.

Increasingly, more people—regardless of their skills—who choose to test their marksmanship on game animals are posing unforeseen issues: shooting over the heads of unseen hunters who are downrange, for example, and the undetected wounding of distant animals. Back to our question: Where does hunting end and shooting begin when everyone involved believes they are hunting in the first place?

If we know this can’t be answered in yards, then the answer lies in intent. If your intent is to hunt the animal, get as close as possible for a sure shot within your maximum-effective range, with a concern for a high-probability, safe shot, you’re hunting. If your intent is to see how far you can hit a live target and/or best your last performance, you’re shooting. There is nothing illegal about extreme long-range shooting. There’s nothing in the hunting regulations about maximum allowable distance, but this is a website on hunting ethics.

Athletes Who Hunt

Bo knows hunting. So do the rest of us.

We’re athletes by birth and by culture. Our ancestors were athletes, if for no other reason than they had to catch their food and avoid being eaten themselves. Next to “mama,” “ball” was the first word out of our mouth for most of us. Neighborhood pickup games led to elementary schools sports, then middle school, high school, college for some, and the pros for even fewer. We don’t shake our athletic roots easily.

Many of the sports we played as youngsters we don’t play that much later in life. There are a few exceptions like golf, tennis, and swimming. One physical activity we do carry forward is hunting.

The physical challenge of hunting has been one of its powerful attractions for generations. Lungs filled with crisp, clear air, sometimes burning; aching, tired and sore muscles tell us a good effort was involved. These are badges of honor for hunters. Sometimes—more often than not, for many of us—that’s all we come home with. We put ourselves to the test mentally and physically in uncomfortable, sometimes outright miserable conditions. And we do it on purpose.

Naturally some hunts are more physically challenging and demanding than others, and those mountains get taller as the years pass. This is the good stuff only a hunter knows. So why are we talking about this on a website dedicated to hunter ethics and fair chase? It’s because the prevailing public perception of hunting is that it is easy; you just go out and shoot wildlife. Attached to this misconception that hunting is easy is the belief that we bag our game every time out; those animals don’t stand a chance, and pretty soon there will be no animals left. These misconceptions have the potential for more people to therefore oppose hunting.

Hunting hard with effort has its own rewards. It will help in the image we project by talking about and demonstrating such things as effort and the physical preparedness and fitness that come with hunting. If our stories and the images we share only depict a final result, what we have taken, we may just be advancing this notion that hunting is easy and is less about the effort and pursuit that we do cherish.

Fair Chase History

"In a civilized and cultivated country, wild animals only continue to exist at all when preserved by sportsmen.”―Theodore Roosevelt, founder Boone and Crockett Club

An ethical code of conduct, that which was viewed as the right way to approach hunting, was a concept that originally developed in Europe. This did not, however, carry over with the settlers to the New World. America was the land of abundance and opportunity. A life of independence, free from servitude and filled with promise, was there for the taking. All one had to do is be resourceful and take. How we hunted did not matter back then. There was no need or room for an ethical approach to hunting. Game was plentiful and hunting was not for sport, but for survival and profit.

In time, when enough land was cleared for reliable food crops and domesticated livestock, food security became less of an issue for those living in more populated areas. These same human developments and decades of overharvesting had left wildlife population in scarce supply. Hunters had to venture further and further into the wilderness to bag their game. The concept of hunting for sport began to develop at this time, as did the need to restrict the amount of game taken so it could replenish and there would be game to hunt tomorrow. This is when the notion of conservation first began to appear, and along with it an ethical approach to hunting that showed restraint.

By the late 1800s, unregulated sport and commercial market hunting had taken its toll. Wildlife was no longer abundant or even present in all but the furthest reaches of remaining wilderness. Sportsmen already knew what was happening, but the broader public was just beginning to take notice of the extinction of some species and the near extinction of others. The logical solution was preservation and protection, which included an end to hunting. Those closest to the situation had a different idea.

Influential sportsmen who valued the game they sought and the spirit of the chase stepped forward; most notably was Theodore Roosevelt. He formed a group of his friends into the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887 to address the rapid decline of big game populations on a national scale. Their solution was to promote a new system of natural resource use they called “conservation,” and they promoted regulated hunting as the foundation for this new system.

Conservation was based on the fact that people need and will use natural resources, including wildlife, but this use would now have to be regulated and guided by science. For society to accept this new idea over complete protection, Roosevelt and the Club began to promote another new concept: one called fair chase.

If hunting was going to be allowed to continue, how it was being conducted and the character of the hunter now mattered. Fair chase became a matter of pride and status. It separated those who hunted for personal reasons from those who hunted for profit, ie., the commercial market hunters who had no code of honor.

Fair chase became a part of an overall conservation ethic. It defined a true sportsman as one who could kill game, yet use self-restraint and stand guard to ensure that wildlife populations would never be threatened again. It didn’t mean hunting was a sport like other contests, but rather its participants used a “sporting” approach. Fair chase defined the rules of engagement that elevated sportsmen to being highly respected members of the community, both for their skill as woodsman and providers, but also for their commitment to something greater than themselves.