Choosing a bow and arrow setup: my current gear

Who doesn’t like to nerd out once in a while (generally, at least once a day) about gear?

While by no means an expert, I’ve tried a few different combinations of bows, sights, rests, stabilizers, releases, and arrows over the years, and I can at least comment on what I use now and why I like it. If you are new to archery and bowhunting, check out my Introduction to Archery post for some background information on some of the terminology you will encounter.

My bow setup and arrow selection.

My bow setup and arrow setup.

Currently, here’s how my setup looks:

Bow: 2013 Hoyt Charger
Sight: Trophy Ridge React-One
Rest: Trophy Taker Smackdown Pro
Stabilizer: Beestinger Sport Hunter Xtreme 
Release: Scott Samurai
Arrows: Easton Axis 400
Strings: Custom from Kevin Nugent
Broadheads: Muzzy MX-3

A couple notes on this configuration and how I got here.

I used to shoot a 3-pin sight, and I was hearing a lot about single pin sights and how much people liked them (less light interference, less distraction in the sight housing, personal preference for horizontal or vertical sight pins, etc.). When I heard about Trophy Ridge’s React sights, I was just intrigued. The React-One is their single pin version of their React sights. The deal is that you sight in at 20 yards, and then any other distance from 30-100. Once you have two distances dialed, the sight does the rest and automatically sights in from 20-100 yards. I just thought this was cool and wanted to try it. I haven’t looked back from the single pin sight. I love it. I found that I prefer a vertical pin to a horizontal one. Even though I won’t be using any sight markers past 30 yards for whitetail hunting, it’s great to be able to practice at longer distances, and this sight makes that really easy. It’s also fully metal and tool-less, which means things can be adjusted quickly and easily.

One thing I really like about the Trophy Taker rest is its full metal construction. The thing is a workhorse; everything about it is super tight, smooth, and durable. The full capture housing is great, and the actual fork of the rest goes from wall to wall of the full capture housing, meaning that no matter where your arrow is when you draw the bow, the rest will pick it up. The actual rest is covered in a great felt piece, and the housing is rubber, so it’s quiet!

The only real drawback of the React-One sight for me is that it weighs close to a pound, and most of this weight is on one side of the bow. I found I was having a bit of wobble at full draw, so I wanted to try a longer stabilizer to bring some more weight out front, and it worked like a charm. My groups instantly improved. Even though shooting an 8.5″ stabilizer at 7.18 oz added overall weight to the bow, the problem was never holding the physical weight of the bow up, so it helped. I would have probably benefitted even more from putting the stabilizer on a slight offset to the opposite side as the sight, but I didn’t get that this time around. In any case, I’m really pleased with how much steadier I feel now.

The Scott release is pretty straight-forward: adjustable nylon strap, dual caliper. My only requirement here was that I upgrade to a release with a buckle. I was tired of climbing into a treestand and realizing I had to rip that velcro strap open; I felt like I might as well get on a megaphone and announce myself to the entire forest. Having said that, I learned the value in investing in a quality release. I used to go by the mindset that a release just needed to release the string, and beyond that, it didn’t matter too much. I noticed an instant positive difference in the trigger sensitivity in this release.

I’m going to save a discussion about arrow selection for another post, because I love to talk about arrows, and I don’t think they get enough of their own attention – it’s far too often just narrowed down to concerns over how fast the arrows go. But basically, I wanted a good hunting arrow – one with some weight.

I posted in some archery forums asking for recommendations on strings, and the answer was overwhelmingly to get strings from Kevin Nugent, from right here in Ontario. My note here is pretty simple: great guy, great products. I recommend him to everyone now.

We could go on forever about broadhead selection. My choice is simply because when I started bowhunting, someone recommended Muzzy, and I’ve stuck with them. I recognize there are plenty of great ones out there, and I’ll get around to trying more as I get more opportunities to hunt.

So anyway, there’s my setup in a nutshell. Most of the changes I’ve made over the years have been out of simple curiosity and a desire for exploration. I just like trying new things to see what works for me and what feels good. I think that’s the most important thing when choosing equipment. Look around and do research. Read everything you can find about different gear options and ask people what they like and don’t like, and why. Just remember that everyone has their own opinion and there isn’t a right and wrong answer for your own setup, you need to find out what works for you. This current configuration has brought it all together for me, and I feel totally confident with all the pieces that make it up. I’m excited every single time I open my case to take it out, and I enjoy every single shot I take. At some point I’m sure I’ll switch something out for a new piece, but I’m not in any rush right now!

Of course…those new Xpedition Xcentric bows look pretty cool…

As an update to this post, I purchased the new Prime Rize in January 2016, and you can check out my thoughts on this bow here.

Full draw.

Cecil: Part 1: Let’s talk about what we’re talking about

One of my hesitations with social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, even blogging) is the inherent difficulty in using these tools to discuss issues that are located in a large and complex grey area of social opinion and politics. However, increasingly, news websites seem to be showing Twitter responses as part of their coverage, so there’s no denying that these are important platforms for engaging with current issues. This does not mean that we need to simplify our discussions to a watered down understanding of an issue to make it more readable. Given that, my approach to this topic takes place in a number of parts, each focusing on a different facet of the story.

By now, most people have probably heard about the hunter who killed a lion in Zimbabwe named Cecil, resulting in extensive news coverage and an outpouring of social media attention. One of the problems I see happening with this story is that many people are approaching it from different angles and experiences, but they’re all trying to have the same conversation. This is very difficult to do, because when we think we’re talking about the same thing, but aren’t, or are talking about the same thing, but don’t think we are, it leads to misunderstanding and conflict.

We need to know what we’re talking about.

I want to be upfront about how my personal baggage informs my mental organization of this issue. To do this, I’ll outline the range of more nuanced issues that I think are at play here so that I can discuss them individually and with specificity. For me, here are the things I’m thinking about in relation to this story:

  1. The effect of media representation and language on public perceptions;
  2. The decision about whether, as hunters, to defend or ostracize;
  3. The concern among hunters that stories like this puts all hunters in the same category;
  4. The importance of knowing the scientific facts about the animal and its ecology;
  5. The need to understand the politics and economics of conservation.

So these five sub-topics are really the ones that are the most important for me in this issue, and indeed in many other stories in the media involving hunting. I think it’s hard for me to talk about this without partially compartmentalizing each of these considerations and focusing on them somewhat individually. This is not to say that there aren’t other important issues, or even that these points are arranged in a hierarchy of importance. My opinion on this story is also informed by a combination of each of these more specific issues; this is just how I organize my thoughts.

One of the most important things for me in discussing an issue like this one is having the willingness and ability to embrace what people might perceive as paradox: to be able to say that I think what Walter Palmer and his hunting guides did was wrong, but that I still defend hunting; that I really have no personal interest in hunting a lion, but that I do not disagree with lion hunting; that killing this individual lion might have been wrong for sociocultural reasons, but that I understand the ecology of the species enough to know that it wasn’t necessarily wrong on a biological level; and that even if I disagree with the way certain people hunts, I am ok with it as long as it is legal. In other words, it’s possible to have multiple opinions about different aspects of an issue.

I’ll discuss this issue in three parts: Part 1 will focus on the first point; Part 2 will address points 2 & 3; and Part 3 will address points 4 & 5.

Part 1:
The way media and language frame this issue has a profound effect on how people perceive and talk about it.

Subconscious perceptions informed by value-laden language ultimately have tremendous consequences for how meaningfully I can have discussions with people about my other four points.

I’ll say that so far, I have mixed feelings about the way media has covered the story. I’m not a media analyst; I have no professional training in this, only my own perceptions and reactions to the language used in the media. This is also not a systematic selection of media, just a couple examples to illustrate my point.

The first coverage I saw about this was a CBC article that covered Jimmy Kimmel’s reaction to the killing of ‘Cecil the lion’. Now,  right up front, we need to recognize that the very fact that this lion had a name imbues the whole story with a sociocultural importance that would likely not be present if the lion were presented as a nameless, wild, apex predator, living in a wild habitat, doing wild things. A discussion of the effects of anthropomorphizing animals is out of my scope here, but these analyses exist, and suffice to say that giving the lion a name changes its significance for the general public. I’m not commenting on whether this is right or wrong; I’m only recognizing that it changes the nature of the issue. Would we still care about lions as a species? Yes. Would we feel the same personal attachment to the individual lion? Probably not.

Framing of Hunters as People:
Right from the outset, CBC describes the hunter as someone “who hunts big game for sport”. This is a loaded statement. I hunt big game, and consider myself engaged in athletic endeavours when doing so. The use of the term “trophy hunter” has also been prevalent. Describing any hunter in this way leaves out a whole range of important points about, for example, what the person does with the meat, their financial contribution and dedication to conservation (granted, we know what Palmer did with the meat, but I’m speaking generally about the use of this language), and the ecological effects of removing certain individuals from wildlife populations. Both Jimmy Kimmel and Johnny Rodrigues, chairmen of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, make comments about hunters being sexually inadequate or simply as people “who’ve got an ego. They’re bored with their lives“. I can tell you, with complete certainty, that neither of these two things are issues for me. In any case, this kind of language presents such a strong value judgment on the motivations of hunters as a whole, not only Walter Palmer, that is simply not true or encompassing of the activity.

Perceptions of Hunting Ethics:
There also seems to be a large focus on the fact that Palmer used a crossbow to shoot the lion, as if that somehow makes it inherently unethical. Let’s remember that bows are capable of delivery tremendous amounts of energy to kill animals by hemorrhaging. This does not make them less effective than guns. Perhaps the particular shot that Palmer took was unsafe, unethical, and ineffective, but the language focusing on the fact that he used a crossbow is dangerous and misrepresentative of the effectiveness of bowhunting.

Simplifications of the Conservation Issue:
Multiple articles also highlight the fact that Palmer paid around $54 000 to kill the lion. This particular issue is more related to my fifth point above about the politics of conservation, and I’ll address this more comprehensively in another post; however, noting only the amount of money Palmer paid does not appropriately represent the full issue of paying large amounts of money for hunting opportunities. It’s an important point and has much more relevance than simply showing that he is an arrogant rich man, but this kind of language evokes emotional responses from people that are inevitably antagonistic to the idea of paying for killing, rather than the actual long-term effects of this system.

The Use of Euphemisms:
On the other side of the discussion, Kimmel tells Palmer to “Stop saying you took the Lion. You take Aspirin. You killed the lion”. I agree. He killed the lion. I always use the word kill, because I think we need to give things a name, not a euphemism. I also don’t think that what we do when we kill an animal is wrong, so I don’t mind using the word kill. I would rather honestly embrace the emotional response from the reality of what we do than try to shield others from it. I tend to agree with Kimmel here that if Palmer is attempting to soften the language he is using, it isn’t working. However, I would also caution against the association of killing with wrong that can sometimes be implied with statements like this.

Now, I’m not disputing the facts presented by these articles, and this particular post is not about my personal opinion on the story (I’ll get to that in the other posts about this). I only want to draw attention to the point that our choice of language has dramatic implications for how people react to and think about issues. When we discuss issues as controversial and far-reaching as this, and share strong opinions about them, we need to remember what we’re talking about and choose our words carefully. I think we need to be careful to speak only about the particular case we want to be talking about, and not imply truths about the broader issues involved.  If we’re not talking about hunters or hunting or lion conservation in general, then let’s not use language that conveys value judgments about those topics. Let’s present facts unencumbered by personal feelings about them and at the same time be aware of how our feelings and perceptions are informed by the language used to discuss an issue.

Donnie Vincent on Who We Are

As a follow up to yesterday’s post about the representation of hunters and hunting in media, I thought I’d share this shorter post today.

As hunters we are always trying to find more thoughtful and effective ways to articulate what we do, why we do it, and maybe most importantly, what it means to us. It’s a difficult task – words rarely do it justice, photos are sometimes misconstrued, public images can be manipulated and stereotyped.

I came across Donnie Vincent a number of months ago and have been following his films closely. He’s released two full length films, and I’ve watched them both multiple times. He’s also released a series of short films. This one does a wonderful job of showing the depth with which hunters think about and experience in the natural world and our place in it. Donnie poignantly explains to viewers the simultaneous simplicity and profundity in hunting. I think the mood portrayed through his films is the closest I’ve seen media come to accurately encapsulating how we see things in our own minds when we think about what we do.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words; sometimes that isn’t enough.

One of the things I frequently discuss with other hunters is the importance of public perceptions of hunting. I would imagine that most non-hunters never personally witness or participate in a hunt, meaning that their perception of hunting is developed through their perception of hunters. This means that the way we portray ourselves and represent hunting has impacts on the future of the activity (since hunting is affected by laws that are determined by a largely non-hunting voting public). As hunters, what do we do when one of our primary ways of representing hunting contributes to the very misunderstandings about the intentions and character of hunters that we work so hard to change?

I’ve seen many heated debates and angry comments on social media sites begin around a picture of a hunter and an animal he/she has killed (take a look at any of Cameron Hanes’s pictures for examples). This is one of the most common ways that hunters represent the story of the hunt. I think the use of photos from a hunt can be a great opportunity to engage with non-hunters and express ourselves, but perhaps an opportunity that is sometimes difficult to capture, especially when taking place in the impersonal space of social media.

I have been reluctant to post pictures of myself with animals I’ve killed. I’ve often felt like it’s just a ticking time bomb for misperception. I can even understand the issue that non-hunters (i.e. those who do not hunt and don’t necessarily understand the experiences and emotions involved in hunting, but not necessarily anti-hunters) have with pictures of smiling hunters holding a dead animal. Put yourself in their heads for a moment: the knee-jerk reaction is to see an expression of a bragging right over killing an animal. It’s difficult to convey the preparation, training, practice, time, effort, and emotions spent leading up to that moment. It’s perhaps easy to confuse elated pride with arrogance.

One of the things I’d like to do here is try to offer any non-hunting readers a glimpse into the mindset and intention of hunters when we post these sorts of pictures. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and like any group of people, we’re not all the same. But I can at least speak to my experience of the people I hunt with and most hunters I know. For hunters, I think there are some things we can do to better represent ourselves through these pictures. Most people probably already do these things, but in the interest of a well-rounded discussion, I’ll speak to hunters, too.

First, let’s try to diffuse some preconceptions for non-hunters reading this, which I hope there are (you’ll have to honestly be open to reconsidering some ideas). Here’s how I assume it looks to you: hunting pictures are probably reminiscent of colonizers standing over a conquered land, or images of a defeated army, or iconic representations of a hero having triumphed over a weaker foe. In other words, it probably evokes associations of blood thirst, anger, and superiority. Perhaps something similar to this?

Christopher Columbus, painting by John Vanderlyn

Christopher Columbus, painting by John Vanderlyn.

My experience is that when someone takes a photo with an animal he/she has killed, it is never done with a sense of the triumph of the powerful over the inferior; there’s no celebration of anything conquered. Rather, it’s the expression of a relationship developed through intense preparation and commitment. Here’s how things look for a hunter in the year(s) leading up to a hunt: there is research into the ecology of the animal to learn its patterns and how it changes throughout its life; there is some kind of training, usually a combination of physical preparation and practice with whatever tool is going to be used (gun or bow); there is fairly substantial financial investment into the hunt, which benefits the entire economy and especially the research and habitat management for a range of wildlife species (for example, a typical deer hunting season will cost me $50 for the individual hunting tag, probably about $200 throughout the year in fees to practice with my bow or ammunition costs, at least $75 in memberships to hunting insurance/conservation organizations, incidental costs throughout the season related to general supplies, and then there might be benefits to the tourism industry with costs for food and accommodations); and then hours spent in the actual hunt, probably at least some of this time in physically demanding and uncomfortable situations.

In summary, the moment when the animal walks out and an arrow or bullet is released is only one step in the process. It’s the culmination of immeasurable effort and commitment (and other than my attempt in the previous paragraph, we don’t really try to measure it, because it’s the process that’s important, and the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts). By this time, every hunter I know will have developed a deep affection and fascination with the species, and maybe even individual animal, being hunted.

When a hunter takes a photo with the animal, there’s no feeling of callous detachment from the life of that animal; there’s only admiration for the wildlife, and excitement over the nutritious food that the animal will provide. I can assure you that any photo I’ve taken with any animal I’ve killed has not done justice to the emotions I’m feeling in the moment. I would encourage non-hunters to remember that when you see one of these photos and feel a strong emotional response, know that we do too, whenever we look back on them. Although it can look like arrogance, it’s not. What you’re seeing is probably best summarized by gratitude, humility, and happiness.

It might be better represented by this photo.

Donnie Vincent with caribou

Christopher Columbus, painting by John Vanderlyn.

For other great examples, check out Remi Warren or Donnie Vincent.

Now, to hunters reading this, I offer some ideas for how we can try to address this conundrum. In every hunt, there is a story. Like all good stories, these usually involve struggle, some success, laughs, disappointment, excitement, and a host of minute experiences that you really “had to be there” to understand. Tell of these moments with the pictures. In the captions to the photos, tell the story articulately, sensitively, and in a way that truly represents how you think about the hunt. Be honest about the emotions, even when those are ones of wild happiness. We shouldn’t be afraid to take pride in an accomplishment, but we can do so with modesty. I encourage other hunters not to think of this as pandering to anti-hunters; think of it as an opportunity to be an ambassador of our lifestyle; take pride in the opportunity to show how positive hunting is in your life and for the ecology and conservation of wildlife. As always, show the animal respectfully and think about how you can represent your relationship with that individual animal through the photograph. These pictures can give others the chance to reflect on their own emotional responses to hunting and explore a different form of wildlife photography, and we really want them to come out the other side with a more positive outlook than when they started.

We rarely have the time necessary for long conversations in which we can fully express our opinions and feelings about these topics. Often, it’s the photographs of our hunts that friends and family see and that make their way around social media sites. We might only have that 1 minute someone spends looking at our picture to tell the story and represent the complex relationship hunters have with wildlife and the natural world. We need to use each of these minutes.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes, even a thousand is not enough; but we can at least start with those thousand words and use them to their fullest potential.

The way to people’s hearts is through their stomachs

I’ve had countless philosophical conversations with non-hunting family members about why I hunt. While they’ve always respected these reasons and tried to engage in the conversations, I always questioned just how much I was really getting through. Was I actually creating any deeper sense of understanding on a personal level? At some point, it occurred to me that the old saying may be true, that the way to a person’s heart might truly be through his/her stomach.

Many hunters can relate to the excitement in sharing meals of wild meat with friends and family, something that I think is partially rooted in an opportunity for us to relive the excitement of the hunt, and to feel like we are able to share a little bit of that with those people we care about who weren’t there with us. I think we’d be hard pressed to find a culture anywhere in the world that doesn’t gather around food in some way for meaningful occasions, and that doesn’t associate sharing food with happiness and celebration. At the most basic level, it’s simply fun and exciting to get together and share meals with people, and I think there’s a depth added to this experience when it’s food that we’ve collected ourselves – whether grown in a garden or hunted.

When I first started bringing wild meat home to my family to try, there was a reticence that many of us are probably familiar with and have heard expressed in various forms. It ranges from a somewhat unfamiliar emotional feeling when someone associates the food on their plate with iconic images of deer and the social representations we ascribe to them; to the somewhat dirty or unsanitary idea people hold about Canada geese; or ideas about black bears eating nothing but household garbage, and so on down the taxonomic chain. It has been my experience that in most of these cases, it is culturally-based associations that make people hesitant to try wild meat. Sometimes people are aware of health concerns like trichinosis with bear meat, or the uncertainty about chronic wasting disease (CWD) with deer, but usually it’s much less scientific than that.

One time while visiting my family, I brought a selection of wild meat for them to try, and knowing that the particular selection I chose would be somewhat different for them, I was determined to cook such a delicious meal that they would have no choice but to reconsider some of their preconceptions (a tall order, I know). Growing up, the rule in my house was always that I had to try everything once, and then if I didn’t like it, I didn’t have to eat it; I used the same argument on my family. On this occasion, I brought a Canada goose breast and leg and a deer heart, both having been killed only about a week or two prior. The idea of eating a deer heart was definitely a difficult one for some people to stomach, intellectually speaking. So the pressure was on to ensure they liked the taste of everything so much that they didn’t feel like monsters for eating heart and dirty for eating Canada goose. I’m certainly not an accomplished chef, so there weren’t going to be any award winning recipes here, it just had to taste good.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-9-52-07-pmFor the heart, I chose a simple recipe. I sliced it into thin discs and preheated a frying pan. I seasoned the heart with some garlic and seared the half inch discs in the pan. The key with heart is to not over cook it; rare or medium-rare is the ticket. So searing it just cooks the outsides an since the pieces were so thin, it left the insides perfectly rare. To make the meal a little more familiar to everyone, I made a quick mushroom gravy from a package (remember, the idea here was to ease people into the meal). I served it on fresh buns as open-faced sandwiches.

For the goose, it was also simple. I seasoned the breast with salt and pepper and cooked it in a fairly hot frying pan somewhere between medium-rare and medium. One of the complaints I often hear about waterfowl is that it’s too greasy, so I wanted to cook it in a way that I could burn off some of the grease and still keep it tender on the inside. I fried the leg and cooked it more fully through, figuring that since it was on a bone, it would have some great flavour from that. Again, the purpose of the meal was to add just enough of a new thing that people would let themselves enjoy it. In that sense, I thought that if people associated the goose leg with a chicken wing, they would find themselves slightly more at ease if it was more fully cooked.

In the end, I’m happy to report that although this small amount of meat was being served to five people and we were all on limited rations, everyone went back for seconds (and no, they didn’t all use the gravy on the heart). Everyone loved every piece they tried. Perhaps most importantly, I believe that there were some minds changed from the experience. People came to realize that at a purely biological level, heart meat is still meat, and in fact, it’s some of the best, richest meat from a deer. Although none of them saw the deer while it was alive and did not experience the hunt, we associate emotions with the heart organ, and I think this helped people feel like they had a sense of connection with the individual deer they were eating. In regards to the goose, although some of them may still view Canada geese as a nuisance, they also had a somewhat more full picture of geese as a species that eats, digests, and travels at such great distances that they have developed incredibly powerful muscles that create dark, rich, delicious meat. In this case, I think they now see geese with a more full idea of its ecology as a species, rather than simply a bunch of critters that fill lawns with pounds of grassy poop (literally, a single goose can produce a pound of poop per day).

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-9-52-26-pm
The point in all this, to me, is that I can talk to non-hunting friends and family until I’m blue in the face about the political, conservation, historical, and even personal reasons I hunt (and trust me, I can). They can even respect and try to understand all of these reasons; however, I think one of my biggest breakthroughs was sharing a meal of wild meat. I’ve cooked many meals of wild meat for friends, brought a number of different dishes to potlucks and dinner events, and this example here has generally been the rule for me: give someone an experience they truly enjoy and associate with good times amongst friends and family, and they will remember their encounter with wild meat fondly. This, in turn, has the potential to foster a sense of respect and even personal attachment to the whole idea of wild meat and hunting. As hunters, it’s hard to imagine a more important measure of success in our efforts to be ambassadors of the lifestyle.

***

I’ll be trying this next time I get my hands on a deer heart:
http://themeateater.com/2014/recipe-wild-game-chili-tacos/

For some other deer heart recipes, this forum has a bunch of ideas:
http://forums.bowsite.com/TF/bgforums/thread.cfm?threadid=376828&forum=4

Hunting as land ethic; or, why hunting is one method of active conservation

As a hunter, I am simultaneously a conservationist. My understanding of this role includes everything one associates with the word: naturalist, animal lover, environmentalist, manager, activist.

There are many reasons that I hunt. Here, I want to articulate how I conceptualize the relationship between my bow and arrow and my role in conservation. In other words, how can hunting be enacted as land ethic? Before I get into it though, a point of order to set the tone of the conversation.

I hear many conversations around hunting begin and progress the same way, generally depending on whether the conversation involves hunters or some combination of hunters and non-hunters (I differentiate non-hunter from anti-hunter). Depending on the scenario and people involved, I have repeatedly seen one of two problems develop. When the conversation is between two hunters, it often involves both of them reinforcing why their motivations to hunt are ethically and ecologically sound, reasons they’ve both given and heard hundreds of times and that, while factually true and ethically defensible, are nothing new by this point and long ago ceased challenging them intellectually. Both people eventually leave the conversation with their preconceived beliefs reinforced and secured. The problem here is that we sometimes resist the opportunity to truly challenge ourselves and explore new ideas, simply because we don’t need to.

Conversations involving hunters and non-hunters too often take the following course: the hunter presents a series of reasons why hunting is ethically and ecologically superior to purchasing meat from the store and why he/she is doing more for conservation than the non-hunter. For their part, I often hear non-hunters rely on cultural or media stereotypes, such as claims around animal rights or welfare. I think reliance on preconceived stereotypes can sometimes be a strategy to mask their own uncertain feelings about hunting and avoidance in having to honestly engage with these feelings. The problem with this scenario is that one person is discussing apples while the other is discussing oranges, and neither is really looking for the opportunity to try a new fruit, but rather just to prove that their choice is better.

The issue that I see in these exchanges – and one that I think derails many conversations that involve issues as complex as hunting – is people talking at one another, rather than listening to one another. There’s a great conversation to be had about the merits and joys of hunting, if only we could discuss these on a personal level and cater the conversation to the person with whom we are speaking. Don’t confuse adjusting our approach with pandering; it’s not the same thing. In addition, as hunters, we have great insight to offer about the very legitimate unease people feel about killing animals. Throwing elaborate scientific facts at someone who has an ethical block to the idea of killing animals will not help them understand; conversely, trying to convince someone of our moral superiority in gathering our own food when they are concerned about the effect of hunting on wildlife populations won’t move our case forward.

I believe that hunting is an important tool in the conservation of nature and maintenance of healthy wildlife populations. In fact, perhaps few people realize that when modern wildlife management began in North American, hunting was the central focus of this work and the primary tool used by managers. This, at the same time, is the basis for my ethical position on hunting. I believe it is ethical because of the positive benefits it contributes to conservation. In my case, my ethics are developed based on the science of hunting. I understand that this isn’t the case for everyone, but if we can agree on some basic facts, I believe that we can at least respect the direction we each take in developing our own personal ethics. At the end of the day, conservation is about making decisions, and even if we feel uneasy about the particular methods, understanding the facts will help us determine an effective course of action to address shared priorities.

A point that often comes up is that hunters contribute piles of money each year to wildlife management and habitat conservation efforts. This is true. In fact, the majority of money that is used for wildlife management efforts is generated through the sale of hunting licenses and tags (the pieces of paper that allow a hunter to kill an individual animal, such as a deer or a bear). Many of the conservation organizations out there are funded by a membership composed largely of hunters and anglers, meaning that, for example, most of the wetland conservation activities in Canada are funded by hunters. Wetlands, for their part, are absolutely integral to water filtration and are critical habitat for an abundance of wildlife. So the financial contribution of hunters is true, and it’s a valid case. The problem is that this point can be extended beyond its reach, with some hunters then presuming to claim without exception that hunters do more than non-hunters for conservation and that the work hunters do is inherently more valuable. Period, end of discussion.

If someone tells me they don’t hunt, but that they are dedicated to conservation, I ask them what they do. When they tell me that they volunteer for a local organization in their community, or donate to an environmental NGO, or do everything they can to conserve water in their own home, or compost, or anything else, I say great. I love it. Good for you, and thank you. It does no good for me to value what I do more than what someone else does. When they ask what I do? I tell them I hunt. One of these activities isn’t more important than the other. Sure, we can put a monetary value on our contributions, but why? For most people who are acting because of a sense of moral or emotional motivation, that won’t convince them that what I do is more valuable. (Having said this, the economic argument is actually a legitimate and established strategy to convince people of the value of conservation. For example, ecologists have attempted to put a monetary value on certain ecosystem services, such as wetlands, to convince people of the importance in their protection, but I’m not talking about that.)

Here’s how I think about it. When I pick up my bow and step outside to go on a hunt, I’m simultaneously thinking about the entire species of the animal I’m hunting, the local population of that species, the family group on the property I’m hunting, and the individual animal that I hope to kill. I understand how the removal of one deer might affect population and reproductive dynamics, and the habitat and the other animals in the area. As a result, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that my actions are having positive benefits for the overall health of the species I’m hunting and the other species that interact with it.

As an example, let’s consider the most popular big game animal hunted in North America, the whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Whitetail deer populations exploded in North America as a result of the reorganization and modification of land for modern agriculture, which creates perfect habitat for deer. Many people would say this is great; it is great, but those deer also have to continue to eat and find suitable habitat.

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For the purposes of space, let’s focus on two points: every year, a certain number of deer are born, and given the finite space and food available in any area of habitat, a certain number of deer will die. They will die in great numbers from vehicle collisions, and they will die throughout the winter as a result of starvation and predation by other animals. Whenever a population of wildlife outgrows the ability of its habitat to support it (a term referred to by ecologists as “carrying capacity”), some individuals of that population will die, but not before many other members of the population suffer some form of malnutrition and stress due to competition for resources.

So the overall point here is that in order for all deer to be healthy, the population must remain at or below a certain number of individuals, a number that is determined by habitat characteristics. All things being equal, the rate at which the population reaches this upper limit is a function of the sex ratio (number of males and females) and age structure (the number of individuals at breeding age) of the population. That’s just how biology works. Each spring-summer, a doe (female deer) can give birth to 1-2 fawns, depending on her own health. If environmental or nutritional conditions are difficult (poor food sources or quality, a winter with heavy snowfall, etc.), reproductive capacity suffers. If there are too many females in the population, the population may increase too quickly.

So you can see that nothing happens in isolation: we need to maintain healthy deer to produce healthy deer. Hunting season for whitetail deer is in the fall during their annual breeding season, and the number of individuals of each sex that hunters are allowed to kill is strictly regulated to maintain healthy deer and healthy deer populations. The goal is to continue to ensure that the resources available in a given habitat can support the number of deer in that area throughout the winter, thus ensuring that does can give birth to healthy fawns in the spring, and so on and so forth.

Therefore, by removing 1-2 deer of a specific sex from an area of habitat through managed hunting, hunters are part of a larger effort and directly contributing to maintaining healthy deer populations and healthy habitats. I help to ensure that the remaining deer that are not killed by hunters can access enough food and habitat throughout the winter; I’m reducing the likelihood that either the deer I killed or others in the area will be hit by a car because they’re forced to search farther for resources; and I’m helping to ensure that individual deer will not be forced into such strong competition for resources with one another that they will die from malnutrition or exhaustion.

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So whatever our thoughts on the act of killing, I recognize that I need to accept that removing certain individual animals from a population is necessary. Our own feelings and ethics around this are certainly individual. For me, knowing that I am thoughtfully engaged in carefully planned and effective conservation activities gives me a strong belief that what I am doing is morally right (for me). I like the knowledge that I am contributing to maintaining healthy wildlife populations. Does this diminish the emotions that I face in killing animals? No. Those are real. Does it mean I haphazardly choose the equipment (gun or bow) that I use to hunt? No. I put a great deal of thought into how those decisions change the nature of the hunt. Is hunting easy? No. It takes a great deal of preparation, practice, and dedication to be successful, an outcome that is in great measure determined by the guarantee that the animal dies quickly and with as little stress as possible.

For now, I’m motivated by the knowledge that there are a diversity of ways to engage in conservation, that many people out there are doing their own thing, that the combination of all of our actions is what will make a difference, and that supporting everyone’s conservation choices and capitalizing on opportunities for agreement will make this important task successful.

For me, I’ll keep picking up my bow and hunting.

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Perfect July evening for some practice

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A little outdoor shooting in the summer. Perfect weather tonight to let some arrows fly and stretch it out to 60 yards. We have just over one month until our black bear hunt, and we’ve been preparing all year, so now it’s just time to keep things tight.

Maybe I’ll put a post up about bears and bear hunting leading up to our September 1 hunt. Bear ecology and management is some interesting stuff.

Setting the Stage: My Position as a Hunter-Conservationist

The idea of this blog is to explore a topic that is controversial to many, and perhaps for the most profound reasons that a topic can be controversial. Eliciting a wide and diverse spectrum of opinions and feelings, hunting is a topic that involves complex ecological, political, cultural, and ethical dimensions. Considered this way, it’s hard to deny that it’s worth earnest and sincere discussion.

My intention is not to win anyone over to any side in an issue; it is not to lobby for anything or to prove a political point; and it’s not to use moralist and rhetorical arguments that are beyond critical reflection. Having said that, I suppose my purpose is simply to request that people consider that there is a rationality and honesty in the following statement: hunting is my way of taking an active role in conservation.

I’ve had people say to me that they could not hunt because they are animal lovers. My response is always the same: “So am I; that’s why I hunt.” Often, this is followed by a somewhat understandable sense of confusion about how someone can love animals and be ok with killing them.

As hunters, we often take this seemingly paradoxical feeling for granted. We know that many other hunters understand this feeling, and that many non-hunters will have great difficulty understanding it.

Sometimes, I will try to explain the way that hunters embrace the emotional complexity that comes with hunting; how we learn to understand the paradoxes that define the natural world; how the most intensely personal experiences with nature and wildlife come from hunting; how our relationship with animals takes place on a level that defies simplistic emotional categorization; how we take pride in procuring our own healthy food; how it enables us to develop an enhanced understanding of our own biology, evolution, and role in the landscapes we are part of; how hunting gives us the ability to observe the natural world on a level that can only be experienced by engaging with it on a species-to-species level; and how hunting is a critical component of environmental management and conservation.

Other times, the sentiment that we can simultaneously love the animals we seek to kill is best expressed by Steven Rinella in his book American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon,

“For now, I rely on a response that is admittedly glib: I just do, and I always will.”