Chasing a Concept: In Continual Pursuit of the Meaning of Fair Chase

I don’t recall when I first heard someone use the term fair chase. I do recall becoming gradually aware of a set of thoughts, feelings, and ideals regarding different aspects of hunting that I would later come to identify as a developing understanding of what is collectively referred to as fair chase. Fair chase is a concept that is somewhat popularly understood as the moral foundation of our community; however, while many of us are familiar with the feeling of fair chase and most of us can point out actions that we feel fall outside what would be considered fair chase, it is an idea that is difficult to put our finger on and clearly define what it means in practice.

My understanding of fair chase has certainly evolved over the years. I have looked into the origins of the principle, I’ve read various definitions and discussions of fair chase published by hunting and conservation organizations, and I have spent time reflecting on it with friends. My personal experiences have also contributed to my intellectual understanding of fair chase and have helped develop my personal grasp on how it applies to my own hunting and to the ways in which I engage with conservation issues. As a term and concept that guides the actions of hunters, fair chase has a rich history rooted in a concern for the conservation of wildlife. However, its origins in history make it no less relevant today; on the contrary, maintaining a strong understanding of and commitment to fair chase is vitally important for the future of hunting and wildlife. In a contemporary context, given the complexity of pressures facing the environment, it is important for both hunters and nonhunters to understand the concept of fair chase.

As a term and concept that guides the actions of hunters, fair chase has a rich history rooted in a concern for the conservation of wildlife. However, its origins at a time in history when there was still a “Western frontier” make it no less relevant a concept today; on the contrary, maintaining a strong understanding of and commitment to fair chase is vitally important for the future of hunting and wildlife. In a contemporary context, with the range and complexity of pressures facing the global environment, it is important for both hunters and nonhunters to understand the concept of fair chase.

“All significant human activities are conducted under a set of ethical principles that guide appropriate behavior. Ethical choices in hunting are more important today than at any previous time.” – The Boone and Crockett Club, 2016

Historical Context

The term fair chase has its origins with the Boone and Crockett Club, the oldest wildlife conservation organization in North America, founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell. Most people know the Boone and Crockett Club for its system of scoring big game animals, associating the organization’s activities with images of trophy hunting and mounted heads. (As a side note, organizations such as the Boone and Crockett Club’s promotion of taxidermy originally began as a way to allow people to see lifelike representations of rapidly declining wildlife species, under the belief that mounted heads would be the only way much of the public would ever see many of North America’s wildlife species. It was only later that the practice came to assume its current “bragging rights” mentality, in whatever sense this perception is accurate.) Since 1887, the Boone and Crockett Club has been involved in promoting the first U.S. National Parks, key pieces of wildlife legislation, and engaging actively in thinking about and advocating for ethical hunting practices.

The idea that hunters and wildlife are engaged in an intensely personal relationship that, while being enacted in a physical sense through an interaction between predator and prey, has as its foundation a deep set of values and principles is likely as old as human hunting cultures. The hunting writer Dan Pedrotti, Jr. described hunting as “defined by an intimate yet tenuous and unpredictable relationship between predator and prey”. Though it is important to acknowledge that hunters throughout the course of human history have exercised discipline and demonstrated a great deal of respect towards the animals they have pursued, the modern expression of a hunting ethic and its connection to a broader conservation ethic is often traced to Teddy Roosevelt. In 1902, Teddy Roosevelt was hunting black bears in Mississippi. Roosevelt’s guides captured a bear using hounds and, tying it to a tree, brought Roosevelt in to make the final shot. When Roosevelt arrived, he refused to kill the bear, feeling that the entire method violated the sanctity of the hunt and his ethics. Roosevelt did, however, order the guides to kill the bear and end its suffering.

619px-TheodoreRooseveltTeddyBear
A 1902 illustration by political cartoonist Clifford Berryman that appeared in The Washington Post of Roosevelt’s bear hunt.

Roosevelt’s 1902 bear hunt coined two terms in the popular imagination. First, it led to what became known as the “Teddy Bear”. Second, it gave rise to a set of hunting ethics that became known as fair chase.

The Meaning and Role of Fair Chase

One of the ways in which the Boone and Crockett Club has advocated for strong ethical principles in hunting is through the development of fair chase. Though fair chase has since been taken up by many other organizations and writers, we owe the first codification of the principle of fair chase to forward-thinking individuals of the late 19th century who understood that hunting was about more than simply following the law. In its most basic form, fair chase is defined by the Boone and Crockett Club 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”. As a slight variation, I tend to lean towards the Pope and Young Club’s definition, which omits the aspects of “native”, “North American”, and “big game”, implying that fair chase should be applied to all wild animals pursued in a hunt. The Boone and Crockett Club typically only applies fair chase to big game species that are regulated through hunting laws. I would prefer to see fair chase applied in any hunting scenario, rooted in a more personal context rather than tied to a modern legal one.

Fair chase encompasses a set of guidelines for hunting in an ethical way. The principle of fair chase acknowledges that hunting practices vary greatly across geographies and cultures and therefore the application of fair chase will need to be adapted to individual contexts; however, organizations that champion fair chase do offer some specific comments about certain aspects of hunting and provide hunters with a set of guidelines to apply to their hunts. For instance, at its most basic, “fair chase is what separates hunting from simply killing or shooting”, and therefore the main idea of fair chase is to ensure there is a reasonable chance of failure for the hunter and a reasonable chance for the animal to escape predation. There is no straightforward formula to calculate fair chase, nothing that will tell us whether, given a set of variables, an animal has an acceptable probability of escape, expressed as a simple percentage. Fair chase requires us to reflect on our own individual contexts and make decisions the appropriate, sometimes difficult, decisions.

The Boone and Crockett Club discusses fair chase as one component of what it refers to as the hunt equation – the ideas, intentions, and practices that collectively come together into ethical hunting. According to the Boone and Crockett Club, fair chase is the part of a hunting ethic that “deals specifically with ethical choices made during the hunt”; however, it also acknowledges that fair chase is more about the “spirit of the hunt” than strict written rules.

Therefore, for the purposes of understanding the concept, fair chase can be loosely divided into principles that guide the “spirit” or intent of the hunt and the strategies or advantages a hunter uses to actually pursue an animal. For example, fair chase promotes hunting that is done for “legitimate purposes”, such as to acquire food or attain wildlife management agency goals. Maintaining the relationship between hunters and wildlife and ensuring that hunting is always in service to conservation are central principles of fair chase. In terms of specific practices, the Boone and Crockett Club, for example, are vocally opposed to canned hunting, which completely removes an animal’s chances of escape. The Boone and Crockett Club also acknowledges that while some hunting technology increases the chances of a hunter making a fast and effective kill (a key tenet of fair chase), “when technology becomes a substitute for basic skills in the field, this is where technology not only undermines the hunting experience, but also has the potential to erode public support for hunting”. Fair chase, therefore, is simultaneously about the hunting and the nonhunting public, wildlife, and maintaining the fundamental goal of conservation.

“The code needed to convey the idea that achievement in the field is best measured by the effort involved, that the hunting experience was far more important than the kill, and that hunting serves the goals of conservation. These ideas merged to become fair chase.” – The Boone and Crockett Club, 2016

Hunting has always played a fundamental role in the conservation of wildlife in North America, forming one of the central tenets of the North American Model. The role of hunting in conservation, however, is about more than simply ensuring that hunters follow wildlife laws. Ensuring the ethical principles of fair chase in hunting is vital to maintaining the historic link between hunting and conservation. Dan Pedrotti, Jr. goes on to argue that the relationship between a hunter and wildlife is “an intrinsic and irrefutable connection that cannot be compromised if the hunter is to maintain the sanctity of this bond and any credible claim that hunting is respectful of wild creatures and in service to wildlife conservation”. Thus, there is a deeper component to ensuring that hunting is indeed an expression of a conservation ethic. This deeper component is critical in understanding our own personal relationship with hunting and it is critical to the ways in which the wider public views hunting and its role in conservation.

A Personal Understanding

I have been fascinated by the idea of fair chase since I began in hunting in 2009-2010, before I came to understand that the term has enjoyed such a deep, rich history and tradition. When I took my Ontario Hunter Education Program (OHEP) course in the summer of 2009, the instructors of that course – people who have become some of my dearest friends, mentors, and hunting companions – emphasized the importance of understanding and developing a hunting ethic. At that time, I was new to the larger world of hunting, so it was one of the first times I had heard of something like a hunting ethic framed in such a way. Since then, the effort to understand, navigate, and apply the idea of fair chase to my own hunting has been as engaging and exciting to me as the hunts themselves.

Although for many practical discussions, fair chase most directly applies to the actual chase, the time spent in pursuit of an animal, I am drawn to the idea that there is a strong element of considering the “spirit of the hunt” for the fair chase hunter. To me personally, and I do not suggest these ideas prescriptively as a perspective everyone should take, there are some personal preparations and reflections that I feel need to be to be addressed prior to stepping into the field and in the retelling of a hunting experience in order to ensure our hunting encapsulates the full and complex range of values that comprise fair chase. Having said that, I also think about the specific strategies and forms of hunting I engage in, interrogating them with respect to fair chase. While I could exhaust an extensive list of minute ideas that to me represent what it means to be a fair chase hunter, there are some broad strokes that have helped me organize my thoughts.

Before the Hunt

First and foremost, ensuring that the spirit of the hunt encompasses fair chase values, hunters need to be as intimately acquainted with wildlife as they can be before pursuing it. This means taking time to learn about the animals we hunt – their life history, their behaviours, the habitats in which they live, and the place they have occupied in human cultures and societies.

The writer, conservationist, and renowned fair chase thinker Jim Posewitz suggests in his book Beyond Fair Chase that there is a contingent relationship between knowledge of wildlife and our ability to make appropriate ethical choices, saying that “as knowledge of, and appreciation for, wildlife grows, your ethical decisions will come naturally”. Developing a deep understanding of wildlife enables us to place ourselves in the ecology of the natural world and this is an important part of understanding the ethics of participating in nature as a predator. For Posewitz, there are two equally important steps to learning about the wildlife we intend on hunting. To become “a successful and ethical hunter”, Posewitz tells us that first, we need to study wildlife as an academic subject, learning everything we can about it. Second, we need to spend time in the field and gain direct personal experience in the habitats that wildlife call home.

If fair chase hunting is about a relationship between predator and prey, then we owe it to the wildlife we pursue to understand them to the best of our abilities. I have hunted with people who seem to know nothing about wildlife and it has bothered me, as if the person has not invested enough of himself into developing that relationship. In the book, A River Runs Through It, the writer Norman Maclean captured this sentiment when he said, “if our father had had his way, nobody who did not know how to fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him”. To me, knowing the animals we pursue is a critical part of the grace and honour we owe to those species.

During the Hunt

In terms of the practical strategies we use while hunting, all hunters have important decisions to make about what is acceptable as fair chase. These decisions probably most often relate to the gear we use and the associated advantages it gives us over wildlife. As the Boone and Crockett Club reminds us, one of the most important aspects of fair chase is “determining if an animal has a reasonable opportunity to escape”. Certainly, it is a natural part of being a hunter that we constantly seek improved ways to pursue animals. At some point, however, we need to reflect on these improved products, techniques, and strategies to ensure that they have not tipped the scales too far in our favour.

If we go back to the part of fair chase that discusses the relationship between humans and wildlife, we are reminded that we need to ensure that the things we do to improve our chances of success do not erode the opportunity to foster this relationship. The relationship will be different depending on geographical, cultural, and species contexts. Similarly, the acceptable strategies that still fall under the umbrella of fair chase will be different. For some hunting contexts, we might use increasingly advanced products to cover our scent, locate animals or lure them to our location, or improve the accuracy of our shots. It would be impossible to cover every possible scenario or conversely to proclaim a universally applicable decision; however, considering the technology we use is an important part of being a fair chase hunter.

As a guiding principle for myself, my priority for ethical hunting comes down first to effective kills that reduce the possibility of wounding and suffering. The first question I ask myself is an attempt to determine whether a piece of technology or a particular hunting technique is designed to reduce the chance of an animal suffering or whether it is simply designed to supplant time needed to develop skill and knowledge. For me personally, an example of the former would be rangefinders; an example of the latter would be drones. On a broader level, I think that a key first step is to identify a clear set of criteria by which we evaluate whether a particular decision increases or decreases the degree to which our hunts are considered fair chase. These criteria may be slightly different between hunters, but at the very least we should be able to articulate those criteria and engage in a conversation about it.

After the Hunt

Finally, an important part of being a fair chase hunter to me is the way we frame and express our roles and experiences as hunters, and hunting’s role in conservation. This part of the conversation circles back to the spirit of the hunt, but it has to do with our time as hunters spent outside the hunt itself – in conversations with friends, family, nonhunters, anti-hunters, the public. In a strict sense, the Boone and Crockett Club describes fair chase as the part of our hunting ethic concerned with the hunt itself; however, I think the principles of fair chase can be useful in informing our broader hunting ethic. How do the values and ethical principles we apply during the hunt extend to inform the way we treat the memory of the hunt?

In answering this question, we can think of treating our hunting experiences as living memories and stories, talking about them with the same sense of respect and reverence with which we talk about wildlife itself and with the same seriousness with which we approach killing an animal. Sharing and retelling our hunting experiences can be one of the most complex parts of the tradition, because it is the window that nonhunters have into hunting. The time we spend in the field is, by and large, a private time out of view of the nonhunting audience. Conversely, the hunting mementoes that decorate our homes – photos, skulls, antlers – are on display for much of our world to see and it is up to us to represent these symbols with the respect they deserve and with the respect that honours the fair chase spirit that informed the hunt itself. In this respect, it is important to me to carefully consider the language I use to talk about hunting. It will be suggested by those without a well-developed capacity for complex thought and reflection that this is merely some watered down political correctness that panders to nonhunters. Think of it another way. Our choice to represent our experiences – shared through antlers, photos, or stories – with all the deep complexities that characterize hunting and conservation is one of the best ways that we can make proud the long history of hunting and the great figures of conservation that set the stage for all that we have and celebrate today with regards to wildlife and wild places.

Fair Chase in a Contemporary Context

It is clear why it is important that we prepare for our hunts and take ethical shots that kill animals quickly and without suffering. That part of the importance of fair chase is probably easy to understand. It is even generally understood that there is some intangible moral importance to imbuing our hunts with a certain spirit that does honour to the wild species we hunt and the sanctity of our relationships with those species. But there is another importance to fair chase that goes beyond the immediacy of our hunts, which is the relationship between hunting and the public.

The notion of fair chase has a tremendous power to ensure hunting remains ethical and in service to conservation. There is another level to the power of fair chase which is as a form of diplomacy with the nonhunting voting public. Statistics show that hunting enjoys somewhere in the range of 80% approval from the nonhunting public. However, this approval begins to decrease when we narrow in on particular motivations to hunt. While 85% of the public approves of hunting for the purposes of food procurement, only 71% approves of hunting for the protection of property, and only 53% of the public approves of hunting purely for sport. Approval ratings are also impacted by specific hunting techniques. Only 27% of the public supports hunting with the use of bait and 20% supports hunting with the use of high tech equipment.

The reason this is important is, of course, that the nonhunting public can still vote and affect hunting regulations and wildlife management. Though hunting cultures vary greatly, fair chase can provide a shared foundation from which to represent hunting, particularly to the nonhunting public. Fair chase can be lens through which we explain what hunting is, what it means, and all that it has achieved. The world’s citizens and the world’s wildlife simply cannot afford to lose hunting as a conservation tool. But our ability to keep hunting, as with any other aspect of modern, regulated society, depends on us using it appropriately. As the Boone and Crockett Club explains, “If the right to hunt is at risk because of unethical hunting practices, wildlife conservation and management is also at risk”. I would add to this that it does not necessarily take actual unethical hunting to put hunting at risk; the perception of hunting as unethical, whether it is or not, could jeopardize it.

“The majority of hunters have embraced fair chase standards; otherwise, society would have done away with hunting decades ago. This is strong evidence to show that fair chase unites more than it divides.” – The Boone and Crockett Club, 2016

This all comes together into the idea that fair chase can be both a standard that guides our hunting practices and a sociocultural compass that guides our engagement with the public. If we embrace the principle of fair chase in the field, around the table, and on the streets, we will do well in our efforts to protect and defend the importance of hunting and the honourable role it has played in the conservation of wildlife and wild places on this continent.

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