The natural world is built upon prey-and-predator relationships. In the bowhunting world, bowhunters are the predators and their prey includes elk, deer, bears and turkeys. Bowhunters use their senses, skills and knowledge to defeat their prey’s defenses. Somewhere in those pursuits, “fair chase” comes into play.
The Boone and Crockett Club’s website defines fair chase as “the ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild, big-game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper or unfair advantage over the game animals.”
In other words, hunters must balance their skills and equipment with their prey’s ability to elude and escape. Responsible hunters do not take unfair advantage of their prey.
Hunters must follow regulations and “unwritten” rules, which often vary by states and regional customs. Hunters often find themselves in situations where laws don’t dictate what’s right or wrong. For example, it’s perfectly legal to arrow a deer standing broadside at 20 yards. But what if that deer is stuck or foundering in mud? Most hunters would agree that shooting a helpless animal isn’t fair or ethical.
Nick Pinizzotto, president of the National Deer Alliance, said bowhunters must develop their own moral compass about ethics and fair chase. What’s the best way to do that? Start with respect for your quarry and fellow hunters.
“You can’t teach ethics to somebody,” Pinizzotto said. “[Hunters must] learn about the animals they’re hunting, and have a deep respect for them. Ethics flow from there.”
Pinizzotto said hunting tests hunters’ morality because they’re often alone in the woods, and making decisions by themselves.
“Those moments define who we are as hunters and our level of ethics,” Pinizzotto said. “Whether that’s taking marginal shots or blatantly breaking game laws, we’re usually going to be our own judge. If you respect the animal, you’ll respect the way you pursue that animal.”
Before you decide to pursue or shoot an animal, ask yourself, “Is this fair to the animal?” You’ll likely decide that shooting a deer that’s “just out of your effective range” isn’t right because you’ll decrease the certainty of making a quick, humane harvest.
You’ll also realize that everyone’s definition of fair chase can vary. You’ll find that states and individual hunters define certain gear and activities, like baiting or trail cameras, as unfair, unethical or even illegal. However, before criticizing someone for having a different opinion from yours, realize that few issues are easy to tackle. If the practice is legal where you’re hunting, Pinizzotto suggests respecting how others pursue game and leave it at that.
“[You] don’t need to have a conversation,” he said. “But if [what they’re doing is] illegal, then it’s your responsibility to report it. Other than that, focus on what you’re doing. If everyone focuses on what they enjoy, we’ll be happier as a hunting community as opposed to bickering over who does what and how they do it.”
A good motto in the woods is, “You do you.” But even that gets complicated. What you do individually can reflect on the entire hunting community, which relies on nonhunters’ support to survive.
According to the 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey on hunting participation, only about 5% of U.S. citizens 16 and older hunts. Even so, a 2019 National Shooting Sports Foundation report found 84% of Americans approve of hunting for meat. To ensure such widespread support from nonhunters—in person and in voting booths—hunters must be good, honest representatives of the hunting community.
That requires making good decisions and actions that include fair-chase considerations. By doing so, we help others see hunting as an ethical conservation tool; and see hunters as caring, passionate conservationists.
To learn more, visit huntfairchase.com to read fair-chase principles outlined by the Boone and Crockett Club.