Hunting is a unique sport in that the “referee” is actually the hunter. Hunters, as arbitrators on what is right and wrong during the process of hunting, vary in how they interpret the rules of the hunt.
Aldo Leopold, considered by many to be the founder of modern wildlife management in the United States, wrote in “A Sand County Almanac,” “A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than a mob of onlookers. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this fact.”
Two major ethical guidelines are to follow all applicable laws and regulations and to hunt in a safe manner. Equally important, the concept of “fair chase” is espoused throughout the nation’s hunter education programs as the gold standard for ethical hunters.
What is fair chase? Simply put, fair chase signifies that animals being hunted have a reasonable chance (often called a sporting chance) of escape and survival. Shooting animals that have no chance of escape (sometimes called canned hunting) or an animal standing its ground to protect its young would not fit my definition of fair chase.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is considering a ban or restriction on the practice of hunting mule deer over bait, usually apples. Can hunting near a pile of apples, waiting for hungry deer to move in, reasonably be called fair chase?
In Utah, baiting is banned for some hunts (“A person may not take migratory game birds by the aid of baiting, or on or over any baited area where a person knows or reasonably should know that the area is or has been baited") and allowed for others (“Bear lured to a bait station may only be taken using firearms and archery equipment approved by the Wildlife Board and described in the guidebook for taking bear”).
Why should baiting be banned for some animals, and allowed for others? Part of the answer is tradition. Some people grew up hunting bears over bait, and see nothing wrong with the practice.
Another part of the answer is history. The slaughter of baited waterfowl in the past decimated populations of ducks and geese, resulting in a federal ban on hunting over bait.
Currently, the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Reform Act of 1998 states that it is unlawful to “take any migratory game bird by the aid of baiting, or on or over any baited area, if the person knows or reasonably should know that the area is a baited area.”
Baiting mule deer may be a tradition that does not decimate the deer population, but it is also part of a troubling affront to fair chase and ethical hunting.
As hunters go into the field this fall, they take with them trail cameras, all-terrain vehicles, GPS units, laser rangefinders, deer lures, cell phones and modern firearms. Add to these a bait pile of apples, and it is a wonder that any deer has a reasonable chance of escape and survival.
In other words, hunters now can see where the deer are, hunters can tell each other when the deer are coming and baiting can make the deer stop right where the hunter wants. Of course, there are still many hunters who go on foot, measuring their worth as hunters with stealth, vigor, and marksmanship. But I suspect their numbers are decreasing.
To have every advantage, and give the hunted animal none, is not fair chase.
Robert Schmidt, Ph.D., is a certified wildlife biologist in Logan.