Don Meredith Professional Writing

What's Fair?by Don H. Meredith © 2001
(published in the January/February 2001 Alberta Outdoorsmen)

Just what is fair?

"Fair Chase is the ethical, sportsmanlike and lawful pursuit and taking of free-ranging wild game animals in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper or unfair advantage over such animals."Boone and Crockett Club

It seems a simple enough concept — as a hunter, you should give your quarry a fair chance to escape being taken. In other words, no excessive measures should be used to entrap or otherwise reduce a game animal's chance of detecting and escaping you. Talk to a room full of hunters and chances are they will all agree with such a general statement. After all, "fair chase" is touted as an important element of hunting ethics and a key to continued public acceptance of hunting. Yet, talk to that same room of hunters about how fair chase is applied to specific types of hunting, and chances are you'll get considerable disagreement.

The concept of fair chase has been around almost as long as people have hunted for recreation. Nearly every novice hunter learns about it early in their education about hunting ethics. Yet, the concept has not been easily cobbled into a working definition.

The Boone and Crockett Club was the first to formally define "fair chase" back in the late 1800s. Theodore Roosevelt, along with a host of other prominent American outdoors men, created the B&C Club to rally American sportsmen to restore the wildlife and wildlands that were rapidly being destroyed by unregulated hunting and resource development. Hunting ethics were a vital part of that conservation movement. It soon became apparent that a definition of "fair chase" was necessary. (The version at the top of this article is the latest rendition of that definition.)

But the definition meant different things to different people. Each hunter tended to fashion it to fit his own particular needs. Thus, in some jurisdictions, fair chase has included the use of dogs to hunt certain game species. Elsewhere, baiting of game is included. Tradition plays a large roll in determining the way people hunt.

Of course, before the days of the firearm, fair chase wasn't even a consideration to people who depended upon wildlife for food. Many hunting cultures devised ingenious ways to kill as much game as possible when it was available. Thus, we have the famous buffalo jumps on the prairies and caribou killing yards of the far north. Most of these people knew times when game was scarce and starvation a reality, so they took full advantage of every opportunity to kill as much as they could. Sure, there was a lot of waste, but people were too few and far between to seriously affect game populations over a large area or a long period of time. In most cases, the numbers of both the game and the people who hunted it were more controlled by acts of nature, such as the weather, fires and disease, than by their relationships with each other.

With the arrival of firearms and massive numbers of European immigrants to North America, this "balance" between hunter and hunted changed radically. Suddenly, even hunting for subsistence was greatly reducing game numbers. Of course, the Europeans brought other resource depleting concepts into the mix, such as market hunting and hunting for "sport." All hunting was unregulated and our game populations suffered greatly, some brought to the edge of extinction.

So, when conservationists, such as Roosevelt, started working to turn the tide, they needed a concept that would get each individual hunter thinking about his role in the conservation of the resource. Fair Chase appeared to fill that bill. Each hunter could rationalize his own practice, or indeed decide that he must make changes to how he and his offspring hunted if he wanted to continue doing so. Over the years with education, this worked, and hunters became a positive element in wildlife conservation.

As our human population has grown, however, and most of us have moved to urban areas, we hunters have become a smaller and smaller proportion of society. Some of those who do not hunt began looking at what hunters were actually doing in the field. Animal rights activists (ARs) were soon pointing out how some hunters were apparently abusing fair chase in some jurisdictions. In many cases, they successfully divided the hunting community and indeed forced many hunters to give up the activity all together — a process that is still going on today.

Using the B&C definition, it's easy for most hunters to agree on much of what fair chase is not. It is not the corralling of animals in a small place and killing them. It is not hunting animals that have recently been released from captivity and enclosed within a fence. It is not killing an animal that is no longer wild, and does not know how to escape.

Where we stumble is over what types of hunting fair chase includes. Again, tradition plays a large role here, and many hunters fall back on what the law allows. If the law allows the baiting of bears, then bear hunters can rationalize how baiting is a fair chase activity. Similarly, if the law allows the use of dogs, hunters in those jurisdictions have ready arguments for why that type of hunting is fair chase. Thus, a universal working definition of fair chase has been hard to come by.

But should hunters rely on how governments define ethical hunting? Although governments legislate morality all the time, they only legislate what their electors want them to. The ARs know this all too well, and are slowly convincing the electorate that many types of hunting are not ethical, are not fair chase. In other words, they are providing the universal working definition of fair chase that we have been reluctant to provide, and they are forcing governments to place that definition in law. Shouldn't it be hunters that provide that definition?

What is your definition of "fair chase?"

Does it include waiting in a stand to ambush your game? over bait?

Does it include the use of dogs? to hunt birds? to hunt cougar? to hunt bears in B.C.?

What about the use of decoys and calls? Is that fair chase?

If you are reluctant to consider these issues, please remember the ARs are not. With their recent successes in the US and elsewhere, they smell blood and the blood is ours.

Next Month: Part 2, Fair to Whom?

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Grizzly One
The Search
for Grizzly One
Dog Runner
Dog Runner