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What's Fair?
Part 3, In Regulations?by Don H. Meredith © 2001
(published in the March/April 2001 Alberta Outdoorsmen)

Fair chase or fair share?

Over the last couple of months, I've been discussing the venerable notion of 'Fair Chase' — a discussion prompted by a presentation Edward Hanna made on the subject at the Premier's Symposium on North America's Hunting Heritage in Ottawa this last August. In the first column, I related how the general concept is accepted by most hunters but disagreements emerge when an attempt is made to describe a working definition. Last month, I looked at how fair chase is perceived by the non-hunter and indeed the anti-hunter, and concluded that the concept is fraught with complexities and inconsistencies. This month I look at the role of fair chase in setting hunting rules.

Ever since the wildlife crisis of the late 19th century, where many game populations in North America were driven to the edge of extinction, governments have enacted legislation and made hunting regulations to conserve the wildlife resource. The first regulations had little if anything to do with fair chase. They dealt with bag limits and seasons because the first concern was to limit the kill and allow the populations to rebuild. As the human population and the number of hunters increased, it also became necessary to restrict access to certain hunting areas by means of a lotteries for certain licences. Again, fair chase was not considered here. Fair distribution of hunting opportunity was.

Over the last 100 years, the courts have further defined the responsibilities of government with regard to setting hunting and fishing regulations. They have determined that the first obligation is conservation, followed by the fulfilment of treaty commitments. Only after these are satisfied are the concerns of recreational and commercial users to be considered. In these decisions, little or no consideration was paid to fair chase.

A review of the Alberta hunting regulations shows that most deal with 1) the safety of the hunter and the public and 2) the conservation of the resource. The few that could be argued are designed to support fair chase include: restrictions on uses of vehicles, certain weapons, lights, electronic calling devices, bait, traps, dogs; and shooting a swimming animal.

But are these regulations concerned with fair chase or the fair distribution of hunting opportunity? If I'm allowed to kill one white-tailed deer a year and use dogs to do it, does this give me an unfair advantage over the guy who cannot afford to use dogs? Most definitely, especially if I'm skilful in the use of my dogs. I would be able to bag my one deer per year more often than the person without dogs. Indeed, if many hunters were to use dogs, the government might have to cut back on seasons and bag limits to conserve the deer populations, further restricting the hunters that do not use dogs. In Alberta, we've determined that is an unfair advantage and banned the use of dogs for all game except birds and cougar.

So, why are dogs allowed to hunt birds and cougar? Because of fair chase? Not likely. Cougars are difficult to hunt without the use of dogs. Very few would be killed each year without them, and the harvest is closely monitored to ensure the population is not adversely affected. In the case of bird hunting, although the skilful use of dogs undoubtedly increases hunter success, it has not adversely affected bird numbers or the chance of other hunters to bag animals. In both cases, dogs are used to increase hunting opportunity. Fairness is not an issue.

A similar argument can be made with regard to the use of bait. If I'm allowed to get my limit of ducks because I have access to a grain field grown for the purpose of attracting ducks for hunting, do I have an unfair advantage over the hunter that does not have such access? In Alberta, we have determined that yes I would, and banned the use of bait crops for hunting purposes.

So, why do we allow baiting for hunting black bears? Again, it has nothing to do with fair chase. It has a lot to do with the abundance of black bears and the desire of black bear hunters to hunt as they are allowed to do in some other jurisdictions. They argue that using bait allows them to get closer to the bear, more easily identify it as a desirable animal (e.g., not a female with cubs), and make a clean kill. Do these hunters have an advantage over bear hunters not using bait? Definitely. But because we have so many bears in this province, the use of bait by one group of hunters has little effect on the success rate of other bear hunters. Again, fairness is not an issue.

Indeed as I have stated in earlier columns, tradition plays a big role in hunting regulations. In B.C. you can hunt black bears with dogs but you can't bait them. So, is one type of hunting more desirable, more fair than another. Probably not. But I doubt that fair chase plays a significant role in how the choices are made.

So, why isn't fair chase used to set regulations? The short answer is that fair chase is not the first concern of the wildlife manager. Protection of the public, conservation of the resource, protection of the habitat and equal access to the benefits of the resource are the priorities. Instead of fair chase, managers are more concerned with "fair share," and try to provide the widest possible number of opportunities to the greatest number of hunters and other resource users.

If you are a moose hunter, you want to know you have access to a fair share of the resource. Seasons, bag limits and limited access draw hunts help ensure this fairness. But if somebody employs a technique that unfairly increases his opportunity — such as spotting from the air or shooting a swimming animal — then you want that activity prohibited or extremely regulated.

If fair chase is not a priority in creating hunting regulations, what value does it have in the hunting community? Next month I will conclude with the relationship between fair chase and the future of hunting.


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