Don Meredith Professional Writing

Trophy Huntingby Don H. Meredith © 1999
(published in the July/August 1999 Alberta Outdoorsmen)


"Does killing an animal primarily to obtain a trophy demonstrate respect for that animal and its environment?" — Ann Causey, 1992 Governor's Symposium on North America's Hunting Heritage.

I must confess, I'm a meat hunter. Sure, I won't turn down a trophy if it presents itself. But to go out and hunt for the singular purpose of getting a trophy rack of antlers, horns or a skin to place on a wall isn't my first motivation. My hunting time is limited each year, so my priorities are 1) the hunting and 2) the meat. I prefer wild game meat over domestically raised meat every time, and so does my family. So, the only time I will turn down a legal game animal is if it's not one I desire or I'm unsatisfied with how I hunted it.

On the other hand, I have seen and hunted several trophy animals as I've found them, and know how difficult they are to acquire. I've also fished for trophy lake trout and pike on occasion, where I've released many fish in hopes of catching the big one. So, I do understand the motivation of hunting for a trophy. And what is discussed here about hunting can just as easily be applied to trophy fishing.

As implied in Causey's question, anti-hunters and others often complain that trophy hunting is not really a respectful use of the resource. Many assume that trophy hunters waste everything but the trophy head and skin. Of course this is not so, especially with regard to hoofed animals. Here in Alberta, as in most other jurisdictions, you must bring out and use the meat of all game animals you kill, except that of black bear, grizzly bear and cougar.

A more contentious argument about trophy hunting is whether killing only the most mature animals affects the genetic makeup of a game population. In other words, by taking the biggest and strongest members of the population are you removing from that population the genes that made the animals the biggest and strongest? The answer to this question depends on several factors, including the game species hunted, the size of the game population in relation to the number of hunters hunting it, and the proportion of those hunters just taking trophy animals. For example, if you're discussing deer in Alberta, the argument doesn't hold. Both white-tailed and mule deer are heavily hunted and are regularly placed in the big game record books. Why? Because 1) we have lots of these deer, 2) most hunters hunt them for meat, so are not selecting just the big bucks, 3) the big trophy deer are difficult to hunt (they didn't get big by just being lucky), and 4) by the time a buck reaches trophy size, it has already passed its genes along to the next generation. Indeed, by the time an animal reaches world class trophy proportions, it may be too old to be a significant contributor to the breeding effort.

Such game animals like the bighorn sheep may be more susceptible to loss of certain trophy-producing genes because of their relatively low numbers and potentially high hunting pressure. However, government regulations restrict the harvest of these animals, and Alberta continues to produce record bighorn sheep.

Trophy hunters are the most vocal conservationists of trophy class animals. When they do not see enough trophy animals, they complain to government requesting more restrictions on the hunting of the animals so that more will survive to trophy class size. Therefore, in some areas of the province there are limited hunts for animals only in a certain size classes (for example, six-point or larger elk seasons). These hunts are not in place to conserve the species but to conserve trophy class individuals.

So, the genetic argument against trophy hunting is also specious, and doesn't really address Causey's question about respecting the animal and its environment. Where the question is addressed front and center is in the hunting of bears and other predators.

Nearly all bear hunters are trophy hunters. Meat is not the primary concern, and indeed bear meat can be abandoned in the bush in Alberta. How does killing a bear only for its head and skin show respect for the animal and its environment?

The answer lies in the motivation for getting the trophy. Hunters display trophies to announce to their friends and family their skills as a hunter, and to remind themselves of the hunt itself. Large trophy animals are not plentiful. They have survived many years to get their size, and that includes outwitting many a hunter. Hunting a predator like a bear or cougar also carries an aura of additional risk that is transferred to a trophy.

To hunt such trophy animals, a hunter must learn as much about the animal as possible. This includes studying its habitat and behavior. Often the hunter is seeking a known individual he may have hunted many times before. A respect for the animal grows with each experience with it.

Where the problem with trophy hunting comes is with The Book — Records of North American Big Game, published periodically by the Boone and Crockett Club. Don't get me wrong, I like The Book, and have a copy of it on my bookshelf just to remind myself how big these animals can get. My problem with it is that it has created a level of demand for trophies that goes beyond the hunting experience and caters to gross greed. Many people wish to be listed in The Book because it imparts the ultimate bragging rights.

All of this would be O.K. if it were not for the legion of stories about people who have broken the law (including the Boone and Crockett rules) to get a big animal listed. Morality and respect for the law, the game and the environment are cast out the window for this one chance at immortality. Hardly a hunting season goes by without images and stories told in the news media of abandoned headless carcasses, crooked outfitters, illegal hunting in national parks or illegal sale and export of wildlife parts. This is what gives trophy hunting a bad name, and unfortunately paints the vast majority of ethical hunters with the same brush.

Perhaps Boone and Crockett and other such groups that publish trophy books should seriously consider publishing the records without the names of the hunters who shot those animals. Perhaps fish and game clubs should consider not holding competitions for the largest trophies. Why encourage unethical hunting or fishing practices? Cut the greed out of trophy hunting and return it to its rightful place as a high standard of ethical hunting.

Does trophy hunting show respect for the animal and its environment? For most trophy hunters, yes! They hunt trophy animals for the quality experience such a hunt provides with the animal and its environment. However, those stories are not being told often enough to counter the negative publicity provided by a few greedy hunters who do not respect the game, other hunters or themselves.

Next month, Wounding and Loss.

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Grizzly One
The Search
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Dog Runner
Dog Runner