Most Americans support hunting because the endeavor follows the rules of “fair chase.” This term was coined by the Boone and Crockett Club in the late 1800s and is defined as “the ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild, native North American big game animal.”
As fair chase principles were incorporated into wildlife regulations, they eliminated commercial hunting, an activity that was driving wild game species towards extinction, and replaced it with sport hunters and sustainable harvest.
Fair chase means hunters behave in ways that honor their prey. This mentality leads each hunter down slightly different paths depending upon their skills and experience.
For example, I would let my teenage son pursue a deer encountered while driving down a Forest Service road since he has never harvested one. Given the amount of time he has spent behind a rifle, however, means he should not take a shot over 200 yards. In contrast, I would not hunt most animals I encountered crossing a road but I would take a shot up to around 300 yards.
Such decisions are internal, as there is no law about hunting an animal spotted from the road or how long a shot is too long. Ethical choices are why hunters and non-hunters alike get upset when someone arrows the buck roaming the neighborhood because they found a loophole in the law.
Fair chase elicits broad public support as its goals include humanely harvesting animals and consuming their meat. These goals are achieved through practice. With the hunting season winding down, the next seven months should be about trips to the shooting range, summer hikes exploring new areas and cooking appetizing meals with the meat in your freezer. Improving your skills during the offseason will increase your appreciation of all the wildlife you encounter while limiting the number of wounded animals left in the woods.
One aspect of treating fish and wildlife with respect is for hunters to behave “in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals.” The most obvious way to gain an advantage is to not follow the rules.
A current example of violating the law is taking vehicles into areas where they aren’t permitted. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have designated roads and trails open to motorized use. Most hunters in Northern Utah and Southeast Idaho seem to have adjusted to these closures.
My deer hunting experience last fall in Southern Utah suggests many hunters away from populated areas see road closures as suggestions rather than laws. Given the limited number of game wardens nationally, hunters must choose to do the right thing as rarely will someone be looking over their shoulder.
An ethical question related to fair chase that has surfaced in Utah is the use of bait. Bait has long been illegal when pursuing birds but remains legal in many circumstances when hunting predators. This distinction reflects historic values placed on different animals that may be changing. Most western hunters, however, consider it unethical to use food to attract deer or elk into a hunter’s rifle sight. My cursory review suggests Utah and Arizona are the only western states that allow bait for big game. This rule needs to change in Utah and even if it doesn’t, hunters should avoid the practice.
One technology people are starting to question relative to fair chase are motion sensing cameras. Arizona is considering banning these devices on public lands within a mile of water. Some might wonder why these devices are problematic. For one, nearly every water source I visit in Logan Canyon during August has a camera pointed at it. The second concern are people coming and going to set and download pictures from these cameras are displacing wildlife from important habitat. And finally, the use of game cameras makes scouting a less intensive activity that could increase animosity among hunters that want to be in the same location.
One of the greatest values of fair chase is it fosters sustainable hunting. Given the increase development for natural resource extraction and urban sprawl, populations of many big game species have been flat or slowly declining over the last decade. Combine this with the increasing number of hunters due to the pandemic and people moving to the Intermountain West, one of the more difficult tasks in the near future will be purchasing the tag you want. While this is problematic, the implementation of fair chase rules is still far superior than not having animals to chase at all.