Last week my son received a survey from Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources requesting his thoughts relative to the use of new technologies in hunting. The survey questions reminded me there have been rapid improvements in the weapons and associated accoutrements used to hunt big game. These changes have effectively doubled the range people are capable of harvesting animals with bows, muzzleloaders and rifles.
Discussions about the value of adopting new technologies are not new. In the distant past they were focused on waterfowl hunters. Duck and goose hunters long ago were forced to give up live decoys, had the gauge of their shotguns and the number of shells it could hold limited, and were required to use nontoxic pellets. These decisions have ensured a ballistic equivalency among waterfowl hunters and that most birds killed are retrieved. It could be argued these regulations led to longer seasons and more opportunities.
In contrast, a review of the potential impact of new big game hunting technologies completed by Wyoming in 2017 bluntly stated that “Technological advancements in the equipment available to hunters has increased their ability to detect and circumvent an animal’s ability to successfully elude harvest to levels not believed possible twenty years ago.”
This review divided improvements into detection and eluding harvest. Since I recently wrote about trail cameras (detection), I’ll focus this article on aspects that make it harder for big game to evade hunters.
Improvements in bow technology mean these weapons are now capable of being used to harvest deer and elk at over 50 yards. When I was a bow hunter in the 1980s, most people considered 35 yards a long shot. Even with these improvements, however, bow hunters still have to get very close to harvest an animal. The biggest concern with long archery shots, is it will increase the number of wounded animals not found.
Muzzleloaders have seen big advances in the use of technology. How many of these advances are allowed while hunting differs dramatically between states such as Utah and Idaho. In Idaho these weapons are only lethal to 100 yards while in Utah their capability has been extended out to 300 yards. The biggest differences between these states are Utah allows the use of 209 primers, sabots, and scopes with magnification, while Idaho does not. This increased effectiveness explains why in 2019 the success of deer hunters with muzzleloaders and rifles in the Cache Unit were the same, at just over 20%.
Improvement in rifles has been driven by more accurate factory-built weapons with higher power scopes that have the capacity to be manually or digitally corrected so crosshair placement accounts for distance and wind. In the hands of a skilled marksman, these weapons are lethal to distances greater than 500 yards. Shots at these ranges often occur even after deer have detected a hunter but decided not to flee. Some argue shooting big game at this distance is no longer a fair chase hunt.
We could argue the ethics of individuals using advanced technologies in rifles and muzzleloaders but the simple algebra is that if these weapons increase harvest rates (killed whether they are retrieved or lost), there will be fewer tags available in the future.
An example would be to look at Utah’s pool of approximately 70,000 general deer tags that are divided among rifle, muzzleloader, and archery hunters. If hunter’s harvest rate was 20% before the improved technology, this would lead to 14,000 animals killed. If 14,000 deer was the sustainable harvest in Utah and hunter success rates climbed to 25% because of the new technology, Utah would only be able to offer 56,000 tags.
It is clear additional research is needed on how this technology influences big game numbers as there has been little work on this subject to date.
Yes, hunting with these advanced technologies is a personal choice where legally allowed. But if these choices increase effectiveness, fewer people will get the chance to hunt each year. Some simple ways to reduce long distance shooting would include limiting scope magnification to less than 20, eliminating battery powered scopes, and require hunters hike to the location where any animal shot at was last seen to ensure it was not hit.
If one of the goals in Utah and Idaho is to provide more big game hunting opportunities, reducing the lethality of muzzleloaders and rifles are one of the tools managers have to meet that goal. This suggests now is a good time to define the desired upper limit of ballistic and optic efficiency for future big game hunts. Otherwise, the use of these technologies will get harder to control as more hunters adopt them.