Who Ever Said Hunting was Supposed to be Fair?

Craig Medred / Outdoors / Anchorage Daily News / January 25, 2004

Why is it discussions about killing predators in Alaska so often get sidetracked onto the subject of what's, quote-unquote, fair?

Whether talking about the baiting of black bears or killing wolves, someone will invariably jump in with the observation: "That's not fair.''

Who said hunting or trapping of any sort was supposed to be fair?

Certainly Alaska's aboriginal people's never believed that. When your life depends on killing wild animals for food, there is no time to worry about fairness.

Alaska Natives held a deep and abiding respect for the wild animals on which their survival depended. They understood the foolishness of waste. But as to being "fair'' to the animals they sought to kill, forget it.

Fairness was an idea brought to the hunt in the late 1800s by a bunch of rich, old white guys. With the passenger pigeon extinct, the moose gone from New England, the bison disappearing from the West, and many other species of wild animals in dire shape, these men -- President Teddy Roosevelt among them -- decided it was time to change the nature of hunting.

Instead of the hunt being about how much you could kill, as it had been for eons, they chose to make it about what you could kill.

Thus was born the idea of sport, or trophy hunting. The idea was that a hunter proved his or her prowess not by slaughtering 50 caribou or 20 moose but by shooting the biggest and best of each.

When these early conservationists contrived to make the age-old and utilitarian practice of hunting into sport, they had to write rules. Nobody needed rules when hunting was truly about subsistence. Then you killed what you needed to fill your belly. If that meant you wiped out all the animals in one valley, well, you moved to the next valley. And if it meant one hunter got to kill a whole bunch more than another hunter, well, that's how one separated the good hunters from the bad hunters.

This just couldn't be, however, if hunting was to become a sport.

It wouldn't really be fair, would it, if a guy sneaking around in the brush with a bow and arrow trying to kill a record-book moose had to compete with a guy flying around in a helicopter gunship using night-vision goggles and an automatic rifle?

The rules for sport hunting subsequently sought to define the ways in which one could fairly hunt.

This was called "fair chase,'' but it had little to do with being fair to the animals. It was mainly about the hunters being fair to each other in their pursuit of sport. It was about forcing hunters to work equally hard for the bragging rights of having brought home the biggest deer, elk, moose, bear, what have you.

All of that, of course, happened around the turn-of-the-century after decades of subsistence hunting had Ladies Home Journal magazine predicting that in the future "there will be no wild animals except in menageries.''

The subsequent development of sport hunting saved untold species. Populations of some big-game animals in the Lower 48 today -- where the only hunting is sport hunting -- are larger than they were when the Pilgrims first landed on the continent's shore.

And it's not just those whitetail deer that are overrunning habitats everywhere.

New England -- where moose went extinct at the turn of the century -- is now home to about 40,000 of the animals.

Minnesota -- where moose were once an oddity -- has 6,000 of the big deer. In fact, moose are now doing well just about everywhere there is moose habitat.

Wolves, meanwhile, are thriving in Minnesota and recolonizing old habitats in a half-dozen other states.

About the only big-game animal not doing well Outside is the grizzly bear, and that is, in large part. because so many irrationally fearful hikers and backpackers have opposed reintroductions.

If anyone wants to talk about fairness, that ought to be their issue. It is only fair to help grizzlies recolonize old habitats across the Cascade, Bitterroot and even the Sierra Nevada Mountains. All of which brings us back to Alaska, where wildlife is nowhere near as bountiful as Outside, where fewer and fewer hunt for sport, and where the idea of fairness has been dragged a baffling distance from its origins and sensibilities.

Suddenly, people are arguing about what's fair to individual wild animals -- as if that somehow mattered.

Does someone out there truly believe a bear cares whether it gets shot at a bait station or splashing in a salmon stream or frolicking in a berry patch, or that a wolf cares that death comes in the form of a single bullet from a quiet marksman hidden 300 yards away or a hail of bullets from an airplane or the noose of a snare?

The means of death are irrelevant to these animals. They want only to survive, but they can't.

Sooner or later, they're destined to die, as are we, because the cycle of life is built on death. It's inherently unfair and random. One calf gets picked to become a breeding bull and spend its life in pampered enjoyment. Another gets earmarked to be fattened up for shipment to the slaughterhouse.

That's the way it has been since the days of the dinosaurs. The animals with fangs and claws and tools kill and consume the plant eaters.

That some humans want to change this is commendable. If you can happily live your life as a vegetarian and cleanse your hands as much as possible of the killing of other animals, more power to you.

Some of us can't. We've got too much wolf in our veins. Personally, I like the taste of meat. It is an inherited trait, like the color of my eyes and hair and skin and, yes, the desire to hunt.

I do the latter by the rules of fair chase, but I don't begin to think it's fair. I am a predator. The animals I kill are prey. Nature never intended for it to be fair.

And I'm tired of hearing that it somehow should be. Particularly in this state, particularly at this time, particularly when we've largely abandoned the ethic of "sport hunting" and chastised the very idea of trophy hunting in favor of the Holy Grail we call subsistence -- the old idea that in hunting what is paramount is killing what you need to eat.

If we really want to go back there, and it seems many in Alaska do, we really don't need rules for fairness of any sort.

In this era of subsistence, we shouldn't be talking about banning bear baiting; we should be talking about banning hunting seasons and bag limits. Those never existed in subsistence systems. They are the baggage left behind by those old white guys who created sport hunting.

Maybe it is time to try something new.

Maybe the solution to bear and wolf problems in places like McGrath isn't to relocate bears and kill wolves but to free the residents of those areas from the shackles of modern hunting regulations. Let's turn them lose to hunt like hungry Alaskans did in the past. The only reason they have trouble killing moose now is because the state makes them do it when the moose are hard to hunt in the fall.

Let them hunt as in the old days, with snow on the ground and the moose easy to track down and kill. I guarantee they will have no trouble killing moose in these circumstances. They might need to go on a 100-mile snowmobile trip to do it, but they'll get their moose.

And when they run out of moose to kill and eat, they won't have much choice but to start killing bears for food as was a norm here a few decades back.

This will do more to reduce the bear population than the piddling amount of bear killing done by hunters over bait in this state.

The wolves will take care of themselves. Once the locals shoot moose populations down to one moose every five or 10 or 20 square miles, the wolves will have no choice but to starve to death or kill each other.

Daily News Outdoor editor Craig Medred can be reached at cmedred@adn.com

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