Where Do You Draw the Line? Technology in Hunting

There is an issue that has become increasingly relevant in recent years as technological advances in hunting equipment have begun to outpace our conversations around its use. It’s a debate I’ve heard in different settings and for various purposes, but it comes down to a question that is personal, legal, and ethical in nature: where do we draw the line in our use of technology in hunting?

In any discussion of technology in the outdoors, there are people at both ends of the spectrum. The purists insist that the best way to experience the natural world is stripped of gadgetry, while those at the other end of the spectrum point to increased safety and comfort in embracing technological advances. In hunting, however, this debate involves another aspect that makes it all the more important to engage. Using technology to increase hunting success necessarily has an ethical question: is technology increasing our chances of success to the point and on the scale that we are moving away from what we collectively understand as the principle of “fair chase”, and if large groups of hunters are increasingly successful, will this necessitate changes to conservation and management policies?

There are three main aspects to the issue of the place of technology in hunting: personal choice, the legal obligation to regulate hunting, and the ethical implications of technology. The simple element of personal choice is certainly the most arbitrary aspect of this discussion and therefore the one that I find least interesting and compelling in my own conversations on this matter; but I’ll address it briefly.

Proponents on one side or the other about the use of technology far too often lack clearly articulated reasoning. Too often, the debate is just one more basis for division and self-righteousness among hunters that doesn’t advance either the discipline of hunting or our understanding of its place in wildlife conservation. I’ve said before that I disagree with the proposition that we are all in this together and need to support other hunters no matter what. I just don’t think that’s true in any area of life; however, it’s also important that we don’t find superfluous reasons for division.

Bowhunting is a common site of this debate, with traditional archers  decrying the use of fancy cams and sights on compound bows and compound shooters claiming that crossbows shouldn’t even be allowed in archery seasons.  Then, we hear bowhunters in general criticize the long-range nature of rifle hunting, claiming that by enabling the hunter to shoot from far beyond the effective range of the animal’s senses, it unfairly decreases the animal’s chance for escape and thus violates principles of fair chase. Just recently, a spear hunter stated that it is “easy” for someone to shoot an animal with anything from a rifle to a bow, but being a spear hunter makes one a “true hunter”. For their part, rifle hunters have pointed to what is perceived as a disproportionately high number of wounded and unrecovered animals from archery equipment.

But the proverbial line in the sand is not drawn so easily between “primitive” and “advanced” technology. If so-called primitive weapons are unethical, should we all be striving to shoot animals with the most advanced rifles from the longest ranges possible? If rifles give too much of an advantage, should we all be hunting with nothing more advanced than a longbow? Following that line of argument, why not go back to the atlatl or spear?

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The same arguments are voiced from the non-hunting community. As opportunities to share photos on social media have exploded, one encounters comments like, “why don’t you put down the high-powered weapon and kill that animal with your bare hands?” To which the obvious reply is that this would be not only illegal, but in most cases, tremendously unethical (stabbing a bear to death is just not as physiologically effective as puncturing both lungs with an arrow). A recent story about a black bear killed with a spear sparked outrage among the anti-hunting community. Would critics have been happier to see that bear shot with a high caliber rifle? I suspect there would have still been criticism from many. Nevertheless, it demonstrates the uncertainty about how people feel about the degree to which technology is used in hunting.

So one finds all these little micro-debates that take place within the overarching issue, and perhaps aside from a general – often unarticulated – commitment to fair chase, many of the perspectives expressed appear arbitrary with a hint of self-promotion. David Petersen, a thoughtful and insightful writer I admire, has tackled this question in his book Heartsblood. David Petersen rests on another basis from which he delivers quite a damning attack on what he and Aldo Leopold refer to as the “gadgeteer” hunter. In Leopold’s and Petersen’s minds, relying too heavily on technology is an erosion of the very values upon which the culture of hunting has been built. Leopold says that the increase in hunting technology has “draped the American outdoorsman with an infinity of contraptions, all offered as aids to self-reliance, hardihood, woodcraft, or marksmanship, but too often functioning as substitutes for them”. While Petersen’s focus on maintaining the values of “naturalistic hunting” is noble, his all out attack on any form of technology, such as the “space-age compound bow”, which he argues requires “far less skill and practice as an archer”, is disappointing and in my view falls victim to the divisiveness of which I have grown jaded.

Hopefully we can all see at this point that this line of argument is ridiculously circular and in most cases completely unproductive.

Therefore, my first point in this piece is this: we need to be more selective and methodical with our positions on this matter. As hunters, we need to choose more carefully when to criticize other approaches and when the divisiveness is truly warranted, because there are times that it is warranted. To do so, we need a strong understanding of both our own foundations from which we develop our perspectives and the overall purpose we are working towards – why does it even matter?

Here’s why it matters. Eventually, advancements in technology lead to a need to legislate that technology’s use in the hunting woods, so we need to find something more tangible on which to base our positions on these matters. It’s also important to remember that local ecological and cultural contexts play an important role in this conversation. What might be culturally acceptable in one place may be completely unacceptable elsewhere (e.g. the use of dogs). Likewise, what might give an unfair advantage in one type of ecosystem may be completely ineffectual in another (e.g. long-range optics). Therefore, it’s not enough to just cite our own individual methods as the right choice.

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To me, the issue isn’t really about how much of an advantage I want to give myself through technologically advanced products. The crux of the matter for me, in deciding whether to use certain products and more broadly what kind of regulations I support, really comes down to whether a given technology contributes to making us more ethical hunters or undermines principles of fair chase. This gives me a somewhat more objective lens through which to examine the issue: rather than relying on my own personal preferences, I maintain a focus on ethical principles that are based on my beliefs about the important role of hunting in conservation. Now, I realize that ethics are also highly personally variable and there is no universally objective measure of what is ethical; however, I’ll assume that at the very least we can all agree that hunting strategies that make us more ethical are those that reduce the chances of poor shots and therefore wounded or unrecovered animals. In this way, I use an ethical principle as a proxy for what others might frame as an increased advantage over the animal.

The curve of “normal distribution”.

Therefore, let’s think of this matter as the constant need to reevaluate in order to find that optimal place between increasing ethics and maintaining fair chase. I visualize this issue as a kind of bell curve,  where the bulk of technology in the middle of the curve is completely ethically acceptable. On the lower end of the curve, we find such a stripped down level of technology to the point that we may actually be reducing kill efficacy or reliability (relative to what we have available to us); on the higher end of the curve, an intensification of technology gives us a disproportionate advantage over the animal and begins to undermine fair chase.

Having said this, I realize that human societies have been hunting with the most primitive weapons for centuries, but remember, the modern North American model of wildlife conservation is intimately tied with ethical hunting. Remember also that I’ve just defined ethical hunting as using approaches that lead to quick, clean, and reliable kills. A good friend of mine who I have great respect for uses primitive methods to hunt. I’m not denouncing primitive weapons in a philosophical sense, only pointing out that in a very general sense, we have methods that are more consistently reliable in their ability to ensure shot placement and killing efficacy for the wider hunting public.

We could spend hours going through every possible example of hunting gear and debating where it falls on my imaginary bell curve and still not cover everything. There are a couple examples, however, that I think illustrate the points reasonably well. First, there’s no doubt that the invention of affordable range finders changed hunting.  Some might argue that range finders encourage longer range shooting by enabling hunters to take shots from distances that would otherwise be well beyond what someone could reliably estimate with the naked eye. On the other hand, my argument would be that electronic range finders provide more precise knowledge about shooting distances (including compensating for angled shots) and therefore help ensure proper shot placement and quicker kills. Here’s an example of using electronics in hunting that I would suggest makes us more ethical hunters while not eliminating the need for extensive practice with whatever you are using to hunt.

On the other hand, it wasn’t too long after drones started to become more commercially available and affordable that discussions around the ethics of their use in hunting emerged. Relatively quickly, hunting organizations spoke out against the use of drones and multiple jurisdictions have banned their use in hunting (in Canada these include both British Columbia and Saskatchewan). I can’t think of a particular group that has steadfastly defended the use of drones in hunting across the board, though I’m sure there are groups that are less opposed to their use in certain contexts. The argument against drones is that they cross that threshold into giving hunters an unfair advantage over animals, reducing principles of fair chase.

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I don’t claim to have a solution or some kind of quantifiable metric against which to measure all technology. On the contrary, my point is that this issue is complex and much more important than the micro-debates between individual hunters. I’ve definitely thought about a whole range of advancements in hunting and how I feel about them based on this premise. From high-fence hunting and game farms to two-way radios and hand-held GPS units to safari and helicopter hunts to the use of baiting and artificial scents, I know where I come down. To do this, I’ve had to develop a line of thinking that I can apply to a range of issues.

As technology continues to advance, we’re going to need to continue to address it both culturally and legislatively. The technological advancements that we’re going to see in the future will be wide ranging in nature and application, so what we need to strive for is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but a philosophical basis as a guide to navigate our understandings and responses. It’s not going to be enough to address new technologies on an ad hoc basis without some kind of larger guiding principle. I suggest that that guiding principle should be finding a balance between using technology to make us more ethical hunters while not eroding our commitment to fair chase.

It’s fine to adopt new strategies and products that increase our chances of success, but in doing so, let’s not lose sight of the importance in the chance to be unsuccessful, too.

3 Comments on “Where Do You Draw the Line? Technology in Hunting

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head there. We as hunters walk a fine-line between challenge and ethics
    The act of hunting is rewarding regardless if any prey is obtained, some of the best hunting trips I’ve had haven’t filled my freezer, but definitely filled me with a sense of wholeness and connection with the natural world. So I think it may be up to the individual to determine in which means and with what technology they want to use to ethically and responsibly dispatch their game of choice.
    But it’s the responsibility of the hunter to do so with the best intentions of the game in mind, there’s no sugar-coating the act of taking a life but it’s required ethically and legally to do so with speed and precision, if a range finder helps you do that, so be it.
    I have a range finder, you won’t find me in the stand without one.

    • I agree Filipe, there is a lot of personal decision-making that has to come into play. I think the important thing is to remember what hunting is really about – in a cultural, ethical, historical, and natural sense – and make sure we do what we need to keep the focus on that!

  2. Pingback: Chasing a Concept: In Continual Pursuit of the Meaning of Fair Chase – Paul McCarney

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