by Ray Ring
Lee Metzgar took up hunting as a youngster, as soon as he could
handle a rifle. At first he hunted mostly birds; then he moved west
to teach ecology at the University of Montana and, as he phrases
it, his hunting got serious.
For the next 22
years, stalking in the Rockies, Metzgar bagged deer, elk, antelope,
black bear, mountain goat, bighorn, moose, filling his garage with
antlers and horns. Yet he began to catch himself in the field
during hunting season, "wandering around and not shooting anything
and wondering, "Why am I carrying this rifle?" "
As growth in the region caused his stalking ground to become
relatively crowded, he couldn't shut his eyes to what some hunters
were doing. "I was forced into contact with more and more unethical
hunter behavior - callous, even cruel behavior," Metzgar says. "I
saw wanton shooting - people opening up from 400 yards away with
semiautomatic weapons, firing large amounts of rounds into herds of
deer and elk."
While on the board of the
Montana Wildlife Federation, he was shocked that some hunters'
organizations opposed the reintroduction of the black-footed
ferret. They worried that hunting for varmints such as prairie dogs
would be restricted because the ferrets would need varmints as
"It took my breath
away," says Metzgar, who lives in Missoula. "These hunters called
themselves conservationists and they wouldn't restrict their
hunting to accommodate the survival of North America's most
He says he could no longer
ignore "the central moral dilemma."
ago Metzgar quit hunting. He got rid of his collection of antlers
and horns. "I've found," he says, "other ways to be spiritually
connected to the animal world."
Today, opposition to this or that hunting
method comes not only from heavyweights like the Humane Society of
the United States - 2.5 million members and contributors - and the
Fund for Animals - 200,000 members - but potentially from more than
100 other animal-welfare organizations active in this country,
including the Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting, the Animal Legal
Defense Fund, Feminists for Animal Rights, Jews for Animal Rights,
Actors and Others for Animals, and the Coalition for Non-violent
Concerned about "blood and tongues hanging
off trucks," university biology students two years ago petitioned
the Colorado Wildlife Commission, seeking to prohibit hunters
driving around with unconcealed
"All you have to do
is put your deer or elk in the back of your pickup truck, cover it
with an $8 tarp and bungee it down," said Ralph Cinfio, a spokesman
for the students, who were the Colorado State University chapter of
the Wildlife Society, the professional organization of wildlife
biologists. On the other side of the state, the Grand Junction
Daily Sentinel ran a cautionary headline, "Don't carry your kill as
a hood ornament; Public perception of hunters suffers by showoff
displays." Conceding there was a problem, state officials decided
they didn't need another regulation to enforce, and would instead
address it through hunter-education courses and
So many people have developed an urge
to harass hunters, every state has passed some type of law against
it. Yet around the West the public has begun to overrule wildlife
agencies that primarily serve hunters. The most effective weapon is
the grassroots initiative.
Four years ago,
California voters banned sport hunting of mountain lions. Two years
ago, Colorado voters banned bear-baiting, banned the use of dogs in
sport hunting of bears, and banned any type of bear hunting in
springtime, when cubs are vulnerable. Last year, Arizona voters
banned for-profit trapping on public land, and Oregon voters banned
bait and dogs in the sport hunting of lion and
initiatives have all been in the West, but now you're going to see
them spreading east. It's going to be a tool more and more, taking
these issues to the general public," says Heidi Prescott, director
of the Fund for Animals, which gave money to local activists who
pushed the initiatives. Their success, she says, "has terrified the
legislatures, politicians and wildlife agencies. It circumvents the
power they've always had over wildlife management. The agencies are
starting to realize that non-hunters and anti-hunters make up a
large part of their constituency and they have to answer to us."
The backlash also scores in court. In 1991, for
instance, the Fund for Animals sued Montana and the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service and stopped the hunting of grizzly bears. Now the
group is pressing a suit against the U.S. Forest Service, seeking
to ban bear-baiting in all national forests.
That hunting method - using food scraps, even slaughtered horses,
to lure bears to stationary hunters - is too "efficient," says Eric
Glitzenstein, a Fund For Animals attorney. Bears can't resist bait,
it perverts their behavior, and too many fall victim, he says.
"There is an impression that hunting in all its forms is
environmentally benign, and in this case, the opposite is true."
The suit gets publicity in the debut of a
journal that speaks to the times: Animal Law.
At one extreme are the people who want to ban
every method of lethal hunting. Some imagine that wild-animal
populations will instead be managed by Big-Brotherly birth control:
Low-impact "bio-bullets' will be fired into one wild deer after
another from the close range of 40 yards, delivering
contraceptives. The politically correct bullets will be
biodegradable, of course. Already scientists are at work on such
A spokesman for the other extreme,
invited to appear last fall at the annual Governors Symposium on
North America's Hunting Heritage, is Ted Nugent, a pony-tailed
rock-and-roll star and chest-beating bowhunter.
Nugent stages bowhunting parties in the Rockies and his
bumpersticker has become a pro-hunting classic: WHACK'EM AND
STACK'EM. He insists that the human race stays healthy by doing the
"gut-pile boogie." "If Elvis Presley had been a bowhunter," claims
Nugent, "he'd probably be alive today."
Everything about hunting seems debatable now. "Is it morally
enriching to use animals as mere objects, as game pieces in macho
contests where the only goal is to outcompete other hunters?" asks
hunter and environmental philosopher Ann S. Causey (see sidebar at
left). "We must attack and abolish the unacceptable acts, policies
and attitudes within our ranks ... Heel-digging and saber-rattling
must give way to increased sensitivity ..."
Judging by the number of licenses issued, hunting in this country
peaked in 1982. The sport had increased in popularity almost
without interruption up to that year. Since then, according to the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the sport has gone from a peak of
16.7 million licensed hunters to last year's 15.3 million. And for
a much longer period, the percentage of the total U.S. population
that hunts has been shrinking.
Short supply is
not the cause. Herds of most game animals are large enough, and
kill-rates remain attractive: More than 300,000 deer were taken
last year in the West alone.
Perhaps the decline
of hunting has more to do with who we are and where we're headed,
as civilized Americans and as a species.
In the course of human evolution, the time when
everybody's mutual ape-like ancestors swung to the ground and
started walking erect was a crucial transition. Hunting probably
had a lot to do with it.
Since then, the popular
history of hunting goes like this: Prey animals thrived when
everything was a wilderness and the top of the food chain was the
aborigine who had a reverence for all forms of life. The abundance
supposedly lasted in this country until Native Americans had to
give way to other races and nationalities that were not so reverent
Then came the era of
exploitation, profiteering, the repeating rifle, punt gun and mesh
net. By the early 1900s there was crisis, with some species of elk
and and sheep and birds hunted to extinction, and others, including
deer, pronghorn, turkey, buffalo, beaver and wood duck, on the
At that point, hunters got their act
together. They pushed for laws that ended the hunting of wildlife
for profit; they spurred regulations, licenses and seasons that
protected their prey while ensuring a constant supply to be hunted.
They created a climate for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling which held
that even wildlife on private property is owned by the government -
and thus the public. And if a hunter lacked the necessary permit he
or she became a poacher.
Hunters, apparently the
only people ever to seek a direct tax on themselves, lobbied
Congress to pass the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, which since
then has added 11 percent to what hunters pay for their gear. The
tax goes for habitat improvement and other projects that benefit
the desired wildlife. Through the tax, license and permit fees,
hunters now shell out more than $700 million a year, which cycles
through agencies and goes mostly for habitat
As a result, populations of almost all
the hunted species have recovered from the historical
The amount hunters will pay for their
sport is awesome. Once a year, Western states auction small numbers
of permits for animals such as bighorn sheep and mountain goats.
Winning bidders are only guaranteed a chance to hunt, and the
proceeds go to habitat projects. This year, somebody paid $233,000
to hunt desert sheep in Arizona; somebody else paid $225,000 to
hunt sheep in Canada. The highest bids have come from Jerry
Fletcher, who runs a chain of tire stores in Arizona. Fletcher paid
nearly $600,000 over the past two years to hunt bighorn sheep in
Montana and finally bagged one - a magnificent ram - this
Wolves, mountain lions and the other
competing predators that are treated as enemies would have a
different view of the two-legged hunters, of course. Hunters'
conservation measures have almost entirely emphasized game
"So you have a Rocky
Mountain Elk Foundation, but not a Rocky Mountain Bluebird
Foundation," says Dan Pletcher, head of the wildlife biology
department at the University of Montana.
columnist Thomas McIntyre's claim, in a recent Sports Afield, is
familiar: Less than half of Americans now "spend so much as a
single day in a year" involved with wildlife in the field, he says,
while the average hunter spends 17 days a year in the field,
learning the ways of wildlife.
He says that
Henry David Thoreau, the pioneer ecologist who held that "in
wildness is the preservation of the world," was once a hunter.
Among Thoreau's early writings is the opinion that we "cannot but
pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while
his education has been sadly neglected."
The image of hunters as conservationists has
always suffered an inherent contradiction.
apparent within the influential hunter organization, the Boone and
Crockett Club, which was conceived during an 1887 dinner party in
the New York home of Teddy Roosevelt. Named after the nation's two
most folkloric hunters, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, the club
has pushed all the major hunter-conservation measures, and its
members included not only Roosevelt - who bagged grizzly bears and
other big game in his expeditions around the West - but also Aldo
Leopold, Gifford Pinchot, George Bird Grinnell, and generals
William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan.
Sheridan, in one example of power, led the U.S. Army to dispatch
troops to Yellowstone National Park during the 1880s, to protect
the park's herds of elk, pronghorn and bison from outlaw commercial
The concept of "fair chase" arose from
the club's founding statement and by-laws. At first, fair chase
meant no taking of cougars or bears by trapping, no taking of any
animals that were swimming, and no "crusting" (donning snowshoes to
hunt moose that were foundering in deep snow).
Over the years, "fair chase" has been expanded to no pursuing game
from motor vehicles, no spotting from airplanes, no use of
radio-collar tracking or walkie-talkies, and only limited use of
Fair chase is an increasingly
difficult concept, since there is even an ethical question in the
newest magnum bullet that can travel 500 yards and reliably hit
within an 11-inch circle.
Other developments to
be pondered include the polyethylene-foam lifesize deer decoy with
press-into-place antlers and adjustable ears, the tree perch with
aircraft-aluminum frame, the Moonlight night-vision scope, and the
Max IV all-terrain vehicle: "Six Wheel Drive and Amphibious! It
"It will be
interesting to see the response to the musk ox story in the Winter
"95 issue," Larry C. Munn writes in a letter to the editor of the
Boone and Crockett club's magazine, Fair Chase. "My view of the
ethics involved will hinge upon (questions such as): Do the hunters
shut off the snowmobile engine immediately upon sighting the quarry
(which, against the snow background, is visible from miles away)
and begin a stalk on foot, or do they drive a little closer? ... Is
this at all different than chasing after elk on a snowmobile, which
is illegal in most, if not all, states? Is bringing a musk ox to
bay with a sled-dog team different than treeing a mountain lion
(with a dog pack)? Is treeing a lion different than relying upon
the instinct of a quail to set tightly for a pointer?"
An editor's note responded, "As more and more
advanced technology becomes available and is applied to sport
hunting, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a fair-chase
policy which covers every possible unsportsmanlike way of taking a
big game animal. ... These ethics are dictated by (the) hunter's
As the ethical and moral issues of
hunting grow murky, the biological ones become
Hunting pressure by humans, who tend to
go after antlered prey - the trophy mentality - skews big-game
populations. When the hunting season ends, in many elk and deer
herds the ratio of survival is as low as five males to every 100
females. Herds are "managed" to produce as many antlered males as
possible, but not many survive beyond three hunting seasons. Bucks
and bulls that are fully mature, five to nine years old with
mega-antlers, have become relatively scarce.
"It's one of the major issues
that I don't think we even begin to understand," says Bill
Alldredge, a professor of wildlife biology at Colorado State
harvesting what would have died naturally." He cites an ongoing
study in Colorado, in which all the bull elk that hunters have
killed in the study area had branching antlers, but none were older
than three years.
learning that we (the game managers) can grow antlers faster than
we thought. But what have we gained?"
understands the genetic impact of year after year removing most
males just as they begin to mature. Reproduction rates within herds
do not seem to be affected, so there hasn't been a lot of attention
to such deeper questions.
management strategy," says Metzgar, the ecologist and ex-hunter,
"is to produce as many moving targets as possible."
It's generally believed that the older animals
carry cultural and social information - such as migration routes
and wintering spots - that might be slowly lost over the
generations that are hunted. "In deer society, if you're not living
long enough to see your grandchildren, then the whole social
organization gets blown apart," says Allen Rutberg, senior
biologist for the Humane Society of the United
Also, with the older bulls removed, the
younger males breed, where otherwise they would not. "It's possible
that inferior males do more of the breeding," Metzgar
Cow elk don't like to breed with the
younger bulls, so they hold out longer. Research is beginning to
show, Alldredge says, "When the subadult males breed, the females
tend to give birth later in the spring, and the fawns are younger
and weigh less as they go into the next winter. So the fawns have
less chance of survival." The effect of having weaker fawns is
likely pronounced during bad winters, and might help explain
dramatic swings in big-game
effect, when hunters always take the biggest and best, is
degradation of the species," argues Anne Muller, president of the
Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting, which is based in upstate New
York and claims 10,000 supporters nationwide.
"It's a debate I have with
trophy hunters," says Bob Hernbrode, head of the "watchable
wildlife" program of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, and an
experienced hunter. "To me, the ultimate kill would be a yearling
cow elk lying in her bed. It would be better meat (than an older
cow or a bull) and I would have hunted well enough to get that
close. To me, that's a trophy."
So what's the modern, ethical hunter to
Valerius Geist, retired head of the
environmental science program at Canada's University of Calgary,
says the Scandinavian countries devised one answer. Beginning in
the 1960s, in Sweden, Finland and Norway, moose hunters have been
offered the unusual choice: Shoot one adult female or two
Before then, the harvest ran 20,000 to
30,000 moose a year, including a large percentage of bulls. Today
the harvest runs 150,000 to 170,000 a year, with calves a large
percentage. Moreover, Geist says, among the herds of surviving
moose, "There are lots of wonderful, big old experienced females
and magnificent bulls."
All because people
began to hunt like
correct animal to take is the young of the year," Geist says. "I'm
a hunter myself, particularly for whitetail deer, and the fawns are
big enough to take by fall. If you have a license to take an
antlered deer, most places you can take a
"Imagine if we all
adopted the same strategy. You wouldn't be able to get a buck
license, say, until you'd handed in the jaws of 10 fawns. When you
went out hunting, you'd see magnificent bucks everywhere, and you'd
bring home a fawn, some of the finest eating meat in the world."
Ray Ring writes in Bozeman,