I recently reread “Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting,” by Jim Posewitz, the former Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist turned author who retired from FWP in the early 1990s. He went on to form Orion: The Hunter’s Institute.
I first read “Fair Chase” when it was released in the early ’90s, shortly after I arrived in Montana. I’d hunted a little before that, but not much. A few ducks here and there. An occasional wandering for quail.
But Montana big game hunting isn’t something one just jumps into like, say, fly fishing.
Learning to fly fish the postmodern way, using instructional videos, magazine articles and tips from old-timers in the local fly fishing club was comparatively easy. I spent a few winter months learning to cast on the front lawn — it was Southern California where the grass is green year round — then took my cheapo rod to the nearest mountain creek once the spring runoff cleared.
I caught a few fish on what was my go-to fly, a Renegade fished dry. That April I traveled north for the Eastern Sierra trout opener, where I mixed it up with bigger, more challenging trout in the Owens River. By the end of that first season I’d learned enough to pass myself off as a respectable fly fisher. You don’t just grab a rifle and head out deer hunting, however. For that, you really need a mentor.
“Fair Chase” was mine.
The book is a little more than 50 smallish pages, but that’s enough for Posewitz to lay out the basics of ethical hunting. If you grew up in a hunting household, you likely received some version of the code from mentors in your family. My dad hunted, but only occasionally, and never after he married mom and the kids came along. We fished a bit, but I didn’t cross the Rubicon to become a hunter until I was an adult.
This book was my guide, shaping my notion of what exactly fair chase meant. I’d been exposed to pheasant preserves in California, though I’d never hunted them, but the idea of canned hunts for big game was alien to me. It was only after I moved to Montana that I learned “hunting” big game animals in fenced enclosures was a thing; a controversial thing.
Initiative 143, passed by Montana voters in 2000, put the kibosh to that.
Posewitz’s book lays out what we mean by fair chase: hunting free-ranging wild animals, animals that can get away. A trophy bull elk released into an enclosure in front of a gun-toting “hunter” doesn’t meet the standard.
But the possibility of escape does not, by itself, ensure fair chase conditions are met. Tactics, weapon type, electronic calls and communication devices are all considerations as well. The fact that an elk could escape over the next ridge doesn’t matter if your buddy across the valley is directing your stalk via text message from a superior vantage point.
Other ethical concepts spelled out in the book were already engrained in hunting culture, but having a road map is often handy. The other day, as I walked across the parking lot to the grocery store, I noticed something furry resting on a cargo rack mounted on the tail end of an SUV. When I got a little closer, I realized the fur balls were a pair of dead raccoons.
I don’t kill raccoons, but if a pair was making a nuisance around my chicken coop I might reconsider that position. What I wouldn’t do is parade the carcasses around town.
From “Fair Chase” I learned to always cover game when transporting it from field to processor, so as not to offend non-hunters. That’s a good idea. It took the votes of a lot of non-hunters to pass Initiative 143.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.