For the third installment of Hunting Matters–an essay series dedicated to the rapidly changing landscape of hunting, conservation, and cultural issues–BHA’s Ben Long addresses the utility of new technologies in hunting and how this may challenge the long-held ethics of our hunting heritage, a notion that is not without potential consequences for all sportsman.
In a recent MeatEater podcast, Steve Rinella asked Backcountry Hunters & Anglers CEO Land Tawney: Why drones?
Specifically, why has state after state banned the use of drones for hunting and scouting? Why are drones beyond the pale of ethical hunting when – for example — long-range rifles, two-way radios and high-tech trail cameras remain accepted?
To answer this question, I think we have to face hunting’s Technology Paradox.
Here’s that paradox in a nutshell: while we all need technology in order to hunt, we also must limit technology in order to have hunted. Technology is both vital to hunting, and potentially fatal to it.
For most of history, humans have been preoccupied with a single question: how to acquire meat. Over eons, we developed an astonishing array of technologies to hunt everything from honeybee larvae to baleen whales. More recently, we developed agriculture, to provide food in an easier, more reliable manner.
In this historic context, the slaughterhouse is simply an extension of hunting technologies developed to secure food. The spear point in the mammoth kill led to the credit card at the steakhouse. Both are tools designed to provide a meal as efficiently as possible. It’s simplistic to suggest we should somehow stop developing hunting technologies now, even if we could. It’s just what humans do.
But there is a catch. With the Industrial Revolution, our technology allowed us to kill too efficiently for our own good. We obliterated bison and passenger pigeons with weapons that are crude by modern standards.
Around 1900, visionary hunters realized that our appetites and technology had to be held in check if wildlife and hunting was to survive. In particular, Theodore Roosevelt’s Boone & Crockett Club began circulating the idea of “fair chase” ethical standards, limiting take, and restricting technology.
It was revolutionary stuff, but it worked. We rescued species like whitetail deer and Canada geese from extinction. At the same time, the idea of “fair chase” launched a thousand campfire debates, hundreds of legal fights, and more than a few podcasts.
In modern times, the central problem of hunting shifted from simply making meat to this: when technology makes hunting too easy, it no longer is hunting. It becomes mere killing.
There’s the paradox again: By making the hunt easier via technology, we make it less of a hunt. My favorite line from philosopher Ortega y Gasset is this one: “The beauty of the hunt lies in the fact that is problematic.” In other words, the easier the hunt, the more ugly it becomes.
So we limit. By and large, the limits that hunters impose on themselves reflect individual choices (although influenced by peer pressures or cultural norms).
A few years ago, in late November, I had a cow tag near my home in Montana. The last week of the season, I spotted a bedded herd of eight or nine elk, on a snowy ridge about a half-mile away.
I closed the gap to about 500 yards. I carried a good rifle that I knew and handled well. The elk were in the open. I had all the time in the world. There were logs that could be fashioned into a makeshift bench-rest. I knew the range and could tell when the wind calmed by watching the snow blowing off the trees.
If I had just wanted meat, I could have settled in and killed an elk. But. I wanted to hunt.
So I slipped into the timber, climbed the ridge above the herd and slowly crept toward them. Long story short, I ended up in the middle of the bedded herd that had no idea I existed. The elk I shot was so close I could have jumped on her back, puma-style.
It was one of the most heart-pounding, exhilarating stalks I’ve ever enjoyed. And it was a hunting experience I would have missed entirely if I had shot from afar.
Does that make a long shot unethical? No. But the quality of the hunting experience depends not upon technology, but upon woodsmanship. And it makes all the difference.
No one elected BHA, Boone & Crockett, Pope & Young or any other group to be the morality police of the American hunting public. No one wants hunting regulations to be fatter, more complex. But in reality, almost any human activity, from flag-football to Congressional hearings, requires rules. Otherwise, we humans have a way of descending into chaos that leaves no one satisfied.
When is it justified to employ the power of the state to enforce hunting rules, as a growing number have with drones? Basically when three things are at play:
1. Safety. It’s illegal to hunt from a vehicle and shoot down a public roadway because people get killed that way.
2. Conservation. If we all hunted without bag limits or closed seasons, we would soon be out of game.
3. Protecting the rights of other hunters. This is particularly important on public lands, where we have to share a limited space. We agree to leave ATVs and pickup trucks on the roads, for example, so the hunt does not become a motorized race to the kill.
So how do drones fit in? Well, personally, I don’t want to use a drone because they don’t fit into the kind of hunt I want. That’s a personal choice.
But moreover, if drones become popular, that’s bad news for everyone. It’s easy to imagine someone making a long stalk on a herd bull, only to be buzzed by someone’s drone. Drone technology will add to chaotic, “race to the kill” atmosphere, particularly on public lands. Very few hunters want that.
As drones become more and more efficient, they will negatively impact conservation. Technology exists today to put heat-sensitive sensors on drones that make a herd of elk pop out on a snowy timbered hillside. Suddenly, those elk would be substantially more susceptible to hunters.
Hunting regulations must respect local customs and conditions, which is why they are best sorted out by state commissions, not Congress. It’s messy work, but I say bravo to the hunting leaders who are willing to have the complicated conversations as they grapple with the Technology Paradox.
But here’s the dirty little secret: In the real world, most of us follow game laws because we believe it is the right thing to do, not because we fear getting caught.
As Aldo Leopold wrote, ethics are what you do when no one is watching. The Technology Paradox is not going away. It is up to each of us to find our own balance, using the technology we need while pursuing and protecting the hunting experience we crave.
Ben Long is a father, outdoorsman and conservationist in Kalispell, Montana. He is currently the vice-chairman of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.