Whether you know it or not, if you’re a hunter or angler in the United States, you owe a debt of gratitude to Jim Posewitz. As a conservation historian, philosopher, author, and thought leader on the ethics of hunting, “Poz” was essential in shaping the moral sporting code most of us practice today. His seminal book “Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting” (1994) has been printed more than a million times and distributed to generations of hunter education students across the country. He passed away Friday, on the eve of Independence Day, at the age of 85.
Poz was born in 1935 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin—a time and place without deer. He often recalled this fact in order to demonstrate the depths to which America’s wildlife populations fell in the early 20th century, and the incredible recovery they have made since then thanks to the conservation movement.
A high school football star, Poz was recruited to play linebacker at Montana State University in 1952, where he studied biology and led the team to an undefeated, championship season in ’56. Following a two-year tour in the Army, he returned to Bozeman to complete a master’s degree in fish and wildlife management then began working for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks as a fisheries biologist in 1961.
Over his 32 years with the department, Poz was anything but a submissive civil servant. He dove head-on into numerous environmental battles that ultimately shaped the future of Montana and the incredible wild rivers and landscapes it contains. In 1969, the Ecological Services Division he helped found and lead prevented an open pit mine at the headwaters of the hallowed Blackfoot River. In 1978, they stopped a plan to construct some 40 coal-fired power plants in the Yellowstone River Basin that would have drawn enough cooling water to dry up that mighty river. His research, advocacy, and leadership prevented other dams and mines on the Missouri, Flathead, and Kootenai rivers, as well as guaranteeing in-stream flows and preventing channelizing streams, made Poz arguably one of the most important fishermen to ever call Montana home.
Despite being reassigned and nearly fired several times for his dogged dedication to defending waterways and wildlife above all else, Poz rounded out his three-decade career at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks as a special assistant to the director before retiring in 1993. Without missing a beat, he brought together a group of friends and conservationists to found Orion – The Hunter’s Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to studying and advancing hunting ethics in order to improve the public perception of hunting and continue hunters’ leadership of the conservation movement. He wrote “Beyond Fair Chase” as a concise, Socratic guide to understanding the moral implications and considerations of blood sports. The book has become a standard text in hunter education courses nationwide, and many hunters consider it required reading.
“Fair chase depends on developing a personal association with the game you are pursuing,” Poz told me in an interview two years ago. “The more you appreciate the animals, the less likely you will engage in something that’s unfair.”
Poz wrote four other books: “Inherit the Hunt: A Journey into the Heart of American Hunting,” “Rifle in Hand: How Wild America Was Saved,” “Taking a Bullet for Conservation: The Bull Moose Party – A Centennial Reflection,” and his recent autobiography, “My Best Shot.” Ben O’Brien and I recorded an episode of The Hunting Collective Podcast with Poz at his home in Helena last year and would encourage you to listen.
Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, knew Poz literally since birth—Jim drove Land’s mom to the hospital when she went into labor with him. Land grew up learning the history of wildlife and wild places from Poz, eventually following him and and his father, Phil Tawney, into the conservation industry.
“He’ll be remembered by the landscapes he helped protect all the way to the policies he helped make around those protections and the books that he wrote, and his teachings,” Tawney told MeatEater. “He was constantly teaching, always making sure that people knew the conservation story and knew that none of what we have happened by accident. He dedicated his whole life to conservation, whether as a biologist or a writer. He just got his last op-ed about the proposed Smith River mine published three weeks before his death.”
Tawney said that when BHA announced they were naming their annual award for advancing hunting and fishing ethics after Poz, he told some of the board members that he now felt good to die because the his legacy would endure.
“Pretty morbid, but he felt like he was part of a continuum, which we all absolutely are. It’s the people that got this done. He happened to be a pretty big person in our whole movement, but the value that he had for anybody who was part of this movement was of a high degree. He preached that over and over again. The message to know your history and that your voice matters just exude from him.”
Others who knew him will recall Jim’s crushing handshake, bright blue eyes, easy laugh, wildlife-print shirts, and encyclopedic memory of conservation history and the life of President Theodore Roosevelt. His living room in Helena was adorned with pictures, antique hunting gear, awards from nearly every conservation group, and the mounts of several elk-sized mule deer—and it was impossible to visit without being offered a shot of whiskey. He is survived by Gayle Joslin, his life partner, and his five living sons, Brian, Allen, Carl, Matthew, and Andrew.
With Jim, the conservation movement and sporting community lost a legend. But his writing and his speeches and conversations have and will inspire untold legions of hunters and anglers to abide by a moral code that mandates respect for and conservation of our quarry and their habitat. Next time you feel the stillness of a summer evening on a wild riverbank or a mountainside, close your eyes and take a moment to remember Poz.
Feature image by Thom Bridge.