Moral Relativism and the Outdoors

The last couple days I’ve been following the story of a white, female Huffington Post contributor tweeting about her response to a black man, driving a BMW that has an NRA and “Tea Party” bumper sticker on it and how he didn’t fit her idea of what a black man should be. While some people are getting pretty worked up about it, I’m more interested in seeing the interactions themselves because it tells an interesting story about where our culture, or at least a significant segment of our culture, is today. People who do not have an underlying code of ethics will decide each situation based on the outcome that they desire rather than making a decision on what is right or wrong based on a code of ethics. This leads to a significant amount of contradiction and a vacuum of logic and reasoning.  

This type of thought process, or moral relativism, has not yet infiltrated the outdoors world in any significant way, but I see it on the horizon. Why? Because we are members of this “subculture” of hunters and outdoorsman, but we’re also members of the culture-at-large. We also have some folks who are willing to set themselves apart from the rest of us because they do not share our methods of take, our traditions or our other values. Some of you may say, “but dude, you have written against baiting!” I have, and I still believe we should be having an on-going conversation about ethics. However, I will never join a campaign to outlaw baiting or ever speak in favor of outlawing baiting. I view that as an internal conversation amongst hunters, but if you bait and the Humane Society is after you, I am on your side. If it comes on the ballot in Colorado, I will vote against outlawing baiting and if it’s in the legislature, I’ll write my congress people on your behalf. The need to police ourselves is the exact reason for the conversation I want to have. You’re welcome to disagree with me, I’m open to changing my mind, but my goal is to make sure we are always trying to do the right thing in the woods.

As the saying goes, if you lie down with dogs, you will get fleas -- and I am baffled by the hunters that the Humane Society and other groups dig up for their campaigns. It comes from the idea that “whatever I do is good and moral and whatever other people do is not as just as what I do.” Similar to the recent gun control protests where you’d see “Hunters Against the NRA.” These guys I saw were saying, “you don’t need a high-powered rifle to hunt, all you need are shotguns.” The average, urban, non-hunter sees this and they say, “well, look, even these hunters say you don’t need rifles” and they take these guys as an authority. Come to find out, these guys were duck hunters, of course all they needed were shotguns. They’re not taking a 300-yard shot on a bull elk in Colorado this fall, so they don’t care. The question I would ask these fellas is, if rifles are outlawed, do you think us western big game hunters will have your back when they come for your shotguns next? 

Over the last one hundred plus years, most fish and game laws have been pushed for and supported by hunters, including self-imposed excise taxes like Pittman-Robertson. State wildlife biologists and conservation organizations (hunters) have done an amazing job over the years at fine tuning our laws and bringing us into, for many species, “the good ol’ days” of hunting.  I urge you all to have faith in a process that has always worked and treat the hunting community as a brotherhood. We can pick on our own, but when the outside comes picking a fight, we stand up for one another. 




Baiting: Fair Chase? Ethical? What is baiting?

This topic is one that can be broken down into three questions and answers, each one getting more complex and more complicated.

1.     Is baiting fair chase?  No.

2.     Is baiting ethical?  Maybe, sometimes.

3.     What is baiting?  Well… we’ll attempt to define that shortly.

There is nothing about baiting that is “chase”, forget the “fair” part.  Dumping a bunch of corn or carrots underneath your tree stand so you can sit your lazy ass in one spot and let them come to you isn’t hunting, it’s just killing.  A situation such as this one is pretty clear, but beyond this, things get muddy.

Baiting might be ethical in certain situations, but those situations I wouldn’t call “hunting”.  If you are looking for a nuisance animal or it’s a culling situation in an urban or suburban environment, it is better for all parties involved for the animal(s) to come to a safe spot, rather than some guy with a bow creeping through backyards in search of said animal.  Whether we call this hunting or pest control or something else we can debate at another time, but if it’s not hunting, then fair chase goes out of the equation.

Now, as to the question, “what is baiting?”, well, different people have different ideas about that.  The example I gave above is an easy one, but some people believe the following are all baiting:

·     Sitting on a cornfield

·     Habitat improvement for the express purpose of bigger deer

·     Sitting on a watering hole

Many of these examples are unique to certain animals and locations.  If you’re hunting elk in Colorado you might sit on a watering hole, but there is no cornfield to sit and you’re most likely on public land, so you’re not improving the habitat.  My best attempt at defining “baiting” would look something like, the placement of attractants with the explicit intent of bringing game animals to a certain place for immediate or short-term harvest.  

I think most hunters would agree sitting over a watering hole is just smart hunting.  Not every watering hole gets used, so you’re looking for sign, and if your method of hunting is still hunting, I can’t think of too many better places to sit than over a watering hole.  As for the cornfield scenario, I think it could go either way.  If you’re sitting on a cornfield that is for the explicit purpose of agriculture and you’re taking advantage of the deer pursuing the few pieces of corn not picked up at harvest, I think again, you’re hunting a natural food source and that’s smart hunting.  However, if you or the landowner, purposely don’t harvest all the corn for commercial or agricultural reasons, but rather leave some to attract deer, then yes, I think that fits my definition of baiting.

Habitat improvement is something I think all hunters and conservations should pursue.  Will helping the herd help your hunting?  Sure, it will.  However, your intention in this is to produce habitat to support the herd all year long and well into the future and not just to lure a big buck near your tree stand. Habitat improvement is something we all should care about for the long-term health of our herds and all the other animals, game or not, that live alongside the game animals we are chasing. 

Having grown up in Indiana and having hunted white tail deer in Indiana, Michigan and Kentucky, I understand the complications of this issue. My friend’s dad’s property that I hunted in Kentucky was a small piece of land with a small vineyard on it.  The vineyard attracted turkeys and deer to the property (though the grapes were long gone by deer firearm season).  Considering the relatively small range of a white tail, was I baiting?  I’d say no because the grapes were long gone by late November.  However, being a small property, I had no idea what the neighbors were doing.  Did they have bird feeders that were attracting deer to the neighborhood?  And if so, was I hunting over bait?  I would say the answers are “no” and “no” because in two seasons hunting out there I didn’t see one damn deer and if the neighbors did have some attractant out, I had no knowledge of it.  You can only control what you can control and that is the essence of this question.

I think this all boils down to whether you are manipulating nature to affect your hunt.  Yes, we use technology to improve our odds, which we have since we started hunting millions of years ago and which without, our species would look very different today. With all of that technology is it really necessary to bait?  Shouldn’t the hunt be about the pursuit and the time in the woods?  If you just want to walk a few hundred yards to a tree stand and sit in it for 90 minutes to kill something for food, why don’t you just drive five miles to the grocery store and buy a steak?  Where is the passion?  Where is the participation in the natural world?  

I think there are a few black and white truths in this world, but baiting, like almost all questions of morality and ethics, is made up of a lot of gray. There are only two limitations on you as a hunter: state and federal wildlife laws and your conscience.  The first one you have to answer to your fellow hunters and citizens on.  The second, you only have to answer to yourself, your community and your creator. All I hope is that hunters take the time to consider the second as much or more than they take to consider the first.

“A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than by a mob of onlookers. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this fact.”
– Aldo Leopold