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Hunting Ethics: Do We Really Know What it Means?

If you've ever sat down in front of the TV and watched an episode of "Leave it to Beaver," you probably noticed that the Beave, or his brother Wally, always seemed to find themselves in some kind of sticky situation. But, there was never any need to get alarmed — in the black and white world of 1950s television, a lesson was always learned by the end of the day when mom and dad were tucking Beaver into bed. That's what's great about the traditional TV family. Ward and June Cleaver were always there keeping a watchful eye on their boys, teaching them the difference between right and wrong.

Over the course of our lives, I'm guessing most of us have had family or friends, similar to the Cleavers, who also have tried to instill the right values in us.

When we were little kids, our parents told us it was wrong to take a candy bar from the grocery store without paying for it. As we blossomed into young adults, we learned it was unethical to cheat on our math test or opt for "Cliff Notes" instead of actually reading Shakespeare.

Or, take the U.S. Service Academies for example. When cadets enter the institutions, they take an oath that reads similar to this; "We will not lie, steal, cheat or tolerate anyone among us who does." For the next four years, cadets are bound to a code of ethics. Breaking that code can mean expulsion.

Hunters also have their own code of ethics. Aside from the written hunting laws that hold hunters accountable for their actions in the outdoors, there are unwritten gray areas determining what's right and wrong. It's that gray area hunters are challenged with when they go afield.

The Written Laws
Ethical hunters are also law-abiding citizens. For most of us, it's easy to follow the "written rules" of hunting. Written laws establish season dates and firearms usage. Simply put, if pheasant season opens at noon, don't take a shot at 11:58 a.m. Or, don't hunt turkeys with a rifle if your state law doesn't permit it.

The majority of hunters are good, ethical people who only take the legal limit of game or only use legal hunting methods — but, it's the few unethical ones that can give hunting a bad image.

The written laws are on the books and hold hunters to a high standard, but it's the unwritten laws that define a sportsman or sportswoman.

Respecting the Game
One of the most common dilemmas I face when I'm hunting is deciding when to shoot and when not to shoot. After you've identified your target, you need to decide whether or not your shot is ethical:

Is your shot clean?

  • Do you have ammunition with a killing pattern and energy sufficient to not just cripple the game?

  • Do you have the proper license to take the particular game you're after?

  • Are you properly trained to retrieve and handle the game?

  • Can you follow a bloodtrail?

  • Can you see well beyond your target so you know where a missed shot may land?

When deciding to take the shot, you should also consider whether you are able to identify wildlife. Some hunting laws often require hunters to accurately identify their quarry, including the sex of the animal. For example, during spring turkey season, you only can take a tom, so you must be able to identify the bird's sex.

Always abide by fair chase rules as well. You should know the limitations of your firearm, so you're not trying to take a shot at an animal that's too far away. Also, make sure you have a clear target. It's difficult to zero in on the kill zone of a white-tailed deer running for the nearest cover.

Another important thing we should always remember while hunting is don't be greedy — kill only what you need. Success shouldn't always be measured by whether or not you bagged your limit.

Respecting the Land and Landowners
Without landowners who love wildlife, there would be no hunting.

Just imagine your car breaks down right before you're leaving for a weekend trip. Luckily, your best friend offers to let you borrow her car. I'm guessing that when you get home, the car is clean, filled with gas and in better shape than when you borrowed it. That same principle applies to the land you're hunting on. Whether it's public or private — always leave the land in better condition than you found it.

An ethical hunter always picks up trash, not only from their lunch, but also any other trash that might have been left behind by others.

Also, respect the landowner like you do the land. Jerry VanSickle owns a ranch in western Minnesota and says he holds those who hunt on his land to a high standard. "I always expect them to ask for my permission every time they hunt," said VanSickle. Even if I've said `yes' a million times before, I still expect them to be courteous and ask — and not leave behind a mess."

Always abide by the landowners' rules. Hunt only where and when they say you can hunt, and never drive your vehicle through crop fields or other areas that might be off-limits. Remember to close gates as you pass through them, unless the landowner asks you to leave them open. Leaving a gate open and allowing a rancher's livestock to escape is probably one of the easiest ways to lose hunting privileges on private land.

And don't forget to say thanks. The landowner helped you by giving you permission to hunt on their land — so why not help them out. Return the favor by offering them part of the game you harvested or offering to repair that broken fence. Even if the landowner doesn't take you up on the offer, it's a great way to express your appreciation, aside from the thank you card that you should always send at the end of the season. It's the little things that count in building a positive, growing relationship.

Respecting land and landowners is key to the future of hunting. Look at a state such as Oklahoma, for example. Nearly 98 percent of all the land in Oklahoma is privately owned. If you don't treat landowners and their land with respect in that state or other areas, you may very well be traveling to other states to hunt or just have to hang up your gun all together.

The Hunter's Image
The nonhunting public always puts hunters under a microscope — their microscope — where each action, good or bad, is magnified. That can work to a hunter's advantage, as long as hunters portray themselves in a positive manner. Their good can be magnified, offering less fodder for the anti-hunting community to grab onto. A good image may also be formed by a person who was unsure about hunting before.

Avoid displaying taken game to the public. Hanging your prize buck up in a hunting camp is fine, but driving up and down the main drag with a couple of deer strapped to the hood of your car is out. If you want to show off your trophy, take a nice picture or have it mounted.

When you're finished with your hunt, some hunters prefer changing into their regular clothes if they're going to be out and about around town. But, on the other hand, as turkey hunting legend and national radio talk show host Ray Eye said, "Hunters should be proud to wear their camo and orange. As long as they are carrying themselves in a positive manner and talking about all the good things hunters do, we should all take pride to wear our gear."

How and when you wear your hunting clothes depends a lot on how you personally feel and the area you live in. But, there's one universal rule we should all remember: hunting and alcohol do not mix. Never drink before or during a hunt. And if you're going to stop at the liquor store or have a drink at the local bar after a hunt, it's a good idea to change into your street clothes. A casual drink doesn't make you the obnoxious, beer guzzling rowdy that hunters are sometimes stereotyped to be, but scenarios like this make it easy for nonhunters to form their own negative opinions.

Also, clean your game in the field or take it to a meat processor in town. Most of the population doesn't enjoy the sight of dead animals. By cleaning game in the field and burying the entrails, we're keeping the land clean and presenting hunters as the resource-conscious people we are.

Hunters As Conservationists
Hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts are all conservationists to a certain extent. Everyone can't be a biologist working for a state wildlife agency or an employee of a nonprofit conservation organization like the National Wild Turkey Federation, but we all chip in to do our part.

According to Berdette Zastrow's book, "A Woman's Guide to Hunting," each day, sportsmen and women contribute more than $3 million to wildlife conservation efforts through license revenues, excise taxes on sporting equipment and other special taxes such as the sale of duck stamps or interest collected on licensee fees. Zastrow also says hunters and anglers provide more than 75 percent of the annual income of the 50 state conservation agencies. Sportsmen and women are clearly one of the largest contributors to conservation, paying for programs that benefit everyone who enjoys wildlife — not just the hunters.

Don't be afraid to share these statistics with others. The general public doesn't realize that hunters give to the outdoors far more than they take from it. It's our responsibility to inform the public of all the good work millions of hunters do for wildlife and habitat. Once the public gets all the facts, they can make their own decisions about hunting and hunters. People who are well informed on hunting issues are more likely to be a public that is pro-outdoors, pro-conservation and pro-hunting.

Remember, we all live by our own personal code of ethics when we're afield, not because our friends tell us to, not because other hunters tell us to — because we choose to. And that's something we can all take pride in.

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