What About Fences?

High-fence hunting is one of the most complex issues faced by our wildlife conservation community. It is a multi-faceted conundrum that includes aspects such as private property rights, public ownership versus privatization of wildlife, the spread of wildlife diseases, wildlife and hunting ethics, and the public perception of hunting.

How and where we hunt is a choice each of us makes as an individual hunter. It is also a matter of personal choice whether you believe hunting within a game-proof fence (where legal) is an acceptable practice, acceptable under certain conditions, unacceptable, fair chase, or should not be considered hunting at all. But, like all choices, there are consequences that must be considered.

Fair chase is more a matter of the spirit of the hunt rather than a set of written rules. It can however be interpreted by intent, practice, and perception. With regard to high-fence hunting, not all high-fenced properties are created equal. For one, not all high-fence situations are commercial operations. Many are private hunting properties. Some are small acreages; some larger; some have adequate cover; others are more open with less cover for game to elude the hunter; some have purposely concentrated a high number of animals within a given space to ensure game will be seen; some let the available habitat dictate population density; some artificially manipulate the quality of game for maximum trophy potential; and others rely on natural breeding and available food. In short, this is not a one-size-fits-all issue.

If the intent of the landowner or operator is to present an unrealistically high chance of success for the hunter/customer, reducing the experience to more of a shoot than a hunt, it is understandable why many feel this is not hunting. If the intent of the customer/hunter is to forego a hunt in a wild setting for a wild animal in favor of an assured and/or quick kill, where does one draw the line between hunting and shooting?

The answer to this complex question may just lie at a higher level than individual choice and personal hunter ethics. It may just be that the litmus test should be what is in the best interest of wildlife and the message this type of hunting sends to non-hunters, who can, as we have seen, impose great influence on the future of hunting.

An overall conservation ethic is doing the right thing by wildlife. In order for sportsmen to maintain any credible claim we care about wildlife and are a significant mechanism for conservation, we need to ask ourselves a few questions. Is genetically engineering deer and elk, and intensively feeding and handling them for the purpose of growing unnaturally large antlers only to be shot within enclosures (commercial or private) demonstrating concern and respect for wildlife? With the connection that has been made between the spread of diseases like CWD and the transfer of captive animals between these properties, and the documented spread of this disease to wild populations, does standing by and supporting this activity demonstrate our commitment to the health of these species?  Will the non-hunting public be able to make the distinction that some high-fence hunting situations may offer an ethical approach to hunting and wildlife conservation and some do not? It is highly unlikely the public will take the time to draw such fine distinctions and instead reach the conclusion that none of this is acceptable behavior.

Hunting is very complex and, like many fundamental human engagements, it is greater than the sum of its parts. We must acknowledge that we live in a world in which the public is sensitized to making instantaneous judgments based on emotion, Google Searches, skimming headlines, and with the fewest of facts. The one countermeasure we can control is to hunt responsibly, respectfully, and ultimately defensibly—and ensure others do as well—to maintain the support of society at large. If we succeed, we will ensure hunting exists for as many people in North America for as many years to come as possible.

The Boone and Crockett Club defines fair chase as the ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild, native North American big game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals. In 1983, the Club adopted a policy that made whitetail deer and other species taken in escape-proof enclosures ineligible for its records books.

 

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