Out There: A question of ethics

Asking landowner permission before hunting is a small but important part of ethical, sportsmanlike behavior. 

Do you consider yourself an ethical hunter and angler?

I do, and you probably do, too. But at one time or another, you and I have been in situations where our ethics were questionable.

I remember a bowhunting trip where a nice buck stepped into an opening 75 yards away. The deer was beyond my limited range of accuracy, but it was obvious he wouldn't come closer and would disappear within seconds. I wanted that buck, so I raised my bow and released an arrow.

To my great disappointment, the arrow fell short. But I wonder now how much more disappointed I might have been had the arrow struck the deer in the hip or belly. What I did was not illegal, but it wasn't ethical. I know, because my conscience tells me.

On one fishing trip, I kept 50 nice bluegills. The lake I'd fished was three hours from my house. When I arrived home, it was late and I was tired. I started cleaning the fish, but when I'd finished half, I was exhausted. I threw the remaining bluegills in some bushes and let them rot.

What I did was illegal and unethical. Twenty years have passed, and my conscience still won't let me forget that ridiculous act.

Being ethical is rarely easy because it requires us to ignore our own wants and needs.

In his nature classic, "A Sand County Almanac," Aldo Leopold addressed the topic of ethics and its connection to conscience:

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

Ann Causey, a professor of humanities and environmental studies at Arizona's Prescott College, expressed a similar thought while addressing the governor's symposium on North America's Hunting Heritage in 1993.

"Moral hunters do not mindlessly follow rules and lobby for regulations which serve their interests," she said. "Rather, they follow their consciences, sometimes setting their own interests aside.

"In short, ethics is guided by conscience and gives us something to aim for beyond self-gratification."

Do you notice how often the word "conscience" keeps popping up?

A friend and I discussed ethics. His philosophy shakes down to this basic premise: A legal sportsman is an ethical sportsman.

I feel otherwise.

An ethical sportsman knows and obeys the law. On that point, we agree. An ethical sportsman studies regulations carefully, obtains the proper licenses and hunts and fishes only during designated seasons. Bag and possession limits are obeyed, and only legal equipment and methods of harvest are used.

Yet a person can do all these things and still not have one smidgen of ethics. Consider:

Mark is a law-abiding hunter. "I always obey wildlife regulations," he said. "I have to, because if I got caught breaking the law, I could lose my job. I'm an outdoor sportswriter for a big newspaper."

"I love to hunt," he continued. "If they made it legal to spotlight deer, I'd go out tonight and shoot one. But unless it's legal, it's strictly a no-no as far as I'm concerned. I can't take the risk."

John also is a law-abiding hunter. "I always obey wildlife regulations," he said. "I enjoy hunting, but I realize without laws to regulate how we do it, there wouldn't be much to hunt. Our first responsibility is to preserve wildlife populations. If we do a good job, maybe there will be a surplus of animals we can hunt."

Both hunters obey the law, but does that mean both are ethical hunters? No. Mark obeys the law because he's worried about himself. John obeys the law because he's concerned for the resource. Who do you think is the ethical hunter?

To fully grasp the concept of ethics, we must understand the difference between legality and ethics.

Many unethical activities are illegal, but not all legal activities are ethical. Therefore, to make an ethical decision about a certain behavior or activity, we must first ask, "Is it right?" not "Is it legal?" In other words, we should be guided by our conscience first, a regulations guide second.

As hunters and fishermen, we must be concerned about ethics for important reasons.

Foremost is the fact that hunters and anglers are a small minority in this country. Presenting a positive image to the majority of citizens who don't hunt or fish is crucial to the continuation of both sports. Society has a legitimate voice in curtailing hunting and fishing activities if they fail to meet social expectations.

Unfortunately, problems with irresponsible outdoor activity seem to be worsening.

Each year, I run across more people for whom hunting is shooting and everything between shots is time wasted. I meet more anglers who believe catching a limit is the only triumph. I meet too many people who think it's OK to violate fish and game laws.

Many hunters show no respect for the game they hunt, and many fisherman have no concept of the word "conservation." If we don't get serious about cleansing our ranks of these irresponsible participants, we put our sports at risk.

Positive peer pressure from parents, relatives and friends is perhaps the strongest cleanser. Let your hunting and fishing companions know you are proud to be an ethical sportsman, and insist they behave likewise. Do your best to set high ethical standards for your children.

Should you witness illegal acts, react swiftly and firmly, whether you know the lawbreakers or not.

While rabbit hunting, a friend of mine was approached by another hunter. The guy seemed nice and offered my friend 10 rabbits (two over the limit) he killed that morning.

My friend refused the offer but did nothing to express his outrage that the man had intentionally broken the law. He told me later it made him "uncomfortable" to confront a stranger in the field.

Yet he didn't even copy down the man's license number and report the violation to a wildlife officer.

Apathy and apprehension must not override our obligation to respond to unethical behavior. We must send a message, loud and clear, to our children, to our friends, to fellow hunters and anglers, to the slobs within our ranks:

  • It is not OK to violate wildlife laws.

  • It is not OK to trespass.

  • It is not OK to litter, or to drive across a farmer's crop field, or to waste game or to disregard safety.

    We should insist that all hunters and anglers behave responsibly. We should teach our children and fellow outdoorsmen that being a sportsman is more important than being a hunter or an angler. We should be guided more by conscience and less by legality alone.

    As you hunt and fish this year, you will have to make many decisions. Please do your best to make the right decision, the ethical decision. Let your conscience be your guide.

    Think carefully about the potential impact of your actions, then do what you should do. Do what you know is right.

    Show respect and consideration. Demonstrate forethought. Aim for something beyond self-gratification. Set a good example for others to follow. Leave positive images of hunters and anglers for those who don't hunt and fish.

    To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.