The Dec/Jan 2013 issue of TBM presented Sam Beuschel’s well reasoned defense of trophy hunting immediately before the NEWS section. I don’t know if such proximity was a decision based solely on magazine layout considerations or whether the editors had something more in mind. Either way, it highlights an important challenge confronting bowhunting.

Mr. Beuschel’s article laid out a cogent argument in support of trophy hunting within the context of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (NAM). He used reason and facts to address concerns often expressed in opposition to trophy hunting.

The NEWS, however, did something very different. It provided clarity on the values necessary for bowhunting to remain the honorable pursuit that it is by describing principles, mutually agreed to by bowhunting’s finest organizations, that identify bowhunting amidst the barrage of technology hype. The broader message was equally clear: bowhunting as originally intended faces an uncertain future, due not only to a “What’s wrong with easy?” mind-set but also from decisions sometimes made by resource managers.

Facts and reason versus values; their relationship is complex, with consequences close to home as wildlife managers in my own state slide farther down a slippery slope towards an anything-goes approach to big game management. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is moving aggressively towards recognizing crossbows as legitimate archery tackle, thereby giving the nod for their general use during the archery-only season. And they’ve already inserted a firearm deer hunt within that season under the shingle of increasing hunter recruitment.

So can facts and reason persuade policy makers to preserve bowhuntng values? Let’s hope so. But let’s also not kid ourselves. Hope isn’t a strategy, and it’s difficult making the case for preserving those values on the basis of balancing wildlife populations alone. Thankfully, the number of punched tags doesn’t tell the entire story either. If it did, machine guns would be more common in the woods.

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Keeping those values afloat requires wading into the murky water of bowhunting politics. A good example of that murkiness is the length profiteers have gone to manufacture confusion in their effort to convince state legislatures, wildlife managers, and the hunting public that the crossbow is actually a bow, never minding what little they do share in common has mostly to do with the last three letters identifying them — motorcycles and bicycles are no different either, and they both also have wheels, right?

Rational arguments refuting the claim are dismissed as either uniformed or pompous elitism. From a big game bowhunting perspective, the end game for industry here in the U.S. is expanded market share through the full inclusion of the implement anywhere there’s a bow-only season. And state wildlife agencies with peculiar notions about what constitutes bowhunting, and what it needs to thrive, appear to be buying what they’re selling. A perusal of industry “factoids” and progression of states sanctioning the crossbow as archery tackle leave little doubt about the tactics being employed and their effectiveness. According to one source, over the past 30 years the number of states permitting crossbows in bow-only seasons increased from 2 to 24, with 21 of them falling into line during the past decade alone. Market inertia in Canada is similar.

Normally I’m not one to argue too much with success. However, it’s one thing to hit the mark when shooting straight, entirely another to move the mark and claim a straight shot. Bearing in mind that the crossbow lobby isn’t the only success story in town, I’m inclined to go back to the basics of NAM. First, some clarification on what isn’t and is or should be at issue and why.

Whether crossbows are legitimate hunting implements is not at issue; they are. Whether they can be used safely isn’t either; they can. And whether or not employing a particular hunting implement is likely to aid managers in some way seems obvious; it probably would, at least for a time. That’s as true for crossbows during an archery season as it is for explosive tips on arrows, big game hunting with spears, or the above reference to machine guns in the woods. I make no claim of impartial observer, but by any reasonable measure the crossbow clearly isn’t a bow (more on this later), and — setting aside for the moment, considerations of exceptions for hunters with permanent physical disabilities — on that basis alone has no place in archery seasons. It’s a testament to the power of marketing that confusion on this point (some would say, lie) persists. I wish this was just an abstract point, but it isn’t, because state legislatures are a controlling interest and their members, often non-hunters, understandably lack perspective on the matter — “horizontal bowhunting” (not my term) isn’t merely a matter of bow cant.

What is or should be at issue is whether permitting weapons superior to bows, such as crossbows and firearms, during archery seasons comports with the spirit of NAM.

It’s not a convenient determination for public wildlife managers to make, but they are obligated to make it — NAM is a series of bedrock principles they commit to abide, a public trust burden for-profits don’t bear. And it isn’t arbitrary either — no more than deciding a driver at 50 mph is complying with the speed limit in a 30 mph zone.

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No one would deny that public resource managers today confront a dizzying array of competing interests; it’s messy but no less vital to the democratic underpinning of NAM. So the temptation for some agency decisions to be over-influenced by stakeholder polling and internal expediency can be as understandable as it can be unwise. But that’s where the principles the agency commits itself to should provide a rudder, to help maintain course, as it grapples with thorny questions that lie at the intersection of those interests and the finite capacity of natural resources.

It’s safe to say New York’s DEC isn’t the only state wildlife agency committed to remain “dedicated to ensuring that the tradition of hunting remains strong … and that deer management continues to reflect the tenets of the North American Model and principles of fair chase, despite changing cultural values and pressures from within and without the hunting community.” (my emphasis) And in A Conservation Timeline: Milestones of the Model’s Evolution, Robert Brown, Ph.D. and Dean of the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University, points out that although the term North American Model of Wildlife Conservation was coined relatively recently, its history extends hundreds of years.

Principal architects of that history include Aldo Leopold, widely regarded as the father of modern wildlife management in the U.S. While rereading his essay, Wildlife in American Culture, I was reminded again how the depth of his thinking was far advanced not only for his own time but arguably also for today.

“No one can weigh or measure culture, hence I shall waste no time trying to do so. Suffice it to say that by common consent of thinking people, there are cultural values … that renew contacts with wild things. I venture the opinion that these values are of three kinds.”

He went on to describe them as those experiences that remind us of our history (what he termed “split-rail” values), our dependency on the soil-plant-animal-man food chain (“man-earth” values), and that exercise ethical restraints, which he collectively referred to as “sportsmanship.”

It’s self-evident that the evolution of that sportsmanship is away from the essential values Leopold believed it embodied. To those values, he went on to explain, “Our tools for the pursuit of wildlife improve faster than we do, and sportsmanship is the voluntary limitation in the use of those armaments. It is aimed to augment the role of skill and shrink the role of gadgets in the pursuit of wild things.” (my emphasis)

“Then came the gadgeteer, otherwise known as the sporting-goods dealer. He has draped the American outdoorsman with an infinity of contraptions, all offered as aids to self-reliance, hardihood, woodcraft, or marksmanship, but too often functioning as substitutes for them. … But what of cultural values?”

“… Perhaps the bow and arrow movement and the revival of falconry mark the beginnings of a reaction. The net trend, however, is clearly towards more and more mechanization, with a corresponding shrinkage in cultural values, especially split-rail and ethical restraints.”

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Although hunting today under the aegis of NAM places important control on the numbers of wild animals we kill, it’s more than a stretch to suggest Leopold’s concern was confined solely within the context of such numbers. The father of modern wildlife management was concerned with the dumbing down of the hunting tradition through the broad uncritical acceptance of technology in the pursuit of wildlife, an acceptance that degrades our appreciation of the natural world. However, that tradition isn’t a homogenous slab. It needs to be recognized for the tapestry that it is, comprised of individual strands each embodying the virtues of its own rich tradition, each therefore worthy of recognition within the context of NAM, and in turn, an agency’s principles.

Discerning that recognition for the bowhunting tradition is a growing challenge. In their own defense, agencies frequently cite general trends of burgeoning ungulate populations, and lower hunter recruitment, as implied justification for their decisions that marginalize bowhunting. Those trends are correct though alone don’t provide insight to their underlying causes. And acting without addressing those causes risks confusing activity with progress, or worse, creating unintended consequences.

I need to be clear. Protecting natural resources comes first; without that, tradition goes the way of passenger pigeons, a point made brutally clear by the early twentieth century. However, when essential values of the bowhunting tradition are all but stated to conflict with resource management, before attempting to dumb them down it’s important to assess the correctness of the claim, whether the choices being presented are false, and whether viable alternatives exist for preserving them.

A defining distinction of those values is the commitment required to become proficient with a hunting bow, an implement that remains under human muscle control prior to and throughout full draw and release. Unlike a hunter using superior weapons, such as crossbows and firearms, which deliver factory preset levels of energy to bolt and bullet respectively, the bowhunter, through form and fitness, is integral to the energy delivered to a loosed arrow. It sets the bow apart as a primitive hunting weapon and imposes the added limitation of close range hunting tactics.

Because public wildlife agencies play a unique and central role, bowhunting values won’t endure without being respected in agencies’ policies. That won’t occur without a renewed commitment by agencies to acknowledge mission drift.

Proposals to place big game firearm hunts in the archery season should, therefore, prompt a range of questions, including:

  1. What does placing them in the firearm season fail to accomplish that placing them in the archery season does?
  2. Why isn’t implementing special archery AND firearm hunts during their respective seasons also an option?
  3. Does the “hunter support” for the proposal touted by the agency reflect something tangible beyond a broader preference for hunting with firearms over bows? If it doesn’t, how can the agency claim to be “dedicated to ensuring that the tradition of hunting remains strong, despite changing cultural values and pressures from within and without the hunting community?”
  4. Is the overlap of small game gun with big game archery season adequate justification, even for special youth hunts? In other words, is the impact to bowhunting from big game’s response to an incremental increase in firearm activity merely perceived? On the surface it might seem so, but anyone can mentor a youth and you don’t need a special season to do it. And after many encounters of deer lounging well within range of my own practice sessions, I’m sure others can also attest that it isn’t the same animal when it knows it’s being hunted. The level of firearm activity isn’t the only concern; it’s also hunter behavior toward the species being pursued.

Proposals to sanction crossbows during archery seasons deserve similar scrutiny:

  1. The crossbow isn’t a bow, so what does permitting its use during the archery season really accomplish that restricting it to other seasons doesn’t?
  2. Here again, is the agency losing sight of its guiding principles?
  3. And because they share many design features in common with firearms, crossbows, like firearms, are conducive to different hunting tactics than those used in bowhunting. The “drive” is one example. Are such tactics likely to interfere with the time-tested bowhunting tactics of stand and still hunting, particularly in areas of higher hunter densities? (The distinction in hunting tactics is the reason DEC gives for excluding gun hunter sightings from the Bowhunter Sighting Log. The Log is used to compile data on “species for which we most need management information” and the agency believes “[bowhunter] preference for stand and still hunting will reduce variability and give a better index than we would get from other types of hunters.”)

On the question of whether to permit crossbow use during archery season for bowhunters with permanent lifetime disabilities, I consider myself blessed and cursed. Blessed, because I’m in good health, cursed, because I recognize I’m unable to fully appreciate the physically challenged bowhunter’s situation. On the one hand, adaptive equipment for vertical bows is available, so there’s a case to be made for the blanket exclusion of crossbows during archery season that applies in some states. But who, other than the physically challenged hunter, knows best whether that equipment is adequate to serve his or her needs? The question clearly deserves great care.

Yet irrespective of programs designed for the physically challenged, managers sometimes defend their proposals on the basis of providing additional “tools” for controlling wildlife numbers. That sounds good, but a hatchet is a poor substitute when the work calls for a scalpel. Programs for attracting new and retaining existing hunters, particularly among youth and valued members of the physically challenged community, need to be encouraged. But opening the door for able body hunters to use crossbows during the archery season suggests a different agenda, perhaps one growing out of touch with the hunting tradition.

With more and more country placed off-limits to hunting in general, the challenge for managers to achieve population objectives can be understandably daunting. According to some documents, declining hunter access, not surprisingly, is believed to contribute to higher rates of hunter attrition, the combined result being fewer hunters to control deer and elk populations expanding beyond the carrying capacity of winter range. But that’s hardly an indictment of bowhunting; dumbing down the later in response to the former is like mopping up water from a bathroom floor as the tub continues overflowing.

Make no mistake; there’s no substitute for the expertise our trained professionals bring to wildlife management, and they need and deserve our support. But they are human, subject to the same political and financial pressures we all are and at times in need of a course-correct. They need to be reminded our support for bowhunting isn’t selfish obstruction in the management of wildlife. And it’s no more a wholesale knock against technology than is our support for wild places a preference to live out our lives in caves.

Rather, it’s a unique way to reaffirm, and help preserve, an essential element of the conservation ethic the father of modern wildlife management was so passionate about, self-imposed restraint.