Maintaining Our Hunting Heritage or the Kiss of Death? ...You Decide

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"World-class hunters competing for big bucks ... cutting edge non-fatal hunting tour..." (www.worldhunt.com).

Outdoor writer Kevin Wilson shares his thoughts on the World Hunting Association.

Hunting has become a lucrative business in the 21st century. Evolving from a subsistence activity to a recreational pastime, where supply meets public demand, hunting today has become as commercial as any business out there. Gear manufacturers flog the highly motivated hunting consumer and outfitted hunting is a booming industry. Most recently the concept of hunting has been taken to a new, and many are saying, inappropriate level. But wait, before you pass judgment, let me give you the reported facts and you can decide for yourself.

Just when we thought we'd seen it all, the World Hunting Association (WHA) is challenging our traditional thoughts by presenting us with an arena for competitive "non-fatal" hunting with an attractive prize purse. According to WHA publicity, a televised tournament series featuring "professional hunters" is scheduled for broadcast in the fall of 2006. Information available to date suggests that lucrative prizes will be awarded to "professional hunters" collecting the biggest or most captive deer during the televised "hunts".

So the question is has the WHA taken too many liberties? With growing pressure on hunters and hunting across North America, have they gone too far? Operating under the premise of maintaining our hunting heritage, one has to question whether they are philosophically overstepping the boundaries of acceptability.

Like any issue, it behooves us to consider this one from all angles. Posted on their website is the organization's mission statement; it reads, "The Word Hunting Association is committed to promoting and growing hunting around the world. This will be achieved by showcasing the skills, techniques, and determination of hunters and by launching education, recruiting and charitable programs to increase understanding and participation."

My initial response is, wow, these guys deserve a medal! Hunting needs more champions and it sounds like they're willing to take the wheel. But recognizing that behind every message there is a motive, I decided to dig deeper.

After speaking with David Farbman, Commissioner and CEO of the WHA, I have to admit he's passionate about what he's doing - but he is clearly a businessman. In a statement posted on the WHA website (www.worldhunt.com) he states the WHA intends to "expand the next generation of hunters and hunting fans by showcasing the true essence of hunting and by offering exciting and educational content to provide more people facts about hunting. We are also creating a foundation which will donate to charitable and non-profit organizations that help enhance hunting, such as venison donation charities, and that offer hunting trips to those who are critically ill or less privileged."

Few would argue against the nobility of Farbman's declarations. Heck, my first reaction is to buy the guy a steak dinner! But take a closer look at what's behind it all, and you may have second thoughts. The truth is their non-fatal hunting technique targeting captive big game animals has prompted an uproar and intense criticism within the ranks of North American hunters.

"Hunting is not a 'catch-and-release' proposition," says M.R. James, President of the Pope & Young Club, one of North America's foremost conservation and record-keeping organizations for animals taken with bow and arrow. "Nor is it intended to be an entertaining public spectacle. The Pope & Young Club certainly does not want its organization identified with this type of commercial endeavor …" He goes on to say that, "World Hunting Association's idea flies in the face of the ethical, Fair Chase bowhunting challenges our organization embraces."

Pope & Young Club's Executive Secretary Kevin Hisey also added: "The idea that this concept is just plain wrong goes well beyond the issue of game farms and high fences. Many responsible hunters will view it as an affront to the values, principles and integrity of hunting so many hold dear."

At a time when political correctness is in vogue, the concept of darting and tranquilizing game animals (both by bow and arrow and by firearm) in the name of competitive hunting contradicts the traditional conservation ethic and principles of fair chase. Across the continent hunting organizations and individuals are speaking out against the WHA. Most conservationist hunters emphatically argue that "non-fatal" tranquilizing cannot be called hunting, and that it more closely resembles a harassing and debilitating game of 'catch-and-release' tag. Further, the WHA's intent is to offer the filming of this tournament for entertainment value. Able to view the hunt from the comfort of our easy chairs, all with a non-fatal end result, we the viewers will be able to watch it all unfold from our homes.

So the question remains, is this 'catch-and-release' hunting truly ethical? Is it acceptable, or has the WHA bastardized the concept of hunting to such as obscure level that it is no longer palatable? I mean really, let's put it in perspective. From a T.V. producer's point of view, "hunting" enthusiasts would become voyeurs extraordinaire, entertained by the "temporary" harvest of game. One has to question the philosophical values inherent to such an activity. Whether we support or oppose the WHA's proposed "non-fatal" hunting tournament, it ultimately comes down to values; what is it that we value about hunting as a heritage activity?

Consider this. As a commercial big game and bird game outfitter, I get to observe scores of visiting and resident hunters each season. Over the years I've learned that there are many types of people who "hunt" and for varying reasons, but most fall under two categories: there are those who love to hunt, and those who love the 'idea' of hunting. Think about it. Those who love to hunt recognize the value in everything the hunt offers, e.g., fresh air, fellowship, weather, challenges, successes, failures, personal development, peace and tranquility, and experiencing the natural world removed from the hustle and bustle of our daily grind. Then there are those who like the 'idea' of hunting. From where I sit, those who have fallen in love with the 'idea' of hunting place excessive value on the trophy regardless of the process. To put it bluntly, they value the bragging rights and the limelight more than the hunt itself.

Let's take a step back for a moment. Those of us who enjoy the 'process', share a passion of the heart. Driven by a God-given instinct to pursue, we are hunters. Chastised by some and supported by others, those of us adhering to the fair chase ethic and the right to responsibly take from our natural resources, share a kindred spirit. We are hunters, and proud of it. It's difficult to explain. Sure there is an undeniable sense of pride that comes with the ability to secure one's own food, but in this day and age hunting is not solely a means to this end. We value the uncertainty of every outing and, although we desire to harvest game, it is not the be all and end all.

Considering the aforementioned, the question remains, will the WHA's proposed "non-fatal" hunting tournaments conserve our hunting heritage or will it jeopardize our traditional activities? Aldo Leupold is best known as the father of modern day conservation. A hardcore hunter and nature lover Mr. Leupold was no stranger to the hunt. But I have to wonder how he would respond to such an idea. I'm guessing we all know what he'd say.

Perhaps Denny Ballard, Chairman of the North American Bowhunting Coalition (NABC) says it best. If nothing more, his insights are sobering. He is on record stating that, "the shooting of game animals within high fenced enclosures is a questionable practice in its own right. Adding drug-tipped projectiles to the process and the public spectacle of hunters gloating over the paralyzed body of a deer would do irreparable harm to ethical hunting. It is contrary to why we hunt. Hunting is a time honored tradition and should not be a competition between humans."

According to Farbman, "Now is the time for all hunters to stand together, shoulder to shoulder. While new ideas and change can sometimes be uncomfortable, this is a great opportunity for hunters to elevate the sport, clear up misconceptions, and expand the next generation of hunters." Based on his acknowledgement that this is a new and potentially "uncomfortable" idea, one has to recognize that even he sees that the WHA is stretching the boundaries of acceptability.

So, you decide. Is this a good or bad thing for our hunting heritage? Will it help or hinder public perception? According to their website, the WHA is planning to launch their first hunting event in the fall of this year. If you agree or disagree with the WHA and their non-fatal publicized hunts taking place within the confines of high fences, let Mr. Farbman know how you feel. His e-mail address is commissioner@worldhunt.com.

At the end of the day it's about ethics, doing what we can to maintain our hunting heritage and sadly our rights and freedoms. One has to question the morality of this type of 'catch and release' activity. As for yours truly, it makes me squirm. I'm certain anti-hunting and animal rights groups will have a heyday with this one!

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