Why hunters need to establish their own ethical boundaries


“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 that of onlookers.”

Aldo Leopold, from 1949’s A Sand County Almanac.


As hunters, we’re constantly confronted with ethical and moral issues. Some are thrust upon us, such as the 2017 closure of B.C.’s grizzly hunt. That was fueled by the ethics of the broader community, which simply wanted the hunt stopped. It had nothing to do with science-based evidence about the actual health of the bear population. Other ethical issues we agree with—we generally don’t drive through town anymore with a buck strapped to the hood of our car, for example. In both cases, though, our ethical behaviour is governed by overarching community values, whether we agree with them or not.

Personal ethics or morals, on the other hand, are individual principles about what’s right and what’s wrong, and they vary from person to person. For hunters, that includes how we conduct ourselves afield. Somewhere along the line, each of us has made a moral decision about where to draw the line. That’s what Aldo Leopold was referring to. At the same time, we need to appreciate that not all hunters necessarily share the same ethical code.



Take grouse hunting. Many hunters think nothing of potting a grouse on the ground. Then why do some of us turn up our noses at anyone who would also shoot a pheasant or Hungarian partridge on the ground? Similarly, most hunters agree shooting ducks on the water is unethical. Why is that? It’s all about the different ways we each choose to experience the outdoors.

On a goose hunt a couple of years ago, for example, two members of our party shot geese that had landed in the decoys. I looked over at a friend and we both raised our eyebrows; shooting geese on the ground was against our moral code. When I really thought about it later, though, I was able to put things into perspective. Those two guys seldom hunted, and they just wanted a goose or two for the dinner table. Plus, shooting the birds on the ground wasn’t illegal. It was simply an issue of morals, and because mine were different than theirs, it didn’t make them wrong.


Technological advances in hunting equipment have also led to many ethical questions. Drones were popular among some hunters for a few years, for example, until both the hunting community and the public determined they should be outlawed. Most jurisdictions now ban their use for hunting, reflecting the prevailing ethics.

Then there are the improved optics, cartridges and rifles that allow for shooting game at greater distances. The moral issue here arises when hunters must decide whether they have the skills to accurately make a long shot, irrespective of what their equipment is capable of.

History tells us technology will continue to improve, arguably tipping the balance even further as to what constitutes fair chase. Many of today’s trail cameras, for example, can send near-instantaneous images to your smartphone when animals cross their path. Is it morally right to then rush over to shoot that animal? By the same token, are spinning-wing decoys, e-callers and the like just inevitable advancements that should be used without thought, if legal?

And the moral questions don’t stop there. How do you feel about hunting over bait? Do you report other hunters you see acting illegally? Do you always treat private land respectfully? Do do you support the organizations that do so much for conserving wildlife habitat and maintaining hunting rights? On it goes.



Here’s the rub, and what Leopold was trying to tell us back in 1949—we must continually make our own decisions about what’s right and wrong when it comes to hunting practices, providing they’re legal in the first place. There will be times when the hunting community must submit to the ethics of the broader public, of course, but most often we’ll have to make our own choices, both individually and as a community.

There are no absolutes when faced with these conundrums, as we’re all entitled to our own moral principles. Our obligation, however, is to give each of them their due thought, and respect others who may disagree.