While hunting Rocky Mountain elk or mountain Merriam’s turkeys or any other wild game in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains I generally endeavor to meet up with Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) founder David “Elkheart” Petersen. David is a renowned trad bow elk hunter, hunting ethicist, and former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot.
While discussing elk hunting with David at a local watering hole a while back I mentioned a recent hunt—that included 50 hours and 50 miles of “armed hiking” through 14,700-plus feet of elevation gain without seeing or hearing a single elk—saying it was “good, hard work.” David agreed, and we concluded it’s a key component of ethical hunting.
And as David has pointed out in many of his books and other writings, a minimal level of sportsman ethics afield is mandated by law. Beyond that, say, when an action is legal but ethically questionable, or when (as Aldo Leopold points out) no one is watching, hunters’ ethics is an individual responsibility. It all boils down to fair chase.
A 1902 cartoon about Teddy Roosevelt and fair chase.
The phrase “fair chase” has a very specific meaning in the hunting world. The Boone and Crockett Club defines it 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.”
The Boone and Crockett Club was founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt and his hunting buddies. Fifteen years later (when Roosevelt was president), after an unproductive outing for black bear in Mississippi, one of the guides ran down a bear with dogs, then dragged the creature into camp for Roosevelt to shoot. He declined in disgust, explaining the principles of fair chase.
In Nov. 2010, a Colorado man shot a 703-pound black bear after he tracked the animal to its den in Moffat County, saying he shot the bear from six feet away after entering the den. When the state wildlife commission got wind of it, they decided unanimously to draft a rule banning the hunting of bears in dens. Commissioners said they’d never heard of anyone “den hunting” in Colorado because it’s considered unsportsmanlike. “We don’t go out and hunt bears in dens. It’s just not done,” said Scott Limmer, a regional director for the Colorado Outfitters Association.
Tracking a bear to its den in the snow and shooting it potentially involved some hard work, but was it a good (i.e., ethical) thing to do? The Division of Wildlife (now Colorado Parks and Wildlife) didn’t think so. Neither did Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. In letters to the Craig Daily Press (“Sportsmen Back DOW,” 1/10/11) and Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel (“‘Fair Chase’ doesn’t mean shooting animals in dens,” 1/10/11) we emphatically stated our position.
“Last November, a Colorado ‘hunter’ tracked a black bear to its den, where it was likely preparing to hibernate for the winter, then shot it in the den. Such an act, although not currently illegal, is an unfortunate example of excessively poor judgment and a complete lack of fair-chase ethics, and Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers fully supports the state wildlife commission’s plans to draft a rule banning the hunting of bears in dens.”
Legal vs. Ethical
“Some hunters are willing to say, ‘if it’s legal, it’s ethical.’ But the problem with this is that neither ‘legal’ nor ‘ethical’ are fixed, timeless boundaries,” Jan Dizard and Phil Seng wrote in the Spring 2021 Backcountry Journal. “We hunters have to be ever mindful of how our actions are perceived by the 95 percent of the population that does not hunt, a proportion of which is skeptical not about hunting but about the character of hunters.”
“To me, the admittedly abstract concept of ‘fair chase’ implies that how and why I hunt or fish is more important than whether or not I get anything,” Matthew Grady added in the Summer 2014 Backcountry Journal. “It’s not survival anymore, our nation is too fat for me to believe that (and so am I). Nor is it a competition. We’ve won. Run the score up anymore and we won’t have anyone to play with.”
“The animal should have a chance,” explained David E. Petzal, Field & Stream magazine’s field editor. “If you shoot at an animal from 500 yards or farther, you’re depriving him of his tools. You negate his eyesight and his hearing and his sense of smell.” In an August 2014 Field & Stream story (“The Line Between Hunting and Long-Range Shooting”) Petzal added, “… if you plan at the outset to shoot from the next ZIP code and substitute ballistics for legs and lungs and patience and skill, you are no hunter at all.”
I’m a rifle hunter, but don’t spend hours at the range over days and weeks practicing long-range shooting. Alternatively, I plan for shots of no more than about 200 yards. My longest kill to date has been at some 75 yards, with multiple others coming in at 100 to 200 feet. Like David Petersen and David Petzal, I prefer getting closer vs. shooting farther.
The author in the San Juan Mountains taking his gun for a hike.
“Many hunters seem to use every technological advantage to shoot farther, whether with bow or gun,” said Traditional Bowhunter contributor Sterling Holbrook. “Many seem to be following the current trend to make everything as easy as possible and take a ‘trophy’ at all cost … Who knows where the current trend of hundred-yard compound shooting and thousand-yard rifle shots is headed. I do know one thing—it’s really not hunting at all, and the participant is the one losing out.”
As Aldo Leopold—the foundering father of modern wildlife management—wrote in 1941, “A peculiar virtue of 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 by a mob of onlookers. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this fact.”
Perhaps hunting ethically doesn’t always have to involve getting closer and “hard work,” but it is “good” when it does. And I would add, there’s a fine line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, between actual hunting and mere killing. Of course, we’re all welcome to our opinions. Mine is that ethical hunting is defined by good, hard work.
BHA: Our Issues (PAF)
- Public Lands & Waters (Public Lands = Freedom). Protecting and perpetuating our public lands and waters is paramount. We are the voice for our wild public lands, waters and wildlife.
- Access & Opportunity. Access has emerged as a priority issue for North American hunters and anglers, and lack of access is cited by sportsmen and women as the No. 1 reason why we stop pursuing our passions.
- Fair Chase. We must ensure that the ethical pursuit of fish and game is upheld as dearly as our own obligation to morality and citizenship.
-BHA & Fair Chase: https://www.backcountryhunters.org/fair_chase
-BHA-Our Issues: https://www.backcountryhunters.org/our_issues
-Ted Koch, BHA North American Board Chair. “A Sand County Almanac By Aldo Leopold (New Edition!).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 4/20/20.
-“Hunting ethically is good, hard work: A sportsmanlike, lawful pursuit of free-ranging game ensures a fair chase.” Colorado Newsline: 4/26/23.
-“Hunting Ethics: Lions, Trophies And Conservation.” Whitetales: Winter 2016, p. 36.
-“Hunting ethics & fair chase.” Colorado Outdoors: 6/30/14.
-“Keeping the ‘hunt’ in hunting.” Colorado Outdoors: 6/9/14.
-“Fair chase hunting.” The Pueblo Chieftain: 1/16/11.
-“‘Fair chase’ doesn’t mean shooting animals in dens.” The Daily Sentinel: 1/10/11.
-“Sportsmen back DOW.” Craig Daily Press: 1/10/11.
-“Spring 2023 CO BHA Newsletter.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 4/10/23.
-“The Ghost Bulls of Colorado.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/18/23.
-“Colorado Over-The-Counter (OTC) Unit Elk Hunting: Problems & Possibilities.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 12/14/22.
-“Colorado Over The Counter (OTC) Unit Elk Hunting.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 11/14/22.
-“Colorado BHA Tag Allocation Observations & Information.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 7/20/22.
-David “Elkheart” Petersen (founder of the first BHA state chapter, in Colorado, and a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot) books. Also see his “On the Wild Edge” documentary at: https://youtu.be/-IE58L4bqEA
“AFI in the News.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 4/24/23.
-Trevor Hubbs. “What is the AFI.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 3/3/23.
-“Giving Veterans a New Mission in Conservation”
-“Public Lands = Freedom”
David Lien is a former Air Force officer and co-chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of six books including “Hunting for Experience: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation.” During 2019 he was the recipient of BHA’s Mike Beagle-Chairman’s Award “for outstanding effort on behalf of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.” For additional hunting ethics-related resources/information also see: https://davidpetersenbooks.com/
 David Petersen is one of North America’s most renowned hunting ethicists and trad bow hunters and his writings (in part) inspired Mike Beagle (a former U.S. Army field artillery officer) to start BHA. Also see: https://davidpetersenbooks.com/
 Matthew Grady. “What Is Fair Chase?” Backcountry Journal: Summer 2014, p. 23.
 Sterling Holbrook. “Wish You Had a Rifle?” Traditional Bowhunter: May 2016, p. 82.