The Importance of the Hunter Education Program to the Development of Ethical Literacy Among the Hunting Community

Samsara Chapman, University of Montana

The fall 2000 hunting season in Montana started out poorly. On the first day two unfortunate events occurred: a llama, mistaken for a mule deer, was shot by a young hunter (Anon.); and a bull elk was killed, while the young man only had a cow license (Clawson). Then, on November 19, a hunter shot and killed his brother while tracking a wounded elk (McCarty). These three events are isolated, but indicate a partial failure of the ethical paradigm associated with hunting. The primary ethical paradigm associated with hunting involves respect for the land, animals, and other humans. In these cases the person who shoot the llama did not show knowledge of being able to identify shootable wildlife. The other young hunter became excited, fired in his excitement, and killed a bull instead of a cow; and the brother fired on what he believed to be their injured elk in the bushes.

Hunting is an activity where one of the beings involved, usually the non-human animal, often loses its life. The aspect of taking a life has brought about debates in cultural settings, usually over questions of the ethics of the activity. Historically, hunting provided the primary source of protein for humans. The necessity of this form of protein has diminished in contemporary culture with the advent of animal husbandry, but questions concerning how the activity is carried out and what attitudes hunters exhibit have gained prominence.

Once questions in the moral realm are raised, they cannot be easily dismissed. Because the activity of the hunt relies, in part, on the good-will of lawmakers and non-hunters, the need for increased ethical understanding and behavior in hunters has been recognized and programs are beginning to be implemented, usually under the auspices of the state hunter education program. Two tools that could be highly effective in promoting ethical literacy and ethical actions are hunter education programs and mentoring programs, but the ethical aspect of the activity of hunting needs to be recognized and emphasized by all persons engaged in hunting, including those who may not be affected by the hunter education programs.

In developing an understanding of the role of hunter education courses in working toward increased ethical literacy, I will first examine what ethical literacy is, and follow with the development of the modern ethical hunter. Finally, I will conclude by looking at the history of the hunter education program and an analysis of how this program can contribute to ethical literacy.

The Importance of Ethical Literacy for Developing a Hunting Ethic

Ethical literacy is a process of learning and being able to articulate your own moral life. There are three main points in the process: (1) explication, (2) clarification, and (3) illumination. The results of this process are to allow a person to easily comprehend moral controversies, to be able to respond to those controversies, and to allow the person to express himself in reasoned discourse. Ethical literacy is not necessary for ethical actions, but the reflection required by the process of ethical literacy encourages ethical, reasoned actions.

This process is encouraged by personal reading, dialogues with other people, and reflection on the individual’s moral state. Explication is the process of raising a person’s awareness of his or her own moral life. His or her moral norms are examined and tested for rigor in the clarification process. In the testing process, it is necessary to reflect on these norms. This reflection leads to consistency in the person’s moral life. Finally, the illumination process includes looking at personal moral norms in the context of history and how the history has contributed to the development of those norms.

This process is important in a growing climate of polarized thinking about hunting, especially with the increasing demands that hunters be ethical. With increased ethical literacy within the hunting community, an individual will be able to articulate why he or she hunts, and to hold or to work toward a consistent ethic. Hunters will come to understand their privilege in light of the historical context, and to recognize that history’s contributions to the developing hunting ethic.

Hunting in the United States

A hunter is part of a larger community that has its own history. This history includes self-imposed limits on the killing of animals, and a growing emphasis on respect for other hunters and non-hunters. This historical information begins to provide a base for this respect while instilling an idea of the importance of heritage in the modern hunter.

The roots of American hunting lie in Europe where wildlife belonged to the king and the common man had no access to hunt legally. If an animal was killed, the peasant faced penalties as severe as death (Posewitz Inherit the Hunt (IH) 35 – 37). When America was colonized in the 1600s, everything the settlers encountered here was seen as a resource without limits. Most of the resources were free of royal monopoly. The only exception were trees that would make good masts for the sailing ships, called the “broad arrow policy” because the trees would be blazed with an arrow by the royal navy. Other timber could be cut with little care–there was always more. The same was true with wildlife (Dana and Fairfax 3-5). Unfortunately this use ethic has predominated for most of our nation’s history, leading to massive declines in numbers of most of the native, shootable wildlife, and the extinction of a few species, notably the passenger pigeon.

Early U.S. hunters can be categorized into three groups: market hunters, subsistence hunters, and sport hunters. Market hunters, as the name implies, provided meat for buyers. One species (of several) that was highly impacted by market hunters was the American bison. In 1876, 80,000 bison hides were shipped down the Missouri from Fort Benton (Posewitz IH 52-54). In many cases bison were shot and only the hides and tongues were taken (Mussehl and Howell 8). By 1884 the bison-hide shipments had ceased: there were no more bison to be killed (Posewitz IH 52-54). The decimation of the bison was also a result of the U.S. Government attempting either to eradicate or to break the plains Indians to its rule.

Subsistence hunters were the men who hunted primarily to feed their families. These hunters had a much lower impact on wildlife species, but still had the common attitude that wildlife was limitless. Of the three classes of hunters, this one is considered to be more similar to early human hunting and gathering societies than the other forms recognized today (see Causey, King, List, and Vitali). In some ways, this presents a paradox: 45% of hunters cite getting meat as their primary purpose in hunting; 38% are recreational hunters, for whom hunting is a hobby; and 17% are nature hunters, or cite a wish to play the role of a natural predator (qtd. in Swan 17 – 19). This is a paradox because the original hunter-gatherer position is one of living with nature, or having an intimate role in the course of natural events. Now, many people view subsistence hunters as being outside of nature and less answerable to ethical claims (Causey 330-333). Today, members of this group are also called “utilitarian hunters.”

The third class of hunters borrowed the British term “sport hunter” to differentiate themselves from the subsistence and market hunters. The hunters that usually fell into this category were well-to-do, and considered their “sport” to be a form of recreation. These men did not need the meat to survive, but used hunting as a diversion. So-called “trophy” hunters fall into this class. Many sport hunters recognized the need for a sustainable hunting ethic and, subsequently, provided the funding and incentives necessary for the current state of wildlife through a voluntary tax on hunting and fishing equipment. The rise of conservation of wildlife also had an economic aspect: gun manufacturers realized that with fewer animals to shoot, their sales were declining, and the trend would continue (Gilbert and Dodds 10).

Today, people generally hunt for “sport” or for subsistence. Dr. Stephen Kellert describes these kinds and their percentages of the total hunting population: meat hunters (45.5%), recreational hunters (38.5%), and nature hunters (17%). Meat hunters, as the name implies, hunt primarily for the purpose of putting meat on the table. This group includes subsistence hunters. The recreational hunters are those who hunt to have fun and often regard hunting as a sport and a hobby. The final group of nature hunters is described as those hunters who have a deep affection for nature and wish to be part of the natural cycle of life and death (qtd. in Swan 17 – 19).

The history of hunting and its associated science, wildlife biology, began to take shape in legislative bodies in the middle of the 19th century. The saga leading up to the first court ruling that shaped the future of wildlife began in 1664 when King Charles II of England made a land grant to his brother. The land was located in what is now New Jersey. In addition to the land, King Charles also granted “full and absolute power . . . to correct, punish, pardon, govern and rule” all persons that might enter or use the land, or hunt the wildlife (Posewitz IH 46). An oyster-rich river flowed through that land. At the mouth of the river were large meadows and marshes that provided habitat for waterfowl.

The land grant and trespass rights were haggled over for the next century and a half as the property was bought and sold by the colonists. In 1821 the dispute over gathering oysters at the mouth of the river was mentioned by the New Jersey Supreme Court. That court was amazed that the taking of a few bushels of oysters presented a question of such magnitude. Finally, in 1841 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state of New Jersey was the successor to the powers of sovereignty of the crown or the parliament (Posewitz IH 45-48). This ruling placed the wildlife in the hands of the state, in trust for the citizens as common property, even if located on private land.

In 1872 Congress passed the Yellowstone Park Act. It states that “[the Secretary of the Interior] shall provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said park, and against their capture or destruction for the purposes of merchandise or profit.” As a result, there is no human hunting in most National Parks and the wildlife is viewed as a national treasure. This act initiated some forms of wildlife protection, but the Department of Interior was under-funded and Yellowstone Park was distant from Washington D.C., so little enforcement of this law occurred for the first twenty years of the park’s existence.

In 1887 the Boone and Crockett Club was founded by an enthusiastic hunter: Theodore Roosevelt. The founding members of the group were all “sport” hunters from wealthy families (Gilbert and Dodds 10-11). They campaigned against market hunting and worked for wildlife conservation (Posewitz IH 57-67). One of their first campaigns was to protect Yellowstone from squatters and hunters. To further this end, after extensive lobbying by the club, Congress sent the military west to protect the park.

One piece of early national legislation of importance for and by hunters, was the Lacey Act of 1900, the author of which was also a member of the Boone & Crockett Club. This act prevented the interstate marketing of dead birds and banned certain market hunting. This act was in response to overhunting, particularly of migratory bird populations. The law worked, among other things, to protect the birds from the being killed for ladies’ hats (Dana and Fairfax 79). In 1900 wildlife numbers were deplorably low, with many species we take for granted today at an all-time low. The following table gives the numbers of some of the shootable species then and now in the United States (Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MTFWP) 44; Economist 102).

Species

Numbers in 1900

Numbers Today

White tail Deer 300,000 20 million
Wild Turkeys 30,000 4 million
Elk 41,000 1 million
Pronghorn 12,000 1 million
Canada Geese 1.1 million 2.3 million

In 1937 one of the most important hunter-initiated bills was passed into law: the Wildlife Restoration Act (also called the Pittman-Robertson Act). This act, lobbied for by hunters, imposed a 10% tax on hunting equipment. This tax provides matching funds for wildlife programs, nationwide (Huddleston 6). In addition to providing dollars for state budgets, the federal government allows the state matching to be in the form of volunteer hours (O’Hara 8). Aside from voluntary bag limits, this act is probably the most important legislation ever passed to provide for a continuation of hunting. The funds from the act are used, in part, to provide education. Later bills added taxes on handguns, archery and fishing equipment (Huddleston 6).

In 1956 the Fish and Wildlife Act formed the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) under the Secretary of the Department of the Interior. This act called for freedom of enterprise, protection of opportunity, and government assistance in order to “accomplish the objective of proper resource development.” Today the primary duties of the FWS are to research and manage threatened and endangered wildlife. They also provide consulting for states and other federal agencies on wildlife matters.

The most influential act passed by Congress is the Endangered Species Act of 1973. This act recognizes that, because of human activity, some species are in danger of becoming extinct. Of all the wildlife and resource policy acts, this one is the most far-reaching: all land management actions must be considered in light of threatened and endangered species. By 1978 the FWS had listed 672 animal species, almost 30,000 more were nominated for similar designations, and 1850 plant species were proposed for listing (Dana and Fairfax 261-264). The primary impact this act has on hunters is forbidding the “taking” of threatened or endangered species, and the act allows for the prosecution of illegal taking.

While this series of legislation was being debated and passed on a national level, Montana had enacted hunting regulations as early as 1869. While many species were recognized as important and deserving of protection, the American bison was being slaughtered at astounding rates. Other animals were being protected by imposed seasons and bag limits. In 1869 the Territorial Legislature closed the season on hunting introduced game birds:

Grouse hunting seasons were set in 1870 and by 1872 the hunting season on buffalo, moose, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, antelope and hairs was closed from February 1 to August 15 of each year. Market hunting for game birds was prohibited in 1877. Bounty payments for predator control were authorized in 1879. In 1895 the first bag limits appeared and in 1897 the sale of all game animals and birds was prohibited. (Mussehl and Howell 9)

Other developments in Montana included the formation of the Board of Game Commission in 1895 and the first game warden was hired in 1901 (Mussehl and Howell 10-11). Today the Fish and Game Commission, a governor-appointed body, has the power to close seasons, set bag limits, and make the final decision on the number of hunting licenses sold each year.

What is an Ethical Hunter?

One of the roots for being an ethical hunter comes from the notion of respect. A person who respects the land views the area as something other than a dead, spiritless object provided for his enjoyment. Respect dictates that he or she acknowledge the evolutionary histories of species, and his or her role in the environment. The land takes on a life of its own and provides “gifts” for the hunter.

Calling an animal’s death a gift is an expression of respect for the animal. An important show of this respect is by preparing for the hunting season by knowing the animals. This knowing is not just being able to identify what is being shot, but knowing the habits and habitats of the prey. By knowing the habitat and habits a hunter shows respect for the animal by spending time getting to know the animal, respecting it as a being, not an object. A hunter who respects his prey will clearly identify what he or she is shooting, but will also allow an animal to pass if he or she is not absolutely certain of what he or she is shooting at (e.g. it may be his brother in the bushes).

By respecting the laws of the state in which the hunter is hunting, he or she is, again, less likely to shoot the wrong species. He or she will also be more inclined to encourage legal hunting in his or her hunting partners and report poor behavior he or she observes in the field. By setting a good example for other hunters, a hunter provides lessons in following the social laws and personal norms. By acting ethically, a hunter can also influence other people. He or she can teach other hunters what it means to hunt ethically and he or she can show non-hunters that there are good, ethical hunters in the fields. This aspect takes on a new dimension when an ethical hunter becomes a mentor to a young hunter: the older hunter leaves a legacy. The results of consistency, or coherence, and articulation also become important when dealing with other people. If a hunter can articulate his or her norms, he or she is on firm ground for discussing why he or she hunts. If his or her norms are consistent, he or she should feel no shame or fear in defending his or her hunting practice.

The last facet of an ethical hunter is respect for other humans, hunters and non- or anti-hunters alike. The hunter does not have to agree with the other people, but must acknowledge the other person’s position on the issue of hunting. This cannot be a one-way respect. Non- and anti-hunters must also respect a hunter’s decision to hunt. A background of respect opens the possibility of constructive dialogue between the different groups. If the hunter refuses to listen to the anti-hunter, both will be arguing about, not discussing, the issue. If arguments occur, the individuals involved are more likely to work toward, in the anti-hunter’s case, getting hunting banned altogether, based on an interaction with maybe as few as one hunter.

Animal rights groups quite often reject hunting as being immoral and causing pain to animals. Animal welfare groups may only support hunting as long as the hunter works to cause the least pain and fastest death possible. Other people judge the ethicality of hunting based on the hunter’s motivations: sport, meat, trophy, or subsistence. So-called “slob hunters” may believe that it is ethical to shoot at anything that moves, legal or not. He or she may also not consider the morality of his or her actions or deem them to be important. The new emerging “ethical hunter” is a mix of animal welfare and “good” hunting stances.

There are as many reasons why a person hunts as there are hunters. But, while it is relatively easy to answer why people hunt, the question of why people should hunt remains the focus of many ethicists. Some authors claim that hunting is a genetic necessity or is a goal of evolution, and believe this defense covers the should question. Unfortunately most of these arguments are not well reasoned and do not show that hunting is essential to modern human health, or really suppport the position that people should hunt. The best defense is provided by James Swan (1995), an environmental psychologist, but focuses on the should at the level of the individual hunters, not on the activity as a whole. Another notion that has arisen in this debate is that the modern sport of hunting (not so much subsistence hunting) is a “spandrel,” or a fortunate side-effect of evolutionary pressures that has no direct effect on survival. If the hunting instinct is the result of evolution, no author has begun to adequately defend the position, much less shown that evolutionary pressures abrogate actions from the realm of ethics.

The necessity of killing an animal to authenticate the hunt is itself an area of debate. Many hunter-philosophers claim that the kill does authenticate the hunt, but the hunt is so much more than just the kill. Many of these writers also place a high significance on the value of the hunt as a whole, not just the kill for the meat, some even claim that a successful hunt can be one where no animal dies. A favorite quote of many authors is from Meditations on Hunting by Jos? Ortega y Gasset (1972): “. . . [O]ne does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted” (110 – 111). Unfortunately, in using only this quote, the authors miss the rich discussion he gives on this topic at the beginning of the book. Earlier in the work, he writes that certain kinds of hunting are concerned with “bringing the animal back alive” (53). The hunt, he writes, “ends simply in the hunter’s taking possession of the prey, dead or alive” (56).

In considered normative justification for the hunt, a person begins the process of working toward ethical literacy. For hunters and non-hunters alike, the university system provides access to portions of the process in the form of one required ethics course. For hunters, the hunter education program is beginning to provide an atmosphere of encouragement for the hunters to begin reflection on personal norms and the activity of purposefully taking a life.

The Hunter Education Program

The earliest hunter education program (HEP) was called “hunter safety.” The first state to require the safety program was New York in 1949. It offered classes on basic gun safety techniques (MTFWP 4). In Montana, the first required courses were offered in 1957. The classes were designed for all hunters between the ages of 12 and 17. The course consisted of four hours of gun safety training (MTFWP 119). In 1957 the state Legislature required the course before a hunter between the ages of 12 and 14 years old could purchase a big game permit. For the year 1958, hunters between 15 and 17 years old did not have to take the course if they had purchased a permit the year before. The law was amended in 1963, making the course mandatory for anyone under 18 who wanted to purchase a hunting license (qtd. in Bradshaw 3).

The state considers the HEP to have been a success with the number of hunting-related firearm accidents dropping from a high of 60 to 11 accidents per year, 1.3 per year resulting in a fatality. Another sign of success is that over 220,000 individuals have completed the course and have been certified since it became required in 1957 (qtd in Bradshaw 4). Today the HEP can vary in length from 10 to 25 or more hours per course. These courses include hunter responsibility and gun safety.

The use of the HEP as a platform to encourage ethical literacy depends on the attitudes of the instructors toward ethics and alternative teaching methods. The Hunter Education: Gun Safety and Hunter Responsibility Handbook (MTFWP 1996) provides rich information for the young hunter, and could provide some lessons for older hunters, too. The book is divided into ten chapters, among which some are titled “What is a good hunter?” and “The wildlife.” In the book, the largest chapter is dedicated to firearms and fills 24 pages (of a total 128) of text. A majority of the balance of the book deals with ethics, responsibility, history, and wildlife. Actual wildlife identification only fills five pages (120 – 125). The chapter on wildlife discusses habitat requirements for wildlife, habitat conservation, and the role of hunters as conservationists. The book is a good beginning for a person willing to learn how to be an ethical hunter, but the book is not the course. It is required reading by the students, but the instructors can pick and choose which portions of the handbook to teach from.

In a recent survey, Bradshaw (1999) asked HEP instructors how their time was used, what teaching methods they preferred, and an open-ended evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the program. Instructors claim, on average, to spend 40% of the class time teaching gun safety and approximately 25% of the time teaching ethics and responsibility. He also found that almost 80% of the instructors agreed that hunter ethics should be taught with equal time as the gun safety sections, but that belief was not reflect in actual class time (39). In another section of the survey, the instructors were asked about the weaknesses of the program. This question was open-ended, unlike the others on the survey. Fifty-two of the instructors felt that the greatest weakness was the lack of time for teaching, and they would like more time to teach the topics instead of reducing the amount of information being taught (60).

Bradshaw also examined how the instructors believed ethics should be taught. The survey showed that 52% of the instructors did not believe lecturing to be the best way to teach ethics and preferred role playing (44). Actual teaching methods used were lecturing, interactive methods, educational videos, and field trips. Of these, lecturing composed 48% of the teaching methods with interactive methods ranking at 30% (42).

The next set of questions Bradshaw analyzed dealt specifically with the book Beyond Fair Chase (Posewitz 1994). It is one source provided by the state for beginning discussions on ethics. The state hunter education officials encourage use of the book, but its use is not required. Students are required to have read the book before the courses began, but with no set curriculum; discussions based on the book are not required. The instructors were asked if the book was an effective teaching tool, and 71% believed it was, while 11% did not (51).

The HEP provides a wonderful platform from which to launch a new hunter in the direction of ethical hunting. The program is constantly changing, so as the notions of hunting ethics change over time the program can adapt. Unfortunately a one-time course offering may not be sufficient to aid in the retention of the ideas expressed and discussed in the program.

One of the methods the HEP can use to help initiate the process of ethical literacy is to incorporate a mentoring program. This program is beginning to be used in conjunction with the state HEP in Idaho (Papp 10). Mentors could be encouraged to promote ethical hunting by state-provided incentives such as a reduced-price, or free, hunting license every year the hunter agrees to be a mentor. Traditionally, mentors came in the form of parents, usually fathers. Mentors today include mothers, husbands, and other family relatives. Notable historic figures who have served as mentors include Carl Leopold and Theodore Roosevelt.

While there is not a specific program for training mentors, parents or partners are encouraged to attend the HEP with their child or partner. This allows the beginning hunter an opportunity to discuss what is covered in the classes, but does not address who a mentor should be or what his or her training might entail.

Methods I would recommend for strengthening the HEP could include:

  • integrating the program into the public schools, as an elective, or an after school elective;
  • teaching standards for the instructors;
  • a set curriculum;
  • requiring a hunter under the age of 18 either to have hunted the year before, or to take a refresher course before receiving a permit;
  • an advanced hunter education course that either provides information as a refresher course, for violators of conservation laws, or for older, first-time hunters;
  • a requirement for all first-time hunters in a state to have passed either a written test or a HEP before being able to purchase their first license; and,
  • a class specifically directed toward mentors, including an honorary certificate upon completion of the class.

If the HEP was incorporated into the public schools, young hunters would learn that hunting is a year-round activity, not a two- or three-month hobby. Teaching standards for the instructors would help weed out the poor teachers that were mentioned as a program weakness. A set curriculum would give FWP more control over the content that reaches the new/young hunters. More time for the program would have to be included in this recommendation. The repeated courses would reinforce the lessons of previous classes, stressing the importance of both gun safety and hunter ethics. An advanced hunter education program would provide a solution to the problems presented by conservation law violators, and for adults who have taken a “vacation” from hunting for many years. Older, first-time hunters may feel more comfortable and accepted among older hunters, providing an atmosphere more conducive to teaching ethics and responsibility. Finally, a national standard for the HEP would allow state agencies to feel confident that out-of-state hunters are not ignorant of local wildlife and conditions. Local refresher courses would be helpful as well.

Conclusion

Hunting is an ancient form of gathering food. However, few people now hunt for that reason. Concurrent to this is the rise in numbers of people who advocate for animal welfare and animal rights. As the numbers of the non-hunting public grow, this facet of society has a growing effect on the privilege of hunting. One way of combating adverse emotions to hunting is by encouraging hunters to be ethical and to have a high degree of ethical literacy. There is an as-yet not fully tapped source of ethical support in the communities, volunteer instructors, and mentors that compose hunter education programs. The state-run hunter education programs provide a wonderful springboard to encourage the development of ethical literacy among young and new hunters.

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  1. I do not use the term “game” for the same reasons I dislike calling hunting a “sport.” The fact that hunting is not a “sport” will be addressed in the main body of the text under the section of ethical hunting.
  2. This is a statement about wildlife only, not access to private land. Many states, Montana included, have laws that require hunters to gain written permission from the landowner to hunt on his land.
  3. Exceptions to this statement occur in the form of native subsistence hunting rights both in Glacier National Park (currently under debate) and in parks in Alaska.
  4. In class discussion with Dr. Jack W. Thomas, Boone & Crockett Professor of Wildlife. Spring 1999.
  5. As mentioned earlier, this paper focuses on the acts of the individual hunter, not on the motivations.
  6. For this discussion please see Swan, Causey, Bekoff and Jamieson, Posewitz (both works), and Shepard.
  7. For examples see Ortega y Gasset, Kerasote, Posewitz (both citations), Causey, Huddleston, Good, and Jackson
  8. Father of Aldo Leopold. The book Game Management is dedicated “To My Father Carl Leopold, pioneer in sportsmanship.”
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