Topic: Sports & Entertainment
Brown Bears and Fair Chase Ethics
In the MacNeil River State Game Sanctuary on the upper Alaska Peninsula, nature lovers and tourists can see brown bears in their natural habitat, and see them in numbers that no other locale can match. Since 1967, when it was established by Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, the sanctuary has protected what is believed to be the largest population of brown bears in the world. Hundreds come to the MacNeil River falls every summer to feast on salmon, and decades of protection have made the bears unusually tolerant of human observers. According to Bill Sherwonit in his article about the bears in Natural History magazine, the huge carnivores have surprised naturalists with their treatment of humans, whom they treat like “rocks or trees.” The bears, hunt, eat, play, sleep and even mate as humans sit on folding chairs a scant hundred feet away. They do not associate the humans with food, nor do they see them as a threat.
But that is about to change, perhaps. Governor Frank Murchowski, who has been on the Scoreboard’s list of ethically objectionable politicians for appointing his daughter as to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat, has endeared himself to the hunting-happy sportsmen’s group the Alaska Outdoor Council by advocating opening up MacNeil River for “predator control,” or in layman’s terms, shooting the bears. Thanks to Murchowski’s efforts, the Alaska Board of Game finally got enough AOC members appointed to it to over-ride the public outcry and clear the way for a bear hunt in the fall of 2007. MacNeil’s manager, Larry Aumiller, has resigned in protest after thirty years there. As he explained in an Op-Ed piece for the Anchorage Daily News, his conscience would not permit him to participate in what he regarded as an ethical outrage toward the bears. “To purposely and knowingly kill these habituated animals for trophies is beyond any reasonable ethics or fair chase and is, I believe, morally wrong,” he wrote.
The bears do not fear humans, and will simply stay put until they are shot. The “Fair Chase” doctrine he referred to is the cornerstone of hunting ethics. It has various versions, but this definition, from the Boone and Crockett Club website, is representative:
FAIR CHASE, as defined by the Boone and Crockett Club, is 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.
It is hard to argue with Aumiller’s contention that hunting animals that live in an area managed so as to give them no reason to regard humans as threats violates the ethical principle stated above. But the “fair chase” ethic has some problems of its own: how exactly is it “fair” when the hunters have guns and the bears don’t? Isn’t this dispute based on a rather arcane distinction between shooting bears who have learned from bitter experience to run and hide from hunters and shooting bears who never learned to play hide-and-seek? Somehow it is hard to imagine a dying brown bear, fatally shot while fleeing, looking up at the triumphant hunter and thinking, “Well, can’t say that wasn’t fair! I die content.”
The Scoreboard concludes that the proper issue is whether it is ethical to hunt the brown bears at all, especially since the population of bears in the area around the sanctuary has been declining. Alaska isn’t being fair to the bears unless it allows them to live.