Ethical debate takes big turn in bowhunting

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There may have been no more acute observer of the outdoors and hunting than Aldo Leopold, author of the iconic A Sand County Almanac.

In a 1943 essay, Wildlife in American Culture, he wrote, “then came the gadgeteer, otherwise known as the sporting-goods dealer. He has draped the American outdoors man with an infinity of contraptions, all offered as aids to self-reliance, hardihood, woodcraft, or marksmanship, but too often functioning as substitutes for them.”

Even earlier, in 1923, famed archer Saxton Pope wrote, “The true hunter counts his achievements in proportion to the effort involved and the fairness of the sport.”

Glenn Hisey, director of records for the Pope and Young Club, of Chatfield, Minn., cited both these observations in describing how the club that is the records-keeper for big game archery hunting looked long and hard before deciding a pair of technological innovations do not violate the principle of fair chase.

The Pope and Young Club this year changed its bylaws to admit for trophy consideration animals killed with arrows with lighted nocks and with bows capable of mounting cameras, like phone cameras, that do not cast light toward the target. The changes are retroactive, meaning animals killed before this year can be submitted as records.

The club’s tenets for bowhunting are that it offer challenge and simplicity, be primitive in nature and encourage discipline, patience, practice, perseverance, skill, outdoorsmanship and craftsmanship.

No unfair advantage

Lighted nocks and bow-mounted cameras might seem to violate several of these. Ultimately, following years of animated debate among bow-hunters, club officials decided lighted arrow nocks and cameras offer no unfair advantage to hunters. In the case of the arrows, they can aid in one of the highest priorities of hunting, recovering wounded game.

A glowing arrow nock “is one reason my daughter found her deer last year. We tracked her doe last year and saw the lighted nock sitting in the weeds,” said Brian Klatt, archery specialist at Scheels All Sports.

The use of lighted arrow nocks is legal in South Dakota. Dan Altman, Department of Game, Fish and Parks conservation officer in Yankton County, estimates 15 percent to 20 percent of bowhunters use them. “I would tend to say that’s growing a little bit,” he added.

Recovering game

Altman agreed that while lighted nocks give hunters no unfair advantage, “they do aid in the recovery of game. We do not want some guy to shoot a deer and not find it or think he did not hit it.”

In the flurry of action involved in firing an arrow at a game animal, it can be difficult to determine where an arrow hits, Klatt said, and a lighted nock catches a hunter’s eye and makes it easier to determine arrow placement. Presumably, video from a phone camera mounted on a bow would show where an animal was struck.

It’s an important piece of information. Hunters want to quickly pursue a wounded animal hit in a vital area like the lungs. Conversely, they don’t want to crowd one that has been wounded but still can run. The goal then is to wait and let it settle down before tracking it.

“Typically, if you jump it too soon, it will go forever,” Klatt said, and a wounded animal that got away creates a memory that causes a hunter to wince for years.

“It’s definitely terrible, and I can’t think of too many hunters who haven’t had that happen to them,” Altman said.

Leopold’s ruminations about gear beg the questions, however. At what point does technology overshadow skills of fieldcraft and marksmanship? At what point does it reduce a game animal to a mere target? When does it violate fair chase?

“There is always some state-of-the art piece of equipment,” Altman said. “It is hard to predict what it will be, and you have to make a decision when it comes out whether it is ethical.”

The Pope and Young Club’s Hisey offered a case in point. If lighted arrow nocks are not the first step down a slippery slope, perhaps putting a GPS chip in an arrow might be?

“People are getting smarter and smarter every year and developing things you wouldn’t even think about 10 or 20 years ago,” he said.

A GPS system in an arrow would negate the need for tracking skills.

“All you have to do is follow a signal,” Hisey said.

Altering habits

So far, lighted nocks do not seem to have encouraged hunters to take longer shots at game than they would ordinarily or shots late in the day, under the assumption a lighted arrow would make tracking a wounded animal possible in low light.

“From my experience,” Altman said, “I have not noticed any effect on that.”

Hisey added: “We’re hoping that’s not the case. We are being told it won’t by some people who are using them and by the (archery) industry.” But he couldn’t hide a dubious tone in his voice.

Scheels sells a pack of three lighted nocks for $25. Each nock remains lit for about 20 hours. Klatt noted the nocks add about 20 grains of weight to the tail of an arrow, which can affect its flight at distances of about 30 yards and beyond. He urges bow-hunters who plan to use the arrows to practice with them.

“When your 20 hours of light burns out, it’s a glorified practice nock,” he says.

The Pope and Young Club probably was behind the times in not accepting lighted arrow nocks and bow mounted cameras until now, Hisey acknowledged. But they highlight a tension in bowhunting between tradition and technology.

“Bowhunting is meant to be a sport that offers a challenge, more so than hunting with a firearm,” Hisey said.

On the other hand, “they’re kind of gimmicky,” Klatt said. “If you shoot one toward evening at a target shoot, pretty soon everybody ends up buying them. They have that cool factor.”

AT A GLANCE

ISSUE:

Allowing lighted nocks for bowhunters.

THE DEVICES:

Lighted nocks with bows capable of mounting cameras, like phone cameras, that do not cast light toward the target.

CHANGE:

Animals shot with such devices now would be considered for trophy designations.

BENEFIT:

Proponents say the lighted nocks don’t provide an unfair advantage to hunters, which has been the argument cited by those opposed to use of the devices. They also can aid in the recovery of wounded animals such as deer.

POPULARITY:

An estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of bowhunters use them.

CONCERN:

How much technological aid is too much? “We have to be cognizant of new developments and put our foot down and say ‘no’ to some of these advanced electronics.” — Glenn Hisey, director of records for the Pope and Young Club.

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