Ethical Hunter

Ethics Check: What Would You Do?

It’s a rare autumn when I don’t hear a tale involving bucks that have locked antlers while fighting, but last year was different. No less than three stories of giant, locked-up whitetails fell into my lap, and each one was as fascinating as it was different.

In fact, I spent so much time thinking and writing about each one that I eventually came to call 2007 “The Year of the Lockup” to my hunting buddies. To support my nomination, I offer the following three tales as proof.

1. The first incident occurred in South Dakota, where a husband and wife team was alerted by friends that there was a pair of entangled whitetails in their rural neighborhood. After arriving on the scene, the husband set to work sawing on the entangled antlers until one buck was freed and walked off. His wife captured the events with her camera.

2. A similar encounter happened in not-far-away North Dakota, where a hunter discovered a pair of locked bucks in a field on the eve of the firearms opener. The hunter waited until the next morning, went out, shot one of the bucks and tagged it, then contacted a local conservation officer.

3. The third incident might well be familiar to D&DH readers, as it occurred on the D&DH-TV show’s Tiger Ridge lease in central Wisconsin. In that event, two bow-hunters exiting the woods after their morning hunt encounter a pair of locked bucks fighting in a stream. While one hunter films the action with a video camera, his partner approaches within bow range and shoots one of the bucks. The buck dies within seconds. They later returned to shoot the other deer. Both bucks were tagged and then separated.

Obviously, each of the people encountering these locked bucks reacted in a very different manner. But was one reaction more proper, or correct, than the others? I’ve told many of my hunting friends about each of these scenarios, and the reactions were truly a mixed bag.

The South Dakota couple who freed the struggling buck scored “Brownie points” from many folks, although everyone who applauded their actions admitted that freeing one or both locked deer was a potentially dangerous act.

In each of the other two cases, few people had much problem with the hunter(s) killing a locked buck, but many wondered if such an act could be considered “fair chase.” Others wondered, too, if the hunters could have done something to free one or both of the deer.

After navigating the ethical mountain ranges during the fall of locked-up bucks, I got to thinking about other, similar situations. They happen to all of us who spend enough time in the deer woods … scenarios that we don’t anticipate … encounters that might not be covered in a hunter’s safety class or rules-and-regulations book. They might, perhaps, be dilemmas that other hunters haven’t considered before and, therefore, contain no precedent of proper thought or action.

With that in mind, I’d like you to consider the following situations. Each is a true-to-life happening that I have either seen or experienced, or one that’s been related to me by someone I trust.

Remember, there are not necessarily right or wrong answers (except in instances mentioned in your state’s legal code, in which case we’d love to hear about). These are just scenarios to get us thinking about proper, ethical behavior in the field … that stuff we do when no one is looking.

Situation 1: The Wounded Warrior

You live in the country, in prime deer habitat. You don’t feed deer intentionally, but they visit your bird feeder, eat the shrubbery in your backyard, bed in the dense windbreak not far from the house.

One day, long after the firearms season has ended, but with some days left on the bow-hunting clock, you notice a nice buck in your backyard.

He is limping noticeably and — although you can’t get a real good look at his hind leg — it appears to be broken; either hit by a bullet or side-swiped by a vehicle.

It’s legal to hunt on your property, and although you don’t normally do so, you decide to hang a stand on the border. The buck is a decent one and, your gut tells you, it’s not likely to survive what’s shaping up to be a tough winter. If he’ll just slide in past that stand one evening, you’ll take him. Not only will you have a chance to fill an unused bow tag, you’ll save the animal from suffering needlessly.

Unfortunately, the buck scents you the first night you hunt him and refuses to come near the stand. Repeat sits offer no buck sightings. However, the deer is still there; you see him at night near the bird feeder, or glimpse him limping off in the predawn as you get in the car to go to work in the morning. Each time his limp is more severe, his retreat a little slower. To your eye, he seems to be going downhill fast.

With one week left of archery season you feel pressed to make a decision.

What would you do?

a) Keep hunting and pray you get a shot.

b) Let nature take its course.

c) Call a warden and see if he/she will dispatch the buck.

d) Something else.

Situation 2: An Escaped Prisoner

You own 75 acres of pretty good deer habitat and enjoy hunting it whenever you can. You hold out for a decent buck every fall, but you have never had a crack at one of the really big boys the area is famous for. Work and family time don’t allow you to devote the time to these mature deer. Still, you dream of one day killing one.

The hunting season is in full swing when you’re walking out of the woods one evening and spot a dream buck trotting across the field in front of you.

Although you’ve suspected a deer like this might be living on your place, you’d never had evidence until now. You return to your home, jazzed beyond all belief. “I’m holding out for that deer, or I’m gonna eat my tag,” you vow.

For the next week or so, every hunt is an exercise in contained excitement. Although you don’t get a shot at the monster buck, you spot him two times and his sign is everywhere; huge rubs, table-sized scrapes, monster tracks, etc.

You’re about to head out to your stand one evening when a truck pulls up. The driver is a neighbor whose farm — a high-fenced shooting preserve — is a mile down the road. He tells you one of his high-dollar bucks is missing.

“One of my hired hands drove by here the other day and thought he spotted the buck running into your tree line,” he says. “I’d like to bait your property and wait for the buck to show. If he’s mine, I’ll shoot him with a tranquilizer gun and take him home. I’ll pay you some money to make it worth your time.”

You don’t know for sure, but there’s a better-than-good chance your neighbor is right about the buck’s identity. The buck you’ve been obsessing over is an escaped prisoner!

What would you do?

a) Agree to let the guy on your property, knowing this will ruin your hunting for the big one and perhaps other bucks you might pursue.

b) Tell the guy “tough luck” in a pleasant manner, and wish him well finding his AWOL deer.

c) Craft a compromise that allows both you and your neighbor to hunt the deer. Whoever gets it first can claim it — dead or alive!

Situation 3: The Tangled Web

You and some friends lease a prime chunk of deer ground, and you are all familiar with most of the bucks on it. Your hunting group has agreed that a buck must wear a rack scoring at least 125 B&C inches before the deer is eligible for harvest. Although you’ve seen bucks this big on the property, you’ve never been able to tag one.

Walking to your stand one afternoon during the firearms season, you hear a curious thrashing sound that stops and starts. Unable to determine the source, you climb up into your tree stand. The thrashing continues and, after some hard glassing, you spot the thrasher at last — a mature white-tailed buck that has one of his back legs tangled in a barbwire fence.

You climb down from the stand and walk over to the deer. The buck, toting a rack you feel will make the club minimum, is hopelessly caught in the fence and, to your eyes, nearly exhausted. You do not have any tools capable of cutting the fence with you, but there is a nearby shed on the farm where you might be able to find some wire cutters. Another glance at the buck tells you any action you take must happen in a hurry. His struggles have been so epic that he appears near death, and you wonder if it would be best to just put him down and tag him.

Suddenly, you hear more movement in the woods nearby. Two deer are running through the timber, and the deep tending grunts of a buck reach your ears. Instinctively, you grab your rifle and point it toward the sounds. Seconds later, you spot an open-mouthed doe being dogged by an absolutely giant deer, a buck bigger than anything you’ve seen before, and far larger than the whitetail snagged in the fence before you.

What would you do?

A) Enjoy the chase, but stow that rifle. You’ve got a tangled buck to deal with.

B) Shoot the trophy buck that’s chasing the doe and deal with the tangled buck later. Maybe he could be freed and survive, or the warden could put him down. Either way, there’s no sense burning your tag on the buck.

C) Something else.

Situation 4: Fuzzy Boundaries 

You own 100 acres of excellent deer ground, including a nice oak ridge that’s a prime bedding area. However, the only way to reach the ridge without spooking deer in the pre-dawn darkness is to cross over on your neighbor’s empty pasture. You call the neighbor, asking for permission to cross his ground in the dark to reach your property line.

“Absolutely not a problem,” he says. “Good luck in the morning. Oh, and sometime we should walk that border together and have it surveyed. I’m not convinced that what we think is the line fence is in the right spot.”

The next day finds you in a stand on your scenic ridge. As you walked across the pasture, you’d attached a drag line filled with estrous doe scent. Your hope is to pull any bucks cruising across your neighbor’s property and into your stand area, which is set just 30 yards inside of a broken-down fence your neighbor referred to as the boundary-in-question.

At daylight, you hear a deep, loud grunt. Sure enough, a dandy buck is trotting across the pasture. You grab your bow and get ready; this buck is coming straight to your stand. However, just as his front legs cross the mangled fence, the buck freezes. The wind has shifted slightly and he’s caught a whiff of your scent. The buck is well within your effective range, but he’s definitely across that decrepit old fence.

What would you do?

1) Let your draw down. The buck is standing on property that you never asked permission to hunt.

2) Let that arrow fly. The buck was on your property seconds ago and your stand is clearly on your side of the line. Besides, even though you never asked specifically about hunting, your neighbor never said you couldn’t, and he also admits the fence might not be true.

3) Something else.

Time’s Up!

— Scott Bestul is a long-time Deer & Deer Hunting contributor from Minnesota.