Climbing writer Doug Robinson wrote (in paraphrase) that technology forces itself upon the landscape, while technique looks for a way through. Climbing is on matters of style an illustrative pairing for hunting, especially in the 21st century, where the later is on the cusp of a new wave of popularity which will likely substantially reinvent the pursuit. In 30 years I expect hunting norms to have drug the laws which govern its practice far from where they are today. Climbing remains largely unajudicated, aside from raptor closures and ongoing ambiguity about fixed anchors in Wilderness areas, but starting half a century ago was subjected to substantial and in many cases overwhelming ethical debates, which have passed through consensus into the background structure of the pursuit. Hunting has in North America been adjudicated for so long that ethics, to say nothing of style, is most often discussed in a stunted fashion, tied narrowly to the propogation of the discipline with an uneasy, if not outright hostile, relationship with any broader cultural import or responsibility.
Robinson made is name in the 1960s, at the vanguard of the clean climbing movement in Yosemite. Two decades before camming units became commercially available, the move away from pitons to nuts, chocks, and hexentrics was an intentional leap, which put environmental and aesthetic concerns above ease and security. As Robinson wrote; “Personal qualities- judgment, concentration, boldness, – the ordeal by fire, take precedence, as they should, over mere hardware.” This set the tone for subsequent ethical debates, with things like chipping holds having since become (in North America) anathema by consensus. The substance of the prohibition of explicit hold modification is more significant stylistically than environmentally, as things like gardening out cracks and scrubbing vegetation off boulders remains common practice, as does reinforcing chossy rock so climbers don’t pull off too many holds. Then again, maybe climbing at Rifle is inherently poor style.
The relevant point is that climbing, the most obviously, inherently absurd and pointless of all outdoor pursuits, is also the most aesthetically pure, and that purity and coherence is maintained by consensus rules which promote and prioritize, even venerate, style. And by style here, we mean recognize that technology has, decades if not centuries ago, exceeded exponentially the challenges imposed by the world and its means. This is not to say that in mountaineering the gradation of acceptable helicopter access are entirely settled, but when someone like Uli Steck or Liv Sansov wants to enchain peaks in good style, they do so entirely human powered.
Hunting is far more tentative concerning matters of style. The closest the community gets is when technology forces the hand, on fair chase matters such as drone use (which most western states have banned), and “tracking” scopes which auto-correct for user error. But hunting is experiencing perhaps the most significant and most concentrated growth in technology since the iron age, with a corresponding paradigm shift in mindset. And this is the key point when it comes to intentionally defining style, the recognition that technology itself is meaningless, and the way it alters user perceptions and practices, and thus redefines the activity itself, is of central importance.
With hunting, laser rangefinders are an ideal example. Their existence helped create long range hunting, with both bows and rifles. Prior to exact yardage being available at the push of a button, hunters were limited by their skills judging yardage, and more commonly to the range within which the speed of their weapon made such judgments more forgiving. Now, more people are shooting further, more accurately (one assumes), and more often. Distances viewed as rarefied 15 years ago, such as 400 yards with a rifle and 60 yards with a compound bow, are today approaching the common. Truly functional ability at these distances does not enhance success in a linear fashion. Anyone who has spent plenty of time chasing animals knows that different species provide different cut points, with big jumps in efficacy happening in a 20 yard jump. Whitetails, for example, are wary enough that getting within 30 yards is exceedingly difficult outside an ambush situations (e.g. blind or treestand), with a 50-80 yard distance being by no means simple, but far more consistently achievable. Similarly, mule deer have eyes and ears and a general tolerance for disturbance which makes being within 3-400 yards exponentially more probable than closing under 200. In the former case, fastish compound bows and rangefinders make for many more possible shots, while in the later case rangefinders open up the possibility of many conventional rifle chamberings being accessible for their owners to at least develop the skill to take shots at deer who are unaware, or at least more relaxed.
The ethical complication with technology in hunting is that ease often goes hand in hand with humane-ness. There is a compelling case to be made that taking a leisurely, studied, longer shot at an unaware animal will result in a clean kill more often than a pressured shot using a hasty rest at an animal which might turn at run at any moment, even if the distance is half or less. At the same time, questioning how much chance ones prey has to even notice the existence of the hunter must be allowed. There is a stylistic difference between shooting a goat at 400 yards, who knows you are there but has yet to learn to worry about such distances due to terrain and circumstance, and an elk 800 yards away feeding along a meadow, with hardly any plausible chance of detecting humans on the ridge across the canyon. Well done polls generally show that those who have never hunted are sympathetic to the pursuit if two conditions are met; the animal will be consumed by the hunter, and they think the animal has a reasonable chance of escape. This should not just be relevant as a means to minimize public hostility; the stylistic imperative of keeping the hunt in hunting should be relevant on its own terms.
The conclusion here is that if hunters do not police themselves on technology, the culture at large will do so for them, either by reducing hunter opportunity to compensate for ever increasing success rates (if 50 of 100 tag holders, on average, kill something where before it was 10 in 100, soon there will only be 50-60 tags given), or by constraining hunting methodology, most likely via ballot initiative. That hound hunting for mountain lions or bears is more efficacious than spot and stalk or baiting is not in the end behind these methods being banned in numerous western states, it is the perception of their not being sporting.
I’m quite out beyond the fringe in not viewing hunting as categorically different, in either the ethics or the metaphysics, from something like climbing a mountain. They’re both extractive activities, if the definition is viewed broadly. If the rarefied and aesthetically sacred nature of climbing gave the community pause enough to build their rules to at least in part maintain future challenge and mystery, it seems reasonable to expect hunting, whose trust in the mystery that is our world is through the killing of charming creatures far more explicit, to do the same.
There is plenty of precedent here. Alaska forbids helicopters for transportation to and from hunting areas, which goes a long ways towards functionally safeguarding specifies such as sheep. Plenty of states have made at least partial attempts towards keeping primitive weapon seasons intact; things like allowing muzzleloaders to only shoot round balls, and forbidding optical and magnified sights on muzzleloaders, shotguns, and bows. Regulating center-fire rifles provides for few if any straight forward options; I’ve never heard anyone discuss something like an upper limit on scope magnification or cartridge velocity. Other areas of stylistic growth are obvious, just painful to contemplate. Hunting has, for a long time, been far too wedded to trucks, ATVs, and horses. The best way to keep wilderness wild is to make access physically harder, and the plain good this does for large animal populations makes it all the less justifiable that hunters haven’t done more to lead the charge on closing roads and generally making access tilt more in the animals favor.
Guiding is another area where hunting has refused to look at itself. The extent to which the practice is accepted can be traced directly to the colonial era, which provides examples that should give us all pause. In climbing hiring a guide is widely accepted, if you’re looking to break in to the pursuit without killing yourself, or a rock climber learning to swing tools, or a sport climber learning to plug gear, or an alpine skier wanting to learn about avalanches. If you’re a climber using a guide to push above your skill level on a regular basis, and not just for educational purposes, you’re viewed as a tyro at best, a poltroon at worst, and generally not taken seriously. Given how much of hunting has to do with finding the animals and learning the terrain, paying someone to shortcut all of the for you, be in by hiring someone to lead you around in the traditional manner, or by paying someone to e-scout and provide you with a portfolio of photos and waypoints, is nothing short of cheating. And when it comes to animals who for most serve as symbols for how the world could be better, cheating to kill them should not be ok.
The idea with style is not for laws to force action, it is for norms to change and force a consensus. Hunters venerate the biggest set of antlers or longest and fattest bear not just because the masculine imperative compels it (though anyone who doesn’t think this remains enormously significant is kidding themselves), but because the oldest of a species is often the craftiest, the most difficult to find, the most likely to detect you, as well as the rarest. Shooting a six point bull elk requires both the skill of long study and practice, as well as the kind of luck made only by many days out in the field. And that recognition of patience and a multi-year, even multi-decade learning process is rarely far from the surface of a good hunting story. Hunters are just good at hiding such things.
I’d like to see that narrative brought to the fore, and the rest of the hunting universe squared to match it. There should be no bones that walk in access is stylistically preferred to flying in. There should be veneration and preference given to hunting in areas which due to terrain and game density are more difficult than other places. There ought to be no apologies needed for shooting “lesser” animals, such as non-males, and particular attention given to the choice to move away from technology, while still doing all that is reasonable to ensure a consistently clean kill. Just like climbing, hunting is great because it units primordial necessity with the most refined and elective modern absurdity, and by hunting with style we can make hunting great again.