Shooting bears from the roadside isn’t sporting

We all understand the expression "shooting fish in a barrel" to mean a task so easy that success is almost guaranteed.

We all understand the expression “shooting fish in a barrel” to mean a task so easy that success is almost guaranteed. Perhaps in the Yukon we should instead say “shooting a grizzly from the roadside” – a legal activity that unfortunately won’t be going away anytime soon.

Last month the Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board – which is charged with making recommendations to the government about hunting, trapping and fishing in the territory – declined to recommend a ban on the roadside hunting of bears in the territory. Instead, the board would like to see a more comprehensive grizzly bear management plan that would apply to the entire territory.

I have nothing against responsible, carefully managed hunting. Unless you are a vegetarian or a vegan, I think it is hypocritical to oppose hunting. There is little moral distinction between hunting and consuming store-bought meat. If anything, hunters can claim the moral high ground because they take responsibility for taking the life of the animal, unlike the rest of us who acquire our meat in depersonalized, plastic-wrapped form from the local grocery store.

But roadside hunting is a different story, and it seems inherently unfair. It’s hard to think of an apt comparison with competitive sports. Cherry-picking is the best I could come up with. But cherry-pickers in sport are limited by the rules of offside, and the practice has the drawback that you leave your team vulnerable defensively. If an accurate analogy is hard to imagine, it’s probably because if hunting were truly a “sport,” roadside shooting would be banned.

In fairness to the board, policing sportsmanship isn’t really what they are set up to do. The guiding principles of the board, as set out in the final agreements with the territory’s First Nations relate to conservation and responsible management of wildlife resources. Opponents of roadside hunting have to concede that the practice does not pose a serious conservation issue in the Yukon at this time. According to the wildlife management board’s website, only two grizzlies and five black bears are killed within 30 metres of a numbered highway in the Yukon any given year.

But are there other reasons to ban the practice besides conservation? Is it fair for society to police sportsmanship in hunting? Moreover, can the rest of society nix roadside hunting because it deprives the rest of us of viewing opportunities?

Humans have been using their inherent advantage over the rest of the animal kingdom since we first began walking upright on the African Savannah hundreds of thousands of years ago. Over time we’ve honed and refined our advantage. Spears gave way to bows and arrows, which gave way to early firearms, which gave way to today’s high powered rifles. Along the way we’ve developed a number of other products that give us a leg up on the competition – camouflage, boats, binoculars, ATVs, good quality outdoor clothing.

But is using our network of easily accessible roadways to shoot unaware animals one advantage too far? I would say yes. There is just something cheap and unfair about the practice that need not be condoned.

Moreover, most of the arguments mustered in favour of roadside bear hunting are weak. There is the usual appeal to our “rights” – as if the few hunters who actually engage in the practice (most hunters do not shoot bears from the roadside) are the only ones with any say over the use of a shared public resource.

There is also suggestion that highway right of ways are a popular destination for bears in the spring. That doesn’t mean that all the bears are there. Most bear hunting takes place away from the highway right of way. Call me insensitive, but I’m similarly unmoved by the suggestion that banning the practice deprives some members of society of the opportunity to go bear hunting.

The only somewhat convincing argument in favour of the status quo I have heard was from a person who defended the practice on the basis that he spent much time on the highway in search of a bear of the correct age and gender so as to not effect reproduction and thus preserve the population. If all people could be counted on to take such care I might not be so concerned but, well, not all people are that responsible. Unfortunately, we can’t make laws on the basis of how the most thoughtful and reasonable people will behave.

Whatever the final decision, I do have one proposal (in jest) for a new regulation if the decision is to continue to allow hunting from the roadside: If a “hunter” decides to take one of those trophy pictures, he or she should be required to clearly show the roadway and their vehicle in the background. That way none of us are led to believe that any work was actually put into the kill.

Kyle Carruthers is a born and raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.