Is fair-chase hunting fair if there is no chase?
That's the debate raging right now after video of a brown bear hunt in the Katmai National Preserve surfaced recently.
The video shows a group of hunters killing a brown bear that seemed, by most accounts, completely habituated to the presence of humans. As the hunters approached, there was no flight-or-fight response in the bear. In fact the bear walked right past the hunters before it was shot, first by an arrow and then by a rifle.
The reaction to this video from the anti-hunting community was predictable: killing animals for sport is wrong and this is just another example of the cruelty of humans.
The reaction from Alaska's large hunting community, however, has been more interesting.
Some, hoping to avoid another black eye for hunters, are calling for a ban on hunting in areas where the bears have been habituated to people. Others are calling for a ban on bear-viewing in areas where it is legal to hunt.
Most, however, are asking that age old question "Can't we all get along?"
The answer, unfortunately, is no.
That grand experiment by state and federal agencies in and around Katmai to share the resource (brown bears) between consumptive users (hunters) and non-consumptive users (bear viewers) has failed. And it has failed because there is no such thing as a non-consumptive user group.
As the video shows, it doesn't matter if you use a Remington or a Nikon to shoot bears in the wild, you will affect them in some way.
Hunters should agree it's unethical to take advantage of human-conditioned bears, like the ones in that video. But the ethics of changing bear behavior by observing them, especially in areas open to hunting, also should be questioned.
These bears have learned to view humans as non-threatening because humans have set aside areas of land where it is illegal to threaten them. On the outskirts of this safe zone, however, humans are giving bears mixed messages.
Some human groups fly in, walk around and take home nothing but snapshots. Others take home bear hides and skulls.
Bears are highly intelligent, but they still can't read maps. And, obviously, they have yet to decipher the political affiliation or intention of humans just by looking at them.
The bear hunters in that video did nothing illegal by killing that bear. The bear-viewers and fishermen who conditioned these bears over the years also did nothing illegal.
But neither group should walk away from this situation with a clear conscience.
If hunters want to continue their hunting heritage, they should avoid areas where conflicts with bear-viewing groups are likely.
If bear-viewing guides want to continue offering quality experiences, they should do it in areas closed to hunting.
Thankfully, in Alaska, there is enough land to accommodate many user groups.
For thousands of years in Alaska, bears have shown common sense around people. Now, it's time for us to do the same around them.
No one is winning this battle between user groups. And the bears are the ones getting killed unfairly in the cross-fire.