Last week, my son received a survey from Utah’s Wildlife Resources Department asking for his thoughts on using new technology in hunting. The survey questions reminded me that weapons and related equipment for hunting big game were rapidly improving. These changes have effectively doubled the range that humans can harvest animals with bows, muzzle-loaders, and rifles.
Discussions about the value of introducing new technology are not new. In the distant past, they focused on water bird hunters. Long ago duck and goose hunters were forced to abandon live bait, had the strength of their shotguns and the number of grenades they could hold, and had to use non-toxic pellets. These choices have ensured ballistic equivalence among waterfowl hunters and have resulted in most of the birds killed being found. It could be argued that these regulations resulted in longer playing times and more opportunities.
In contrast, a review of the potential impact of new big game hunting technologies that Wyoming completed in 2017 bluntly found: “Technological advances in the equipment available to hunters have improved their ability to detect and evade an animal’s ability to Successfully escaping harvest, to a level not thought possible twenty years ago. “
This review breaks down improvements in detection and pre-harvest avoidance. Having recently written about trail cameras (detection), I will focus this article on aspects that make it more difficult for big game to evade hunters.
Thanks to improvements in bow technology, these weapons can now be used to harvest deer and elk at a distance of over 50 meters. When I was a bow hunter in the 1980s, most people thought 35 yards was a long shot. Despite these improvements, bow hunters still have to get very close to harvest an animal. The biggest concern with long archery shots is that it increases the number of wounded animals that are not found.
Muzzle loaders have seen great advances in the use of technology. How much of these advances are allowed during the hunt varies greatly in states like Utah and Idaho. In Idaho, these weapons are only lethal up to 100 meters, while in Utah their capability has been expanded to 300 meters. The biggest differences between these states are that in Utah 209 primers, sabots, and telescopic sights can be used with magnification, while Idaho does not. This increased effectiveness explains why the success of deer hunters with muzzle loaders and rifles in the cache unit was the same at just over 20% in 2019.
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Improvement in rifles has been driven by more accurate, factory-made, higher-power weapons that can be manually or digitally corrected so that the placement of the crosshair takes into account distance and wind. In the hands of a skilled marksman, these weapons are lethal up to a distance of more than 500 meters. Shots in these areas often occur even after deer spot a hunter but have chosen not to flee. Some argue that shooting big game from this distance is no longer a fair chase.
We could argue the ethics of those using advanced technology in rifles and muzzle-loaders, but the simple algebra is that if these weapons increase the amount of crops (killed, regardless of whether they are found or lost), fewer days in the future will be available.
An example would be a look at Utah’s pool of approximately 70,000 general deer brands, split between rifle, muzzle loader, and archery hunters. If the hunter’s crop was 20% before the improved technology, 14,000 animals would be killed. If 14,000 deer were the sustainable harvest in Utah and the success rate of hunters rose to 25% because of the new technology, Utah could only offer 56,000 tags.
It is clear that additional research is needed on how this technology affects the number of big games, given that little work has been done on the subject so far.
Yes, hunting with these advanced technologies is a personal choice as long as the law allows it. However, if these choices increase effectiveness, fewer people will have the opportunity to hunt each year. Some simple ways to reduce long-range shots include limiting the scope magnification to less than 20, eliminating battery-powered scopes, and migrating hunters to the location where an animal was last shot to make sure it wasn’t hit.
If one of the goals in Utah and Idaho is to provide more opportunities for big game hunting, reducing the lethality of muzzle-loaders and rifles is one of the tools managers must use to accomplish that goal. This suggests that now is a good time to define the desired upper bound on ballistic and optical efficiency for future big game hunts. Otherwise, it will become more difficult to control the use of these technologies as more and more hunters use them.