Taboo of the Day: A Limit on “The Limit”?

A subscriber from the mid-Western United States emailed me the other day inquiring about why I had not posted anything recently on “Taboo of the Day”; it was a politely worded letter with good humour, they even remarked (jokingly, I suspect) that they hoped that I hadn’t “gotten soft” on challenging issues.
So with that in mind, I’ll now try to excrete out a few words on what I feel is the most challenging issue: bag limits.
“Bag limit”, in my definition,  is a catch all term referring to the maximum number of game animals of a given species that a hunter can harvest in a given period (day, season, and so on).  There are also possession bag limits referring to how many harvested animals an individual can have in their general possession (i.e. in their freezer or on their general person).  Of course I’m sure this is far from a definitive interpretation and you would all do well to clarify any questions you may have about what defines the periodic and possession bag limits for anything you plan on hunting with a qualified local professional (i.e. a state or provincial game warden or conservation officer).
I’m not going to go into the biological or economic aspects of this debate: reams of paper have been written about this by writers and professionals with far, far more expertise than I.  There are certainly many factors at play when it comes to balancing the economic benefits provided by hunting with the obvious necessities of wildlife conservation and management.  (yes, hunters are customers too, and we spend a whole pile of money on conservation through private donation and through the purchase of hunting licenses and game seals, not to mention capital invested in private enterprise in the form of hunting lodges, equipment manufacturers, restaurants and the like) Like I said, I have an empirical grounding in that field (my dear old Dad was a 30 year employee of Ducks Unlimited Canada and, coincidentally, a passionate hunter and conservationist so by the default process of osmosis I picked up a smattering of basic knowledge when it comes to general wildlife biology/ecology) but my professional training in things like carrying capacity, population density, reproductive responses to increased mortality, and the like is basically non-existent so instead of crunching numbers, I’m going to speak instead about the more nebulous philosophical and historical applications of the concept of “limiting out”.  This I know a fair deal about.  A warning off the hop; get ready.  This is going to be pretty long and chances are you’re going to disagree with at least a few of my thoughts.  The important thing is that we’re having this dialogue.
There were heady days in the past when there was no such thing as a bag limit.  Market hunting was a lucrative and widespread practice and the sheer volume of death that professional gunners rained down on all game species was, to a modern perception, staggering.  To paraphrase a far too often cited colloquialism; it was what it was.  When you made your living and fed your family off the money you made hunting it was a matter of course that you be exceedingly efficient.  Again, numerous grainy black and white photos show old salts of the Eastern Seaboard with daily kill number in the high dozens and into the hundreds. Even the most ardent historical apologist cringes at the thought of what that kind of sustained pressure would do the resource.  Not surprisingly, populations of some species at the time were very near to total collapse.  Of course market hunters were not the only factor in depletion; hunters from all areas of the spectrum (from wealthy club owners to subsistence hunters) and from coast to coast were more or less policing themselves.  I have an anthology of hunting stories where in one article an author of that era (i.e. late 19th or early 20th Century) mentions shooting a hawk (or an owl?  I can’t exactly recall) while out duck hunting; presumably because hawks have been known to kill ducks and it was perfectly acceptable at that time to not only shoot any other natural predators of the game you were pursuing but to write about your proficiency in doing so.  Of course the dwindling of the hunting resources could not all be laid at the feet of market and recreational sportsmen; people who had never set foot in a marsh or forest were (and still are for a large part of it) at the very least equally responsible for wildlife destruction through unabated habitat drainage and deforestation, urban sprawl, and general environmental deterioration in the form of pollution and human expansion into rural or wilderness areas, with the wild places almost always coming out for the worse.
So that’s a brief (and wholly glib) historical primer of what life was like before bag limits.  This contributed to the reduction or outright extirpation of many species in North America.  There’s so much more information on this subject, but that is for another time.  I have to get where I’m going with this. 
Now we have (for almost every hunted species) a bag limit.  That is to say that we have a government-agency-imposed maximum on how exactly what and how many of something we can kill.  And that is good.  Some consider that to be a gross over-involvement of the authorities in the hunter’s own personal freedoms and choices.  Others quibble over the specific criteria of what data should contribute to defining a bag limit.  Others ignore them outright.  These points are what I’m here to talk about.  Those and what we as hunters at large can do with and about bag limits.
The first thing we can do with a bag limit is respect it.  It is there, if for nothing else, to err on the side of caution when it comes to hunting.  Bag limits are designed for conservation, and if anything every hunter in North America (if not globally) should be intensely focused on conservation efforts above all else.   Respecting a bag limit means many things.
It means having a plan.  Some bag limits are difficult to shoot over, unless of course you intend to shoot over it. For example, if you have a tag to shoot one moose in a given season and you go out and shoot two, you’ve done something wrong.  Ditto when it comes to gender-specificity in tags.  If your licence says “one bearded turkey” and you shoot one without a beard, the onus is on you.  I won’t even begin to go into the mind-boggling idiocy that must exist out there that requires the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to require a primer on the physical identification of the differences between a moose, a white-tailed deer, and an elk (the latter being recently restored to Ontario for limited hunting).  But I digress; back to having a plan.  Other limits are a bit tricky.  If you’re party hunting waterfowl, thing can get a bit interesting as you approach a bag limit.  After all, shotguns have been known on occasion to take multiple birds with one shot and sometimes not everyone is clear on how many birds have actually come to hand.  This is where being rational and exercising some judgment can be indispensable.  The best way to avoid over-shooting a limit (especially in a group situation) is to put your weapon away when you have personally hit the individual bag limit.  That is simple enough, but it does not control others from going over, and by default putting your whole party into illegal territory.  Another approach to think about is to stop and do a physical count.  Works every time, but it too requires a plan.  Count how many ducks and/or geese you have shot and see how close to the limit you are.  If you are three or fewer birds from a limit, put a plan in place.  Some hunters I’ve talked to just pack it in there (more on that in a minute) and thus avoid even the slightest risk of over-shooting.  That’s a very effective plan.  Others institute an order and volume in which hunters can shoot; this generally works too.  For example, if a group has three birds left until they limit out they may institute a “singles only” approach where groups of birds that number more than three are not shot at.  They may say only one person at a time can shoot at the waterfowl, and so on.  The act of being aware of the limit is a good defense to staying within it.  Sometimes even planning can be tricky, in the case of party hunting pheasants, rabbits, or even deer.  For this reason some (my deer-hunting group for example) use short wave radios to stay in touch.  For my group, if we only have one antlerless deer tag, we want to let everyone in the party know if one is down.  Short wave radios tuned to a private channel achieves this more or less seamlessly.
But as I mentioned above, why even risk it sometimes?  Think about this for a second.  In fact let’s do a brief thought experiment.
In Ontario, limits on Canada geese are ‘liberal’ to say the least.  In some periods of the season (in certain parts of the province) you can kill ten geese a day per person, up to a one-person possession limit of twenty-four birds.  For snow geese the limit is twenty a day up to a possession of sixty.  I don’t care who you are, either way that’s a stack of goose meat.  Now on any given day I’m usually out goose hunting with at least three other hunters (it is just that labour intensive that going alone is usually too much of a baffling ordeal, what with blinds, decoys, and other paraphernalia).  So let’s just say the four of us go out and we can shoot ten Canada geese each (for the sake of using round numbers).  Max limit is forty for the day.  A couple of hours later we’re sitting with 36 birds.  No one has individually limited out, and things have slowed down.  Then a group of geese appears as a thin line on the horizon, before we know it they are barreling into the setup, well within range.  We haven’t spoken at all about a plan of attack.  If you’re with me, do we shoot them and go for the limit, or do we stand up, spook them off and just pack it in?
I know my answer.  My gun would have been cased long before we reached thirty birds, and that is because I don’t require the validation of “limiting out” to define successful hunting.  I think you’d be hard pressed to find a rational person out there who would consider forty dead geese a more successful hunt than thirty-six( or even twenty for that matter), and I’m both not interested in risking going over the limit and not fulfilled by any chest-slapping machismo associated with shooting the highest legal number of geese available to me.  It does not make me a better or worse hunter, or person in general, and I hold no negative judgment for anyone who needs or wants to shoot the limit.  All I’m questioning is the necessity of that act.  But go over the limit, and I definitely have a problem with that.
Likewise (and again I’m using Ontario examples here) a hunter can, in some areas, purchase additional white-tailed deer tags above the one provided with your licence purchase.  At one time (I don’t hunt in one of these areas, so I’m not certain what it is currently) hunters could shoot six (!) additional white-tailed deer.  That means seven white-tailed deer in total for those of you who (like me) are intermittently math-impaired.  Which again begs the question, is this really necessary?
Now I know that bag limits are effective both in species conservation and in species control, and this glut of tags (like the high bag limits on Canada and snow geese) fall more on the “population control” side of the equation, but when I first heard about the multiple deer tags years ago, and subsequently read some of the reports and comments from hunters who had actually taken multiple deer I was disappointed to say the least.  Some people are just ‘yee-haw’ hunters (as I call them) who really had no interest in doing anything other than killing…one said in a chat room that he didn’t even really care for the taste of venison; this in a caption below a photo of his garage where five gutted deer hung from a cross-beam.  Others, notably a couple I speak to regularly, shot multiple deer and rather sheepishly confessed that they ended up throwing out venison by the summertime because it had become freezer-burnt.  They literally shot more than they could eat.  I wonder despairingly how many bungs of goose sausage or vacuum-sealed bags of moose pepperettes meet the same fate across the nation?  Not to mention game animals that are killed and left simply to rot by wasteful, irresponsible, clumsy, or scared hunters.  And I’m not being an alarmist or a pessimist; I’ve seen it reported and I’ve seen evidence of it in the field.
High bag limits offer limitless good; they provide opportunities afield, they allow more people to access and fall in love with the tradition of hunting, and they are a sign of wildlife abundance that gives credence and validation to the good work and conservation efforts of millions of men and women nationwide.  In almost all cases the ecology is closely monitored to ensure that it can sustain the pressure exerted by hunting, so high bag limits or no bag limits in the case of some super-abundant species (like coyotes in some areas of Ontario, for example) do not pose a threat to the existence of any animal species. 
But what I’ve outlined above is the ugly side of high bag limits, and we have to look at it and discuss it.  A head buried in the sand or immediate, irrational, and violently defensive reactions both seem exponentially counter-productive.  But even more than dialogue about it, in my mind, is that we have to synthesize a remedy for it.
That is because we as hunters, more than any other group of outdoor enthusiasts, are judged by the outcomes of our actions.  There is no ‘catch-and-release’ in hunting, and in my humble opinion, there never should be.  While we walk  many of the same trails as recreational hikers and share the land with bird-watchers and equestrian enthusiasts, we are permanently and perhaps justifiably labeled as some of the only true human ‘consumers’ of the wilderness resources.  For every fellow-hunter who is impressed by the photo of the limit of mallards you and your friends managed to take, there is another person who wishes to abolish hunting outright using your example as an evidence of excess.  It seems that this is just the way of things in this age, and that is fine, but that ultimately means that we have a responsibility to ensure that the outcomes of our actions align with our goals.  If the goal that we are aiming for, and telling the non-hunting world that we stand for, is truly resource conservation, protection, and long-term hunting opportunities for all, whether it is for self-interested reasons or for the goal of population rejuvenation, we have to behave responsibly.  I don’t want lower bag limits; I want common sense (in some cases the rarest of things) to occasionally intervene. 
We had once shot a six man limit of Canada geese, on a day when the limit was only three birds each (two weeks earlier it had been eight birds each and we had not even come close to half a limit).  It was a perfect day.  Day broke sunny and cool (but not too cold) in the east, and we had great flights of geese coming from all directions and almost all were dropping in to our spread as if they had never seen decoys so real or heard calling so sweet.  We reached the limit in 45 minutes and the birds were so keen on our set up that they were cartwheeling out of the sky and trying to land around us while we picked up decoys and took pictures.  I’d never seen anything like it before, and I haven’t seen it since.  It was truly a memorable day and looking around I could tell that a small part of all of us just wanted to keep gunning.  I personally could have eaten more than three geese in short order (i.e. two weeks or less) and my freezer could have held more.  But of course, we packed it in.  It had been a good day, and taking even one bird too many would have been a blemish on the stories, whether we got caught or not.  We laughed, made some remarks about the rarity of days like the one we had just experienced, and then went and had a hot breakfast where we re-lived the whole morning.  We could have gone on shooting and it is likely that no one would have known.  But we’d have known and it would have made it a bad experience.  And that is the sacrifice it takes to not be part of the over-shooting minority whose actions can tarnish the good name of the majority.
No one should be lauded for just doing the right thing; unfortunately when it comes to bag limits sometimes the right thing and doing what the law says you can do are not necessarily congruent.   There are days, like the one above, where you shoot the limit and want to keep going.  There are other days when the limit is an unattainable goal.  And then there are days when you have to take that approach that just because something is allowed, it does not mean you need to do it.  Which sometimes means putting the gun or the bow away and only taking what you can reasonably consume, and sometimes it means taking even less than that.  Go ahead and shoot the limit if you want to, but do so after some consideration.  Thinking only takes a few seconds, and you may conclude that today you just a little meat for the larder, and not a full limit.  Other times you may feel the limit is not enough and you complain that it should be higher.  It happens, and you have to make a decision.  Only you, and sometimes a warden, can determine if you made the right one.
I’m fairly confident that we are not going to wake up tomorrow and find all of our historical rights and privileges wiped out.  No agency, in North America at least, would do to dispense with the literally billions of dollars that hunters pour out of their wallets and into conservation and ancillary businesses; there is strength in our numbers in this respect.  Because of this, for you and I there will be other days to hunt.  But a little self-control when it comes to shooting the limit will only go to ensuring that there may always be ‘other days to hunt’.

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