Death of 2,000-meter Wyoming antelope reignites debate over ethical hunting distance

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By Mark Heinz, outdoor journalist
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In 2018, a hunter armed with a .50 caliber rifle shot an antelope from 1,954 yards in Fremont County, then sent a video of it to Muley Fanatics, trying to prove a point.

The video had the opposite of the intended effect.

“We told him (the hunter) that it’s not something we approve of,” Josh Coursey told the Cowboy State Daily on Friday. He is the co-founder, president and CEO of Muley Fanatics, a mule deer conservation group.

He declined to identify the hunter who sent the video. It had been sent with the intention of making the case that an animal could be humanely and ethically killed with a gun from great distances, Coursey said. He is also a member of the Wyoming Wildlife Task Force, which met in Casper on Friday.

“Shooting 1,954 yards is not a fair hunt,” he said.

What is the correct distance?

The topic of ethical shooting distances sparked lively discussion at the working group meeting. There was no clear consensus on whether the legislature or the Wyoming Game and Fish Department should, or even could, establish ethical shooting distance rules.

Modern bows, especially crossbows, have extended possible archery to 100 yards or more, said some task force members and hunters who commented via Zoom. And rifle technology has evolved to make shots barely dreamed of possible.

Shooting at extreme distances is neither ethical nor necessary, said task force member Sy Gilliland. He is president of the Wyoming Outfitter and Guides Association. The use of noise suppressors on rifles, currently legal in Wyoming, makes things even sketchier, he said.

“You can shoot 700 yards at an animal that can’t even hear the shot,” he said. “Yeah, it’s really sporty.”

Hunting gun capability has always evolved, blurring the subject of ethical shooting distances, said task force member Pet Dube. He is also a member of the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, which sets game and fish policy.

“They started this discussion when they invented rifle scopes,” he said. “What doesn’t look bad now may not look bad in 20 years.”

Practice makes hunting more human

Hunter Fonzy Haskell commented on Zoom that he is a long-range shooter and also sometimes uses a suppressor.

“I am a long-range shooting enthusiast. I’m a competitive long-range shooter and sometimes use that in my hunt,” he said. “I would say ‘ethics’ is to send that animal out as quickly and as humanely as possible.”

Long-range shooters train vigorously, he said. This makes them more likely to land accurate and fast shots on the field.

He added that suppressors are good for controlling predators, like coyotes. They allow a hunter to eliminate multiple coyotes while avoiding detection.

However, even if someone is skilled enough to shoot extreme distances, it’s still not ethical because the animals have no reasonable chance of escaping, hunter Rob Shaul said on Zoom.

Ethical limits should be around 400 yards for rifles and 50 yards for bows, he said.

“Most big game animals cannot detect a hunter more than 400 meters away. It’s beyond the biological limits of the animal, and it’s not a fair hunt,” he said. “Hunting is not shooting,” he said. “If you want to shoot 1,000 yards, shoot iron (targets).”

Improved technology and better equipment can make hunting more humane and ethical, said task force member Lee Livingston. He is a Park County guide and commissioner.

“People hated hunters with bows” because using old bow designs often left animals injured.

With more modern bows, the hunters he guides make quick, clean kills, even on large bull elk, Livingston said.

A matter of public perception

Hunters and guides should be aware of their reputation with the general public, Gilliland said. The fact that national public opinion turns against the hunt could spell the end.

“The average suburban housewife might not understand much about hunting,” he said. “But she understands that shooting an animal behind a fence is unethical. She understands that shooting an animal 800 meters away is unethical.

Hunters should refrain from posting “kill shot” videos on social media, Shaul said. The public will find images of killed animals distasteful and will turn against hunters.

“Filming and posting videos of big game kills is political suicide,” he said.

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