Is Bow Hunting Ethical? (The Pros, Cons & Alternatives) ⚖️


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Bowhunting has been around for centuries and was once a vital way to provide food for a family. Today it is not necessary to hunt to provide food. However, this does not mean that hunting in general, and bowhunting, in particular, is unethical. It can be far more ethical than factory farming. 

For this discussion, we will assume that hunters are following all of their local regulations, including hunting seasons, possession limits, and protected species, as violating any of these would be unethical and harmful to the animals and their biosphere. 

Hunting for food, when done correctly by a knowledgeable, skilled hunter, can be far more ethical than factory farms who keep animals in unnatural, inhumane conditions for their entire life before slaughtering them.

It may seem odd to those who are unfamiliar with the sport, but ethical hunters are nature lovers and work to preserve the environments in which they hunt and the animals that reside there. They work hard to ensure the balance of nature is not disturbed and attempt to kill their game in the most humane way possible. 

Ethics is not a universal concept, and what is deemed ethical or unethical is based on personal and community values. Thus, we will dive into the specifics of bowhunting and the alternatives, so that you can see the best practices for hunting and how they align with your values. 

Is Hunting Ethical?

Even if you believe eating meat is unethical, hunting can still be an ethical practice. 

Killing animals for food is not the only impact our society has on the environment. As humans have traveled around the globe, they have taken animals with them. In some biospheres, this has resulted in the introduction of invasive species that alter the balance of the food web. Hunters can help to find and eliminate or control the numbers of invasive species. 

In other instances, we have reduced predator animals to extinction or near-extinction levels, eliminating the natural population control of prey animals like deer and rabbits. These prey species are then able to multiply to dangerous levels; this is called a “trophic cascade.” Prey species often eat vegetation, and when left without natural predators, their numbers explode, which can not only affect the plants but other factors of the environment. 

A trophic cascade is what happened with gray wolves in the United States during the early 20th century. 

Hunters can help bring balance back to the ecosystem in both of these instances. 

For more information on the gray wolf crisis in the U.S., you can check out How Wolves Change Rivers by Sustainable Human:

Hunting is also a far more ethical way to obtain meat than factory farming, which provides most of the meat consumed in the world. This style of farming breeds and raises animals purely for human benefit. They keep animals in small, often dirty enclosures and provide a life full of distress. 

Ethical hunting, on the other hand, allows the animal to live a life in their natural habitat right until the moment they are killed and harvested for food. They experience far less stress and can provide all the benefits to the food web and environment that they usually would before they are taken for food.  

For those that enjoy hunting, it can provide an ethical “out” to participating in the economy of factory farming while still enjoying a healthy dose of protein in their diet. 

Is Bow Hunting Ethical?

As we’ve discussed, hunting, in general, can be a necessary and ethical way to help promote animal populations and improve our understanding of nature. But, what about bowhunting, is this form of hunting ethical? 

Ultimately this will come down to each hunter’s knowledge and skill level. Much like guns, it is not the tool but the individual who determines if the practice is done ethically or not. 

Bowhunting, like other forms of hunting, is a state-controlled sport in the United States. Following these regulations is necessary to bow hunt ethically, but it is not sufficient. Following the “unstated” rules will also make or break the ethics of hunting. 

A quick search online or contacting your local ranger district will ensure you have the necessary legal guidelines for hunting in your preferred area. Here, we will cover those unstated rules bowhunters should follow to keep the sport ethical.  

Aside from respecting the laws of the land, you must also respect the land itself and the animals that reside on it. When you are hunting, you should always keep in mind that you are taking an animal’s life, be respectful and appreciative of this fact.  

Practice and Preparation 

Even if you are skilled with a bow on the range, you need to ensure you have practiced and prepared yourself and your equipment adequately for hunting season.  

Your bow setup and the arrows you use are different from target shooting, and they will also differ depending on your game. The equipment you need to hunt small quarries will be vastly different than what you need for larger animals. No matter your quarry, you need quality equipment to ensure you can deliver an effective kill shot.  

The importance of accuracy is also amplified with bowhunting. You want to make sure you have practiced using broadhead arrows and the same bow you will use for hunting.  

Your broadhead arrows may have the same weight as field arrows, but their aerodynamics will differ, resulting in a different flight path. As such, you need to ensure that you have set your center shot and your sights using the arrows with which you intend to hunt. 

You also need your equipment to be robust and accurate enough for you to penetrate a vital target on your quarry. Some archers opt for lighter arrows and arrowheads as it improves their accuracy, but these lightweight options do not always provide the power necessary to give a swift and humane kill. You also need to make sure that your arrowheads are razor sharp. Get the right equipment for the game you intend to hunt. 

During target practice, a shot that lands close to your mark but not quite dead on the bullseye have no serious repercussions. In hunting, it will lead to more suffering for your quarry as it flees through the bush. As a hunter, you have an ethical imperative to track any wounded game and end its suffering. Some bowhunters believe that if you wound and then allow an animal to escape without bringing an end to their pain, you should consider your tag filled and head home. 

Adequate practice will also allow you to determine your effective shot range. When you head out to hunt, you will know how close you need to be before you can ethically release that shot. Do not shoot outside of your and your bows effective range. Practice year-round to ensure you are in top form when hunting season comes around. 

Adequate practice and preparation will ensure that you know you and your equipment’s capabilities and are ready for hunting season. 

Fair Chase 

Fair chase involves using only the gear which is necessary to hunt and kill an animal without giving you an unfair advantage over the wildlife you intend to harvest. 

While bows are a form of technology, they do not provide you with a huge advantage, just enough to keep you safe. This does not mean that bowhunting is de facto ethical, as you could make use of other tools that could give you an unfair advantage. 

A classic and highly illegal example is spotlighting. This practice involves bright artificial lights that are used in nocturnal hunting to freeze deer, making them easy prey. This type of “hunting” is not a sport; it is like shooting the proverbial fish in a barrel. Such practices do not adhere to the principles of a fair chase and must be avoided to ensure you are hunting ethically. 

Taking the Shot 

Knowing which shot to take which one to leave is where the experience, skill, and knowledge of the archer are in full effect. Knowing when to take a shot and when to hold are critical to ensure you are not out in the bush maiming animals without concern. 

First and foremost, know your effective range with your equipment and do not exceed it. 

Aside from your range, you need to know where the vital targets are for your game and what angles provide adequate access to those targets. When hunting, you are always going for a kill shot; this usually means hitting the animal in the lung and heart area, which has the most extensive collection of major blood vessels in the body. You also need to know about their bone structure as these areas are often protected by large, massive bone structures that can deflect your shot and reduce the penetration of the arrow. 

Do not take shots in low light conditions if you are not equipped for it. Do not shoot through obstructions such as branches or other foliage. Do not release your arrow at a moving target. 

You also need to understand the behavior of the wildlife you are hunting. This allows you to be aware of when they are on alert and might flee, altering where your arrow lands when it strikes them. 

Levi Morgan from bowlife.com has a superb guide on when to take or hold your shot. I highly suggest taking a look at it, especially if you plan to hunt deer. 

Pack It In, Pack It Out (AKA Don’t be a Slob) 

A simple yet so often disregarded practice that this familiar adage was created. Do not pollute the environment and harm the habitats of local wildlife by leaving your trash or equipment behind.  

Whatever supplies you take in must also be taken out, leaving the area in as good condition as it was when you arrived, anything less would be unethical. You can also help by taking out any trash left by other careless hunters, hikers, or campers, leaving the environment in an even better condition than when you entered. 

The Alternatives 

When it comes to food source alternatives, we have already discussed factory farming, which pales in comparison when it comes to ethical considerations for the animals and the land. This form of food production almost seems like it is geared towards maximizing the pain and suffering of animals. 

Unless you plan to cut meat out of your diet, other options would mean looking at a different hunting method, which brings us to rifle or gun hunting. 

We are then left with the question of whether guns provide a quicker, cleaner kill reducing the suffering of the quarry? 

The answer boils down to the hunters. Whether using a gun or a bow, it comes down to shot placement. A well-executed shot with either implement will result in a quick kill, while poor shot placement with either will result in a slow, painful death.  

The main difference between these two comes down to how well a bullet can penetrate and even shatter bone. Arrows just aren’t capable of the same kind of penetrative power; this means that a bowhunter has to be more skilled and more knowledgeable. There will be shots that a rifle hunter can take that a bowhunter cannot. 

If you are looking to start hunting, you may be wondering which option is right for you. It is best to pick one and master it before starting the other, especially if you choose bowhunting, which is more demanding of the hunter. 

Bowhunting Vs. Rifle Hunting 

Both forms of hunting can be ethical, but they require different commitments from the hunter. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each of these: 

Bowhunting Pros 

Bowhunting is a gratifying sport, but it requires a great deal of practice and patience on the hunter’s part, more so than rifle hunting. 

  • Bowhunting season is longer than rifle hunting season and during a better time of year weather-wise. 
  • There will be fewer people during bowhunting season than rifle hunting season. 
  • Large game like and elk and deer tend to be more active in the morning and evenings during bowhunting season. This gives you more opportunities to fill your tag. 
  • Bowhunting, as a highly developed skill, is very rewarding for the hunter. Because bowhunters have to spend a great deal of time maintaining and advancing their skills with a bow, they tend to report that they feel more reward when it comes to a successful hunt. 
  • Practicing with your bow is cheaper than practicing with a rifle as you can reuse arrows, but you cannot reuse bullets. 

Bowhunting Cons 

Bowhunting is not an easy sport, and it requires a lot of dedication from the hunter. However, it can pay off when you finally land your first quarry. 

  • Bows have much shorter ranges than rifles. Depending on your bow, the maximum effective range could be anywhere from 30 to 50 yards. 
  • Due to decreased range, you must get much closer to your game before you can release your shot. This requires extra gear, skill, and expertise. In the beginning, you might become frustrated with how often a potential quarry gets away from you. 
  • Bows are less powerful, which reduces the variety of shots a bowhunter can take when compared to rifle hunting. 
  • Less power also means more chances for deflection, whether that is from something like a branch or even a leaf or bone protecting the animal’s organs. It is harder to get a clean shot with a bow. 
  • Bows can be fun to learn, but they are much harder to master than rifles. 
  • It’s just you and your bow. There are no stands that can help you steady your shot, and you can’t fire your shot while laying or sitting down. Taking a clean shot requires more practice and skill from an archer than a hunter with a gun. 
  • Consistent shots are much harder with a bow, and your ability to release the arrows in practice can be easily affected by weather conditions. 

Bowhunting has its limitations, but this is what can make it so rewarding as a sport. Having fewer hunters to compete with and a better hunting season may mean bowhunting is for you if you enjoy mastering demanding skills. 

If you want to get into hunting but do not have the time to invest in maintaining the skill set that is required of bowhunters, rifle hunting might be your sport. 

Rifle Hunting Pros 

Rifle hunting still requires skill, and you must always learn about the wildlife you intend to hunt and be familiar with your tools, or else you will cause unnecessary and extended pain and suffering. However, becoming proficient with a rifle takes less practice than bowhunting. 

  • Guns have longer effective ranges, at least 50 to 300 yards. 
  • An extended range means less escaped quarries as you do not have to get as close. 
  • There is more versatility in projectiles. You could use a single projectile shot or something with spread depending on what you intended to hunt. Using something like a shotgun also allows you to track moving targets. 
  • Rifles, and other guns, are easier to learn how to use effectively compared to a bow and arrow. Drawing and consistently releasing an arrow takes a lot of muscle coordination that is unfamiliar in everyday life; as such, it requires a great deal more practice than a firearm. 
  • Hunters using firearms will be able to take more shots than bowhunters as guns have more power than arrows and can break through bone. 
  • Rifles that are appropriately maintained wear more slowly than a bow. 

With a longer effective range and more power, it is easier for beginners to start hunting with a rifle. However, there are some downsides to using a gun. 

Rifle Hunting Cons 

Shorter seasons and more competition from other hunters can be enough to turn some away from rifle hunting.  

  • The season for hunting with firearms is shorter than it is for bowhunters, and more people opt to shoot with a rifle increasing your competition for game. 
  • Rifles have more expensive upkeep than bows do, and of course, a poorly maintained firearm is no longer a hunting tool, it is a death trap. 
  • Practicing with a rifle is more expensive because bullets are single-use items. Thus, your ammunition costs for drilling will be higher than a bowhunters cost for arrows. 
  • There are more restrictions around owning and using guns, which can make it harder to obtain a rifle, depending on where you live. 

Hunting with firearms is still a rewarding sport that requires skill and knowledge from the hunter, but it can be more accessible for novices.  

Conclusion 

Both of these hunting practices can be done ethically as long as you follow both the written and unwritten rules of hunting. Respect the land, respect the wildlife, and respect your fellow hunters. Bowhunters have to be more restrictive with their shot choice and will need to invest more time in practice to ensure that they are practicing this sport in an ethical manner that causes the least amount of pain and suffering. 

Whether you choose to start with a firearm or a bow is a personal choice but no matter which one you decided on, you need to make sure you have the time and money to invest in the sport so that you can take clean shots and are treating the animals with the respect they deserve. 

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