I learned the cruelest lesson of ethical hunting I’ve ever experienced during the second weekend of Virginia’s 2015 archery season. It was the first season that a Virginia hunter had to purchase his or her bear license separate from a big game tag. My father and I were in a double-buddy tree stand that weekend with a 350-pound bear heading our way. I was beyond excited, this being my first chance at a bear with my bow, and I assumed my dad had purchased all of the tags we needed—especially the bear tags, as we had been seeing black bears on our trail camera footage all summer.

That was not the case, but it taught me something I will never forget, something that will always reinforce my passion for the outdoors and fair chase. But why did Virginia decide to split up its big game and bear tags in the first place?

Jaime Sajecki, wildlife biologist and Black Bear Project Leader for the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, gave me several reasons why the change occurred.

“One reason for why the separate bear tag took place was because some groups of hunters felt bears would be valued more if they had a separate tag,” Sajecki said. “It brings more value to bears as a stand-alone species.

“A hunter has to purchase a license and make a point to go bear hunting rather than just harvesting a bear during the opportunistic chance if one walks by with just a big game tag. It brought value to a bear as a premier game species.”

By making a bear tag a separate purchase from a big game one, VDGIF biologists and committee members now have an idea of how many hunters go hunting specifically for bears. Sajecki also cited additional revenue for the state’s wildlife conservation efforts as a factor for the decision, as well as the hope of engaging hunters for maximum bear management effectiveness.

“Hunting bears, there are a lot of differences such as shot placement and the size of the animal,” Sajecki said. “Part of this is to spark people to want to know a little more about what it means to bear hunt, and all of the specialized things that go along with bear hunting.”

The hunting laws that are put in place for hunters to follow are necessary for the proper management of wildlife populations. Hunters have a moral obligation to harvest wildlife respectfully and ethically, which means following the rules and ensuring a clean shot. These two elements of being morally ethical afield are the most important aspects a hunter should own.

It was tough for me to pass on my dream bear, but what’s right is rarely easy. Everyone has a moral obligation to act based on the absolute rights and wrongs. For hunters and outdoorsmen, ethics entail a fair chase for hunting and harvesting wild game by following the rules and regulations that are put in place to protect the conservation efforts and harvesting the animal with respect.

Michael Giles, Bass Pro Shops pro staff member and an avid outdoorsman and lifelong hunter from Mississippi, describes the necessity of ethical hunting.

“To me as a modern-day hunter, we do have an ethical obligation to abide by the laws and be mentors and teach others the proper way to hunt. Wildlife conservation includes harvest, but the proper, ethical harvest.”

Ethical hunting is necessary for populations of wildlife to continue thriving in generations to come, and ultimately for hunting to remain a practice. It is up to us as avid outdoorsmen and women to continue teaching the younger generations how to hunt morally and lawfully.

“If kids got to decide what laws they want to obey, there may not be fish and game to harvest when they become adults or grandparents,” Giles said.


Hunting has been an activity or lifestyle embraced by humans since the beginning of time, and it is a tradition that has been passed down through ancestry. Hunting is a sport vital to many people’s lives because it provides food for the family and is a sentimental activity that numerous generations participate in together. In order for this tradition to continue, every hunter should understand the ethics of the sport, properly put these ethics into practice, and teach the younger generations the importance of being ethical and following the regulations implemented to make our passion a true sport.

Hunting bears and other species is an integral part of maintaining and stabilizing populations at a healthy level. Without hunting, populations could be detrimental or face mortality depending on the increase or decrease of the population of the species. Ethical hunting plays a vital role in a hunter’s ability to maintain and manage the wildlife and environment through their traditional activity. If hunters act unethically afield, it hinders the future of hunting because it could offend non-hunters in the community.

“Hunting is the best way to manage species that need to be managed,” Sajecki said. “If we are going to be able to continue to manage species through hunters, they have to be hunting animals in such a way that the non-hunting public values wildlife. If hunters are not doing this ethically, it will really hurt our ability to manage using hunting in the long term.

“We want to preserve the tradition and recreational ability to manage.”

“If people don’t hunt ethically, it could create a lack of opportunity to enjoy wildlife, biologically with a population issue, or safety issues,” Virginia Conservation Police Officer Owen Bullard said. “Hunting ethically is also extremely important because not everything is covered by a regulation, but ethically, people are watching what people are doing out there. If they see someone doing something unethical, they may have a negative opinion about hunting, and it could be detrimental to the future of hunting.”


An ethical challenge hunters have recently faced is modern technology, making it possible for hunters to act even more unethically and illegally while hunting. In theory, my father and I could have harvested the bear without a tag and then accessed the Internet from our smartphone and purchased one online. Not only would it have been unethical, but it’s illegal as well. In addition, Virginia state deer and bear tags must be printed prior to harvesting either of those species.

“If you had purchased a bear tag on your cell phone and then shot the bear, there is no way to follow the process to legally possess the bear,” Bullard told me. “There’s a date and time stamp, and it would be pretty simple for me to find out the time the bear was harvested. This is where ethics come in.”

Being a successful hunter isn’t always about tagging trophies. It’s about maturation from discipline, and that sometimes entails sacrifice—the ultimate path to wisdom afield. Our success as hunters is demonstrated through respect for wildlife and the regulations that are enforced to make our passion a true sport. It is up to us as outdoorsmen and women to recognize and uphold those rules. Our actions in the field today help determine our hunting freedoms in the future, and every hunter should be aware of the importance of upholding ethical values and potential detriments unethical hunting entails.

The ethical obligation is the most important aspect of being a hunter—maintaining wildlife populations, creating a positive image of hunters everywhere, and contributing to continuation of the long-established tradition. I hope that one day soon I will be blessed with the opportunity to harvest a bear cleanly, ethically, and successfully to improve my character as a hunter, contribute to the conservation efforts of the land, and to obtain another priceless experience in the sport I am supremely passionate about.


Cover image:gui00878/iStock