Bowhunting Ethics: Ensuring Humane Harvests

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Bowhunters have many responsibilities. They must respect the woods, wildlife, other hunters, and the state’s wildlife laws. They must also strive to make quick, humane kills by practicing often and using quality gear.

No hunter wants their quarry to suffer, of course, but how do we define “suffer?” To help answer that question, we spoke with Matt Ross, a certified wildlife biologist and assistant director of conservation for the Quality Deer Management Association.

Deer are mammals, so their nervous system resembles a human’s, Ross said. They likely have similar perceptions and reactions to ours, but the degree to which they feel pain is subjective, most researchers say.

“We’re mammals, and they’re mammals, and we have similarities, but (their ability to) feel pain is really unknown,” Ross said.

Scientists have documented behavioral changes in pets and rats during presumably painful situations. If a dog hurts its paw, for example, it likely won’t bound across the room and jump onto the couch. And if you slam a rat with a broom, it likely won’t scurry away in a flash. Those behaviors suggest animals feel pain and can suffer. Animals can’t, however, verbally communicate, so researchers can only offer educated speculation about what animals feel.

Comparing Mortalities

Deer are highly likely to pass away from accidental deaths on the road where they may suffer more greatly than if they were hunted. Photo Credit: John Hafner

Deer, meanwhile, are wild prey animals whose challenging lives eventually end. That’s a harsh reality of nature. Deer commonly die of disease, predation, malnutrition, vehicle collisions, and massive shock or hemorrhage from bullets or broadheads.

Death can be instant or prolonged in each situation, based on many factors. Overpopulated deer herds, for example, often starve slowly after overbrowsing vegetation within their reach, which can also harm other wildlife and the environment.

But if a truck’s bumper strikes a deer’s head, death is almost instant, assuming the truck is moving fast enough to strike with force. If that same bumper hits the deer’s abdomen or hindquarters, however, it might suffer broken bones, internal bleeding, and prolonged death.

Likewise, a bear, wolf or coyote could kill an unsuspecting fawn instantly. But if they had to chase it down, they might not inflict a devastating bite. The fawn might escape with a wound it didn’t immediately sense, and succumb later to blood loss or a slow-acting infection. In fact, coyotes typically eat deer alive by biting and tearing at their hindquarters until they weaken and collapse.

Many diseases often kill slowly. Bryan Richards, CWD project leader for the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center, said deer contracting chronic wasting disease suffer microscopic holes in their brain that cause progressive neurological degeneration and inevitable death. Deer carry CWD up to two years before showing obvious symptoms like weight loss, excessive salivation, and loss of fear or awareness toward people.

Which brings us to hunting. Most bowhunters have the skills, awareness and desire to make humane harvests.

“It’s safe to say it takes longer for an animal to expire in a disease, starvation or predation event than in the vast majority of hunting shots,” Ross said. “Hunters want each animal they shoot to die as quickly as possible out of concern and respect for the resource and individual animal.”

David Stainbrook, a deer biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, agrees.

“Bowhunters should do everything they can to make a clean, effective shot to minimize the time it takes a deer to expire,” he said. That also causes shorter, easier tracking jobs to find and tag the animal.

Hunt Ethically, Responsibly

Unlike disease or four-legged predators, bowhunters have a conscience that guides ethical decisions in making quick, humane kills. Let’s review four ways to ensure lethal shots.

  1. Practice

Practice regularly to stay sharp, focused and in sync with your equipment. Repeating the same actions, motions and techniques develops muscle memory and consistency. Take lessons, join leagues, and shoot 3D tournaments to improve your shooting skills. The more you practice, the more proficient you’ll become.

  1. Use Quality Equipment

Hunters must match their equipment to their quarry. They need different arrows and broadheads when targeting deer versus squirrels. Stainbrook said sharp broadheads and a comfortable, sufficient draw weight ensure arrows penetrate the animal’s hide, muscles and organs to inflict quick death. To be certain you’re using appropriate equipment, consult experts at an archery store.

  1. Smart Shooting Decisions

You must know your effective shooting range, and only shoot when your quarry is within it. Don’t take risky shots, such as shooting in low light, or when a deer is moving, or obscured by brush or branches. Only release your arrow when you’re certain you’re taking a clean, well-placed shot.

  1. Shoot the Vitals

The most important factor in a killing shot is placing your broadhead in the vitals. Lethal shot placement requires knowing deer anatomy and shooting angles to determine where to aim.

Although a shot to the brain is likely the quickest, most lethal shot, it has a small margin of error. If you miss your mark, a broadhead could cause debilitating jaw or facial injuries. Plus, most broadheads won’t penetrate the skull enough to cause immediate death. Therefore, bowhunters should target the deer’s much larger chest cavity, which includes the heart, lungs and major arteries. A broadhead puncturing a deer’s chest causes quick death from massive blood loss.

“Aiming for a deer’s heart and lung area is the most forgiving shot,” Ross said. “It gives hunters the best advantage over their quarry. The cardiac/respiratory region is very effective, and gives bowhunters a wider margin of error.”

It’s also best to shoot deer when they’re broadside or quartering away. These shots ensure arrows pass through the body cavity’s most vulnerable area, which creates better blood trails and humane harvests.

According to research shared by Andy Pedersen in the QDMA article “Does Broadhead Choice Really Matter?” bowhunters harvest white-tailed deer effectively. After evaluating bowhunting data on the Indian Head Navy Base near Washington, D.C., Pedersen documented that 181 bowhunters recovered 1,320 of 1,560 hit deer over 30 years, for an 84.6% success rate.

Research like that shows bowhunters take pride in their skills. After all, they want to use the animal’s meat, hide and antlers out of respect and appreciation for the animal.

When bowhunters make ethical decisions when choosing and maintaining equipment, and wait for lethal shooting opportunities, they ensure a quick, humane death for white-tailed deer and other quarry.


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