The Ethics of Killing Large Carnivores

Is “bagging a trophy” really an amoral choice?

This is a very interesting article that discusses the very core of issues we discuss on this blog.  I thoroughly recommend that you read it as I think it represents how I feel about wildlife, and more specifically large carnivore, management today.  The proponents of trophy hunting (and I think the North American Wildlife Management Model as well) claim that it is an amoral matter while, as the article points out, it is a moral matter.

In his paper, Environmental ethics and trophy hunting, Dr. Alastair Gunn states that “Nowhere in the (scientific) literature, so far as I am aware, is hunting for fun, for the enjoyment of killing, or for the acquisition of trophies defended.”

This passage is particularly relevant:

Unfortunately, jurisdictions in both Canada and the United States are saddled with a policy framework for wildlife conservation that is carried out within an artificial construct in which ethical considerations simply do not exist and management is driven largely by values, attitudes and deeply held beliefs that are ensconced in the anachronistic North American Wildlife Management Model that dates back to the early 1900’s. This narrow approach is primarily rooted in an agricultural mindset, as opposed to an ecological one.

The Ethics of Killing Large Carnivores.
Chris Genovali – Executive Director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation





  1. jon Avatar

    Large carnivores are victims and have always been, more so than the animals they eat to survive. They are despised and hated and all because of them killing other animals that humans want to hunt. They are hunted for fun/sport. I personally think it is rather sick for someone to go out and kill an animal mainly for sport or fun.

  2. jon Avatar

    “Human’s belief that animals and nature are ours to exploit, manipulate, hold captive and kill is a serious moral flaw in our personalities.”

    Good article find Ken.

  3. JB Avatar

    I hope that before people dismiss the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, that they take a few moments to learn what it is about. According to the Wildlife Society, the model has seven components:

    Wildlife as Public Trust Resources;
    Elimination of Markets for Game;
    Allocation of Wildlife by Law;
    Wildlife Should Only be Killed for a Legitimate Purpose;
    Wildlife Are Considered an International Resource;
    Science is the Proper Tool for Discharge of Wildlife Policy; and
    Democracy of Hunting.


    None of these components is in any way similar to the agricultural model. In fact, “elimination of markets for game” runs directly counter to the economic model of agricultural production. While I agree that, in practice, the NA Model sometimes resembles agriculture (e.g. as when managers attempt to maximize harvest of particular species); I don’t think that is a reason to dismiss it as flawed or failed.

  4. mikepost Avatar

    JB you are right on target. The NAMWC is the very reason there is any wildlife for the public to enjoy today. Calling it anachronistic is like calling the Bill of Rights anachromistic just because it was framed in a different social and temporal context. Perhaps Gunn would prefer the European Model, or the Asian Model, or the South American Models of exploitation and private ownership and privilege.

    Everything people celebrate on this blog exists today because of the NAMWC and for no other reason. Yes, like the Constitution we need to tweak it now and then but Gunn is firing blanks with his comments.

    1. Jon Way Avatar

      Good posts Mike and JB,
      I agree, it is important to recognize the value it has had in restoring and protecting wildlife pops. However, I agree that it needs serious tweaking and carnivores define that. And to have 1 or 2 user groups (hunters and farmers/ranchers) to have most of the voice for wildlife mgmt, clearly violates the Public trust Doctrine. However, adding various user groups would tweak it to make it more democratic. But I agree with the tenets of the article as well, in that carnivores should be treated differently than prey and it is a fact (the elephant in the living room) that many people kill carnivores (coyotes) purely out of hate and/or fun, often with no valid rationale to support their cause other than that. George W. writes great articles on this topic.

    2. JB Avatar

      Good points, Jon. Especially regarding the inordinate influence of some “traditional” stakeholders.

      I would add that the fourth component of the model, “Wildlife Should Only be Killed for a Legitimate Purpose” is problematic in that it uses normative language (i.e. legitimate) that can be interpreted in a thousand different ways. To some, killing coyotes (or any species) for fun is always unethical, while others see no problem with this behavior because of the fecundity of coyote populations.

      This gets to the heart of the problem with ethics in both hunting and wildlife management, in my opinion. That is, while it is relatively easy to regulate how/when/where wildlife are killed, it is nearly impossible to regulate the intent of the hunter/poacher/manager/killer. The ways in which we legally classify wildlife add to the confusion. Some species have protected status, others (i.e. game animals) are hunted, while still others can be killed at any time and via all sorts of medieval means. What kind of message does this send?

      Invasive species, and especially invasive-exotics, further muddy the waters–we are actively trying to eradicate some of these species. And yet, few would question the removal of brown tree snakes from Guam by any means necessary.

      In general, I believe our system of wildlife management is quite sound–the examples of populations “rescued” from collapse and localized extinction are a testament to its success. But we need to find a better method for involving non-traditional in wildlife management.

    3. Ryan Avatar

      “And yet, few would question the removal of brown tree snakes from Guam by any means necessary.”


      Replace brown tree snakes, with Feral Cats, Feral Horses, and other more cuddly non natives and watch the change in tone.

  5. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    Actually, I like Dr. Gunn’s paper. I may have skipped over something but it seems mainly a review of questions every hunter should think through and be aware of. I also believe that values, along with science, are important in setting wildlife management laws. Science definitely comes first in my view, in part because some of the potential values choices may be inconsistent with science anyway.

    However, regarding the other article, espousing particular values or ethics mixes very poorly with science, and detracts greatly from the usefulness and dependability of the latter. That’s a particular problem for Mr. Genovali’s organization (Raincoast Conservation Foundation) and tends to infect the fields of large carnivore research and “conservation biology” more than most. For example, does anybody believe after reading public pronouncements by a Raincoast researcher on the ethics of grizzly bear hunting in B.C. that his research on the topic is unbiased? If he found evidence that grizzly hunting was highly sustainble, would he ever consider publishing it? He’s playing to a particular choir that has particular values and funds his research with the expectation that it will further those values, which include banning carnivore hunting if not all hunting (one of their glossy publications even managed to disparage the very limited blacktail deer hunting in remote areas of northern B.C. as “trophy hunters” competing with wolves).

    Likewise, Dr. Gordon Haber spent most of his career (funded by the Friends of Animals) honing an argument that the wolves he observed for over 40 years in Denali National Park were direct descendents of those studied by Adolf Murie in the 1940s and had developed and passed down priceless cultural traditions. If true, it would provide an argument against hunting and trapping of wolves, i.e. that those activities put an end to long-accumulated culture and knowledge passed through many generations. However, he was unable to prove it (there was a good Anchrorage Daily News article on the topic a few years ago) and it hasn’t found much traction with more neutrally funded wolf researchers (Adams, Mech, Smith, Peterson, etc.) who apparently aren’t aren’t seeing the evidence or at least not publishing on it. Wolves are intellegent and highly adaptable but I don’t think they are talking much about durable family structures (more the opposite given the rise and dissapearance of the Druids in Yellowstone, etc.). However, you will find Haber’s “research” echoed in Raincoast publications.

    I certainly don’t mean to imply at all that this problem is specific to opponents of killing carnivores. Dr. Valerius Geist, who has recently been associated with hunting organizations, has written somewhat astonishing articles about the level of direct and indirect (E. granulosus) danger from wolves to humans that seem designed specifically to give political ammunition to wolf opponents. Values and science are separate areas and people need to weigh them themselves and make sure the “science” they are reading is not pre-packaged with values.

    I’m sure Mr. Genovali would have plenty of venom for brown bear hunting in SE Alaska. Although I think a lot of people who come here to hunt bears would probably cancel their hunt if they went on a bear-watching trip first, it appears eminently sustainable and is consistent with two of Dr. Gunn’s categories ( 9) conservation and (10) economics. The over-riding conservation issue here has been even-age forest management (i.e. clear-cutting of ancient old-growth) versus a whole bunch of other uses that are adversely affected, some for hundreds of years even if clear-cutting stopped today (commercial fishing, sport fishing, eco-tourism – including bear watching, cruise ship tourism, marten trapping, deer hunting – mostly local subsistence, and guided goat and bear hunting — and a more selective, localized, value-added timber industry). When it comes time for the USFS to weigh economic benefits of their timber management alternatives, brown bear guiding falls on the side of forest protection and guides are represented in our local environmental group. A sustainable economy is important – which in this area involves a wide variety of activities done in moderation (including brown bear guiding).

  6. Virginia Avatar

    This article speaks for me as well. As I stated during the discussion of trapping, hunting for reasons other than sustenance is immoral or amoral if you will, cruel and inhumane. There is a true lack of character and integrity in persons who pursue killing animals, whether carnivore or herbivore for fun, profit or any reason other than to provide food for survival.

    1. Elk275 Avatar

      ++There is a true lack of character and integrity in persons who pursue killing animals, whether carnivore or herbivore for fun, profit or any reason other than to provide food for survival.++

      Does a hunting guide whose services are for profit lacking in character and integrity?

    2. Salle Avatar

      I would have to agree with Virginia. And, I do feel that hunting guides are a Judas type of actor in the killing for fun/sport/entertainment/anything-other-than sustenance (food). Unless you plan to hunt and kill animals with your bare hands, it is fair… it’s only a(n unfair) game.

    3. Salle Avatar

      Oops, I meant:

      “Unless you plan to hunt and kill animals with your bare hands, it is not fair… it’s only a(n unfair) game.

  7. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    I did think the article was a bit over the top, but I do think that game management, especially under a lot of pressure from ag interests and certain kinds of hunting mindset can be a real threat to any kind of truly wild outdoors experience.

    Elk should be more than speedy cows.

  8. bob jackson Avatar
    bob jackson

    I posted the following in the “Bozeman Opinion” thread but maybe it is more appropiate here.
    bob jackson Says:

    June 12, 2010 at 2:39 PM
    I agree with Kris that killing for sport is a mental illness. I do not feel killing vegetation, however is any different than killing red blooded species. It all is taking of life.

    I feel the evolutionary need for carnivornes, omnivores, herbivores and the plant community to kill is rooted more in the emotions each species has in the need for that species to survive as that species.

    What has been skewed in “modern” civilized times is a distancing from being a part of nature. Thus “we” have this evolutionary feeling of elation with each “kill” ….being emotionally misintrepreted by those who now feel the need to kill for “sport”….. not much different than the “feelings” that comes from hormones driving pre adolescents to adults. In the process a few things get mixed up. Of course this means life dies needlessly.

    I can say I have killed more animals than anyone reading this blog. I kill families of buffalo to this day. It takes a lot of soul searching for me and continual review of why I kill to be at peace with myself. I have no choice but to spend time doing this. Othewrwise I become an abuser.

    As for a “higher” form of life…there is none. This racist (species) belief is no different than Germans pre and present Hitler era believing they were the Aryian Master Race. Until the general public…as fueled by academia…. understands there is no SUPERIORITY ….. prejudices will always come up with supposed rational knowledge and science.

    One more thing…. todays game management will, someday, be noted in museums. That is where it belongs. Not so much for its bad symptom science but for the same reasons we all believe what a deadly false science Hitlers Aryian science proved. (can you believe their doctors killed 91,000 of their own people in a single year to rid it of medically and emotionally “unsound” members in its ranks?…kind of reminds me of the lay and science community Aryan quest for pure bison in Yellowstone).

    I go with Kris as to her opinions of what todays killing does to minds …and how this abusive attitude is passed on from generation to generation… different than how abuse in a family stays for a long time. The only thing I see Kris not resolving in her own mind is her elevating animals over plants. Thus she has the same superiority problems most have. Maybe she will “work it out” some day. Aj

    1. Angela Avatar

      Bob, can you clarify this statement: “I kill families of buffalo to this day. It takes a lot of soul searching for me and continual review of why I kill to be at peace with myself. I have no choice but to spend time doing this. Otherwise I become an abuser.” I would rather understand what you mean than trying to make assumptions.

      I believe I understand what you are saying with regards to the “elation” of killing–that humans get pleasure from killing because it was necessary at one time for us to kill to survive and to eat. It’s like a relict of our evolution, similar to the craving for sugar.

  9. Angela Avatar

    Although I check the Huffington Post almost daily, I had missed this article and its many great links, so thanks for posting this, Ken.

    The dismissal of ethics in the world of wildlife management has been a source of frustration and sadness to me my entire life. Example: perhaps harvest of harp seals meets all of the components of the NAMWC listed above. But the fact that they are brutally and inhumanely killed as pups for their fur can’t be factored into any *serious* discussion of their *management* because it isn’t important in terms of the *scientific* mathematics and economics of the equation. The same applies to factory farming, which has become so “efficient” that animals begin to be butchered before they are even fully dead. I disagree with this approach to non-human animals and their management and I think the effects on the humans involved are very harmful. Consider that animal cruelty is seen as an indicator of the potential for abusive treatment of humans…

    Arguments involving ethics are off the table and labeled as something that is only important to over-emotional humans that can’t be objective and rational. To me, this is a denial of an important part of being a human being–the ability to make choices based on ethics–and perhaps one that is considered more of a *feminine* attribute than a *masculine* one (irregardless of sex). Because we can’t measure values or animal suffering, we dismiss them entirely. We discount attributes that to me are very important qualities of a person’s character: compassion and empathy are two that come to mind. Is this somehow related to the adoption of monotheism and the death of pantheistic beliefs in which human beings respected and were more closely connected to non-human animals (and even plants)? I do not believe wildlife management should be based entirely on what animals provide to our one species, the utilitarian view. We should not discount other contributions that wildlife make to the world around us, apart from their intrinsic right to the freedom that seems to be so valued by humans. What about the beauty and interest they bring to the world? To me, there is great sadness when I hear of so many wild animals wearing collars for the purposes of making management easier and more efficient. We need to preserve the “wild” in our wildlife for reasons that may not be measurable in dollars, but in the human spirit. I am not discounting science, I am arguing for the inclusion of ethics in the field of science, resource extraction, and wildlife management. Perhaps it can balance out the GREED that is also unscientific but which has a strong influence on how wildlife and our natural environment is managed.

    Finally, I feel it is somewhat psychopathic to want to kill an elephant or giraffe or dik-dik. I understand the benefits that trophy hunting can bring to indigenous communities and the funding of wildlife conservation, but the enabling of this kind of human behavior seems counterproductive in the 21st century.

  10. Nancy Avatar

    You certainly summed up my feelings in those paragraphs Angela, especially this comment:
    We should not discount other contributions that wildlife make to the world around us, apart from their intrinsic right to the freedom that seems to be so valued by humans.

  11. Linda Hunter Avatar

    Last summer an eleven year old boy asked me; “Do you know why hunting is not a sport?” No why? I asked. “Because one of the sides don’t know they are playing!” I asked him if he had a hamburger for lunch. He said he did and that he understood that to eat meat we had to kill animals but he wanted me to know that hunting for meat is hunting, not a sport.

    1. jon Avatar

      If some human hunters consider it a sport, than when a cougar attacks a person, is that considered a sport as well? Hunting is not a sport. Hunting is done to put food on the table. If you want to play a real sport, take up football or basketball.

    2. JB Avatar

      sport [spawrt, spohrt]

      1. an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc.

      Nearly any game with a physical component can be conceptualized as a “sport”. Similarly, one could argue that how one plays a game determines whether or not it gets defined as a sport. Is basketball a sport when you shoot baskets alone? What about bowling? Does one need to compete with other people to make a game a sport?

      Some people hunt for food [not a sport]. Some people hunt to test their skill against wild animals honed by “nature”. Others, and this is the disturbing trend to me, hunt to test their skill against other hunters (or especially anglers).

      I think there are reasons to be concerned about how and why sport hunting and fishing practiced, but this seems like another ill-disguised excuse to call hunters names.

    3. JB Avatar

      And basketball a real sport? Give me a break. Real men play hockey. 😉

    4. Save bears Avatar
      Save bears

      “I think there are reasons to be concerned about how and why sport hunting and fishing practiced, but this seems like another ill-disguised excuse to call hunters names.”

      Amen JB….

    5. JEFF E Avatar
      JEFF E

      Golf is definitely not a sport

    6. mikepost Avatar

      Actually most of our “sports” are celebrations of the skills that are required for hunting or warring. They developed in ancient times as a way of honing all the eye-hand coordination issues, the aggressivness required to win, team work to over come other groups, skill with weapons (javelin, bow, etc), skills in the wilderness environment so you can hunt or attack, and general physical stamina to do all of the above. We have come a long ways since then but that is the birth of “sport”.

  12. Elk275 Avatar


    You have made some good posts on this thread.

    1. JB Avatar

      Thanks, Elk. Don’t worry, I’m sure we can find something to argue about on another thread. 😉

      In all seriousness, wildlife advocates (hunters and non-hunters alike) are better served by working together in 99/100 cases. I think it would be short-sighted to allow the management of a few thousand wolves to separate us. There are too few allies in wildlife conservation as it is. One of the things that makes this blog such a wonderful resource is that people who post here actually care about wildlife and wildlife issues; I just wish we could find a better way of emphasizing the things we agree on rather than always bickering about the things we don’t.

  13. monty Avatar

    Enjoyed all of the above comments. I agree “hunting” is not a sport and becomes less so as the “killing technology” improves. ATV’s, rifles w/scopes that can kill at 2000 feet, enhanced listening devices & so on. Maybe, in the future, Bubba can purchase a “robot” to bag the game so he can stay home and drink beer.

    1. Angela Avatar

      Actually, that last technology was in the past.
      It was made illegal.

    2. Ryan Avatar


      You obiviously have no clue.. So I’ll challenge you to a 2000 ft shooting contest. I’d bet ~100 bucks you couldn’t put 1 out of 5 bullets in a 12″ round target. Heck I’ll bet you a grand that on your own, in a state like oregon, even with all of the “listening devices” you couldn’t fill a general season elk tag.

    3. Angela Avatar

      Monty, that technology was already introduced, but rendered illegal in most states I believe.

    4. Save bears Avatar
      Save bears

      They already did that, a company in Texas offered a service several years ago, that was marketed to handicaped people, so they could sign up and use their computer at home to shoot a deer on a Texas ranch with a remote controlled gun, but they were ordered to stop by the Texas Dept of Wildlife..because of many protests by us hunters…once again, hunter banded together to stop an unethical program…

    5. JEFF E Avatar
      JEFF E

      re sb: as it should be

    6. Save bears Avatar
      Save bears

      Yup Jeff,

      Us hunters are so bad!

    7. JEFF E Avatar
      JEFF E

      sb, what are your plans for elk season?

    8. Save bears Avatar
      Save bears


      I don’t know yet, I didn’t hunt last year, because I had a full freezer and spent so much time on the road, so I have not really decided anything…what you have in mind?

    9. JEFF E Avatar
      JEFF E

      i have been hunting in the sawtooth zone in a little corner that I believe about 150-200 head stay year round; with several hundred + showing up as winter sets in, A couple saddles that they prefer is like walking across a barnyard as far as use. I see cows every year and all other age groups sign/use. In addition some damn big deer live there. turds as big as my fist, plus sign of all ages and sex of deer. bear and cougar also. problem is that it is more than a mile off the road and about a 1500 ft rise, so it gets a minimum of pressure so the elk do not move around more than they want to.

    10. WM Avatar


      ++a company in Texas offered a service several years ago, that was marketed to handicaped people, so they could sign up and use their computer at home to shoot a deer on a Texas ranch with a remote controlled gun++

      I, in fact, wrote several emails to different state wildlife agencies, about that disgusting business, including Texas, and had several follow-up calls with the same agencies. And, recall our dialog a couple of months back about using electronic devices designed to track collared animals, but which have the possibility of a hunter using the same technology to find an animal, I did a quick reveiw of the legality of using such devices in nearly all the Western states. I was troubled by the language I saw in the CO regulations. I called them and had about an hour long conversation with their chief law enforcement warden and his deputy director on the implications. They now understand the implications under the language of their current regs, and are prepared to present it to the Commission, when the issue ripens. They are not tracking wolves yet, but are elk, bear and lions.

  14. Elk275 Avatar

    ++what are your plans for elk season++

    Kill a 6 point bull and a cow, it’s that simple.

    1. Save bears Avatar
      Save bears

      Six Point?

    2. Elk275 Avatar

      No use not trying, I have let many smaller bulls walk. If you kill a small bull then you are not going to kill a big 6 x 6 and the small bull will never become a large bull. They all taste the same.

      I was doing an inspection today and there was a 175 pound black bear about 200 yards away.

    3. Save bears Avatar
      Save bears

      I think you got me wrong Elk, I would not pass up a 6 or a 7 point if I had it lined up in my bow sights, I just don’t get the opportunity to often, and end up normally taking a cow…

    4. Elk275 Avatar

      You and I belong to the same club. There is always hope — tomorrow is another day and at the end of the season there is always next year.

  15. JB Avatar

    Gunn asserts:

    “…we are entitled to kill animals only in order to promote or protect some nontrivial human interest and where no reasonable alternative strategy is available…


    …killing in self defense is justified only if no effective nonlethal means is available; killing to secure trophies would be justified (if at all) only if trophies are an important nonsubstitutable good, or if some other important substitute good cannot reasonably be achieved by any other means.”

    Contrast this with what I read this morning, jokingly describing the differences between the way Texas and California governors handle problems with Coyotes:

    – – – – – – –

    My point: We often forget that pragmatism (political or otherwise) largely drives our policies and behaviors with respect to wildlife. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, simply that it is so, and we should not expect this arrangement to change any time soon.

  16. Chris Harbin Avatar
    Chris Harbin

    I liked the kids answer! I’m not sure tht hunting is a sport per se, however, the one being hunted probably knows it is not a game.

  17. mikepost Avatar

    This is all quite an interesting discussion as I read todays news and note just how many places in the world humans are hunting humans for reasons much less convincing than the the ones stated here in support of hunting game.

    Placing the hunting issue within the overall perspective of the human condition may explain why not too many outside this blog group get too excited about it.


Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

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