Hunting high-tech in woods and field

Gizmos, gadgets, electronic devices now drive industry

November 26, 2006|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun reporter

Like almost everything else these days, there's some assembly required and batteries are not included for those who hunt.

With fewer hours to devote to their sport because of family and work commitments, hunters have turned to gizmos and gadgets to make them more efficient and effective.

Lightweight, battery-driven cameras act as electronic scouts, taking pictures of bucks walking through the woods. Amplifiers shaped like hearing aids pick up the sound of hoofed feet. Electronic boxes mimic the calls of turkeys.

Despite the continuing decline in the number of U.S. hunters, the gear they buy is a multi-billion dollar business that encompasses everything from four-wheel-drive vehicles to get a hunter deep in the woods (and haul a carcass out) to personal hygiene products that mask human scent. Hunting expenditures increased 29 percent from 1991 to 2001, primarily driven by equipment purchases, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey.

"If you can think of a product, it probably exists," said a chuckling Allan Ellis, local spokesman for Bass Pro Shops Outdoors World and host of a Saturday morning outdoors show on WCBM.

But as gear becomes more sophisticated, hunters are debating online and within their clubs about where to draw the line.

To be sure, some hunting products are the result of cross training. GPS units are a staple on sailboats and fishing boats as well as in hunting camps. High-powered binoculars are coveted by birders and waterfowl shooters alike. High-tech long underwear and socks worn by mountain climbers and skiers have warmed the heart and feet of many a deer hunter sitting in a snow-whipped tree stand.

But outdoors stores are filled with the latest high-tech toys built specifically for hunters.

They're not for everyone, however.

"Much of this stuff ranges from the totally irrelevant to the completely superfluous," says Jim Posewitz, who runs Orion, The Hunter's Institute, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for ethical and responsible hunting. "I'm a minimalist. The more honest the relationship, the better.

"To preserve hunting, you have to preserve the hunting ethic," says Posewitz, for 32 years a Montana game biologist. "If you have even a sliver of doubt, the advantage must go to the animal being hunted."

But that doesn't mean that Posewitz and other hunters don't understand the evolution.

Buz Meyer remembers scouting for deer more than 50 years ago as a young man running a plow at his family's Odenton farm. Back then, hunters hunted their own property and knew what was in the woods and fields before the season started.

"We're not out there every night, bringing the cows home. We're into rush, rush, rush and we don't have the time to devote three days to scouting," says Meyer, who teaches a Maryland-certified hunter safety and ethics course. "I don't think a camera in the woods gives you an advantage. You still have to know where to put it to get a picture."

Meyer still hunts his land the old-fashioned way, looking for trees where the bark has been rubbed away by bucks' antlers and pathways carved in tall grass by grazing deer. But he doesn't look down on folks who rely on the modern aids as long as they adhere to state game laws and long-standing ethics guidelines that say, among other things, that a hunter should strive to take a clean shot so as not to wound an animal.

However, the debate about "fair chase" goes beyond the use of electronic devices.

Maryland, for example, doesn't allow the baiting of bears on public or private land and prohibits the baiting of deer on public land. Yet, baiting deer on private land is legal, a practice several hunters questioned at a recent meeting with state wildlife officials.

The state has banned the use of "robo-turkeys," mechanical decoys that move their wings, but the impetus was hunter safety, not ethics.

As Posewitz points out in his book, Beyond Fair Chase: "Although you and the animals you hunt are equally involved, only you - the hunter - can judge its fairness, and the choices you make are important because they reflect on hunting as an activity."

While Posewitz and Meyer applaud better-made guns and ammunition and safety equipment, they worry that the majority of the general public - which is not anti-hunting - might rethink its position if it perceives hunters are no longer good sportsmen.

"When the sporting culture was introduced, the public came to respect the hunter," Posewitz says. "When that image was created, it made hunting acceptable to the majority of people who don't participate. When we diminish that in any way, it cheapens the whole thing. It's not how skilled you are, it's how much gear you can pack."

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