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Why allowing ‘big bull moose derbies’ in Alaska is a flawed concept

Rick Sinnott
Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, and Rep. Eric Feige, R-Chickaloon, have sponsored a bill that would add “big bull moose derbies” to the existing list of games of chance and skill permitted by the Department of Revenue. House Bill 268 defines “big bull moose derby” as a contest in which prizes are awarded for harvesting a bull moose based on the size and spread of its antlers. Loren Holmes photo

Every once in a while someone calls an Alaska Department of Fish and Game office to ask a question about gambling. “Game” means different things to different people. Most Alaskans know game animals are those that can be legally hunted, and moose are at the top of the list for most of the state’s hunters.

Two Alaska legislators are betting that hunters will pay to play a different game with their moose. Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, and Rep. Eric Feige, R-Chickaloon, have sponsored a bill that would add “big bull moose derbies” to the existing list of games of chance and skill permitted by the Department of Revenue for fundraising purposes. House Bill 268 defines “big bull moose derby” as a contest in which prizes are awarded for harvesting a bull moose based on the size and spread of its antlers.

President Theodore Roosevelt and many early advocates of wildlife conservation were unabashed trophy hunters. The North American model of wildlife conservation was created by influential sport hunters like Roosevelt and hunting organizations like the Boone and Crockett Club to combat unregulated harvests, unethical practices, and the naive attitude that wild game populations were inexhaustible. One of the first hurdles was convincing meat hunters to go along with radical concepts of “fair chase” and conservation. It wasn’t easy. In many instances, conserving wildlife meant curtailing opportunities to feed one’s family until game populations rebounded.

To accomplish that task, trophy and meat hunters, now better known as sportsmen, targeted a mutually distasteful practice -- market hunting -- which entailed shooting wildlife for sale, often to distant urban markets. Unregulated market hunters were wiping out once-abundant game animals one species at a time: passenger pigeons, bison, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, ducks and geese, to name a few. By cashing in on a public resource with capitalistic fervor, market hunters took from trophy and meat hunters alike.

Outlawing the commercial hunting of wildlife was one of the main tenets of North American wildlife management. So how is a big bull moose derby not a form of market hunting?

Big bull moose derbies

Wilson introduced the bill on behalf of the Tanana Valley Sportsmen’s Association and the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Rifle Team. In a letter of support, Dan Jordan, head rifle coach at UAF, took credit for the idea. “I began working on the idea of a ‘Big Bull Derby’ several years ago as a way to support the UAF Rifle Team,” he wrote. “In times of fiscal constraints, any type of fund-raising option is a welcome one.”

As outlined by proponents, the TVSA and the UAF rifle team would sell derby tickets prior to the moose hunting season. Winners would be announced after the hunting season.

In a letter of support, Tanana Valley Sportsmen’s Association President Grant Lewis wrote, “There will be several prizes to be offered based on the greatest spread of antlers including Top 3 overall, Top Junior, Top Woman, Top Archery, etc.” Prizes could include cash, firearms, hunting-related equipment or vehicles. Anyone who entered a bull in the contest -- big antlers or small -- would also be eligible to win a prize in a raffle.

The raffle would increase the number of people who purchase tickets. A raffle ticket holder would not be required to harvest a moose to be eligible to win cash, a gift certificate or clothing. According to Lewis, TVSA officials would be eligible to participate in the raffle.

Proceeds from the contest and the raffle would benefit both the TVSA and the UAF rifle team. After deducting costs, the two organizations would split the remainder.

Worthy cause? Flawed concept?

At first blush, the idea seems promising. University and high school rifle teams are worthy causes. In addition to operating an indoor shooting range in Fairbanks, the TVSA hosts gun safety courses, not a bad thing in a state with one of the highest death rates from firearms, which are found in more than 60 percent of households

Promoters call the bill a win-win proposition, claiming the number of moose hunting permits would not need to rise. They say participants will be hunters who would have shot a moose anyway.

But the idea has several inherent flaws. The foremost concern is that the derby and raffle participants are betting on the deaths of animals. I have no problem with sport hunting. I hunt moose. But the animals we kill deserve our respect. They don’t deserve to be pawns for our amusement in a contest many Native cultures would consider playing with one’s food.

In addition to ethical considerations, there is no real assurance that the derby wouldn’t result in more moose being shot. This could happen in two ways. In most of Alaska there is no limit to the number of moose permits that can be issued. Given the opportunity to win a prize, more people will hunt a finite number of moose.

To avoid overharvests, state wildlife authorities can adjust the length of hunting seasons or adopt more restrictive antler regulations, but they can’t completely control human nature.

Some contestants, goaded by the incentive of a prize or bragging rights, will attempt to shoot another moose illegally if their first bull isn’t big enough. An unintended consequence of the contest will be increased wanton waste, an illegal practice that is difficult to monitor and enforce in a state the size of Alaska.

Inevitably, there will be fewer moose available for subsistence hunters or sport hunters primarily interested in meat, not trophies.

Sportfishing for profit

Betting on someone, including yourself, to harvest the biggest buck or fish is not a new idea. Supporters of the bill cite Alaska’s salmon and halibut derbies as popular versions of the same concept. Perhaps there is no ethical difference between killing a fish or a moose for food, recreation, or prizes. But there is a perceived difference.

Nearly three times as many Americans fish than hunt. Most people believe it is much more acceptable to kill an animal that can’t blink or shriek in pain. Catch and release is considered the ultimate in sportsmanlike behavior in the angling world. However, no hunter would get away with hooking a moose in the mouth, reeling it in for a photo, then releasing it “unharmed.”

Salmon derbies remind me of another sport popular in certain circles: pro bass fishing tournaments. Professional bass anglers can earn millions of dollars. In one recent tournament sponsored by Wal-Mart the top prize was $500,000, with the “opportunity to compete for millions of prize money nationwide in 2013.”  Pro bass angler Randall Tharp, to cite one example, has accumulated more than $1.25 million in his career. Not a bad haul, considering most of us pay to fish, not the other way around.

Or, like fans of professional football, you can pick a fantasy team from 200 professional anglers and win a $1 million grand prize or one of more than 4,000 other prizes for an annual payout of $7.3 million in prize money. I get the impression I’m just scratching the surface on these competitions and their pots of prize money.

Market hunting with a twist

The proposed big bull moose derby contradicts two of the seven guiding principles of the North American model of wildlife conservation -- wildlife shouldn’t be hunted for profit or frivolous reasons

The model decried the harvest of wildlife for commercial markets. Market hunting is generally supposed to apply to harvesting wildlife to sell meat, but it has broader ramifications. Alaska’s prohibition on selling trophies and bear gall bladders stemmed from this principle. In a sense, the winners of the big bull moose derby would sell the right to profit from their trophies to the TVSA and UAF. Money would change hands in the form of contest fees, prizes and quid pro quo endorsements.

Alaska’s big bull moose derby will attract out-of-state hunters. Awarding prize money for shooting a bull moose in Alaska will foster a class of professional hunters who travel from state to state competing in derbies. It’s already happening. Some states allow deer hunting derbies; for example, North Carolina and Florida. There’s also a nationwide contest for white-tailed deer hunters.

The North American model also condemns the frivolous use of wildlife. In other words, wildlife shouldn’t be wasted, mistreated or killed casually. Hunting solely for the purpose of winning a prize in a big bull contest is a frivolous reason to kill an animal. Even betting on the outcome in the form of a raffle is frivolous. It’s an amusement. If you want to bet on something, try professional football, where every player is well paid and nobody expects to die after the referee blows the whistle.

Playing games with game

It’s worth noting that many deer hunting contests compare themselves to pro bass tournaments. A big difference is most professional fishing tournaments require the contestants to keep the fish alive until weighing, at which time they are released.

To their credit, even Bass Pro Shops, a major supplier of hunting gear, has voiced opposition to competitive deer hunting contests. Also worth noting is that hunters themselves can be skeptical of hunting tournaments

A hunter from Oklahoma, Greg Koch, has dreamed up a competitive deer hunt that doesn’t end in a pile of dead deer. He’s equipped hunters with scopes that capture a digital image of the deer, along with recording shot placement and distance. Unlike Wilson’s bill, the American Whitetail Authority’s Whitetail Pro Series stresses wildlife conservation and ethical hunting. Hunters are penalized if judges determine a “shot” would have wounded rather than killed the deer. Hunters earn more points for targeting a mature doe than a young buck, playing down the “big buck syndrome” and reinforcing the concept that good wildlife management can mean harvesting females as well as males.

That tournament probably won’t work in Alaska. Alaskans are unlikely to pay money for a chance to snap a photo of a bull moose when they could shoot the moose and keep the meat and antlers, too. Hunting with a camera is also not really hunting, according to the strict standards of Jose Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher who wrote the classic treatise “Meditations on Hunting.” Endeavoring to explain the relationship between hunting and killing, he wrote, “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.”

Most Americans support hunting. However, the public sanctions some reasons for hunting more than others. More than 80 percent of adults approve of hunting for meat, to protect people or property, or to control wildlife populations. Hunting for income, challenge, and trophies are at the bottom of the list, garnering support from fewer than half of American adults. Income, challenge, and trophies are the very motivations raised in favor of a big bull moose derby. Finally, researchers have found that hunter behavior, and perceived behavior, strongly affect opposition to hunting.

One of the bill’s supporters, Mike Tinker with the TVSA, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner he believes hunters will always seek the biggest game animal they can find. That is patently ridiculous. It does a disservice to the majority of hunters who are not trophy hunters. Believing that bigger is always better is an infantile fixation that can lead to trouble later in life.

Like Ortega y Gasset, modern sport hunters can wax mystical on the act of hunting. It’s not just about the killing. It’s not just about bringing home the biggest trophy. Or any trophy. But try to convince nonhunters that’s the case when Alaska’s big bull contest becomes a reality show on cable TV.

Practical considerations

Despite all the chest-thumping in support of the bill, nobody seems to have addressed several practical considerations. There is no guarantee in the bill that the TVSA or UAF Rifle Team will receive the permit, nor should there be. The state has hundreds of potentially qualified organizations that could benefit from operating the contest. Qualified organizations will be determined by the commissioner of the Department of Revenue. Will the sole permit be awarded by an impartial lottery, be based on merit, or be issued to the first qualified organization that comes through the door?

The big bull moose derby aims to raise funds for two organizations that focus primarily on target shooting. That’s ironic because shooting is not hunting. The number of gun owners far exceeds the number of hunters. Many professional and recreational shooters don’t hunt. There’s a missing link.

Instead of killing bull moose for fun and profit, why don’t the TVSA and UAF rifle team sponsor a statewide shooting contest? Existing law allows qualified organizations to raise funds through “contests of skill,” which include marksmanship. Promoting marksmanship, one of many skills that make a good hunter, is a much more worthy pursuit than trivializing death.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at rickjsinnott@gmail.com.