Bowhunting

Wyoming hunter Nick Dobric poses with a bull elk he hunted with a compound bow in 2017. Wyoming is one of few states in the West that also allows crossbows to be used during archery seasons. 

Courtesy, Nick Dobric

To a non-hunter, the difference between a crossbow and compound bow may seem nuanced. They both shoot arrows. They’re both called bows.

But to those who favor one over the other, those nuances are profound.

Crossbows hold an arrow back in the ready position, complete with a safety, scope and trigger. Compound bows – which resemble a higher-tech version of what early humans hunted with – require a hunter to pull a string back and hold it there until letting go. Compound bows are effective for the average hunter until about 40 to 50 yards. New crossbows tout accuracy up to 100.

Hunters who defend crossbows say they’re a way to introduce someone to the sport. Archery purists say crossbows are too similar to killing an animal with a rifle.

Wyoming is one of few states in the West that still allows the two to be used during early archery seasons that generally extend the amount of time a hunter has to find his or her quarry.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission may consider changing that rule.

The discussion is part of a larger one on advances in new technology that commissioners will address at their meeting Thursday in Douglas. It’s not the first time commissioners have limited controversial technology. In 2016, they banned the use of drones as a hunting tool.

Rapid changes in technology along with interest from lawmakers, the commission and the public, prompted the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to compile an extensive report on new hunting tools from trail cameras that track animals in real time to rifles that shoot guided bullets like a jet fighter. The report outlines recommendations to department leadership, who will then make recommendations to the Commission.

While the technology itself changes quickly, the basic question facing the Commission has been consistent: Is using the new gadget fair to wildlife and other hunters?

“When it comes down to the balance between opportunity and fair chase, it becomes a public discussion,” said Brian Nesvik, the department’s chief game warden. “It’s different in different states. In Wyoming, it’s acceptable to use hounds to pursue lions. In some places that’s not allowed, but hunters can use dogs to chase bears. In Wyoming, that’s not acceptable. The public has a huge role in identifying what fair chase is.”

Crossbows v. compound

Chance Marshall, a Lander-based outfitter who grew up in Jackson, doesn’t use crossbows when he hunts. He prefers a compound bow. But he brings them along on hunts with clients and encourages their use in certain circumstances.

If a client invests thousands of dollars in a Wyoming archery hunt, and hurts a shoulder or can’t pull back a bow, a crossbow still allows him or her to hunt.

“I’ve taken kids on their first hunts before, and they’ve been able to hunt with a crossbow,” Marshall said. “Wyoming allowing crossbows allows so much more opportunity for hunters coming here. There’s a lot more people able to participate in the archery hunt because of this rule than hunters in other states.”

For Bowhunters of Wyoming Vice President Harvey Dalton, using crossbows changes the game in the field. He’s lost countless animals because they see him pull his arrow back. Traditional archery is simply harder.

The bowhunting group doesn’t recognize animals killed with crossbows in their record-keeping. Crossbows belong in rifle season, Dalton said.

Wyoming is revisiting the issue now primarily because of a new bow that allows average users to shoot with accuracy much farther than those with traditional bows.

While the department doesn’t track crossbow usage, the weapon is, according to game warden surveys in the field, becoming much more popular, especially in the eastern side of the state, said Nesvik, the chief game warden.

The report recommends limiting crossbows to rifle seasons, except for hunters with qualifying disabilities. It also recommends banning the use of magnifying optics and holographic sights on all archery equipment during archery season.

Advances in rifles

Some pieces of new technology, like advances in crossbows, are relatively simple to regulate and police.

Long-range shooting technology, on the other hand, is harder, the report stated. Newer rifles that are readily available can allow hunters to shoot past 1,000 yards – far farther than the 400 yards most hunters stay within.

Few Western states attempt to regulate long-range shooting, except Idaho, which prohibits the use of rifles that weigh more than 16 pounds.

Instead of telling hunters what distances they can and cannot shoot, the report recommends increasing education related to long-range shooting.

“An educational approach would encourage hunters to recognize their personal limitations in a given hunting scenario in order to make ethical decisions,” the report stated.

Smart rifles, on the other hand, are easier to regulate.

The rifles allow a hunter to use similar technology that is found in jet fighters to essentially “lock on” to a target up to 1,200 yards.

“When the trigger is pulled by the shooter, the rifle will not fire until the rifle is properly aligned with the designated point of impact on the target, which may be moving,” the report read.

The Game and Fish committee recommends not allowing smart rifles, saying: “Most hunters are likely to be opposed to use of this technology for fair chase reasons.”

Trail cameras

On any given day during the fall, hunters and outfitters likely have trail cameras set up along some watering holes and game pathways in Wyoming’s forests.

They’re a less invasive way to track big game than sending dozens of people into the field to stalk animals for incoming clients, said Marshall, the outfitter. But at the same time, the game camera craze is becoming a little intense, especially in neighboring states.

“I can’t say we don’t use them a little bit ourselves, but I wouldn’t be broken-hearted if there were limitations to use,” he said.

The concern among those writing the Game and Fish report is the ability of new trail cameras to offer real-time images and videos:

“The following questions arise: Is it fair chase to have multiple cameras in the field with cellular capability texting and emailing images/videos of wildlife that comes within 60 to 150 feet of the device? If not considered fair chase, does such action effectively differ from hiring an outfitter to spend dozens of days scouting the same country and being much more intrusive in documenting the same wildlife?”

As a result, the committee recommended banning the use of real-time trail cameras for the purpose of hunting, locating or observing wildlife from Aug. 1 to Dec. 31. The ban would not apply to local, state or federal employees working in their official duties.

Legislative decisions

The recent issue of a new type of crossbow with higher accuracy first came up during a meeting of the Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee, said Nesvik, the chief game warden.

While a bill hasn’t materialized regarding advancements in the technology, there is legislation headed to February’s session banning people from scouting for big bulls or bucks and selling the information. Licensed guides, outfitters and landowners would be exempt from the ban.

Any bill not related to the budget would require a two-thirds vote to be introduced, making its passage difficult during this year’s session.

Regardless of whether a hunter does or doesn’t approve of smart rifles or crossbows, the issues won’t be settled quickly. If the commission decides to pursue any of the ideas, it will send them to the public for a series of meetings to gather information. The proposals will then return to the commission for at least another meeting before being voted on.

Buzz Hettick, chairman of the Wyoming chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, hopes the regulations can be sorted out by the Commission.

“Hunter ethics should be decided by hunters, and getting as much input as they can,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone is necessarily right or wrong, we need to figure out where the balance is.”

Follow managing editor Christine Peterson on Twitter @PetersonOutside

 

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Managing Editor

A Casper native, Christine Peterson started as a Star-Tribune intern in 2002. She has covered outdoor recreation, the environment and wildlife since 2010, and became managing editor in 2015. If not tracking bears or elk on assignment, she's chasing trout.

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