Situation Ethics is one of the more popular sections of Bugle Magazine. In it, situations are presented and we ask you, the readers, what you would do in this situation. Take a minute to to read the following situation, then let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
With his neighbors a little down on their luck, one hunter turns a blind eye.
The shot made me jump. It was close. I had been threading my way through hairbrush-thick lodgepole pine 200 feet above an abandoned logging road. I was on the fresh tracks of six meandering elk.
I kneeled on one knee, flipped up my scope covers, and waited for the elk to come running back. No elk came. The snow-quilted trees and brush gave mute witness to the event that had occurred somewhere just ahead. I straightened and resumed following the elk trail. I would go see for myself.
Most of the elk hunters had pretty much given up on the season, leaving the last couple days of hunting to a few remaining diehards like me who still had an empty freezer and a special cow elk tag to fill. And now the unseen hunter ahead was probably tagging “my” elk.
I followed tracks as they slanted down the side hill toward the old road. The elk had bedded down a couple times, their lima bean shaped beds dotting the outer edge of the road. I shuffled around a bend in the road and spotted two brown lumps, legs pointing skyward, 100 yards ahead.
But, I had heard only one shot.
I walked around the two gutted and still-steaming carcasses, a cow and a calf, and I tried to figure out what happened. The cow was shot through the head; the calf through the neck. I saw where all the elk had bedded down, and the plunging tracks that erupted from the beds at the shot. The shooter was gone. I saw where his tracks bailed off the road edge and headed straight downhill.
There wasn’t any visible tag on either of the carcasses. But the shooter had done a good job gutting them out, and he’d packed snow into the cavities of both.
“He must have gone for help,” I muttered to myself. “And another cow tag—or two.”
I left the elk and cut directly downhill for a ways, and then angled across to my truck. I drove up the road to see where the other guy came off the mountain. I spotted his tracks coming off the road bank, then running up the road. I caught up with him just before he reached his truck.
I knew the kid. He’d just gotten back from the Gulf War. His dad was an out-of-work logging truck driver. The family lived in the same neighborhood I did. Things got complicated real fast.
“Got two of ‘em, eh?” I said to him.
His suntanned face paled. “Yes sir,” he admitted. Then he told me his story in a rapid-fire cadence.
“But, it was an accident. The cow was bedded. I got a cow tag. I was hunting down that old road when I saw her. There were a bunch of ’em. She was the closest. I didn’t see the calf bedded just behind her. But look, I got the tag. It’s all punched out. I was going to get my dad. He’s got a cow tag, too. He’s hunting down below. I didn’t see that calf bedded against her.”
“Why didn’t you tag one of them?” I asked.
“Well, I didn’t figure anybody else was up there. I wanted to get my dad and go back, and in case someone else did come along, they’d see my one tag and figure I’d shot both elk.”
“You did shoot them both,” I said.
We both knew he had screwed up. While the young hunter had violated the letter of the law, I knew he wasn’t lying. They are good people, and I knew he had made an honest mistake. If I turned him in, the game warden would likely confiscate one elk, maybe both. But if I didn’t, I’d kind of be an accomplice, after the fact. And I knew they needed the meat. My family could sure use the meat, too, and for a moment I thought darkly about tagging one of the elk myself. Not only would that be illegal, but I knew I’d never feel right about it. Plus that family was in far harder times than mine.
Later, I wondered about my reaction. What if he had shot twice? Even if it was to finish off one of the two elk he hit, and I’d heard two shots instead of one. How would I have seen it then? What if I thought he’d lied about it? I kept my thoughts to myself.
I didn’t offer to help the young man get the elk down, and he didn’t ask for help, either. I drove down the mountain and hunted up another ridge, thinking I might jump the bunch again, but I never did.
That day, there were lines crossed, but for me, they crossed into a gray area. I had crossed some of those lines myself, and I figured I couldn’t point a self-righteous finger in any direction.
On my way home, I drove by the hunter’s house. Two freshly skinned, visibly tagged elk carcasses hung in the garage. I wondered briefly if they reported what happened. But I wasn’t looking into it.
Bill Sansom is a longtime Bugle contributor who lives in western Montana.