Fair chase has been at the heart of modern sport hunting for more than a century, yet it remains elusive—both as a concept and a practice.

A hundred years ago, the Boone and Crockett Club, one of America’s premier hunting and conservation organizations and keeper of the original fair chase creed, defined fair chase as “the ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild, native North American big game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals.”

But while we may be able to define “lawful,” what is “ethical” or “sportsmanlike”? What might be an “improper” advantage—or for that matter, what is a “proper” advantage?

Most of us can answer these questions when it comes to flagrant violations—hunting from a helicopter, hunting with spotlights at night, or hunting an animal over bait. But what about those fuzzy areas—using an ATV to cover vast territories in search of antelope or using a high performance rifle capable of killing an elk at 1,000 yards or more? How we answer these questions has a profound impact on the hunting experience itself, and on the future of hunting. Without an ethic of fair chase, sport hunting may be endangered.

By definition, hunting is the pursuit of a wild animal with the intent to capture or kill. Pursuit, the actual chase, precedes the kill; without it, hunting is merely killing. The chase, then, authenticates the hunt and, in turn, the kill puts an end to the chase.

Understood this way, hunting, particularly sport hunting, is about how we, as hunters, engage in the activity—the chase—leading up to the kill. Without restrictions on how we pursue game, the “hunt” loses meaning, ceases to exist. So the question remains, what is a fair chase?    

Jim Posewitz, a leading authority on hunting ethics and author of the book Beyond Fair Chase, describes fair chase as “a balance that allows hunters to occasionally succeed while animals generally avoid being taken.”

In this view, the kill is the exception and escape is the rule. Simply put, a chase is fair if the animal has a reasonable chance of escaping the pursuit unharmed. If the animal has little or no chance, the chase is not fair. Fair chase demands a balance of power between hunter and hunted: the hunter’s ability to track, pursue, and acquire an animal must not be greater than the animal’s abilities to elude capture or death.

Fair chase is, ultimately, an expression of the desire to limit the discretionary power of the hunter so that sport hunting will remain enjoyable, challenging, and true to its original character.

For the modern sport hunter with all the advantages of modern technology at his or her disposal, a fair chase ethic imposes a voluntary limitation on the means the hunter may employ to achieve an end. Fair chase is not about the fairness of the kill (the end) but about the fairness of the chase (the means). In fair chase hunting, not only do the means justify the end, but the means are the end: the chase is the hunt. And a fair chase hunter earns the privilege to take an animal’s life by mastering the skills of the hunt.