After more than 50 years of hunting, I've become aware of all sorts of wildlife regulations, the majority of them sound, but some that are unreasonable and, in my opinion, unfair. I'm referring to laws that require the hunter to make a field evaluation measurement of the quarry, insuring that it exceeds the minimum requirements. Practically all of these measurements involve antlers or horns. I believe that asking a hunter to make a judgement call on an animal in the field is unjust. I have plenty of examples.
I drew a prestigious desert sheep tag in Utah in the early 70's. Drawing that tag was akin to hitting the Super Lotto. The lucky hunters were required to take an orientation course offered by the state wildlife agency just prior to the season. Once the course was successfully
completed, the hunters were given their tags. The course included helpful tips on where to find rams, how to negotiate the desert country with high heat and rugged terrain, and, most importantly, how to judge a ram to insure it was legal. In that regard, the ram had to be either seven years old, or, if I recall correctly, score 144 Boone and Crockett points. To help hunters in this evaluation, biologists and wardens set sheep horns on saw horses, and each hunter had to score and age the head using a spotting scope (which was mandatory) at a distance of 100 yards. To most of us, this was an exercise in futility. We might do well in scoring a ram's head that was stationary, and at the correct angle, and -- very importantly-- with no emotion or excitement that you'd otherwise experience in a genuine hunt scenario. BUT, attempting this in the field on an animal that was typically moving and not allowing a good, long look at him through a spotting scope, was almost frightening. Most of us walked away from that orientation muttering to ourselves and shaking our heads. When the hunt was over, two hunters out of some 17 had taken sheep. (I didn't get one for a variety of reasons, mainly the fact that my buddy's pickup truck burned to a crisp far out in the desert, but that's another story I'll tell some day.) One of the two successful hunters was a Canadian from British Columbia. When he crossed the border with his ram, it was checked by both US and Canadian wildlife officials. They argued over the age of the ram, one saying it was 6 years old and the other saying 7, and the upshot was that the head was confiscated from the hunter. To this day I never learned if there was an appeal or what ultimately happened to the hunter and his ram. My point is that trying to estimate a ram is tough enough when the horns are in your hands, and almost impossible when it's out there alive and well.
I drew a bighorn sheep tag in Wyoming years ago, hunting in an area as remote as any place in the lower 48. It was a tough hunt, doubly tough because a videographer was along, filming the hunt for a video project. That was in the days before much hunting on TV. A legal ram had to be 3/4 curl, which means that you had to look at it at a perfect stationary profile if it was questionable. I spent days passing up questionable rams, and at one point the videographer suggested that we put a ram down as soon as possible because his camera batteries were almost dead, and equipment was starting to break down. That afternoon, we saw a small herd of sheep, running across a draw. The outfitter glassed intently at the biggest ram, and finally told me to shoot. I did, and got the ram. He was better than 3/4
curl, but I have to tell you I was walking on eggshells when we approached. A few years ago, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department changed the law. In that unit, any ram is now legal. That was a good move because it entirely eliminated the guessing game. And it also eliminated a practice that has been employed by a few unscrupulous people who believed in the SSS principle. Shoot, Shovel, and
Shut up. Or to simply walk up on a sheep that isn't quite legal, say "oops," and make tracks out of that country, hoping you won't be caught. I prefer to believe that the vast majority of hunters won't shoot unless the ram is obviously big enough to be legal. I also prefer to believe that the vast majority of hunters would turn themselves in if they shot an illegal ram.
In Alaska, a bull moose must be a minimum of 50 inches wide in many units. Again, that's a judgement call that puts the onus on the hunter to accurately estimate the width of the animal's antlers. In most cases, if not all, a moose is also deemed legal if he has a minimum number of brow tines, regardless of the antler width. That's fair and reasonable. You can SEE and COUNT the tines. There's no question about it. But there's a huge question when you're judging air space between the horns. On an Alaska moose hunt, my guide and I looked at many bulls around the 50 inch mark. He called them scary bulls, because of the obvious need to make a guess. And a guess is what it is unless the animal is really a whopper. I shot a 64 inch moose on that hunt. Neither my guide nor I needed a second look. As soon as I saw it, the rifle was up and I fired. I KNEW that animals' antlers far exceeded the minimum requirement. And that's why those laws are in place -- to insure that only the biggest moose are taken, but human nature being what it is, it isn't always that easy.
There are many places nowadays where whitetail bucks must, like the moose I mentioned, have a minimum width to be legal, again requiring a judgement call. Some of these laws are required by the state wildlife agency, and some by private hunt clubs or landowners. In some situations, a legal buck has antlers that exceed the width of his ears. That call is easier to make than a measurement in inches IF the buck is looking at you straight on with ears at alert. I recall when I was living and hunting in New York many years ago when any buck was legal as long as its antlers were at least three inches long. Those were the days when it was a thrill to shoot a spike, no matter how small, but we still had to keep in mind the three inch rule.
Antler measurement evaluations in the field are implemented either for law enforcement reasons, or are in place for biological reasons. Either way, it's incumbent on the hunter to be especially careful when considering a shot. Obviously, an "iffy" shot is never an option. Unlike fishing, where you can measure a fish with a ruler to determine if it's legal, and release it if it's not, you can't recall a bullet if you've acted too hastily and broken the law.
The question of field evaluation is just one of a myriad of regulations that a hunter must be aware of. If you hunt enough, you may break some law, no matter how minuscule. Maybe it was due to carelessness, or maybe because of genuine ignorance. But you know what they say about ignorance. Ain't no excuse. The answer is to read the laws thoroughly before you hunt, and then read them again. And NEVER take someone else's word when questioning a regulation. If that person is wrong, you're just as wrong, too. Find out for yourself.