Bow hunting became newsworthy last month when a Sacramento Superior Court judge disallowed the archery bear hunting season proposed for this year by the state Department of Fish and Game. The judge ruled in favor of animal rights groups that called bow hunting inhumane.
Lawyers for the Wildlife Conservancy, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Fund for Animals argued that the state had failed to consider adequately the welfare of individual animals when it set this year's archery season, a requirement under the California Environmental Quality Act. They also charged that, by failing to address the "fundamentally cruel nature" of bow hunting, the state had "engaged in pure advocacy" on behalf of the sport.
The court's decision does not prevent bow hunters in California from hunting other animals, such as deer.
Challenging the bow hunters' claim that arrows cause no higher wounding rate than guns, animal rights groups produced surveys on wounding rates of white-tailed deer killed by bow hunters in Texas and data detailing infection rates.
"It's the first time there has been a fair airing of the cruelty of bow hunting in a public way," said Wayne Pacelle, national director of the Fund for Animals, a nonprofit organization founded in 1967.
"We produced more than 20 studies showing that for every animal shot and successfully retrieved, at least one is struck and left to die," he said. "But they operate on the archaic notion that it is an effective way of killing."
Ken Mayer, supervisor of the department's deer management program, disagreed with the studies' findings. "We don't contest that there is a higher wounding rate," he said. "But we say there is a higher survival rate from the wounds." In contrast to arrows in the past, he said, today's broad tip and razor-sharp aluminum arrows create "much cleaner wounds."
The judge, however, "said that the department didn't adequately address the full issue."
Mayer said animal rights groups have singled out bow hunting in California as a first step to eliminating all hunting.
Animal rights groups accused the department of being more concerned with money generated by hunters than with the welfare of the animals entrusted to it, a charge the department denies.
According to Mayer, $500 million is generated in California each year through hunting.
The exact number of bow hunters in California or by individual counties isn't known, a department spokesman said, because archers may shoot under both archery-only and general hunting permits. But they are believed to make up only a fraction of the 1.4% of Californians who purchased hunting permits last year.
In several other states, however, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Illinois and Michigan, bow hunters comprise a much larger percentage of the population.
The legal impact of the California case "has nationwide significance," Pacelle said. "We consider bow hunting to be the most egregious form of hunting and want to see it banned.
"No doubt," he added, "other states will be looking to California on this issue."