Just what is hunting?

A recent public opinion poll finds that about 75 percent of Americans approve of "legal hunting."

That level of support is roughly the same as 15 years ago. It's a majority, so what's to be concerned about?

First of all, that's a national average. I doubt if you'd find that percentage in some states, like good ol' California.

But, more important, just what is "legal hunting"?

A few years ago voters in California, where less than 1 percent of the population buys a hunting license, decided in an election that hunting mountain lions should no longer be legal. So it was banned, regardless of a "right to hunt" protection.

Some research suggests California condors — saved from extinction by captive breeding and now being released back into the wild — are being killed by feasting on the carcasses of hunter-killed deer. Alas, the big birds ingest pieces of lead bullets that poison them.

There are more than a few Californians who would like to see hunting banned, so maybe they get a law passed banning lead ammunition for hunting. Hunting would still be legal, but the ammo would have to be non-lead to be legal. Can you see the pattern?

In Michigan this fall there is a referendum on the ballot to ban dove hunting. If passed, hunting would be legal, just not dove hunting.

In other states and regions, hunting with dogs, hunting within certain boundaries, crossbow hunting, archery hunting and hunting certain species at certain times of the year also are in question.

My point is that while polls indicate people support "legal hunting" (and we may even have passed laws that insure "the right to hunt"), just what is "legal hunting" is going to be contested for many years to come.

The anti-hunting effort comes by way of organizations that must continually look for ways to demonize and stereotype hunting in order to satisfy fund-raising appeals and keep up their payrolls.

The amounts of money the anti-hunting groups are receiving is growing.

According to agriculture news services, animal-rights organizations — which focus at least part of their activities against animal agriculture, in addition to opposing hunting — took in more than $290 million in 2004, up from $207 million in 2003.

Anti-hunting groups will look for weaknesses and try to whittle hunting away.

You may think you know what hunting is, but after having been an expert witness in the Orion Sporting Group's Virginia trial last year — in which the central issue was determining whether shooting clay pigeons was a legal form of hunting that was protected by right to hunt laws — I have more questions than answers about just what is "legal hunting."

The judge decided shooting clays was not hunting, but it could be allowed at the beautiful Orion estate only if it was preparation for hunting.

Incidentally, a must read for those who would like to better understand the legal issues associated with defining "hunting" is the Appeal of the Orion Sporting Group to the Virginia Supreme Court, which is available at attorney Stephen Halbrook's Web site.

Adding to the problem, hunters sometimes can be their own worst enemies.

In addition to the usual idiot poachers, numbskulls who shoot condors and others who give hunting a bad rep, other dubious parties have in the last two years tried to launch Internet hunting and a competitive hunting tournament circuit wherein animals would be tranquilized.

Both of those new forms of "hunting," plus Dick Cheney's unfortunate hunting accident, have given our sport a lot of mainstream press coverage, all of it bad.

Bad press makes the general public more suspicious of hunting and hunters and more prone to support measures that limit what is "legal hunting."

It is one reason why a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Survey found 62 percent of those surveyed believed that "a lot" of hunters broke hunting laws or practiced unsafe behavior, such as drinking to excess and recklessly firing guns.

As we move forward in the 21st century, the definition of what is "legal hunting" will increasingly be determined by people who have never had any firsthand experience with hunting and thus will depend on the media to define it for them.

Sure, hunters must seek to educate the unwitting, but remember that once people leave school, you can't control what TV programs they watch or what they read.

Effective mainstream educational programming about hunting must appeal to mass audiences, not hunters.

The hunting community needs to work on its image, and it starts with every hunter.

Before each shot you take, ask yourself if what you are about to do will have any adverse effect on the image of hunting — even if it is legal. If the answer you arrive at is "yes," do not pull that trigger or release that arrow.

Contrary to what some entrepreneurs and outdoor TV shows espouse, I don't think hunting is competitive.

At best, it's a spiritual experience in which the magic of nature prevails and hunters feel a sense of awe for wild things, whether they bag something or not.

You learn about hunting through firsthand experiences, either your own or those of others told in good stories.

One of the best new programs by outdoor sportsmen that will effectively reach a mainstream audience, do some good and present a positive image of outdoor sportsmen is the S.H.O.T. Tour (Sportsmen Honoring Our Troops).

This series of festive events held at military bases across the United States will contact thousands and show that sportsmen can perform general humanitarian work that strengthens our nation.
The program is created by outdoor TV show hosts Jeff and Sherol Engel and Mark Christianson of the Wounded Warrior Project; it will kick off in May at Fort Campbell, Ky.

Get behind the S.H.O.T. Tour, outdoor community. Set aside turf and territoriality and work as a team for a change.

The hunters of America have made tremendous accomplishments as conservationists. The abundance of many species of game animals is ample evidence of their success.

But people need to understand the place of hunting in the future, for the future for hunting lies within the hearts and minds of the general public that will determine what is "legal hunting."

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.