Long-distance hunting a controversial subject

OROFINO -- Dave Powers has a foot firmly planted at opposite ends of the hunting spectrum.

He's an accomplished archery hunter who has taken several trophy animals after calling or stalking the animals to close range.

But Powers, a gunsmith who lives outside of Orofino, also counts himself among a growing number of hunters taking animals with custom-made rifles at distances out to 1,000 yards and beyond. It's a small and controversial form of hunting that often has participants shooting from one ridge line to another at fantastic distances.

"It's getting more and more acceptable," he said of long-range hunting that some people find distasteful and equate with target shooting at live animals. "You are still going to have a lot of people say 'that ain't hunting' and they are probably right. It's not sneaking through the woods like bow and arrow (hunting) I guarantee, but it is an awful lot of fun."

Many see it as a violation of fair chase because animals have little chance to detect hunters so far away and they worry how nonhunters who may be tenuous in their support of hunting view it.

Keith Balford, director of marketing for the Missoula, Mont.-based Boone and Crockett Club, said the organization that compiles record books for trophy animals has no regulations against taking animals at long ranges.

But he worries long-range hunting could hurt the sport.

"We have not publicly come out and said here is the line in the sand. How do you do that? You can't do that," he said. "Probably of more concern to the club and the bigger picture is what kind of message does this send to the nonhunting public. It's a concern when the nonhunting public sees this and says 'is this hunting or just shooting?' Yes, there are skills involved in marksmanship and the ability to do that kind of shooting but at the same token, you are kind of turning animals into targets."

There is no doubt that long-range hunting takes a great deal of devotion for participants to acquire the skill set to make shots at great distances. It also requires hunters to acquire expensive equipment, including high-powered custom rifles, top-of-the-line scopes and laser range finders. They must become skilled in loading and testing their own ammunition and calculating factors such as bullet coefficients. Many use handheld computers that help them factor in multiple variables such as distance, wind speed, and the speed and weight of bullets to make the shots.

Powers, who builds long-range weapons at his home, has such a computer.

He punches in all the variables and the device tells him how to adjust his scope so it's on target. Once a hunter acquires the skills, he said making the shots is easy as long as the environmental variables are not too extreme.

"Wind is your biggest enemy," he said. "If there is wind, you just don't shoot. If you are not 100 percent sure, just don't shoot. If the wind is blowing and puffy and such, you just can't be sure."

He said many hunters are capable of pulling off 1,000-yard shots under good conditions. Beyond that it becomes more difficult. Although technological advancements such as quality optics have made long-range shooting easier and more popular, it isn't new.

In the 1990s, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission passed regulations requiring hunting rifles to weigh less than 16 pounds.

Today's rifles in 7 mm and .338 calibers typically weigh about 13 pounds. The action on rifle weight restrictions was taken in response to hunters using mounted .50 caliber rifles to shoot elk from one ridgetop to another in the Clearwater Basin.