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Ethics of Bag Limits and Self-Imposed Limits

Ethics of Bag Limits and Self-Imposed Limits

A grouse hunter shows the fan of a ruffed grouse

Should you shoot a limit of wild game birds this season?

During my childhood in southern New Hampshire, kids competed to shoot a limit of “pa’tridge,” my brother and myself included. I admit, I lost just about every time to my older brother. However, we thought shooting the limit was a good idea. After all, it was the 80s.

These birds gave an air of boundless existence. Hunting the droves of ruffed grouse in the Berkshires of Massachusetts when our grandfather was setting up a stand seemed almost too easy. We believed the grouse there and in the woods by my father’s house would be there forever.

But we were wrong. We never thought to ask ourselves, should I shoot that limit?

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A fellow grouse hunter introduced me to the concept of self-imposed limits. This hunter was Jay Dowd, a Michigan-based artist, writer, and grouse guide. After our group took two grouse out of one spot, with casual ease, he mentioned, “I’m not hunting that cover again this season.” Needless to say, his statement impacted me profoundly.

It’s been 20 years since I have seen a grouse by my father’s old house. While I heard the drumming of a couple of distant birds on my most recent Berkshires trip, the idea of a grouse being in every bush was gone. Lack of grouse habitat is undoubtedly the overarching theme of the decline in ruffed grouse, but the idea of limiting yourself increases the depth of how we should view the mortality of the birds we love.

Historical Evidence for Game Bird Management Advocacy

“It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas,” said Carl Sagan. “Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.” This legendary scientist’s quote sums up upland game bird management perspectives.

Depending on the room you’re in, you may observe denial regarding the idea that hunting affects game bird populations. There’s a collective delusion that’s fueled behaviors like “Governor’s Hunts” and other body count-based fundraising events.

George Bird Evans, a famous upland writer, was vocal regarding hunting’s impact on declining bird numbers. Evans’ friction points caused a falling out with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources when he advocated for the changing of bag limits and seasons. He argued that there was a direct correlation to the decline of grouse in the region.

In New England Grouse Shooting, William Harnden Foster recounts the impacts of market hunting on now-extinct game birds including the heath hen and passenger pigeon. Unregulated bag limits, unrestricted seasons, and the devastating effects of capitalism destroyed populations prior to the Lacey Act. Foster credits the adaptability of ruffed grouse as their saving grace from market hunters; hunting them was too difficult to be profitable.

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Today, declining habitat connectivity and quality, climate change, and other compelling evidence threatens ruffed grouse populations. The fact that we needed the Lacey Act to save game populations is compelling evidence that hunting, when improperly regulated through seasons and bag limits, has dire consequences on wildlife populations. Evidently, the need for conversations regarding what defines population sustainability in wildlife management becomes more obvious.

In most states, game bird management is an afterthought. Many states cannot identify how many wild bird hunters there are because they don’t offer a specific license. Some bag limits and season dates have not been adjusted in decades based solely on disinterest of the public and managers.

The days of there being twice as many small game hunters as big game hunters died in the 80s. Game birds no longer have a voice. As a result, they are simply unconsidered. .

Bag Limits Are Not Created Equally

The lack of quality habitat in New England makes grouse very vulnerable. When my brother and I were young, we watched grouse flush and land. You could follow up again and again. We were neither smart nor old enough to understand that the fact we could do this was a symptom of poor grouse habitat.

In New Hampshire’s lake region, the daily bag limit for ruffed grouse is four. When I hunt the north country’s expansive grouse country, the bag limit is the same, despite there being more birds than in the lake region. If I hunt the highly-developed Massachusetts border, the bag limit is still four birds.

When I hunt my lake region haunts, Burton Spiller’s very covers, grouse contacts are geographically isolated. Birds hide in small, fragmented forest pockets that are often 10 to 20 square acres with no other cover for miles. What would happen if I took four birds out of one fragment on a single hunt? If I hunted it multiple times over New Hampshire’s 92-day grouse season? If I took just one bird from that cover? Because of what I think would happen if I didn’t self-regulate, I often take no more than one bird from a cover all season. I still run the dog and enjoy the birds, but that’s it. I want to continue to enjoy the birds there. I need to show self-restraint because seasons and bag limits have not evolved with the times.

My thoughts and patterns on this subject are those of someone who has grown up in New England grouse country. But the issue of self-regulation is not unique to the northeast. Even species’ behaviors can change hunting impacts, particularly covey birds, that need a minimum number of birds in a covey to survive the winter.

Tyler Webster of Birds, Booze, and Buds Podcast pointed out the very conservative limits of North Dakota being something to celebrate. They have a Hungarian partridge bag limit of three. Meanwhile, the neighboring state of Montana allows an 8-bird daily limit. Webster points out how that limit can be devastating when hunters pursue a single covey for follow up flushes.

Robert Poor of Arizona pointed out an interesting perspective of bag limits as they relate to desert quail. “The limit on Scalies and Gambels has been 15, an unobtainable number most years. There’s some psychological factors here. If the limit were cut in half for example: who had taken five birds, they may be more tempted to get three more to ‘limit out.’ But with the bar at 15, they are more likely to go home and watch a football game.” This psychology exposes how self-aware we need to be as wild bird hunters.

Since bag limits are not created equally, we need to remember that many state agencies have not evolved with the times or the science. Since these agencies are slow to adjust with the times, the rise in the popularity of upland hunting can have severe consequences. This also speaks to the importance of bird hunters’ involvement in state level decision-making. If you do not speak up, no one will.

Bird Hunting Season Dates Can Be Deadly

If you’ve heard of “pickin’ limb fruit,” you may be from New England. This cultural phenomenon points to the vulnerability of game birds based on the time of year.

Ruffed grouse, in this case, are vulnerable when feeding on buds on mature trees while conditions allow for snow roosting. This also means it’s snowmobile season. One can bag multiple limits of birds using a coordinated approach on a tree with friends. It turns my stomach thinking about it, but it happens every season. Is this hunting method sustainable when a bird is a species of conservation concern? There is not a native upland game bird that does not have a listing as a species of conservation concern in 2022.

Late ruffed grouse seasons can also be deadly. Say you’re chasing a ruffed grouse in New York in January. Although the bird may have gotten away, did you mark its death warrant anyways?

The familiar debate here is that the bird expends more energy and burns more calories when being pursued versus their regular ability to survive a hard wintering season with low food.

Western states have shown leadership in this regard. Washington moved their forest grouse season back 15 days to curb breeding hen harvest, therefore raising overall long-term populations. A study published in 2021 showed the impacts on season dates for hunting of sage grouse over 150 years and the direct impact on long term sage grouse sustainability. The study particularly highlighted state responses to the decline of numbers and impact of hunters.

Upland game birds are not a hunting priority in 2022. This led to season dates that have not evolved with the times. Habitat loss exasperates the impacts of a lack of evolution in season dates on upland birds.

Weather Conditions Can Be the Deadliest of All for Birds

Drought, low food crops, and low hatch rates are all factors that can have direct impacts on upland game bird numbers in a single year. Learning how weather and conditions can impact wild birds in your neck of the woods can take a lot of experience and learning the science and biology of your quarry takes time. Even despite our best informed guesses, boot leather confirms our theories.

During New Hampshire’s 2021 season, I heard many grouse hunters complain that they could not find birds and “numbers were low.” The true version of that story is that food crop numbers were down. There was no mountain ash to be found. Highbush cranberry was non-existent. These are often staples to rely on for grouse hunters that stick to the same covers again and again. It took me a couple days to figure out that they had moved into slightly more mature cover, feasting on tree buds at higher rates in the early season to make up for the lack of mast. I had a great season, but tempered my bag limits in covers with the subconscious reminder that food desperation can become more deadly after hunting season.

In the 2018 season, we saw drought. Again, “numbers were low” was the mumbling of those unwilling to put in the boot leather to figure out the complex and rewarding intricacies of grouse behavior. For those of us that targeted water, we found large numbers, but to the point of vulnerability in isolated pockets. This was a great time to exercise self-imposed bag limits on wild birds.

Robert Poor pointed out a very important fact to changing conditions and state regulation. “I used to be in favor of dropping bird limits on poor years. But that would be near impossible to push and respond correctly to population numbers.” This only furthers the argument that a personal ethic when approaching game bird bag limits is something we should consciously uphold.

Bird Limit Ethics in Practice

This article is not meant to chastise those that shoot limits; I shoot limits in the north country. In central New England, I may only shoot one or two birds out of a cover in a season. However, I always consider the population status, conditions, and habitat to support the annual amount of birds and remain aware that this can change season to season.

There are other considerations, too. Traveling hunters might find a greater urge to limit out while being a guest on someone else’s turf. At a minimum, we should consider learning the factors of foreign pursuits and weigh them against our expectations. While hunting North Dakota in 2021, I limited out multiple days over various covers. Tyler Webster, being very aware of our impacts on the spot we hunted, added important local knowledge to making that judgment call.

Comparatively, I remember shooting a sage grouse years ago. The bomber was as tall as me when I spread its wings. Then, I went back to hunting sharptails, declaring to myself, “The next time I shoot a sage grouse will be when I have my dog with me, and it can wait until then.” I made it into fajitas the next day. 

Time is another consideration. While I conveniently created a work environment that allows me to hunt as many days as I want in a season, not everyone has that luxury. I even moved to grouse country to have the ability to walk out my doorstep and find wild birds. Truthfully, my impact can be far higher as a result when you add those factors up. My personal ethics must consider that. Similarly, one may take limits when they only have one weekend a year to enjoy wild bird hunting.

These are things guides often consider no matter where they work. Client after client can equate to a lot of bagged birds. Without sound judgment, this can spell disaster to their very own job security. It brings up the debate of guiding on public lands, but I won’t go down that rabbit hole today.

Get your mental wheels turning the next time you drop your tailgate and put your dogs down. There are many iterations of the questions we should all ask ourselves before we fill a game bag. Just because you can do something, should you? This is an intersection of legality and personal ethics because of the slow, ineffective pace our state bag limits and season regulations are created and enforced.

I often self-reflect on the ethics of hunting. I find myself questioning many things the older I get; I am sure this is a natural evolution. I think about how much commitment we make as a community to fight the decline of wild birds, how we put partisan politics aside for the advancement of habitat creation. I think about Project Upland’s role in highlighting species in regions of the country that struggle and our role in the discussion of ethics when new hunters flood our ranks without experienced mentors. We owe it to the birds to question our ethics, challenge our culture to evolve, and be beholden to the science informing game birds’ futures.

George Bird Evans is a wonderful inspiration when considering self-imposed limits in bird hunting:

“If I could shoot a game bird and still not hurt it, the way I can take a trout on a fly and release it, I doubt if I would kill another one. This is a strange statement coming from a man whose life is dedicated to shooting and gun dogs. For me, there is almost no moment more sublime than when I pull the trigger and see a grouse fall. Yet, as the bird is retrieved I feel a sense of remorse for taking a courageous life…


How then, can you love a bird and kill it and still feel decent? I think the answer is, to be worthy of your game. Which boils down to a gentleman’s agreement between you and the bird, never forgetting that it is the bird that has everything to lose. It consists of things you feel and do, not because someone is looking or because the law says you may or must not, but because you feel that this is the honorable way to do it.”

View Comments (8)
  • Im a retired wildlife biologist and I greatly appreciate your article. While I was working setting the season and bag on most upland species required little more than a secretary with a calendar.

  • Another issue is when folks travel out of state. After paying for an out-of-state license they frequently will shoot more than their possession limit. They put the birds in the freezers of their camper/trailer. They feel that because the out-of-state license is so expensive, that makes it OK to take more than their possession limit. It seems very unethical to me. Another issue as many folks will hunt sharp tails without ever planning on eating them. If you’re not going to eat the bird, why are you going to shoot it? They tell me they give the birds away. With so many states changing the trespass laws, it creates more pressure on public lands. So when you take more than your possession limit on public lands, that hurts all of us

  • Well said, AJ! I’m fortunate to live and hunt in a low human density area of the West. I moved here to have more reliable bird hunting than elsewhere. I think habitat is more important than hunters’ bag to continued healthy bird populations. Both are important. I think many of the public land areas I grouse hunt near home are only hunted by me. I constantly look for sign of other bird hunters who have hunted an area to influence my pressure on a covert. For traveling hunters–I like to travel too–I recommend looking for more difficult to access areas of public land.

  • As an avid quail hunter in a southwestern state, i have seen populations crash due to 22 years of almost persistent drought. If I find a covey of ten or less birds, I might work my dogs on a few, but do not take any.

  • I say a prayer for every game bird I take. I always have and I always will. The birds are a gift from our Creator. I am grateful for both.
    An instructor in a Hunter Education class presented the question of legally taking game versus ethically taking game. He made an impact on all of us. I make a habit of hunting with a partner that shares my values towards the game and the habitat that provides for it.
    I hunt with dogs and by extension I hunt for the dogs. I don’t hunt because I am hungry, if it weren’t for the dogs I would not be as interested in the sport. The dogs cannot count and have a good time even when I have an empty vest.
    The author makes a good case for self restraint when hunting. Even when hunting alone your actions matter.

  • The devastating effects of capitalism? So what are you socialist/Communist?
    The greatness of America comes from free market capitalism. You ought to be proud that we have that system in the United States, at least for the time being.

    • The North American Model of Conservation is a socialized system by its very definition. The Lacy Act was the domino that began a course of laws that insolated our conservation model from capitalism as mechanism for decision making and funding process. This is not some discussion or misuse of words to scare people into some form of thinking. I said what I said. Which is both very factual and nothing to do with America as a whole. In fact we should celebrate that our model for conservation, is without a doubt, one of the most successful conservation models in the world. Which again is a socialized model of conservation.

  • Hmm. The author assumes that hunter kill is a primary influence on the population of upland game birds, particularly ruffed grouse. Since I live in the West, I don’t have a feel for the trend in ruffed grouse habitat in the Lake States and the Northeast, but I hear that it has been deteriorating steadily both in quality and quantity. This author says as much. If that’s the case, I wonder whether hunter restraint is likely to have much— or any— long-term effect on the population trend. Under current regulations, harvest of most of the West’s upland birds, from desert quail to sage grouse, has nothing whatsoever to do with population trends. And I have to speak up for state wildlife agencies. Most states of which I’m aware survey hunters to find out how much they hunt and how many birds they take, and several of the midwestern states actually try to survey upland bird trends, although with the crudest techniques. Getting a more precise estimate on any small game animal across an entire state is essentially impossible— the time and money it would take are prohibitive, and, really, an effective technique just doesn’t exist. The operative assumption among managers is that harvest of upland birds is self-regulating— when the population goes down, so does hunter effort and harvest. Considering this point, I wonder what the average ruffed grouse bag is in some of the stressed areas the author mentions. Do many people kill a four-bird limit? If things are as bad as this article suggests, I’m inclined to doubt it. So, in those places, there is a de facto reduction in bag limit, whether hunters have chosen to practice restraint or not. With all these factors in mind, I wonder what a biologist with the upland portfolio should do with season lengths and bag limits. The suggestion that hunter harvest and poorly informed regulations are the primary drivers of population decline is a popular notion, but, like most folks of an ecological bent, I’d like to see some data on that. There are limits to density dependence, of course. When a population is small, declining, and confined to readily identifiable coverts, harvest may drive down the remaining numbers. And— I don’t know— maybe ruffed grouse in traditional range have reached that point. If that’s the case, then I have to wonder whether the suggestion in this article goes far enough. If my ethical canon suggests that voluntarily limiting my take of ruffed grouse is the right thing to do, then I have to wonder whether I would take an even more admirable ethical position by not hunting ruffed grouse at all. Shoot a few pen-reared pheasants over the setter and call it a season. Folks, I have no problem with the ethics expressed in this essay. When my dogs get into a covey of bobwhite with fewer than six or eight birds, I make it a practice to let them go. And it’s been many years since I hunted sage grouse, even though I live in Wyoming, which has more sage hens than any other place on the planet. Call these decisions ethical, call them sentimental, one thing they are not— they are not scientifically based game management. Closing the seasons on bobwhite or sage grouse will have no effect on the trajectory of those populations, except to reduce the amount of license money state agencies and private conservation groups have to give the birds what they really need, which is habitat. I stand to be corrected, but I suspect that ruffed grouse in the traditional range are in much the same situation. To all of you who have the chance to kill a bag limit of ruffed grouse and decide not to— count yourselves lucky. Few grouse hunters of my acquaintance get the chance to be so ethical . . .

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