Friday, February 23, 2024

The Washington Outdoor Report week of February 12

The ethics of wildlife watching


There is a healthy body of literature surrounding ethical fishing and hunting practices that promote respect for both sports and the fish and game pursued for consumptive use.  However, very little has been written about the ethics of non-consumptive interactions with wildlife, despite the fact all of us as humans can have a positive or negative impact on birds and animals.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to see a lengthy blog on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website about ethical wildlife photography practices.  Here are a few highlights from that blog post:

Respect the wildlife.

• The welfare of the animal you are photographing comes first. Shortcuts to get the perfect shot can cloud judgement in the moment. Never chase an animal, intentionally flush it, or interrupt its natural behaviors.

• Keep a safe distance away from animals. Follow the “rule of thumb:” Hold up your thumb in a hitchhiker fashion. Hold out your arm in front of you and place your thumb in line with your vision over the animal you are watching. If the pad of your thumb covers the animal, you are at a safe viewing distance. If not, back away until you are at a safer distance. If the animal still seems disturbed and is altering its natural behaviors, continue to distance yourself from the animal.

• Use a telephoto lens to give wildlife their space. Viewing blinds make for great safe spaces for you and wildlife to overlap without disturbance.

• If wearing camouflage, be aware of hunting seasons and when you need to wear hunter orange or pink for safety.

• Avoid using a flash that causes an animal to become disturbed. Infrared lighting is best for night or low-light photography.

• Remain quiet and give wildlife a comfortable place to be. When animals feel comfortable, they may engage in behaviors photographers are attempting to capture on camera, such as grooming or preening, singing, hunting, etc. Do not imitate wildlife, and never throw objects to make wildlife move or to gain their attention. Wildlife should be captured in their environments performing their natural behaviors to prevent them from being stressed or forced to move from their habitats.

• If bringing a pet, ensure that the pet is leashed and is not harassing wildlife by barking or chasing. Stressed wildlife may flee, make eye contact, or demonstrate aggression. Remember, pets must be leashed in all WDFW Wildlife Areas unless engaging in hunting activities.

• Keep wildlife safe by avoiding “geotagging” specific sites where you took photographs. General locations are acceptable, but pinning the specific locations of nesting sites, endangered species, or other special sightings may endanger the wildlife. For example, if you spotted and photographed a rare small mammal in Rainier National Park, “tag” the park, but refrain from listing a specific trail or site tag.

• Continue spreading the hobby of photography and the contribution it has on conservation. Be honest with how you captured a photo and encourage others to also be ethical photographers. Sharing your photos can continue to raise awareness about the magnificence of wildlife and their habitats.

On a related note, this is also the time of year when bucks and bull elk begin dropping their antlers and shed hunters will soon be hitting the hills looking for these trophies. Some shed hunters sell the antlers they find while others use them to make art or display them in their homes.

It is important to note this has not been an easy winter for wildlife in Central and Eastern Washington. Deer and elk are stressed and have little energy or reserves available to make it until spring when grasses sprout and these animals can begin to build up fat reserves again. That’s why it’s critical to not chase, harass or get close to these animals while searching for shed antlers. In fact, in Western Wyoming you are not even allowed to gather shed antlers until May 1 to protect the herds that live in this region. It’s something ethical shed hunters should consider doing here as well.

Finally, whether you are photographing wildlife or looking for shed antlers, be respectful of private lands. First get permission to access these lands and then be careful not to damage them with your vehicles at a time where roads and land is soft and muddy. Leaving no trace of your presence and packing out any trash you take in goes without saying. Make it a point to thank any landowner who is kind enough to let you access their land and consider a gift of some sort to show your appreciation. I have personally found smoked salmon works quite well in that regard.

If you want to learn more about ethical wildlife photography practices check out the WDFW blog at

John Kruse – and



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