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Where's the sportsmanship?

Webster's Dictionary defines sportsmanship as "conduct becoming to a sportsman and involving fair honest rivalry, courteous relations, and graceful acceptance of results."

Two recent unrelated events made me think about the importance of sportsmanship in our society. The first was slugger Mark McGwire falling far short of the necessary votes to reach the Baseball Hall of Fame. The second was Idaho's Governor, Butch Otter, announcing that he wants hunters to kill 550 of his state's 650 gray wolves once the animals are no longer protected by the Endangered Species Act.

One of the reasons I love baseball is because it's a sport where respect of the game is paramount. Mark McGwire was a hero when he broke the single season home run record in 1998. Now, because of an unfair advantage he may have gained through alleged steroid use, his record is tarnished. When McGwire hit his home runs, steroids weren't banned by Major League Baseball. Even so, a large number of Hall of Fame voters obviously viewed his amazing season and overall career as suspect-and disrespectful of the game.

Many hunters consider themselves sportsmen. While I don't understand the appeal of shooting an animal with a high-powered rifle, I do understand that different people have different interests.

For me, hand-catching a huge python in Zimbabwe was probably as close as I'll ever get to the feeling a hunter gets when killing a big bull elk. Catching the python was a contest of quickness, reflexes, and physical strength, and the python could have easily come out the victor. Then, after I released the python and watched him slowly slither away, I felt respect for a noble animal that had given me the battle of a lifetime. Had I cheated, and used an artificial means to capture the snake, the experience wouldn't have been the same.

When Governor Otter announced his desire to decimate Idaho's wolf population, it was because he wanted to fix the game for hunters. While someone killing an elk strictly for subsistence might approve of Otter's announcement, any hunter who considers himself a sportsman should protest loudly. Wolves and elk have coexisted since before humans walked the earth-it's the way nature intended things to be. In fact, the presence of wolves often results in a healthier elk population. The advantage for hunters in removing wolves is that elk become less wary and less mobile, and much easier to shoot.

A true sportsman plays the game right and respects the competition. High-powered rifles, scopes, bugling, and scents already give humans a significant advantage over their prey. Is it also necessary to turn our wild areas into giant game farms?

If you are a hunter and people like Governor Otter get their way, here's something you'll need to think about before mounting the head of your next big elk on a wall: Was your kill truly an accomplishment of skill, or was it the result of a fixed game? Without wolves, your trophy will warrant the same skepticism as Mark McGwire's home runs.

Marty Essen is the author of the award-winning book, "Cool Creatures, Hot Planet: Exploring the Seven Continents."

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