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Saturday, December 08, 2007

What About That White Bear Cub?

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA, Dec. 8, 2007.)
Mother Nature is not kind to her defective children.
It was white. It was small. And people got mad.

A bear hunter killed an albino cub during Pennsylvania’s three-day bear season in November, and made national news. It seems that everyone has an opinion. So do I. But first, a nutshell history of Pennsylvania’s black bears.

Most people do not know that management of black bears in Pennsylvania is a huge success story. Pennsylvania bear biologists really know what they’re doing. It hasn’t always been that way.

Until the mid 1970’s little was known about the state’s black bears. Even a reliable population estimate was lacking. A dwindling bear population caused the Pennsylvania Game Commission to close bear season in 1977 and 1978. Through an intensive research program involving trapping and tagging we learned that Pennsylvania bears grow faster, get larger, and reproduce more prolifically than black bears anywhere else in the world.

Before Pennsylvania’s thorough research into its bear population, killing cubs was illegal. For enforcement purposes, cubs were defined as bears weighing less than 100 pounds.

That presented a problem because the size of bears is notoriously difficult to judge. Hunters, even experienced hunters, have difficulty. Besides that, check stations set up for the purpose of gathering data and certifying harvest numbers would see 90-pound adult sows, and 110-pound cubs. Obviously, the size restriction didn’t protect all cubs and didn’t make all adults legal targets.

So once the bear population rebounded, bear cubs became legal targets in Pennsylvania, and there is a reason why. The research taught Pennsylvania’s bear biologists that, with a relatively mild climate (compared to northern Canada and Alaska) and an absence of natural predators on bears (no wolves, no grizzlies, no cougars), bear cubs do just fine if their mother is killed in hunting season. So, with Pennsylvania’s high reproduction rates and a rapidly increasing bear population, the size restriction was removed.

Now, a hunter has killed an albino cub, and he has been castigated in the press. He has been called every name you can think of for doing something that is legal. Some people think it’s unethical. Some want it to be made illegal. And some think all albinos should be protected simply because they are rare.

Would I have killed the albino cub? No, but that doesn’t make me more righteous than a hunter who did. I’d rather not kill any cub, albino or not.

But the fact that it was an albino should not make this cub a poster bear for people who are against hunting bears, nor should it put pressure on the hunter to feel remorse or the PGC to change the rules.

Albinism is, genetically speaking, a birth defect. That’s why it’s rare. Usually, with albinism come other disabilities. Often albinos are cursed with poor eyesight. Most albinos do not survive long because Mother Nature is not kind to her defective children. They’re supposed to be rare, the rarer the better. It’s called survival of the fittest.

So the fact that albinos are rare is no reason to protect them. In fact, it’s fair to say that Mother Nature wants them dead.

Another genetic abnormality even less common than albinism is melanism. While albinism is the absence of skin pigmentation, melanism is its opposite -- the abnormal presence or overabundance of black skin pigmentation.

Of course, in some animals melanism is common enough to be normal. Black bears and black squirrels come to mind. But occasionally black deer have been killed, and although they are far rarer than albino deer, no one suggests they should be protected for their rarity.

So, what do I think about the killing of an albino bear cub? I wish it would not have happened, but I do not think it is unethical. Nor do I think it should be illegal. I just think that bear cubs, and young animals of every hue, should have the chance to grow up -- even if it’s not a good chance.

What’s my solution? If it were enforceable, I’d like to see killing of multiple bears from the same group made illegal. That way, a mother could be taken and her cubs might grow up. But then, I’m not smarter than the average bear biologist.


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