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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Big bucks, bulls and bears

Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, September 20, 2008.)

Pennsylvania’s top black bear is bigger than most grizzlies.

Ten years ago we thought our Pennsylvania bucks tended to be smallish. Twenty years ago we never would have thought of hunting trophy elk here at home. Thirty years ago we were just beginning to realize we had some big, big bears.

Hunting has changed in Pennsylvania, and no one should doubt that the Keystone State can produce animals that are very respectable entries in the Boone and Crockett Club record book. The evidence was on display at a September 6 banquet in Carlisle, PA., where the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association teamed up to recognize some world-class bucks, bulls and bears.

A caveat is in order, however. Pennsylvania will never be an easy place to put a buck into the record books, and the PGC cannot make Pennsylvania a “trophy state” for whitetails on par with Ohio, Illinois or Iowa. That’s just not going to happen here -- for many reasons.

But Penn’s Woods is home to some dandy, head-turning trophies that score well in the Boone and Crockett scoring system. For deer, that’s a cumulative sum in inches, adding spread, main beam lengths, tine lengths and circumferences together, then subtracting deductions for asymmetry.

Recording the scores of Pennsylvania’s top big game animals began in 1965. I vaguely remember it because my dad had a modest 10-point he took in 1959 that was impressive to my young eyes, so I thought he should have it scored.

It might have been the buck of a lifetime in 1959, but today it’s perhaps a little better than average -- dwarfed by the giant 12-point typical buck taken on November 12, 2004 in Allegheny County by Michael Nicola, Sr., age 52 of Pittsburgh. That deer had a score of 178 2/8". It’s Pennsylvania’s all-time number one typical buck taken with archery gear. (For comparison, the world record typical whitetail came from Saskatchewan, with 213-5/16 inches of antler.)

Pennsylvania’s number one non-typical buck in the archery category was also taken in Allegheny County, by Gerald Simkonis on November 2, 2007. With 36 points at least 1" in length (not counting about 20 more that were a tad shorter), its score is a whopping 209-1/8". Simkonis hunted that buck continuously for three years, but saw it for the first time when he released the arrow that killed it.

How did these bucks get so big? The main reason is they reached maturity. A whitetail buck exhibits the genetic potential of his antlers only when his skeletal system is fully mature, which takes 4½ years or more.

Two state record elk were also honored. In the typical class taken by gun, a bull harvested in 2003 by Edward Polashenski of Drums, PA had a score of 364-5/16". He bagged it in Elk County. The new top non-typical elk taken with a gun scored 425-2/16". It was harvested in Clinton County in 2006 by John Shirk of Goodville, PA. Pennsylvania’s elk herd is closely monitored, and elk hunters are chosen by lottery.

Last, but definitely not least, is one of the all-time greatest black bears anywhere, taken on State Game Lands Number 51 in Fayette County in 2005. Bears don’t have antlers to measure, so the record book ranks them by the combined length and width of their skulls. Andrew Seman, Jr., of Dunbar, took the world’s number one bear ever legally killed by a hunter (it’s actually tied with one from California), with a skull that measures 23-3/16". That’s bigger than most grizzly bears!

Seman’s bear was 15 years old and estimated to have a live weight of 733 pounds. It’s memorialized by a full body mount, standing upright, and comes within inches of an 8-foot ceiling. Its skull is just as impressive, with lots of broken teeth a sign of the rugged life that bear lived.

More than 400 Pennsylvania black bears on record have been eligible for the Boone and Crockett record book. So, if you’re looking for a world-class trophy from Pennsylvania, you might set your sights on a Pennsylvania bear. Bears that rival Seman’s monster are definitely out there, and maybe one that’s bigger.

Friday, September 05, 2008

A Brief Lesson On Taxidermy

Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, September 6, 2008.)

Taxidermy has a long tradition as an art form,
right along with painting, photography,
scrimshawed ivory and decoy carving.

With the nomination of the governor of Alaska as Vice President of the United States comes a show of ignorance about what taxidermy (and the rural lifestyle from Maine to Alaska) is about.

Governor Sarah Palin is a lady who hunts, fishes, and is a life member of the National Rifle Association. She brings home the moose, cooks it up on the grill, and never lets her husband Todd… well, never mind. Peggy Lee’s words were better. It’s enough to say that she’s a lot of things urban Americans don’t understand and a lot that the radical left in America won’t understand.

That became clear with the publication of a photograph taken in the living room at the home of Palin’s parents in the town of Wasilla, Alaska. It showed Chuck and Sally Heath watching television news – a report that John McCain named their daughter his running mate on the Republican presidential ticket for 2008.

The Heath home is like many Alaskan homes. On their wall hangs a museum-like assortment of taxidermy, including a beautiful white Dall sheep, some smaller animals, antlers, horns, rugs made from the skins of a grizzly bear and a black bear, plus a variety of Alaskan artifacts.

About Sarah Palin’s candidacy, a lot is being said that is designed to disqualify her. Much of it is plain nasty. The things I want to talk about are not just nasty; they exhibit a frontal assault on the values of rural America’s hunting culture. The following are just a few of the contemptuous comments made against the Heaths and their home.

Try this one on: “How insane do you have to be to have dead bodies all over your walls.” Sorry, fella. Taxidermy is actually much less than dead bodies, and at the same time far more. People collect what museums collect, so it’s no more insane than a visit to the Smithsonian.

Here’s another: “Good grief, early Neanderthal decor.” Maybe the next sarcastic comment will be something about a trailer on the White House lawn. Wait a minute – that was said, too. I’m seeing genuine scorn for rural America.

It gets worse: “I will never understand the mentality that prefers dead animals to living ones. Although, when you think about it, it’s kind of related to the right-wing mentality that prefers dead soldiers to living veterans who might need medical care and have the audacity to object to their policies.” The assumption that underlies this statement is truly twisted – that legally harvested game animals equate to fallen American soldiers.

“The horned skull over the door is the thing that caught my eye. I’m not saying they worship the devil or anything....” Or, maybe you are. Forgive me, but the skull, complete with antlers, is a “European mount” – probably of a Sitka blacktail deer. Imagine someone who loves wildlife equating a deer to Satan. On second thought, don’t bother. It’s unimaginable.

Besides the fact that they have no appreciation for the art of taxidermy, what these lefties really don’t like is a lifestyle and set of values that differ from their own.

Taxidermy has a long tradition as an art form, right along with painting, photography, scrimshawed ivory and decoy carving. Jason Morrison of Buckhaven Wildlife Art in Sugar Grove, PA, echoes all taxidermists who are worth their salt when he says “The work I do is art, and the materials I work with are created by God.”

Like any form of art, not everyone will like it. But those who denigrate it in such hostile and negative terms should at least understand that taxidermy is not dead bodies. It’s a creative art that involves the preservation of an animal skin and the restoration of it to a life-like form that will last indefinitely. It’s a way of honoring an animal that’s as old as man’s interaction with the animal world.

Both art and science go into quality taxidermy. That’s why the best taxidermists know down to the smallest detail what the animals they recreate look like. They understand the musculature, the skeletal structure, the habits, the posture and the attitudes.

If taxidermy is just a dead body, then so are the shoes on our feet. But it’s much more than a dead body – it’s a painstakingly crafted work of art that gives anyone who appreciates it a much closer connection to the natural world than anyone with contempt for it will ever have the pleasure of enjoying.