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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bear Hunters Can't Win

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Forest Press, December 18, 2013) 

A big congratulations to all the hunters 
who harvested a black bear this season.
Why is bear hunting controversial? I suppose people began to question bear hunting back in 1902 when President Teddy Roosevelt was summoned to shoot a bear that had been tied up—just so Mississippians could guarantee him a successful hunt. He refused, rightly, to shoot it.

Soon after that, plush stuffed toys were named “Teddy bears,” after the hunter-President.

In frontier days (and still today in movies and TV news reports) bears were seen as formidable threats. So it’s surprising that they evoke such sympathy. But they do.

People today rant against the evils of bear hunting while hiding behind online anonymity on Facebook, Twitter, and newspaper websites. They talk as though bears are in decline, when bear populations are soaring. Bear hunters who are by-the-book legal and ethical are suffering the attacks of people who don’t know lesson one about what bear hunting is and what it does for bears. Yes, I said what bear hunting does for bears. I’ll get to that in a minute.

But first, while some people who are opposed to hunting try to make intelligent arguments, many are truly know-nothings.

A case in point. During the recent Pennsylvania bear season, a giant 772-pound black bear was killed—“harvested” is a more useful word here— by a hunter in Lackawanna County. That’s grizzly bear size. It’s big enough not only to make everyone say, “Wow!” but perhaps to be a possible contender for the world record (which will be judged later by skull size, not weight).

So the know-nothings protest, broadcasting their ignorance with questions like, “Why kill such a big, majestic creature!” That’s a question I can answer. It doesn’t matter how big or majestic (or cute or cuddly, to address the arguments of other self-appointed critics). It was killed because a certain number of bears need to be killed every year.

Yes a certain number of bears NEED to be killed. Bears—some are the largest land predators in the western hemisphere—need to be kept in balance with their habitat and with other species—including humans. And if hunters don’t do it, animal lovers won’t be able to appreciate bears.  

Here’s another criticism, “Any bear that has reached that enormous size should be allowed to live.” That’s a purely subjective opinion which has no place in a legal, ethical, or game management discussion of bear hunting. Bears are notoriously difficult to judge in size, and even the most experienced experts make mistakes. Few hunters would be able to tell under common hunting conditions in Pennsylvania just how big the bear they’re seeing is.

Suppose a hunter kills a 120-pound bear. Many self-appointed critics will rush to criticize him for not letting that bear grow up, when in reality that bear might never grow larger. Should the hunter listen to the person who wants big bears spared? Or to the person who insists hunters should pass up small bears? The hunter can’t please either one, so the hunter can’t win.

Few bear hunters just walk out into the woods and get lucky. You get torn clothing and cuts on your face as you pitch yourself into the nastiest brush you can find to push bears out to someone else. You come home dog-tired from wading swamps, trampling through clearcuts, and climbing hills. And when you get your shot, it may be the one shot you ever get at a live bear. 

So, here’s my conclusion—a big congratulations to all the Pennsylvania hunters who harvested a black bear this season. I’m impressed. In most cases, it’s not an easy feat. And harvesting the bear isn’t just a matter of finding a bear and pulling the trigger.

Once that’s accomplished, how do you get an animal that might be twice your size out of the woods? The hero factor (if that was ever part of it) is over. And if your bear is the size of an NFL offensive lineman, does any anti-hunter even understand what the next step is? I doubt it.

Finally, I promised to tell you what hunting bears does for bears. If bear hunting is ever ended, populations would grow to a level where conflict with humans would be commonplace. So hunting keeps them from becoming a threat to people who have no defense against them. It keeps them from becoming a nuisance. It keeps people safe. It keeps the bear population at a level that’s tolerable and sustainable. And it actually enables people who are against killing them to continue to believe they’re lovable and cute creatures that shouldn’t be killed.

In fact, people who have that unrealistic and romantic view of bears today can only have it because of bear hunters.


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