Black Bear Requiem and Hope for the Future

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Photo credit Lynn Rogers

 

Before I begin this article I want to acknowledge that I am perhaps too biased against bear hunting. I also know as a black bear researcher and bear lover that I am too emotionally attached to these animals to feel any other way.

 

This year’s three plus month bear hunt begins earlier than ever with “youth day” kicking off the season which began August 24 when children in Maine were encouraged to shoot their first bear. The promise of a first kill inculcates in the next generation the rightness of continuing the “tradition” of hunting in a world where many non – human animals are threatened or facing extinction. Sport and trophy hunting, a million dollar enterprise brings in huge amounts of money to the state wildlife agency – the Maine Department of Fish and Wildlife (MDF&W) and other special interest groups like the NRA. Privately owned “bear farms” flourish where one can’t help but kill a bear because all animals are held captive for the slaughter. For some there is the addictive “high” and the sense of “power” that comes with the kill and a snarling bearskin or head to hang on the wall. For others there is meat for the table.

 

Many bears, especially yearlings will be shot (most bears killed are between 1 -3 years old). Mothers have spent the summer teaching their cubs how to forage sometimes traveling 50 miles or more to areas rich in wild foods during this phase of hyperphagia, that is, the brief time during which all bears must eat enough to almost double their weight in order to survive the coming winter hibernation. Cubs are often treed by the mother before she comes to a bait site. Many cubs will die of slow starvation if the mother is shot.

 

Bear feeding frenzy peaks in August and September when the bears need as much as 20,000 calories a day to put on necessary fat. This is the time of year all bears are most vulnerable. Hunters take advantage of the bear’s desperate need for food by placing large unhealthy amounts of sugary food at bait sites as they ready their dogs for the hunt, and prepare their steel snare traps… They have plenty of time because in Maine the hunt will not end until November 30th.

 

This year having spent time in a community that lives peaceably with so many wild bears in Ely Minnesota I am, if possible, having a more difficult time than before attempting to accept a hunting tradition that refuses to acknowledge that it is possible to live with these gentle intelligent animals instead of slaughtering them. I am haunted by the question: how many cubs in Maine will be left to die after their mothers are shot this fall? How many adolescents? The yearly statistics from the Maine Department of Fish and Wildlife Agency indicate that almost as many female bears are shot as males. How many of those females are mothers?

 

I reject the two usual arguments for killing bears: One that hunting is a “tradition” that must be honored, regardless. The second is that bears have to be “managed” or they will take over the state.

 

Hunting was once necessary for survival. This is not the case today. Most hunting occurs because folks like to kill animals for sport – any animal – and bears in particular because they are almost universally feared.

 

When we examine why these intelligent shy animals appear so threatening we discover that there is no scientific basis behind human fear. Only one Black bear in a million kills someone; one is 32,000 times more likely to be murdered by a human.

 

However, individuals do fear bears and our state wildlife agency encourages people to foster that attitude so that folks will buy hunting licenses, shoot bears and bring in revenue. Hunting is economically based. The state agencies also warn the public not to befriend bears because they will become “nuisance animals,” and it is true that bears will visit backyards when hungry. Removing attractants like birdseed and garbage during the spring and summer reduces the number of visiting bears to almost zero. “A fed bear is a dead bear” is a hunter who baits bears to kill them.

 

The second argument is based on the belief that only humans know how to regulate bear populations. Again and again biologists have learned that animals have an ability to regulate their own numbers according to the availability of food resources. Left to their own devices, Black bears would eventually do the same. However, this would take time.

 

Unfortunately it is also true that in Northern Maine the natural foods that bears love – especially the fall beechnut crop which is cyclic to begin with – is disappearing because trees are being harvested too young to produce an abundance of beechnuts. In addition bear territories are disappearing because more and more people are moving to Maine. Black bears are appearing in people’s yards because there is not enough natural food to sustain them.

 

There is one biologist whose studies indicate that there may be a partial solution to this problem. Dr. Lynn Rogers is a bear biologist who has researched Black bears for more than 50 years. During his long and outstanding career he worked as a state biologist for the Department of Natural Resources in Minnesota using both classic wildlife methodology (which involves sedating and collaring bears and mapping their movements by plane and by placing pins on a map) and later, developing his own “trust based” research methods. The latter allowed him to learn about Black bear behavior – what bears eat, their social structure, vocalizations, the problems they face in the forest, knowledge that cannot be acquired without actually observing individual bears in their natural habitat over an extensive period of time. No state agencies including the MDNR authorize actual bear behavior studies as far as I know.

 

At one point Dr. Rogers became deeply concerned because so many “nuisance” bears were being shot in a nearby campground near his research center. He began an eight year study for the Forest Service to answer the question of whether diversionary feeding, that is placing wild foods in the forest on a regular basis, would keep bears out of trouble. The results were astonishing. With supplementary feeding bear complaints in the area campground were reduced 88 percent.

 

During that same period Lynn began walking with bears into the forest. Not all bears would tolerate his presence but some did; these bears learned to ignore him after he had given them some treats (nuts). Within one year of following them Lynn said he learned more about Black bear behavior than he had during his entire career.

 

In 1996 after Lynn retired from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources he became one of the residents of Eagle’s Nest Township where people had been hand – feeding bears since 1961. Lynn began a study that focuses on diversionary feeding ‘habituated’ Black bears in this area. He learned that the bears visited the residents who fed the bears and they left those folks that didn’t want a bear to visit their homes alone.

 

In almost 60 years of hand feeding bears there has never been a black bear attack. With supplementary food stations set up in the forest Lynn also discovered that as long as the natural foods were abundant these habituated bears rarely visited these stations because they also preferred the diversity of foods found in the forest. However, during years of natural food shortage these feeding stations helped keep the bears healthy and reduced bear complaints 80 percent.

 

The conclusions are inescapable: It is possible to co -exist peacefully with bears if people choose to so. Equally important is the fact that diversionary or supplementary feeding works to keep bears out of people’s yards especially in times of food scarcity. A fed bear is a healthy bear.

 

In Maine, supplementary feeding might help reduce bear complaints especially in Northern Maine if we chose to implement it, but if this method was adopted by the MDF&W less revenue would come into the state and hunters would have less reason to kill bears, and that is not what hunters, special interest groups like the NRA, and the Maine State Fish and Wildlife agency want.

 

Although I am biased, I am not suggesting that hunting bears in Maine be totally eliminated. It may well be that some hunting has occur to deal with the current bear starvation scenario in Northern Maine. But is it really necessary to hunt bears throughout the rest of the state? For those of us who know and love these iconic wild animals this is an important question.

 

My hope is that Dr. Lynn Roger’s groundbreaking trust based research along with his tireless efforts to educate people about the true nature of bears may one day infiltrate the minds of the general public changing current attitudes towards these animals once and for all.

 

Let’s hope this shift will occur before the Black bear becomes endangered in Maine, one of the few states in which a healthy population still exists.

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