By Biologist Wade Nolan (Jan/Feb 2017)
Gone is the day when biologists get to make wildlife decisions based exclusively on scientific wildlife data. Today, public opinion plays a foundational role in wildlife management. One research organization stands out in the data-gathering arena. An acquaintance of mine, Dr. Mark Damian Duda, is the executive director of Responsive Management. His firm conducts quantitative public research and surveys related to wildlife issues.
Mark is a graduate of Yale University and often presents the results of his wildlife/people research at the professional meetings that I attend. Paying attention to public opinion can help wildlife managers affect change in wildlife policies that will serve both the needs of critters and the people who enjoy them. What he found in his research concerning the public attitude toward black bears may surprise you.
I moved to Pennsylvania from Alaska in 91. Every year since I have seen at least one black bear wandering through the back pasture or fresh tracks in the swamp on my farm. That wasn't the case back in the early 70's when Pa. only had about 4000 bears in the entire state.
In an aggressive restocking program in the early 70's, Pennsylvania’s bear biologist, Gary Alt, headed up an experimental program to capture and release black bears into areas that had no resident bears. I remember talking to Gary about the program’s expected success. He believed that all we needed to do was increase the breeding population of adult sows and get out of the way. Once captured bears had been shifted to various bearless counties he shut down the bear season completely so sow cubs could reach breeding age. When bear hunting reopened, we had bears everywhere.
Like much of the Northeast, the habitat in Pennsylvania is robust. A patchwork of farms within large tracks of hardwood forests makes up the state’s complexion. Oaks are common, so mast is a calorie boost to bears as is agriculture. The result is that we have the biggest black bears in the US and lots of them. The statewide bear numbers in ‘09 were above 16,000. Hunters took 4,154 bears this past season. That's more bears than Pennsylvania had just 40 years ago.
But what do the residents think about high numbers of bears? The Pennsylvania Game Commission contracted Responsive Management to find out and here is what they discovered. After gathering 4411 completed surveys they determined that 59% of the residents statewide thought that the increased bear populations are just fine in their county. In the counties with the highest bear population, 43% of the residents thought that the bear population could dwindle a little and keep them content.
Actually, 15% of those surveyed said they were OK with black bears in their yard, while 43% said they prefer black bears in their county but not in their township. Reminds me of the data on urban whitetail deer, where many homeowners want deer in their neighborhood but prefer they be in the neighbor's yard and not theirs.
In this age of "Animal Planet" every night at 8, you would think that the general public would be quite informed about black bears... but the survey found otherwise. When asked if they knew a lot about black bears over 73% of the residents said that they had "little self proclaimed knowledge about bears.” Only 3% say they know "quite a bit.” Because only Pennsylvania was surveyed in this study, I can't say for sure but I bet these numbers are similar nationwide.
This gives you and I an opportunity to tell people about bears and bring them alongside us. It is hard to dislike something once you know the truth about it. It's usually the unknown that makes people uncomfortable. Any reader of Bear Hunting Magazine is a step above the public in bear knowledge... so get to work and tell the bear story.
When it comes to regulated bear hunting, a whopping 70% of PA residents support it. That's significant when only 5% of residents hunt and less than 1% hunt black bears. This is great data. Although hunter numbers may be down, most folks still support us. This is great news and casts a different light on the future of hunting than what we may think. Public support of hunting is a bright spot in our future. Noted conservation speaker, Shane Mahoney, once told me, "We don't necessarily need more hunters. What we do need are more people who support hunting.” Shane was spot on.
The survey found that the most common reason to support hunting was that "hunting is a good way to control black bear populations.” That answer accounted for 83% of the vote. Only 7% thought they were dangerous and needed to be controlled for the public's safety. Fact is, in the last hundred years not one person been killed by a black bear in the Keystone state.
Although hunting as a management tool got a lot of support, there was also an interesting set of responses that support the anti-hunters bag of tricks. I say tricks because there are no non-lethal solutions that work.
There was overwhelming support of non-lethal control of nuisance bears. The capture and relocate option got 97% approval and non-lethal repellants like pepper spray and rubber bullets got 91% endorsement. Capture and relocation for bears that have broken into a building scored 88%. The problem is that a bear that breaks into homes or destroys private property can't be reprogrammed and homes and private property are everywhere.
Some (87%) thought that bears that cause agricultural damage should be relocated. The question is, relocated where? We have bears all over the state, plus we know that bears have an amazing ability to return to their native home range. Non-lethal doesn’t work very well and regulated hunting does.
This survey is a solid data set telling us that bear hunting is endorsed by a large percentage of the public and management is the primary reason they cite. The bears in PA, and likely in your state, are managed by dollars generated via hunting licenses. The public's attitude toward us is crucial, not only influencing our privilege to engage in hunting, but also to the future of bear management. Get informed about bear conservation and management in your state and become a teacher of bear facts. We need to tell the conservation story to the non-hunters in our life...we need their support.