By Clay Newcomb
I went on my first bear hunt when I was about 10 years old in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. It was more symbolic than a real hunt, but my father took me out to an area that was known to hold bears. As we walked through the woods with our bows in hand, he told me we were “bear hunting.” For a young boy, it was an exciting outing that I still remember vividly. It wasn’t until I was 21-years old that I killed my first bear over bait not more than 10 miles from the locale of my first “bear hunt.” As I stood over the spectacular bow-killed bruin, I was awestruck by its size, beauty, and its mystique. Bears would forever mesmerize me, and I would forever be in awe of the great beast that has long been the icon of American wilderness and hunting adventure. It is a feeling that we can all agree is second to none.
After almost a decade after my first bear kill, I started the Arkansas Black Bear Association (ABBA) in 2010 in my home state. The genesis of the idea was birthed in response to the lack of awareness, and truthfully, the lack of respect I saw in Arkansas for what I believed was a world-class natural resource. After a successful launch of the ABBA, I couldn’t have predicted it, but my career would take a turn onto the national bear hunting stage. To make a long story short, in 2013, I became the publisher and owner of Bear Hunting Magazine. At this point, I became exposed to the width and breadth of the world of bear hunting.
We live in a great time to be bear hunters, but also stand against some the greatest opposition that the hunting community has ever faced. Bears are thriving across North America. Almost all bear populations in the country are growing, and some are growing very rapidly. We’ve seen bear seasons added in New Jersey, Oklahoma, Florida, and Kentucky in the last several years. The spring bear season has been added back in Ontario. Maine scored a tremendous victory for bear hunting against the Human Society of America in 2014. While on a family vacation last winter in South Texas I saw a Mexican Black bear sow (Ursus americanis eremicus) with three cubs in Big Bend National Park. Needless to say, bear hunters provide an invaluable service at a time when bear populations are exploding in most regions.
Despite the biological success of the species, the last few years have opened my eyes to one of the biggest issues we face as bear hunters. Our problem actually has a positive slant because it can be resolved “in house.” It can be taken care of behind closed doors. Sometimes issues become exponentially harder to solve when the resolution is determined by an outside, uncontrollable force that isn’t on your side. This issue, however, is not – it’s a family issue. And whether you’ve chosen to be in the squabble or not, you’re in it because you’re a bear hunter. The issue is the unification of bear hunters.
The Family Squabble
The family squabble that I’m talking about is the one between bear hunters regarding how they choose to hunt bear. Bear hunting is very unique in that bruins can be hunted in multiple ways - all very different, but all very connected. Few big game species are as widespread as black bear. Their geographic distribution spans all types of hunting cultures from the Old-South bear hunting clubs of North Carolina to the hard-core Western spot-and-stalk solo “athletes” of Montana. Hunters are so passionate about their methods of acquiring bear hides and bruin protein that it can be difficult to perceive the value of other hunting methods. Most people don’t travel to other regions of the country to hunt and are locked in to the methods of their region, erroneously assuming their superiority. Our survival as bear hunters in the overtly anti-everything-hunting era, however, depends on our ability to unite as a bear hunting family. I am very optimistic about the future of bear hunting. I have faith that logic, science, proven results and necessity will overcome the unreasonable, ignorant and misinformed.
The Friction of Overlap
In places where different hunting methods don’t overlap, there may not be overt issues of friction between bear hunters. However, when they overlap in the field or politically, there can be friction. Bait hunters, hound hunters and spot-and-stalk hunters can carry a chip on their shoulder in regards to the way they hunt. The tunnel vision can produce intolerance for other methods. It may seem harmless to vocally dislike another type of hunting amongst friends, but the long-term affects are real in the hunting community. Hunting culture is crafted by one conversation and one action at a time. Social media is also a major place where friction amongst bear hunters is evidenced.
The answer to our family squabble is to shift our bear hunting culture towards tolerance and support of all legal methods of bear hunting. The expansion of seasons to include other types of hunting should be welcomed by all hunters, and taken as a sign of growth of bear hunting. The truth is that if we lose one section of bear hunting, it’s a net loss for bear hunting as a whole. The agenda of the anti-hunting community is long term. It is a strategy of incrementalism – they want to dismantle the rights of hunters one issue at a time. If you are a bait hunter in Maine and don’t like guys running hounds in the fall, it may not be a big deal to you personally to lose hound hunting. However, if they get hound hunting, then bait hunting is next on the list – guaranteed. Once they’ve silenced a generation of hound hunters, the numbers of those in the fight for bait hunting will plummet. And once they get bait hunting, in another 10 years they come after all types of bear hunting. The principle is that if one of us in danger, we’re all in danger. If we all fight together, we’ll all be safe. The principle is sure and proven.
Hound hunting is on the agenda of the anti-hunting community and it’s going to take the active support of ALL of the bear hunting community to keep it alive. I realize I’m preaching, but I will take it a step further - I’m prophesying to the bear hunting community – if we can unite and stand together we’ll be safe. If we become isolated and self-focused all of bear hunting will be in jeopardy.
The Strengths of the Three Methods of Bear Hunting
The three methods of bear hunting are all challenging, noble and great ways to partake of the renewable natural resource that we have in bears. Keep an open mind as we discuss the strengths of the different methods. The in-house solution to the bear hunting issue regarding lack of unity is simple. We’ve all got to make a decision to think the best of our “brother” and lend him some mercy for the sake of the greater good. A wise man once said, “A house divided will fall.”
Spot and Stalk Hunting
Out West, the topography and visibility lend itself to long-range glassing and spot-and-stalk hunting. Arid weather patterns create a rugged landscape void of trees in many locations, creating grasslands and meadows that bear thrive in. Western spot-and-stalk hunting is intensely physical and demands the hunter be in top physical condition. I have great respect for the spot-and-stalk culture of the West. The name of the game is going onto the bear’s turf, without disturbing his natural patterns, and beating him at his own game. These types of hunters have to be mentally strong to glass day after day. I will gladly tip my hat to any ethical spot-and-stalk hunter that loves bear hunting.
Spot-and-stalk hunters sometimes have a hard time understanding why others “need” hounds and bait to kill bears. In the eastern deciduous forests of the United States and evergreen forests of Canada, visibility is so low that spot-and-stalk hunting couldn’t fulfill the management requirements. Bait and hounds are the only way. Spot-and-stalk brothers: give us some slack (wait for it, I’m going to say the same thing to everybody else).
In recent years, I have personally gained a tremendous amount of respect for the hound hunting culture. I am confident that some of the most dedicated people in the world of bear hunting are houndsmen. Anybody that is willing to sacrifice and take care of a pack of hounds year around is hardcore. The breeding programs, the vet bills, the endless training of hounds push this group into a class of their own. Aside from Native American hunting, hound hunting is the most traditional way to hunt bears in North America. Bear hunting with hounds has the richest, most documentable history of any sector of bear hunting. Hound hunters are also the most united and active group on the political bear hunting scene. Multiple statewide associations, of which many are predominately hound hunters, exist and are powerful political organizations designed to ensure that bear hunting continues. Anybody that dares murmur that hunting with hounds isn’t fair chase has never done it and speaks into a subject on which they are truly ignorant (don’t be that guy). I will gladly tip my hat to any ethical hound hunter that loves bear hunting.
Hound hunting requires a lot of land and hounds don’t know property boundaries. In areas dominated by hound hunting, it can be a challenge to run baits or still hunt. The negative stereotypes of hunting are being overcome by infusing new ethics into the sport and developing an inclusion environment rather than an isolationist mentality. Hound hunting brothers: give the rest of us some slack. Non-hound hunters: give them some slack.
Hunting over bait is powerfully underrated as a challenging hunt. I love bowhunting over bait and always will. I cut my teeth running my own baits in Arkansas, and I quickly learned how much work it can be. I also learned how difficult it is to kill older, mature boar over bait. We’ve all heard people talk about how “easy” bait hunting is, and how they would never shoot a bear “over a pile of donuts.” I wouldn’t know, but it must be embarrassing to say something so foolish. Some of the best, most dedicated hunters I know would rather hunt a bear over bait than eat. It’s a real challenge and takes tremendous dedication. If you’ve never hunted over bait, take my word for it; you’ve got to do a lot of things right to kill a good one. Bait hunting is also a great way to be selective about the type of bear you want to take, making it a great conservation tool. I will gladly tip my hat to any ethical bait hunter that loves bear hunting.
Everybody, give the bait hunters some slack. Bait hunting brothers: give everybody else some slack.
Guard the Gate
We’ve got to stick together to keep bear hunting alive. What does this mean in practical terms? Don’t talk negatively about other types of hunting. It means actively participating in any political fight to keep any sector of bear hunting alive. It means giving money to reputable organizations involved in the fight against anti-hunting groups, even if it doesn’t directly affect you in the short term. It means not being judgmental against types of hunting that you don’t understand or care to participate in. It means being ethical in every aspect of your hunting, thinking of the well being of the entire hunting community not just the immediate success of your hunt. It means being conscious of your public interface with other bear hunters and non-bear hunters. It means a paradigm shift where we teach our kids that all legal methods of bear hunting are noble and have their place in our hunting culture. It means that we all individually respect all the players in the bear hunting family. It means go out of your way to take a young person bear hunting.
If we can do these things on a large-scale level, our children and grandchildren will participate in the great American bear hunt long after we’re gone.