By Clay Newcomb
Looking through the lens of North America’s thriving black bear population, use these six points to understand who we are and the invaluable service we provide to society. Despite the efforts and opinions of those who would seek to discredit the hunter/conservation model of wildlife management in North America, one powerful fact remains – there are more black bears in North America today than in the past 150 years. In fact, biologists believe that there are more bears today than ever before. In a 2015 article in National Geographic titled “Black Bears are Rebounding – What Does That Mean For People?” the author states, “Scientists believe there are more black bears in North America than there were when settlers arrived in the 1600s.” Hunting over bait, running hounds, spot and stalk and trapping haven’t diminished bear populations, but rather they’ve been in place during a time period when bear populations have thrived. Could there be a connection?
By conservative estimates, there are 800,000 black bear in North America today. According to the American Bear Association website, it is believed that 500,000 black bears roamed the continent before European settlement. However, population estimates for black bear are just that, estimates. Understanding precise numbers of reclusive animals that inhabit thick, wilderness-type areas is challenging. According to an article published by the International Association for Bear Research and Management, black bears still reside in 95-100% of their historical range in Canada and 45-60% in the United States. Bears commonly reside in 12 Canadian provinces and 40 states in the United States. The article reports that black bears were randomly sighted, but didn’t have true populations of bears in only six states: IA, KS, NE, ND, OH and SD. Bears were completely absent only from the District of Columbia and four states: DE, HI, IL and IN. Six Mexican states reported having black bear. To put it in terms that we can all understand, black bears are thriving.
With this consideration taken into account, the primary argument the anti-hunting crowd has against modern hunting is one revolving around the ethics of killing a wild animal. The personification of animals was beach headed in modern culture with the iconic Disney movie, Bambi, in 1942. The emotional appeal that animals have feelings and humans shouldn’t interfere with wild animal populations was an all too easy sell to the urbanized American public. Even some rural people, branded with a stigmatized vision of the old school “if it’s brown, it’s down” hunting culture of America’s past, have bought into this mindset. Hunting today is different than it has ever been. It’s backed by science and fueled by more educated hunters than the planet has ever had.
I would like to arm our readers with some concepts and facts about bear hunting, and hunting in general, that justify who we are and what we do:
1. Limited habitat means expansion must be managed: All natural animal populations are designed to grow and expand to perpetuate the species. Bear populations grow at a rate of 10% per year. On a continent with unlimited habitat, expansion wouldn’t be a problem. However, in the modern world, urbanization, development, and modern agriculture have taken up vast areas formerly inhabited by wildlife. Expanding wildlife populations mean that the ranges of wild animals overlap with human populations more than anytime in human history. Removing 10% each year through hunting stabilizes black bear populations, thus reducing human/animal conflict. Hunters offer an invaluable service to society through hunting. Of all big game animals in North America, bears are animals that you don’t want wandering the paved streets of your city unchecked. Bear hunting is an invaluable and often intangible benefit to the wider society. Bear hunters are kind of like bees. You wouldn’t realize the service we provide unless we quit doing it.
2. Animals don’t have feelings like humans do: Deep at the root of the anti-hunting agenda is a false premise that wild animals have feelings and the ability for abstract thought. Humans have a highly developed frontal lobe in our brain that governs things like personality, future planning, abstract thought, language and speech. The frontal lobe of animals is much more primitive, primarily governing sensory and motor functions. The concept that animals have emotions and the capacity for thought comparable to humans isn’t scientifically backed up. A bear doesn’t have the capacity to think, “A human is putting out food for me so that it can kill me and hang my hide on his wall.” A bear recognizes that a human produces risk and thus they typically try to avoid us, but his feelings aren’t hurt because he is being hunted. Animals react instinctively to stimuli in such ways that promote survival and reproduction. The boundaries of the brain activity of a bear revolve around three things: food, reproduction, and staying alive. They haven’t survived the last 10,000 years in North America because they had a strong emotional side. Bears don’t have feelings, so the antis that are worried about hurting them can put that worry on the shelf.
3. All wild animals will die: The natural world is governed by death as a means to renewed life. Death isn’t a bad thing in nature, but has been powerfully stigmatized as totally negative. Sound wildlife management through hunting brokers the death process and is much more humane than natural death in almost all situations. Good hunting/conservation targets mature males. These animals have already contributed to the gene pool and have served significant biological purpose in the population. In terms of ethics or morals, every animal will eventually die. If the animal’s life isn’t harvested through hunting, the animal will either die from old age, die through an environmental stress like lack of food, die from disease, die from conflict with another animal, die through some type of accident, or involuntarily die through non-hunting human contact (i.e. hit by a car). If we are discussing the ethics of death, being shot in the vitals by a legal hunting weapon is much quicker and more humane that the majority of other options for death.
4. Domestic meat production is far less ethical than hunting for wild meat: If being humane is your goal, domestic animals raised for meat production is more inhumane than hunting wildlife for food. The mass production of beef, pork and chicken in North America feeds the world, and the industry will do whatever it takes to produce meat. Some people have a problem with confined animal production and have chosen to be vegetarians, not use leather, not ride in cars with leather seats, not wear leather shoes, not use glue made from animal byproducts, not eat vegetables that were raised on farms that have destroyed wildlife habitat, not use pesticides to kill insects, and not treat their home for termites. I’m not talking to these saints. In terms of ethics, large scale confinement animal production strips animals of any quality of life and alters their DNA to promote unnatural body types. I’m not saying this isn’t necessary and valuable to today’s world; however, I’m making a point. How is this more ethical than harvesting an organic, free ranging wild animal that has never known the boundaries of a fence or cage? I would challenge any anti-hunter to go a confinement pig farm, a mid-western feedlot or a southern chicken farm and contrast this with hunting for wild meat. Their ethics would be challenged.
5. The original intent of hunting is two fold, and both are still legit today: Many would argue that hunting is outdated, it’s thing of the past that no longer has relevance. However, this argument has major holes. The main purpose of hunting is to provide protein for food. Secondly, people hunt to protect themselves and their family against animals that want to harm them or their investments. These same two are legitimate reasons we hunt today. Specifically in bear hunting, we hunt for predator control and the usable commodities provided by a bear (meat, hide, fat).
Many people have a problem with hunters enjoying hunting. In all truth, enjoyment and satisfaction coming from hunting is a powerful side benefit that is natural, legit, and ethical. One of the primary drivers of human and animal actions revolves around the release of a neurotransmitter chemical called dopamine to the brain. For example, when we feel satisfaction or pleasure after a good meal, what we are actually feeling is the release of dopamine to the brain rewarding us for an action beneficial to our survival. Dopamine is reward for action and reinforcement for good action. Humans are biologically predators. We’ve got binocular vision and canine teeth. We are designed to kill and eat. The satisfaction that comes from killing an animal in a fair chase and ethical manner is a higher-level human function that biology rewards. The satisfaction, enjoyment and pleasure that come from hunting are ancient. It doesn’t make us blood thirsty killers; it actually defines a part of our humanity.
6. Hunting can help bear populations grow: This point actually works in contradiction to point number one in this article (this isn’t a bad thing). As hunters offering a service to society, the goal is to stabilize and even decrease bear populations in some regions through taking animals out of the population. However, solid wildlife management practices that target older males can actually increase bear populations. Randy Cross of Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is one of the countries foremost bear biologists. Randy said “One aspect that is hard to wrap your head around is that hunted populations often attain higher densities than unhunted populations since there are more younger bears and less mature males exerting negative influence on the population density due to their propensity for intraspecific predation on all smaller bears.”
This scenario seems like a win-win for both sides of the hunting argument – hunters get to hunt bears while simultaneously bear populations are increasing…wait a minute? Isn’t that what’s been happening in North America for the last 75 years? The hunting conservation model has actually worked and bear hunters have had a positive influence on bear numbers. In today’s world, sometimes fact and logic aren’t enough to sway the masses. However, all that we have on our side as hunters is the truth. I’d say we all better brush up on the facts, stick together, and become educated defenders of this new era of hunting on planet earth. The world will be a better place because of it.