For Black Bears, It’s No Game
Ursus americanus are the most frequently seen bears in North America , and also the smallest of the native bears. Most black bears really are black, even blue-black—although some are white, cinnamon, or cocoa-hued. They have captured our imagination with their legendary cleverness and love of honey; they’ll jump into water for playful swims as well as to catch their dinner. Black bears eat mainly vegetation, but they are generalists and will also dine on stinging insects, grab the eggs from raptors’ nests, or chase the occasional fish; and, in some areas, they even consume young deer. They’ve been known to compete with cougars (and humans) over carcasses. They have lived on this land—from Alaska and British Columbia to the pine forests of New Jersey— since time out of memory.
But today, m any of their forest habitats are fragmented or gone. They’re now classified as endangered in Mexico. North Americans continue to build homes in the bears’ remaining woodland territories. Tens of thousands die at human hands each year, as hunters target black bears in the majority of U.S. states. Each year, nearly half a million U.S. hunters are licensed to kill black bears. A cuddly toy bear can be found in every toddler’s bed, and yet the famous “teddy bear” is named for a president who stalked bears for a chance to deprive them of their lives. In Hunting Trips of a Ranchman : Hunting Trips on the Prairie and in the Mountains (1885), Theodore Roosevelt wrote: “Its meat is good and its fur often valuable, and in its chase there is much excitement, and occasionally a slight spice of danger, just enough to render it attractive; so it has always been eagerly followed.” Later in the same chapter (devoted to the stalking of black bears), Roosevelt recalled:
Once I spent half an hour lying at the edge of a wood and looking at a black bear some three hundred yards off across an open glade . It was in good stalking country, but the wind was unfavorable and I waited for it to shift—waited too long as it proved, for something frightened the beast and he made off before I could get a shot at him.
Not every bear remembered in the chapter was blessed by such favorable winds.
Roosevelt ’s forays might have been a source of pride at the time, but such attitudes are becoming obsolete today, as our ethic evolves and an increasing number of human beings resolve to understand that we are dependent on our bio-community rather than its conqueror and antagonist. In any case, since Roosevelt’s day, the U.S. population has risen from less than 56 million to 312,941,000, making the United States the third most populous country, following China and India . Connecticut now has more than 3.5 million people. The idea of us going after a few hundred bears is not just unfair: it’s grotesque.
In the nearby state of New Jersey, bears are allowed to be killed even as they’re bringing their youngsters out of the den. Bears emerge from their winter hibernation bleary-eyed, with tender new foot pads, and in need of a meal. It’s easy for people to bait them and then shoot. This, though the state officials know baby bears without parents will starve or be eaten, for they depend on their mother's milk for more than four months and don’t reach independence until aged about a year and a half.
Those who catch and kill the bears turn them into rugs and wall trophies; some will find buyers for the gall bladders and paws. The bears die in various ways: by the bullet, by high-tech bows and arrows, by traps. Some people put other animals to use as hunting instruments. Dogs, for example, are commanded to chase bears, including babies, up trees. Bears who manage to wait out this trap can succumb to stress-related weaknesses later on.
We have various ways to confront the killing and defend the bears: Work to nip administrative procedure and state lawmaking in the bud; sue to stop the kills; and, where state law allows, use the public ballot initiative process; or initiate a state rulemaking procedure.
In Connecticut, where the killing isn’t underway, Friends of Animals selected the first plan.
- Don’t feed the bears! They’ll quickly adopt a habit of looking for food from people, which leads to complaints. And complaints lead to official violence against bears.
- Don’t put meat or animal products or sweets into a compost pile.
- Don’t hang a squirrel-feeder or bird-feeder on a tree any time from late March through November, when bears are active. Note: If the winter is mild enough, some bears will come out of their winter dens and forage for food.
- Don’t leave food or food wrappers in your car.
- Keep refuse containers enclosed, inside the house or a shed, where possible. When it’s not possible, spraying refuse with ammonia acts as a deterrent.
- Clean up after picnics. Clean grills and put them away.
- Use agave nectar instead of pursuing home beekeeping. The old cartoons about bears liking honey are based on truth.
Bird-feeder damage is the leading complaint against the black bears of Connecticut. That should be easy for residents to address sensibly, simply by spreading the word that a birdfeeder on a tree any time from late March through November is tantamount to a welcome mat for bears. (Most black bears have entered their dens by November, where they’ll hibernate through February.)
The second biggest factor in complaints involves bears who raid refuse containers. This can also be addressed through public “bear-aware” education that empowers people to take precautions and make refuse less attractive to a region’s free-roaming animals.
Live and Let Live
According to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, somewhere between 500 and 1000 bears live in Connecticut. Who knew? Friends of Animals, through the Freedom of Information Act, asked for documentation to back this claim, and found that the numbers rely to a significant extent on extrapolations –even guesses.
When we asked a representative to tell us if anyone in fact has a reliable count of resident bears, Rick Jacobson, director of the wildlife division of the Hartford-based agency, indicated that the state knows about collared bears. Beyond having some idea about the collared bears, the state has had no firm facts to offer us. There is no direct census. Rather, the state tells us, numbers are “qualitative assessments…examining the density of females and young in areas where we have been conducting research on bears, making assumptions about the presence of additional un-collared bears in those areas and the frequency of bears in towns with the similar characteristics as our study towns, and using sightings as a gauge of abundance in towns where there is a high likelihood of detection.” Couldn’t several of these sightings involve one bear who moved from one spot to another? The answer is yes, and the DEEP acknowledges this. The state also told Friends of Animals that “this has not been a formal process and no documentation of the method exists.” Why, then, were murmurs of a bear hunt lottery finding their way into the papers? What is the point of sending alarming messages about bears?
The alarm being sounded seems a product of the bandwagon effect: Connecticut , a state which has not held a bear hunt since 1840, might be reacting to other states’ insistence that bears are bad and need to be hounded out of sight. Some humane groups go along with the social panic, offering the state’s governor “hazing techniques” to chase bears out of developed areas.
In contrast, we envision a movement working for the right of free-living animals to live in harmony with a healthy ecology, on their terms. As Priscilla Feral wrote to the Hartford Courant in January:
There is no need to plan a bear-killing, and especially not on the basis of scary fairy tales. Bob Englehart, under the header “ Connecticut Black Bear Hunt Looks Likely,” implies we should all be afraid of the bears living in our state, yet nevertheless calls them “creatures who mind their own business.” Right: bears are just going about the business of living. Live, let live, and let’s nip in the bud this idea that Connecticut need be a population of trigger-happy scaremongers. New Jersey’s got enough of those to go around.
We have retained a lobbyist to listen for any lawmaking rumbles—a bear kill would be a matter before the state legislature—and to counteract them when they’re emitted.
What We Can All Do
Nip it in the bud: ask that the bear hunt be removed from further consideration in Connecticut. Residents and out-of-staters can assure Governor Dannel P. Malloy that bear-killing is wrongheaded. Officials have suggested that killing will save the state the expense of dealing with assertive bears. The better plan? Bear-aware public education. State residents and all readers are urged to let Governor Malloy know that the only appropriate action is education: to have Connecticut be a model for safe, ecologically aware living, involving respecting bears rather than turning them into an annual sport. Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-800-406-1527.
- DEEP spokesperson Dennis Schain has asserted that Connecticut is home to “at least 500 and less than 1,000” bears in the [ Torrington, Connecticut] Register Citizen (13 Jan. 2012). The Hartford Courant quoted Bill Hyatt, DEEP’s Bureau Chief of Natural Resources (10 Jan. 2012): “Connecticut has between 500 and 1,000 bears and the population will double every five to seven years at its current trajectory.”