The Debate On Hunting Bears

Why do we hunt bears? … In the end, rationales are based on conservation, management, economic impact and personal values.

Black, brown (both coastal and inland grizzly) and polar bear are all highly sought-after game species; but not everyone agrees that they should be hunted. From the emotionally charged arguments presented by off-the-wall animal rights groups readily exploiting eager mainstream media, to the thoughtful biases held by traditional hunters, opinions vary. But by in large, conservationist hunters refute the challenge, recognizing the need for population control and the exceptional trophy hunting opportunities made available by mostly thriving populations.

Commonly viewed as dangerous game, our continent’s three bear species are all highly sought-after trophies. Adventurous hunters seeking adrenaline-charged hunting experiences, a magnificent trophy and, to a lesser extent, unique table fare, continue to pursue bears each and every year. Engulfed in controversy, bear hunting is an easy target for the antis. As such, it remains one of the most debated heritage activities known to the outdoor sporting world. Aside from the vocal anti-hunting community, many big game hunters themselves disagree with the hunting of bears.

Unfortunately, and all-too-often, those who oppose bear hunting gain political momentum by leveraging emotion and monetary support. With traction and speed, they skillfully navigate the system to influence decision-makers. Ontario’s unprecedented closure of their spring bear season in 1999 lingers as a monumental reminder of the anti-movement. If left unchallenged, this stance poses a growing threat to bear hunting across the continent. Conversely, bear hunting advocates are constantly forced to defend their rights and the values associated with the hunt.

As conservationist hunters, regardless of personal opinions, it only makes sense to carefully consider this great debate thoughtfully, consider the implications and take a stand.


The Anti-Message in Perspective

Anti-hunting groups thrive on the bear hunting argument. Tangible and accessible, they can grab on and tear at the heartstrings of liberal citizens who, for the most part, either don’t support hunting in general or are otherwise apathetic. Organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) would have us believe that hunting in a broad sense, and bear hunting specifically, is cruel, inhumane and barbaric. Proficient lobbyists, unafraid to implement graphic campaigns, incessantly bombard the powers that be, not to mention media, with the notion that bear hunting is an outdated activity. No doubt, even the most ardent conservationist hunters among us recognize the importance of maintaining healthy bear populations in wild spaces. Looking past their arguments, we must acknowledge realities associated with biodiversity and the fact that hunting plays an important role in helping to manage populations.


Poachers and Illegal Trade

One of the most publicized dynamics generating easy fodder for those who oppose bear hunting is the illegal trafficking of bear parts. Gallbladders, claws, bile, hides and other parts are commonly harvested by poachers and sold on the black market to buyers willing to pay a hefty price. Some cultures value bear parts for medicinal or other purposes and where there is demand, there is a price tag. Thankfully provincial/territorial hunting regulations and federal export laws prohibit such sales and export. The awful truth is that perception becomes reality for many. When cases of unlawful wildlife commerce come to light, the largely uninformed public hears only the negative message and law-abiding conservationist hunters, by default, are often painted with the same ugly brush. It is imperative that each and every hunter thoughtfully conveys his or her values in a responsible manner when such instances are brought to light. The important point to remember here is that those involved with this illegal trade are not hunters, they are poachers.


Hunters Who Oppose Bear Hunting

Transitioning from the irrational to a more cerebral response, it is important to acknowledge the relatively small, yet legitimate group of ardent hunters who see no value in listing bears, of any sub-species, as game. I know several who hold this view. While most hunters maintain little-to-no respect for the naive platforms of the anti-hunting community, we have to respect the opinions of those who believe only animals that they want to eat should be considered game. Speaking with one of my close friends recently, he said that while he enjoys participating in most any lawful hunt, he has no desire whatsoever to kill a bear of any kind. He has no interest in eating a bear; in turn he sees no sense in killing one.

Truth is, opinions are many and varied, even among hunters. Virtually every view is based on a personal ethic. Some oppose it altogether, but most either support it or are apathetic. I have no choice but to respect those whose informed perspectives keep them from hunting bears, as long as they maintain a reciprocal respect for those who do. The choice to hunt bears, or not, comes down to personal values.


Media Misinformation

Deciding to oppose or support bear hunting involves a decision based on either fact or fiction. The biggest problem with those who oppose bear hunting is the flagrant twisting of the truth by folks with an agenda. Sad indeed, these politically astute individuals and groups rely on the sympathetic and uninformed masses to support their sensational messaging. At a time when fiscal challenges restrict the ability of wildlife managers to effectively and accurately monitor, count and support bears, these lobbyists capitalize knowing that reliable data is simply not available. And therein lies the problem; this uncertainty imposes the most significant barrier to communicating the real population story.


Population Realities

A faction of those who oppose bear hunting buy into the notion that bear populations are at risk. Indeed, some populations are noted to be in decline in very specific geographic locations, but on the whole North America’s bears are doing well, and in fact are increasing in many areas, thanks to sound management practices. The informed public recognizes that industrial development and human encroachment continues to place growing pressure on certain bear populations, but this is an overlapping issue that continues to see displacement in the interest of private sector and government profiteering.

An example of this is the highly publicized, and relatively recent, declaration that there were only 900 grizzly bears left in Alberta just over a decade ago. Since that time I have heard and seen media proclaiming, what can only be viewed as absurd numbers, as low as 491 grizzlies. The truth is we just don’t know. What I can tell you from a personal perspective and based on countless conversations is that with the number of encounters, both dangerous and enjoyable, that I have had myself in the last few years, I must be the luckiest (or unluckiest depending on perspective) guy on the planet. For me to personally encounter a percentage of those 491 bears each and every year, would suggest that I should buy a lottery ticket!

Speaking with biologists involved closely with grizzly research and monitoring, I have been advised that both of those estimates were more akin to highly speculative guess-timations and, that in reality, Alberta’s grizzly bear populations are generally healthy. The qualifier is that indeed they are arguably at or near the carrying capacity of available habitat, and that’s what is most important. Ask those in the know, and they will confirm that habitat loss is the most critical threat to grizzly bears in particular. So, when we consider this great debate it is imperative that we consider the facts. Population dynamics, threats and overall sustainability must be among those considerations.

Most recently, opponents aggressively advertise that grizzly bear numbers are dwindling. In some jurisdictions they have even been listed as threatened. In some states south of the border, authorities have recently delisted grizzlies and are now considering reintroduction of a managed grizzly bear hunt. In Canada, opponents have seen some success in lobbying decision-makers to consider closing grizzly bear hunting seasons in British Columbia. In Alberta, they were already successful in motivating government to suspend the grizzly bear hunt back in 2006. While most hunters in that province want authorities to reinstate the hunt, albeit to accommodate a managed harvest, conservationist hunters believe it is important to maintain a grizzly season in order to keep this aspect of bear management in the public eye. If done correctly, reinstatement and perhaps redesign of the grizzly season could not only be used to generate revenue, but it could also become a valuable education tool, while providing hunters with additional opportunities.

Ask anyone who spends a lot of time in wild spaces to share their thoughts on bear populations and the response will be overwhelmingly consistent. Bears thrive in pristine wilderness. As long as remote wilderness is protected from industry and encroachment, bears will continue to exist. The consensus among backcountry workers (for example, those who work in forestry and oil and gas) is that black bears and yes, even grizzlies, are thriving in all areas that can support them. Countless face-to-face encounters, some dangerous, are commonplace and becoming more common. As more workers and recreational outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds venture into wild spaces, these encounters will become more prevalent. Everyone who spends time in the backcountry can attest to the increased number of sightings and yes, even dangerous encounters with grizzly bears in recent years. One need only consider the time it takes for populations to multiply when they are allowed to propagate without intervention. I am a firm believer that one of the most critical dilemmas facing wildlife authorities in this century has to do with the undeniable predator population explosion. Big game outfitters, guides and trappers consistently report a notable rise in bear numbers over the last 15 years. Speaking from firsthand experience, I have encountered an alarming increase in grizzly bears along the eastern slopes of the Rockies and in the northern boreal forest over that timeframe. Again, sustainable healthy populations are vital; overpopulation of any predator is not.

Authorities suggest that black bear numbers are stable to growing throughout their natural range across Canada. Brown bears are thriving in coastal regions and, depending on whom you talk to, their numbers are thought to be on the rise. Grizzly bears are likewise thriving where habitat is available.

Polar bear species should be viewed differently, but along the same lines. Authorities continue to actively research climate change implications. The most current research suggests that, of the 19 identifiable populations of polar bears, some are increasing in number, some are stable, and some are in decline. So the question remains, is it ok to hunt polar bears? Logically, as long as populations are healthy, hunting must be considered a viable management tool. To this end, polar bear hunting continues to be endorsed.


Economic Impact

Practically speaking, bear hunting provides critical economic support. Money injected into those local communities by visiting hunters willing to pay the price is welcome and necessary; without it, many of those communities would suffer. In British Columbia for instance, outfitted hunting as a whole, brings in $116 million annually and employs 2,000 workers.

Professionally outfitted and guided bear hunts have a profound economic impact across North America. They generate revenue and provide employment. Black bears are so abundant that in some jurisdictions, each hunter can take two bears per season. Outfitting and guiding is a viable and productive industry, injecting tourism dollars and supporting thousands of small businesses across the continent.


Bears are Predators

From a wildlife management perspective, it is unhealthy to have an unbalanced predator population. Predators kill prey species and when their numbers are too high, those lower on the food chain become lesser in number. While bears are indeed omnivorous, they are opportunistic feeders, and this means that they will eat whatever is available. Prior to a recent sheep hunt, I called a friend who used to guide in the area we hunt. He warned me that the predators have become overpopulated and that I would most likely be disappointed with the number of sheep I may or may not see. Sure enough, the number of wolf and bear tracks and scat I saw compared to the negligible number of ungulate tracks and droppings was astounding. This again reinforced the fact that bear numbers, not to mention other predator species, are spiraling out of control. Healthy and stable populations are good, but overpopulation is bad. Proponents of bear hunting will continue to encourage wildlife managers to utilize hunting as a viable and effective management tool.


Trophy Hunting versus Meat Hunting Revisited

I know people who love bear meat. I’ve eaten fresh bear heart and it was exceptional. As a rule I’m not a big fan of bear meat, but many folks are. It is typically greasy and must be thoroughly cooked. Bear meat carries Trichinella, a parasitic roundworm that causes Trichinosis, which is harmful to humans. Well-cooked, it is mostly considered fit for consumption, but as a rule, that is why some jurisdictions don’t require hunters to take the meat.

As far as trophy hunting is concerned, bears of all kinds offer up one of the finest trophy rewards available. A thick coat in prime condition is nothing short of spectacular. Whether you want a head mount, rug mount or full body mount to commemorate your hunt, no one can argue with the outstanding trophy. I can say that the educational value of having my own mounts and rugs in my trophy room is immeasurable. My kids’ friends, not to mention every visitor that comes into our home, spends a great deal of time admiring these wonderful trophies. For many it is their only interaction with something wild. These trophies prompt discussions and those conversations frequently lead to the conservation and biodiversity area. Most are awestruck when they realize just how many bears we have in our province and on our continent. In most instances they regurgitate misinformation they have gleaned from the media and I am afforded the opportunity to set the record straight.


A Personal Decision

The decision about whether or not bear hunting is an acceptable practice trickles down to each of us individually, and ultimately collectively as sportsmen and women. In the end, it’s about considering the facts and implications associated with conservation, management, economics and overall values.

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