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Bear Country, Part 2: In the Line of Fire

More than 33,000 black bears are killed each year using some of the most inhumane methods imaginable.

All Animals magazine

  • Paul Souders/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Those creatures reside only in human imaginations, the product of a time when farmers exterminated bears to protect their livestock: Think Old Slewfoot (a colloquial term for the devil) in the novel The Yearling. As recently as 1965, Minnesota authorities offered a bounty on bears, classifying them as “varmints”; people could kill unlimited numbers in any manner, at any time of year. Taxidermists and sculptors in love with dramatic poses—bears rearing aggressively, mouths forced into unnatural snarls—have reinforced these stereotypes, as have hunting magazines, TV programs, and websites.

American black bears can run more than 30 mph, and their compact muscles make them much stronger than people. But during the past 110 years, noncaptive black bears have killed just 63 people in the U.S. and Canada, according to a study published this year. Naturally, as the human population has grown, so has the number of fatal bear attacks—but they still average fewer than two per year. More people are killed by bees. By spiders. By dogs. By lightning.

“More people are killed in vending machine accidents,” says Andrew Page, senior director of The HSUS’s Wildlife Abuse Campaign.

In contrast, in the U.S., more than 33,000 black bears are killed each year by hunters, who in 32 states can legally go after them for trophies like bear heads and bearskin rugs. The animals are killed by some of the most inhumane and unsporting methods imaginable. Hunters commonly lure them with bait like soured corn or piles of garbage—old donuts and cooking grease—then shoot at point-blank range. Some states allow hunters to fit dogs with GPS collars; after the dogs tree a bear, the hunter follows the signal to an easy, and terrified, target. In certain places it’s legal to hunt bears in the spring, when mothers’ deaths leave orphaned cubs to starve. Maine allows people to catch bears with painful wire snares and then finish them off with a pistol. South Carolina even permits people to test out dogs on tame, tethered bears who have had their claws and teeth removed; the trials take place carnival-style, in front of crowds of spectators.

Fewer than two humans a year are killed by noncaptive black bears. More people are killed by bees, spiders, and lightning. 

Hunting has been reintroduced recently in Kentucky, New Jersey, Nevada, and Oklahoma, all states with recovering bear populations estimated by The HSUS to be below the 500-animal threshold at which—under ideal conditions—hunting does not decrease the number of bears. A California measure defeated this year would have raised the state’s black bear hunting quota to 2,000 annually from 1,700. In Colorado, a proposal to end a 19-year ban on spring bear hunting was also defeated. And in Florida, the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has begun removing the black bear from the threatened species list, a decision that could allow hunting to resume in 2012 after an 18-year ban.

The argument that it’s necessary to protect people from bears comes up all the time—in hunting blogs, in statements from fish and game departments, in NRA lobbying. The hunting industry exploits the image of life-threatening bears to justify the killing of a creature whose meat is too greasy and gamey for most people to eat. Trouble is, hunters are looking for trophy specimens, not those animals deemed “problem” or “nuisance” bears—the repeat offenders, the animals who cause property damage and alarm or injure people. And hunters are looking in the woods, where many of the bears may never have visited a backyard or broken into a home.

“Trying to reduce human-bear conflict through general hunting is like trying to reduce crime by shooting into a crowd,” says biologist Lynn Rogers of the Wildlife Research Institute in Minnesota.

The only way hunting could conceivably reduce conflicts is if it were so unregulated and widespread it decimated populations. But no one wants bears to disappear. Instead, states permit relatively small numbers to be killed in the name of keeping populations low—though those populations could adjust to the area’s carrying capacity if left alone, with females bearing more or fewer cubs and varying the age at which they reproduce.

When bait is used, legally or illegally, hunting can actually increase conflicts by teaching bears to eat human food. “Once you’ve had a Krispy Kreme, even a stale one, they taste pretty good,” says David Pauli, HSUS senior director for wildlife response. “A bear can smell things two or three miles away. If I’m walking by a town and I smell Krispy Kreme in the dumpster, and some guy has let me know what they taste like, I’m going to go in that dumpster.”

Bear Country, Part 3: Putting Humans on Their Best Behavior »

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