by Terence P Ward
In the early part of August 2014, I watched as two black bears–a cub and a yearling—casually crossed a somewhat rural road in the Rondout Valley. Few upstate New Yorkers have seen more than one of these shy creatures, but those encounters are becoming more frequent, according the data collected by state officials. That data suggests that residents of the Catskills and western Hudson Valley are now living in “bear country,” whether they like it or not. Concerned about the potential for more frequent and more dangerous human-bear encounters, the Department of Environmental Protection has finalized a new 10-year black bear management plan, which relies heavily on expanded hunting to keep the bear population in check here and throughout New York.
The American black bear (Ursus americanus) is the most populous bear species in North America, and is listed as a species of “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The IUCN’s justification for this categorization is that the “species is widespread, with a large global population estimated at more than twice that of all other species of bears combined. Moreover, in most areas populations are expanding numerically and geographically.” This classification applies despite a number of factors that made it harder for bears in the 19th and 20th centuries, ranging from environmental degradation to intentional extermination.
From 1892 to 1895, New York State paid a bounty of $10 for each black bear killed, which equals more than $255 today. That reward came at the tailend of massive deforestation of the Catskills, which left very little suitable habitat for the creatures in this part of the state. Creation of so-called “forever wild” preserves and conservation-minded hunting laws appear to have encouraged a turnaround, and the DEC now estimates a minimum of 6,000 to 8,000 bears statewide, 30 to 35 percent of which live in the Catskill region. In its management plan, the department acknowledges that collecting census data on these reclusive animals is not easy, and that its estimates are based mostly on what hunters legally kill, together with anecdotal evidence of sightings and human-bear conflicts.
Minimizing those conflicts is one of the objectives of the black bear management plan, as bears which become habituated to human food (be it garbage, gardens, or agricultural crops) can cause quite a bit of damage in their hunt for those treats, in some cases endangering pets and people. The most serious encounters, in which bears are act aggressively and threateningly or enter homes, have tripled since 2006. The DEC has neither the manpower nor the money to control the bear population through non-lethal means, and there are no consistently effective methods for reducing bear fertility, according to the plan. Instead, the department hopes that hunters will pay for the privilege to try to take a bear during a new Catskill early bear hunting season, which will run for 16 days starting the Saturday after Labor Day each year.
The idea that there could be hunters running around in the woods during prime hiking season is alarming to some of the individuals who commented on the plan at the beginning of this year. Those fears may be overblown, the final plan states, pointing to a similar early bear season in the Adirondacks that has been in effect since the 1960s. In September and generally, there are very few “Dick Cheney incidents” of hunters accidentally shooting people reported.
Wildlife specialist John MacNaught of the Catskill Forest Association, a self-identified hiker and hunter, did weigh in on the plan. He explained, “Hunters don’t just see movement and shoot. They are responsible.” A successful big game hunter will have to haul a large carcass out of the woods, he explained, so it’s critical to know where the trails and access points to the woods are at all times. And since most black bears avoid human contact, people hunting them are unlikely to be near recreational hiking areas.
While it may not be dangerous to people, MacNaught didn’t appear to believe that an early hunting season would do much for reducing black bear population in the Catskills and western Hudson Valley. During the regular big game season, hunters can see greater distances because there are no leaves on the trees, and they can often follow animal tracks in the snow to find their quarry. Even so, the wildlife specialist says that only .5 percent of all big game hunters take a bear during the regular hunting season.
An early bear hunting season forfeits any long-sight advantage of later autumn, so the actual numbers of bears killed in the 16-day grace period may be nominal to none. That said, MacNaught does feel that a benefit of the early hunting season will be to make it easier to hunt “nuisance bears,” such as those who ravage corn fields. “Early bear season will resolve a lot of that tension,” he said, “A farmer who sees a bear eating his crops can sit and wait for it with a gun.”
In its management plan, the DEC acknowledges some of the limitations the department needs to address. One goal is to develop better means to calculating the bear population, as mentioned previously. Another limitation is that the way the department is funded—through state hunting license fees and federal firearms taxes—means that the small number of state residents who hunt have the greatest financial stake in its activities. To that end, expect more public outreach to encourage other stakeholders, such as hikers, bikers, and environmentalists, to contribute to the state’s conservation fund. The department says that it’s well aware that bears evoke powerful emotions and high interest among hunters and non-hunters alike, who consider their presence in the state to be a source of pride.
Bears may evoke pride, but when they develop a taste for human delicacies it becomes costly, and sometimes dangerous. This is now bear country, and apparently that means we have to kill some of these grand creatures, or face greater dangers as they become comfortable roaming our streets, rifling through our trashes, and looking for food. The DEC black bear management plan, which runs from 2014 to 2024, is due to be evaluated by 2019 to determine if it is proving effective in meeting its objectives or not.