For bears, too much protection can backfire
It is impossible to think of Randy Cross as being cruel to bears.
In his office full of radio collars and photographs of him handling bears in winter dens, Maine’s state bear biologist almost gets misty-eyed talking about his favorites. One in particular is a 31-year-old bear that had a cub about six years ago.
“It’s like having an old dog. Her eyes are cloudy — she may even be close to blind,” Cross said. “But what a lucky cub to have a mother like that, high up in social status, with all the knowledge she passes on about where to get certain kinds of food.”
Cross has tagged some 3,300 black bears in the three decades he has spent studying them in Maine. “Nobody knows bears like Randy and his crew,” said Jim Fahey, a game warden in Bangor. “He lives and breathes bears.”
Nonetheless, Cross now finds himself in the center of controversy over a November referendum in the state that would outlaw bait, dogs, and traps in hunting the revered creature. Cross opposes the measure. That stance has national animal rights activists breathing down his neck, accusing him and state wildlife officials of condoning merciless forms of slaughter in the bear hunt.
In this case, however, such criticism is misplaced. Maine allows hunters to get a clean shot at bears by luring them into the open with stale pastries, chasing them up a tree with dogs, or trapping them with snares. Yet the state’s bear population is still above 30,000 and is now threatening to spill out of the woods into urban areas. That creates unnecessary risks to both humans and bears.
Cross and his employer, Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, argue that, without these extra aids in hunting, this overpopulation would worsen. Hunters already struggle to find the secretive creatures in Maine’s thick forests, Cross explains. Only three in 10 hunters actually shoot a bear.
“Fairness comes down to challenge,” he adds. “I would debate with anyone that, with 70 percent of hunters being unsuccessful, that is challenge enough.”
Bears are beautiful animals, and I’ve encountered them frequently over the years in national forests and parks as well as in the driveway of my Maine vacation home.
I’ve never shot a bear, and I am unlikely ever to do so. I also often find myself on the side of the national Humane Society, which is leading the effort for the ban. Last week, animal rights activists filed suit against the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, saying the agency is illegally using taxpayer money to oppose the referendum.
“When history looks back, we’ll be ashamed of how we treated these creatures,” said Wayne Pacelle, the society’s president. “You put out thousands of pounds of bait at dumpsites in order to shoot a bear in the back. From an intuitive moral sense, that’s disturbing.”
But bears are species where too much protection can backfire, especially as exploding, roaming populations start to encroach into what humans consider to be “our” territory.
For Fahey, the game warden, the referendum is a public safety issue. In May he received three bear nuisance calls in one day, the most he had ever received. Then, on a Sunday in July, he had five complaints waiting for him at work. He told me, “All these people who want to ban hunting, what will they want me to do if we can’t get a bear out of a dense neighborhood? Shoot it with kids around?”
Bear attacks on humans are rare, but not unheard of. A Rutgers University student was killed last month by a bear while hiking in New Jersey.
New Jersey is a state that banned bear hunting 30 years ago. That led to a massive rise in population, and state officials decided to reverse the ban. And still the numbers remain so high in northern New Jersey that the state wildlife spokesman Larry Ragonese recently told The New York Times it had “grown out of control.”
Massachusetts is another example. In 1996, voters by a 2-to-1 margin chose to stop the use of hounds in bear hunts. At the time, the state secretary for environmental affairs and his colleagues warned the measure was “an unrealistic approach to addressing complex wildlife management issues in a highly urbanized state that will lead to significant conflicts between wildlife and people.” Those officials said using dogs was a critical tool to stop bears from damaging cornfields, commercial beehives, and campgrounds.
Since 1990, the state’s bear population has quadrupled to 4,000. Males in particular sometimes make dramatic searches for territory. Two years ago, a male bear was spotted on Cape Cod and was transported some 100 miles back to central Massachusetts. It reappeared two weeks later in the backyard of a Brookline home.
Wayne MacCallum, the director of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife takes no official position on the Maine referendum, but he suggested in as many words that animal rights advocates remain as unrealistic in Maine as they were in Massachusetts. “I think they are taking away management tools,” MacCallum said. “They’ll lose effective tools.”
Pacelle stresses that the Humane Society is not against hunting bears in principle, just against what they see are inhumane methods. But just how far the group is willing to press is murky. When New Jersey came close to reinstituting the hunt in 2000, the society’s mid-Atlantic regional office program coordinator told The New York Times, “We don’t want a hunt, period. We don’t want one black bear killed.”
Those are fighting words to the guide services and lodges in Maine’s north woods. Both depend on bear hunting for their livelihood.
At the end of a river-kayaking trip in late August, my wife, Michelle, and I pulled out at Chesuncook Village, a tiny hamlet at the top of the 18-mile-long lake bearing the same name. Until a new road was built a few years ago, the only way to get here in summer was by boat, floatplane, or hiking boots. Even with the road, it takes nearly two bumpy hours to get back to the nearest town of Greenville.
At the Chesuncook Lake House inn, as an outfitter was preparing several men for a weeklong bear hunt, something they consider a longstanding way of life, Lake House innkeeper David Surprenant, who moved up to the village with his wife Luisa from southeastern Massachusetts 15 years ago, referred to the referendum as “Carpetbagging 101.” Surprenant and several outfitters said the referendum was being pushed by activists who refuse to understand that even way up in Maine, let alone Brookline, bear control is essential.
Surprenant has dealt with this issue up close. At a campground near the other end of lake that he runs, a nuisance bear had to be put down for prying open dumpsters and “terrorizing” campers.
“If this referendum goes through, it’ll come back to bite them in the butt,” Surprenant said. “They say it’s not fair chase. But then don’t cry about the bears eating their little Fluffy for breakfast out of their backyards.”
Twenty-seven years ago, when I first met Cross, he told me that he originally thought shooting a bear over bait was deplorable. Time and his research, however, have changed his mind.
Cross worries whether overpopulation is a greater suffering. He said he’d rather have a healthy, mature bear hunted — up to 3,000 per year — to control the population than see them die of starvation because they run out of territory or see them euthanized because they become too used to dumpsters and bird feeders.
“Nothing makes me more sad than seeing bears that are bags of bones from lack of food or withering away in the woods after being hit by a car. I don’t want these bears dying of a long painful death instead of quick death by bullet,” Cross said. “I’m the one who has to look the bear in they eye. I have a pretty good idea of what is cruel.”