The most logical response to the outpouring of concern over Florida’s upcoming bear hunt is simple: Name one species that has been irreparably damaged by legal hunting in the United States since we instituted sustainable systems of hunting seasons and bag limits a century ago. Right. There isn’t one.
It is the great pride of hunters that our predecessors, taking stock of rapidly dwindling species of wildlife across our nation, declared we had to exercise restraint if we wanted any wildlife to remain. We call it the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, and it has been extremely successful.
In other words, Florida’s bear hunt — which begins Oct. 24 — is not going to hurt your bear population.
But the ongoing debate isn’t about logic, and it isn’t about conservation. It is about emotion, some of it genuine and heartfelt — which I respect — and some of it quite calculated.
To the heartfelt opponents of the hunt, I say this: I get it. Bears are absolutely among the most charismatic and charming animals that we are allowed to hunt in the United States.
In the summer of 2011, my boyfriend and I sat with a chef after hours in a restaurant near Lake Tahoe, shooting the breeze and drinking wine, when the chef said, calmly, “There’s a bear in the kitchen.”
The kitchen staff had left the back door open, and a 400-pound black bear with a tag in each ear had sauntered in looking for treats, no more than 15 yards from our table. We waved frantically and yelled at the bear to scare him out. The bear looked at us, knocked over the chef’s bucket of sourdough starter, took a slurp, and sauntered out in no particular hurry.
He was so naughty it was impossible not to laugh.
But a little over one year later, I once again found myself 15 yards from a bear, this time in a forest across the state in California’s Tehama County. This time, I put the crosshairs of my .270 rifle behind her shoulder and shot her. Why? Because I eat meat, including bear meat, and hunting is the most honest and most healthy way I know to put meat on my dinner table.
In all sincerity, I find all species of animals I hunt to be just as endearing as bears. I am primarily a bird hunter, and I think birds — all kinds of birds — are the most enchanting species on this planet, with the exception of mockingbirds defending their nests. I love to watch birds. They always make me smile, and often make me laugh.
But I am an omnivore, so I also love to hunt them and eat them. I accept this seeming incongruity because I have studied nature, I have studied the human diet, and I have studied our hunter-gatherer ancestors who also revered and felt kinship with the animals they hunted. The only difference between me and them is that civilization has pushed me achingly far from my ancestral home in nature.
Even if you can’t relate to that, any of you who has savored anything as simple as a fat rotisserie chicken or a divine duck confit should get an inkling of what I’m talking about.
Let’s move on to the second category of emotion we’re seeing in Florida’s debate: the calculated part.
“On Oct. 24, more than 2,000 trophy hunters will descend on Florida’s woods to kill our native Florida black bears, a rare subspecies of the American black bear,” wrote Kate MacFall, the Florida state director of the Humane Society of the United States, in a recent op-ed. “These hunters seek bear rugs and taxidermied specimens to display, just like the Minnesota trophy hunter who went to Africa and killed Cecil the lion.”
HSUS has been employing this tactic since long before the Cecil controversy. It’s public knowledge that the least popular motivation for hunting is “for the trophy,” so HSUS slaps that modifier on just about every form of hunting it’s fighting in any venue, hoping to make the nonhunting public believe that all of us mean ol’ hunters just wanna put Fozzie bear on our walls, and maybe also orphan some cubs while we’re at it, just for funsies, and leave all the meat in the field to rot.
The problem is it’s simply not true. We’re not all trophy hunters, not in most types of hunting, and especially not in the case of bears. Precious few bears are “trophy” size, and because they are hard to hunt, most hunters are grateful simply to get one that is legal size. Because of that, many successful hunters will want to save the bear skin, or the skull, or maybe do a more traditional mount of the variety MacFall disdains.
Just because hunters get bears taxidermied doesn’t mean they’re leaving meat in the field to rot. They’re taking bear meat home, filling freezers and feeding their families and friends — something most avowed trophy hunters do as well. Getting a bear is a big deal. They’re not going to waste the bounty. If anything, they’re going to celebrate it. When I got my bear, we shared that meat with a broad network of friends, an act that felt deeply meaningful. The bear nourished dozens of people.
But facts obviously aren’t important here, not when emotions are what stir people up.
Interestingly, the emotional debate HSUS is employing up the coastline in Maine is a different one. There, HSUS is fighting so-called “unsporting practices” of hounding and trapping bears (never mind that an organization opposed to hunting is in a poor position to dictate what’s sporting). Getting rid of those practices, HSUS’s Maine state director says, would “help restore fairness to Maine’s bear hunt.”
The truth is some people — and organizations — just don’t want hunters to kill bears, period. Why not just say that? Why deny the impeccable success of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation? And why tell lies about hunters? And just to be clear, those were rhetorical questions.
Holly Heyser is editor of California Waterfowl Magazine; a board member at Orion the Hunter’s Institute, an organization that promotes ethical hunting; and a former newspaper reporter and editor.