This time of year is a special moment in the lives of black bears. After consuming about 20,000 calories and gaining three to five pounds every day during the late summer and early fall, black bears head to their winter dens. Because bears hibernate in their dens for three to six months (depending on latitude) they risk starvation if they don’t chow down beforehand. And for female bears, the stakes are especially high, as their ability to produce healthy cubs depends on eating enough prior to hibernation to stay healthy through the winter.
But some bears weren’t so lucky to make it to their dens this year. Autumn bear hunts occur in 33 states across the U.S., cutting short the lives of many of these beloved animals and ending bear families before they’ve begun.
Bears are the most hunted large carnivore in the U.S. This is because of their wide range but also because state wildlife agencies and wildlife commissions in charge of setting hunting policy cater to hunters and trappers, rather than most Americans who fund the habitats where bears make their homes.
The story the hunting numbers tell
Over the past 11 years, trophy hunters killed nearly half a million black bears in the U.S. In 2020 alone, 50,000 bears were hunted in 32 states. And now we are amid the autumn 2021 bear-hunt carnage, with black bears targeted by trophy hunters in 33 states.
The killing continues, despite the fact that bears are beloved and valued parts of our natural world. A 2018 study showed that a majority of Americans do not believe a bear should be killed even if that bear attacked someone. Even a survey from the pro-hunting National Shooting Sports Foundation and the hunting polling firm Responsive Management found that a majority of Americans disapprove of trophy hunting. And plenty of our polls show the same: American voters disapprove of trophy hunting black bears by generally two-thirds majorities.
Many states claim, in defiance of empirical evidence and multiple scientific studies, that bears must be hunted to contain their populations or stop human-bear conflicts. Even though hunting bears can ravage bear families and disrupt ecosystems, state wildlife agencies keep giving trophy hunters the green light to recklessly “manage” those populations through killing bears.
Take what recently occurred in Missouri as an example: During Missouri’s first-ever trophy hunt of black bears, hunters had killed 12 bears, far short of the state’s allotted quota of 40. This low number relative to the allowed quota hints at a paradox behind allowing this hunt in the first place, as we previously explained: Missouri is fortunate to have any bears at all, since populations around these regions were nearly wiped out by the early 1900s due to market hunting, bounties and the overlogging of their forest habitats. But the state seems to have learned nothing from its past, because even as a small number of bears surfaced in recent years, the agency proposed a trophy hunt on this tiny, but virtually uncounted population. Upon approving the hunt, the agency estimated that there were only 600 and 1,000 bears in the region.
The deadliest bear state in the U.S. is Wisconsin, where 47,125 bears were trophy hunted between 2010 and 2020. Bear baiting starts April 15 and continues to mid-October giving trophy hunters 180 days to “train” bears to visit bait sites looking for an easy meal. As a result of the long bait training season, wolves guard these bait piles from other wolf packs and other canids (like coyotes, foxes and domestic dogs). Then packs of hounds are let loose to “train” on wild bears from July through August—before the actual hunting season even begins in early September. These two practices invariably result in mayhem and tremendous animal suffering, including conflicts between wolves and hounds. (Even though the houndsmen intentionally put their hunting hounds in known danger in wolf territory, Wisconsin’s compensation program gives houndsmen, even those from out of state, financial rewards when their hounds are injured or killed by wolves. The state has given nearly $1 million in compensation payments to houndsmen since 1985.)
This year, the autumn hunting season opened in states like Oregon and Arizona as early as August, and in some states like Tennessee and Virginia, bears may remain in the crosshairs through January 2, 2022. Bears will get only a brief reprieve before some states allow another war on bears with springtime hunting, which can begin as early as March. These hunts are particularly cruel because of the likelihood that bears are raising young cubs during this time. Washington is about to vote on a particularly controversial spring bear hunt, against which many members of the public spoke out.
In short, these trophy hunts simply cannot be justified. Bears capably self-regulate their own populations and don’t need humans to do it for them.
What you can do to help bears
There’s no doubt that bears capture our imaginations, starting from our early childhood teddy bears. Americans often share bear sightings on social media, recording bear families swimming in their pools, playing on a trampoline or slide, and watching mother bears carefully get their cubs across a busy road.
Bears are one of the most photographed and watched wildlife species. And some bears become locally, or even nationally, famous only to meet terribly sad fates: Bruno the traveling bear captured attention for his adventurous meanderings until his life was cut short after he was hit by a car. Pedals, a bear known for his unique gait, was killed by a trophy hunter in New Jersey, breaking the hearts of all who followed him. And yet small special interest groups who want to kill bears for trophies under the guise of population management keep getting favored over the sentiments of the public.
We will keep the pressure on to protect these animals, and you can help, especially if you live in one of the deadliest dozen states for bears. See our trophy hunting tool kit, and let your state director know that you want to be a voice for bears, too. Finally, everyone can have a hand in keeping bears (and people) safe just by taking simple, commonsense precautions: Learn how to be more bear aware.
Follow Kitty Block on Twitter @HSUSKittyBlock.