The Bear Hunt

Ken described in detail the elevated stand he was going to build in the woods. I tried to ignore him, but my tiny office at the front of the laboratory was a natural gathering place for the guys to drink coffee and tell stories. It was my first job out of college, typing and answering the phone for an oil service company on the outskirts of Denver.

On his break from polishing thin sections of rocks, Ken told us how he would use the stand to lie in wait for the bear, bow at his side, his holstered handgun to be used only if necessary. To lure the bear he planned to use . . . doughnuts. The chemist and geologist snickered, egging him on.

None of it squared with the hunting I had grown up with in Kansas where for a few days each November orange-capped pheasant hunters filled the local coffee shops. The only other hunter I knew, a neighbor who traveled further afield, cooked up big pots of chili, which I reluctantly tried, made with antelope or was it moose? Baiting and killing bears was new to me.

 Photo Credit: peupleloup via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: peupleloup via Compfight cc

Maybe I am misremembering the doughnuts or maybe Ken made it up to impress the new girl. Either way, I was rooting for the bear.

Thirty-some years later I don’t know anyone who hunts bears, but have come to an uneasy acceptance of the fact that it’s part of life in the West. What I didn’t know until I read this article in the New York Times is that New Jersey also has a bear hunt. The season opens today, December 8th, and lasts for six days. It’s not universally popular and was only reinstated a few years ago after a thirty year hiatus to allow the dwindling bear population to recover.

When the annual hunting season began in 2010 it was estimated that population had grown to approximately 3400 bears living north of Interstate 80, which cuts across New Jersey (although bears have now been documented in all 21 counties, the bulk of the population lives in the northern part of the state). With a human population of 1200 per square mile (compared to 17 per square mile in New Mexico), encounters between the two have become more frequent with bears routinely wandering through suburban neighborhoods, grazing in dumpsters, and causing schools to go into lock down mode. But up until September when a black bear killed a college student hiking with friends in Passaic County in a rare predatory attack, there had never been a fatality in New Jersey.

The goal of the week-long December hunt is simple:  reduce the bear population. Hunters are encouraged in the Hunting and Trapping Digest to shoot the first bear they see provided they are able to get a clean, safe shot. Males, females, cubs, mothers with a cubs–all bears are fair game, but only one bear per hunter. About 1600 bears have been killed in the last four years and the overall population reduced to approximately 2500.

It sounds easy enough until you consider the logistics of finding, killing, and dragging a dead 300-pound bear out of the woods.  In the first year of the New Jersey hunt 592 bears were killed, but since then the numbers have continued to dwindle down to 251 bears in 2013.    Even so, if I were a bear in New Jersey I’d keep a low profile this week.

As for Ken?  There never really was any doubt.  He got his bear rug, a freezer full of sausage and one big story.

 

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