The Rites of Spring Hunting

When predatory bears are taken, cubs are saved.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

One day in June 1990, professional wildlife photographer Mark Werner was at work not far from Thunder Bay, Ontario. That day he would be the unwilling witness to one of the more savage acts of the animal world: infanticide. A stunned Werner watched as a large male black bear killed two bear cubs and attempted to eat them.

The sow was off searching for food when the big boar appeared on the scene. Her frightened trio of cubs climbed a small tree in their effort to escape, but the adult male climbed after them, swatting two of the cubs from their perch. "They were dead before they hit the ground," Werner says.

The male was feeding on the cubs when the sow returned and saw what was happening. "She came at him like a freight train and drove him off, but it was too late," Werner says.

Across North America, anti-hunting lobbies are challenging spring black bear hunts on the grounds that cubs will be orphaned and die when sows are accidentally shot. This kind of thinking, based not on biology but on emotion and Bambi-esque anthropomorphizing, ignores the fact that predation by male bears has a greater impact on cubs than hunting. In point of fact, the contrary of the orphaned-cubs argument is true: The hunting of male bears during spring hunts protects cubs, and those seasons actually increase cub survival.

Colorado banned spring black bear hunting in 1992 after a voter initiative. Ontario banned the spring hunt in January 1999 after the Ministry of Natural Resources caved in to anti-hunting pressure from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

But do the numbers of potentially orphaned cubs balance against those killed by male bears that would have themselves been taken by hunters during the spring? Infanticide among black bears has been documented in many states and provinces in which researchers have found the remains of cub hair and claws in the scat of adult males. Cubs are an easy source of protein in spring and early summer.

In areas that are not hunted and therefore have significant numbers of older, larger bears, fewer younger bears are found, according to Jeff Rohlman, a Montana wildlife manager. "Either there's greater cub mortality in such places or greater young bear dispersal," he says.

A Montana study, titled Black Bear Environmental Impact Study 1994, contains findings that say the natural mortality of black bear cubs can vary from 12 percent to 48 percent annually in a given area. Weather, food and predation are all factors, but researchers cited in this study say that hunting, in effect, reduces "the incidence of infanticide attributable to older bears." State wildlife biologists do not have the money and manpower to determine exact predation rates. But enough evidence exists to show that if orphaned cubs are the essential issue in bans on spring bear hunts, then cannibalistic bears must also be banned.

In terms of the number of orphaned cubs, it would seem that spring hunts are no less detrimental than fall hunts, which go on in 28 states and nine Canadian provinces. The fall bear harvest in Colorado has already reached harvest numbers nearly equivalent to the combined spring and fall hunts before the ban. The data also shows that sow mortality in the fall is up to pre-ban levels, and presumably some of these bears had cubs, so if the objective of banning spring bear hunts is to end the orphaning of cubs, it is not perfect and is mitigated by fall hunting. Yet Ontario IFAW-Canada president Rick Smith says, "Ontarians will not tolerate any orphaned cubs. Any degree of spring orphaning is ridiculous if you can hunt in the fall."

The fight to end the Ontario spring bear hunt was a perfect example of emotional politics superceding objective wildlife management. The IFAW targeted voters in eight constituencies of new conservative members of the provincial government and made a political bbomb out of orphaned cubs. In a letter dated December 17, 1998, addressed to a concerned bureaucrat, Canada's Minister of Natural Resources, John Snobelen, defended the spring bear hunt, saying, "The spring is...the best time to hunt bears because it tends to target males as they leave their dens earlier than females with cubs." Then, just four weeks later, Snobelen executed an abrupt about-face and banned the bear hunt in a bow to IFAW pressure.

When Colorado banned its spring hunt in 1992, the Colorado Division of Wildlife was not pleased. Todd Malmsbury, chief of information for the Colorado DOW, says, "The Division opposed the voter initiative because a voter initiative is not the proper way to manage bears." Indeed, in that very same letter from December 1998, Snobelen had also written, "The issues being raised by those concerned about the spring bear hunt focus on differing societal values rather than conservation."

Herein we have entered the latest clash of biology versus ideology, when politicized elements -- orphaned bear cubs -- are isolated from an entire biological context in which springtime hunters and predatory male bears both play major parts that must be recognized. In the words of one biologist, "It is unnerving at times to have issues decided by politics instead of biology." The main question now is, how political do hunters have to be in order to hold on to biology?