Op-Ed: The problems with bear hunting in NH

Published in the Union Leader on September 14, 2020 — IN CELEBRATION of the start of hunting season, Andy Schafermeyer devoted his September 6 “Adventures Afield” column to advertising different ways to hunt black bears. Bear hunting season in New Hampshire began Sept. 1.

Of the various bear hunting methods covered, perhaps the most egregious is hunting with trained dogs, or “hounding.” Hounding, which Andy describes as “sometimes controversial,” involves using packs of dogs to pursue bears until the exhausted animals either seek refuge in a tree or turn to fight the hounds. (Hounding is also dangerous for the dogs, who can be injured or killed.)

Andy states that most of these “treed” bears are released unharmed (presupposing that the stress of being pursued and potentially separated from dependent young causes no harm), because while the bear is trapped overhead, the hunter has time to “pause and observe.” “A sow, especially one with cubs, can be passed over,” he writes, in an apparent appeal to ethics. But self-restraint is optional. Although the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department discourages killing a mother with cubs, it is not illegal.

Recall the famous bear family from Jackson — a mother and four cubs who became known as “the Jackson Five” back in 2015. The mother was killed by a hunter who was using trained dogs. After cornering her, he had the time to “pause and observe” to use Andy’s words. He pulled the trigger anyway.

The four orphans the hunter created that day became someone else’s problem. Compassionate people, including staff at the New Hampshire of Fish and Game, were able to locate and rescue them, and they were brought to the Kilham Bear Center, where orphaned bears are rehabilitated and released back into the wild. Read more about their work and how you might help at the end of this letter.

If training dogs to hunt bears sounds like too much effort, bear baiting is a more leisurely method. Despite being prohibited in 41 states, this practice is allowed in New Hampshire and has continued to rise in popularity. During the 2019 hunting season, 54% of the bears hunted in New Hampshire were killed over bait.

As bears prepare for winter, “they are eating whatever they can find, and successful hunters may use this to their advantage,” Andy writes. Stale doughnuts, expired pastries, and discarded candy are all used to lure bears to a site where hunters wait to shoot them. One New Hampshire hunting store promoted its large inventory of bear bait, which included tubs of cake frosting and 55-gallon drums of caramel sauce.

The fact that hunters use bait often comes as a surprise to people who don’t hunt, in part because New Hampshire Fish and Game makes a big effort to educate the public about the importance of removing bird feeders and other food sources that could attract bears. “A fed bear is a dead bear,” as the motto goes. In New Hampshire it is illegal to intentionally feed bears and offenders can be fined. The purported goal of the “don’t feed bears” campaign is to avoid habituating bears to human food, so that they don’t become a “nuisance.”

New Hampshire may well be in the business of creating potential “nuisance” bears by permitting baiting. As Andy explains, a bear’s “reproductive success” is decided by the “amount and quality of food consumed.” Although she mates in June or July, how well she eats through the fall determines her litter size. If food is abundant, she may give birth to four or five cubs. Natural and nutritious food is best, but access to high-calorie, high-fat food could result in larger litter sizes, wildlife biologists agree.

You can protect bears (and all wildlife) from being hunted by posting your property. By default, privately-owned land in New Hampshire is open to hunting unless you explicitly prohibit it. Some forms of hunting require the owner’s written permission, including baiting, but houndsmen can trample through your property with packs of dogs chasing terrified bears if you don’t put up “No Hunting” signs. The New Hampshire Animal Rights League offers free “No Hunting” signs (nhanimalrights.org/post-your-property).

And if you would like to help orphaned bears, consider donating to the Kilham Bear Center (kilhambearcenter.org). As of this writing, they have rehabilitated and returned 285 bears to the wild, including the four cubs orphaned in Jackson. They rely on donations to cover the significant costs of caring for the bears.

September has brought us cool mornings and changing leaves. Please enjoy the season with peaceful activities that do not harm animals.

James Glover is president of NH Animal Rights League, Inc. He lives in Raymond.