Bear Management and the “Conservation” Myth

Photo copyright Jim Robertson.

By Alex Foxx

What does it truly mean when our government wildlife agencies tell us that “hunting is conservation”? Would the relatively few species that hunters prefer to kill “overpopulate” if left to Nature’s devices? We often hear that in the absence of natural predators, humans must step in and “manage” the wildlife, even “cull the herd.” Is that based on empirical scientific evidence? These are questions that too few ask today. We became unwitting supporters of a false narrative. The Public Trust became Blind Trust.

Our biggest misconception:

We are NOT Nature!

Humans, and our livestock and domestic pets, live in manufactured environments with unlimited food access. We are a world apart from Nature today. Wildlife is nothing like us at all. Our grandparents did not pass down what they took for granted in existing among wildlife every day. What we don’t learn, we don’t know enough to question. Wildlife continues to exist among us, and yet so exceptionally apart from us, uniquely adapted to the limitations of the environment occurring right outside our doors.

The limitations of that environment dictate their territory range, how many of them can exist within it, how many will reproduce successfully, and how many offspring will be born (or not). We are incapable of comprehending that there is no pizza delivery to dial-up on demand when a full meal is not found.

Public fear and intolerance of bears is politically spun as public support for hunting bears. The truth is that hunting bears ensures more bears for future hunting. Demand drives Supply.

Carrying Capacity: Biological versus Social (Nature Vs Human Opinion)

Biological carrying capacity is that maximum population of any given species that its environment can sustain. Yet this criterion is not the primary consideration when policy is made regarding the killing of preferred game species in hunting. For a species like the American black bear, Social carrying capacity, although essentially only a contrived opinion of how many bears people will tolerate, is injected into their decision-making platform, then used as a false narrative to give the public the illusion that “they are managing bears for you, the public.”

While the reproductive strategies for each species may differ, the same basic concept applies to all wildlife. Wildlife agencies capitalize on these species’ reproductive strategies by manipulating their habitat, their reproduction, or both. If “hunting is a management tool” for deer, turkey, bears, and other preferred “game” species, how exactly are they using this “tool”? For what and for whom are they managing? The animals? The hunters? For us? Why are the preferred species the only species that seem to need managed while the others are not even on the radar at all?

No, Bambi would not starve because Bambi (and Yogi) would not, in fact, even be born. Nature wouldn’t allow it.

Black bears, like many mammals, have an adaptation known as embryonic diapause, also known as delayed implantation. While mating occurs in late spring to early summer, the embryonic blastocyst does not begin to develop until late autumn. Whether cubs will develop and be born depends on the nutritional status of the mother bear. If she does not acquire enough weight during the intervening months, her embryos will be absorbed in utero in order to survive her winter hibernation. She will have fewer cubs that year or no cubs at all.

However, if a fall bear hunt kills off her competitors for that food she will now acquire more food and thus will produce a larger litter. Higher birthrates of deer fawns are manipulated in much this same way by fall hunting; a deer will sustain or abort embryos in utero based on food availability and her competition for that food.  Timing is everything (for killing certain species).

State wildlife agencies know that when a quantity of animals is taken out of a population at key moments during the reproductive cycle, this leaves more available food and resources for the currently-pregnant survivors. This means that, with less competition, the surviving females have a better chance of carrying more offspring to term. Their science says that if 20 percent of the black bears are killed that a “stable bear population” will be sustained. What they don’t say is that this increased rate of reproduction is forced upon these species by hunting, for hunting.

Fooling Mother Nature for Future Generations (of hunting opportunities).

With her food-competition removed by hunters during each fall hunt, our female black bears may now carry 3-4 cubs instead of the usual two. Now, when you see these large litters, you know why! Without hunting’s elimination of that competition year after year, she would likely produce a smaller litter, or she’d even wait 3-4 years between litters.

More cubs born each year means more bears constantly entering the population, which equates to more bears available to be hunted next year. Their “management tool” is in fact utilized for increasing the population, not decreasing it. This can be a very slippery slope in balancing the desires of hunters and wildlife agencies with the public’s willingness to tolerate bears, e.g. that Social carrying capacity factor. It really has nothing to do with preventing our wildlife from starving due to overpopulation. In fact, hunting may lead to starvation when populations are artificially increased and their environment cannot support their needs for food and shelter that year. Ironically, in this way hunting also causes the human-wildlife conflicts that ensue from sustaining higher populations for hunting. What do people do when conflicts occur? They call for more hunting. How convenient.

Wildlife agencies tell the public that bears will “overpopulate” if not hunted, yet populations of hunted bears produce MORE offspring compared to non-hunted populations which are typically more stable. Their strategy makes sense, since state wildlife agencies profit from the killing of wildlife. Business 101: You don’t decrease your bestselling commodities, you increase them!

Natural Predators Don’t Pay to Play

The role of predation in ecosystems is to keep prey populations healthy, unlike hunters who bypass weak or sick animals and prefer to kill the largest, genetically-best trophy animals we have. Still, natural predators are considered a nuisance to wildlife agencies, whose business is to sell tags for popular hunted species like deer. They see natural predators as competitive enemies, although no scientific evidence demonstrates that natural predators significantly decrease these prey species. Rather, natural predators help keep the balance. “Social carrying capacity” is often misused to fear-monger the public to create support of killing any and every predator species.

Is Hunting “Conservation” of our Wildlife?

Before we can answer that, we need to consider the TRUE meaning of the word “conservation.” The majority of people mistakenly presume that the terms “conserve,” “preserve,” and “protect” have similar if not identical meanings. Wildlife agencies, like forestry services, think of conservation as how to use a resource so that it can be used again, year after year, generation after generation. They often compare wildlife to how we use water, or trees. They count on wildlife to replenish themselves so that they may continue to exploit them in perpetuity. That is how killing relates to conservation. Wildlife is managed as a whole resource, never to be viewed or considered a living, emotionally sentient being but rather an inanimate “it.” This is why they are ordered to use euphemisms like “harvest” when they mean kill. This is also why they are (rightfully) terrified of the Animal Rights Movement.

Science fools Nature. Semantics fool you. Your support fools legislators (A perfected formula for approval of funding)

The conservation myth is not exactly a myth but rather the crafted art of optimizing a population of animals through “management” to produce what is known in agency parlance as “maximum sustained yield,” for profit. This reality stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric spewed by wildlife agency personnel who manipulate public support by use of words and phrases such as “overpopulation,” “robust and growing,” “responsible, science-based management,” and “healthy bear population.” Did they say they are “reducing the population”? Nope, but that is what you hear.

Through use of common words which have been hijacked and manipulated by state wildlife agencies to mean something entirely different than what the public perceives, they can cloak their agendas while obtaining public majority approval for “managing” wildlife through the skillful use of propaganda. The success of the nuisance trapping industry exploded when they hijacked the term “humane” a decade ago. We hear what we want to hear.

Hunters are conservationists in the most abject of ways. Consider the deer hunters who only want a bear hunt because a bear keeps damaging his costly game feeders, eating his bait. A hunt is his only legal option for killing “that damn bear.” He now gladly either buys a bear tag and/or is compensated for allowing hunting on his property.

Neither wildlife agencies nor their hunting clients are champions of the environment. To the contrary, they upset the balance of entire ecosystems in their quest to “grow” more preferred “game” species, often to the detriment of numerous other wildlife species.


Alex Foxx has a graduate certificate in Fish and Wildlife Management.  She has a M.S. in Health Sciences.  She’s a member of The Wildlife Society and Society for Conservation Biology.  She spends time in the woods doing investigative work, and for two consecutive years has attended a Black Bear Field Study Course with Dr. Lynn Rogers who is the preeminent expert on bear behavior and biology.


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