THE TRUTH ABOUT BLACK BEARS

By Chuck Augello

“It’s hand-to-hand combat up

there!”

Hey, I don’t mind arm wrestling with the dudes,

but those wackos use guns and bows and arrows!

The speaker, Dennis Ohab, stood at the podium nearly shaking with fear.

Identified by The New York Times as a turkey hunter from Jefferson Township, New

Jersey, Ohab had come to urge the New Jersey Fish and Game Council to initiate a hunting

season on black bears.  On June 6 of this year, nearly five hundred people packed the

National Guard Armory in Lawrenceville to debate the need to reduce the state’s bear

population.

According to the state, over one thousand bears call New Jersey home. Opponents of the

hunt consider this a deliberate overstatement, and even the state’s own Black Bear

Management Plan (1997) contradicts the figures.

However, at the time of the hearing the Council had already made its opinion known.

The 2000-2001 Game Code included an amendment calling for a hunting season on black

bears with the goal of killing up to three hundred and fifty bears during the first year.

Since, by law, the Council is required to hold a public hearing regarding changes

to the Game Code, it was now the public’s chance to speak out on the issue.

As the nasal-voiced Ohab recounted his story of being “chased” by a bear,

many in the audience began laughing.  Ohab, in a state of near hysteria, pleaded with

the Council to do something.  “Sooner or later our children will get

killed,” he said.

While Ohab’s agitated account of “hand to hand combat” between people and

bears was an almost comical exaggeration, his fears echoed those of many at the hearing.

Several participants spoke of being afraid of possible bear attacks, and John W.

Broadway, the chairman of the Council, cited “safety” as the primary reason for

the hunt.

On the other side, opponents of the hunt spoke of peaceful backyard encounters with

bears and often described the bruins as “gentle.”  With few exceptions, the

perceived threat posed by bears dictated one’s feelings about the hunt.  Those who

saw bears as dangerous supported the hunt; those who viewed bears as non-threatening

opposed the hunt.

 

So the question begs asking:  How much of a threat are black

bears to the safety of New Jersey residents?

 

If one looks at the data objectively, the answer is: not much of a

threat at all.

In both the 1997 New Jersey Black Bear Management Plan and the 2000 Black Bear status

report, the Division of Fish and Wildlife could cite only two examples of a black bear

inflicting injury on a human.  In 1986 a woman received three minor scratches when

she encountered a bear in the dark.  In 1996 an individual was bitten on the finger

when he extended his hand toward a bear. Neither individual received medical attention.

There are no other reported cases of a bear injuring a human in New Jersey.  While

this fact seems crucial to any honest debate about the threat posed by bears, it is rarely

cited in newspaper reports and press releases from the DFW.

The 1997 report further states that of the thirty-seven known deaths caused by black

bears in North America since 1907, nearly all were associated with three geographic areas:

Alaska, Alberta/British Columbia, and Ontario/Michigan.  According to the

report, “…the black bears involved in fatal attacks on human beings lived in less

developed/remote areas and apparently had little or no prior contact with humans.”

New Jersey, the most densely populated state in North America, clearly does not fit

this profile.  The state’s bear population, out of necessity, has grown accustomed to

the presence of humans.

If further evidence is needed, one can look to a study by John O’Pezio, a black bear

specialist with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.  During the

period 1960 through 1980, O’Pezio tallied a minimum of 77

million recreation days spent by people in areas occupied by New York’s black bears.

Only three bear-related injuries occurred, all of which were minor.

In “The Great American Bear,” author Jeff Fair offers further evidence on the

potential threat.  For each death caused by black bears, approximately seventeen

people in North America have died of spider bites, twenty-five by snakebites, and

sixty-seven due to attacks by domestic dogs.  According to Fair, “…on the

whole you are statistically 374 times more likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning than

by a black bear.”

If that isn’t enough, consider this:  Humans attack and kill their fellow humans

at a rate of over 90,000 times that of black bear manslaughter.  So which species is

the greater threat?

Unfortunately, the Fish and Game Council has not publicized these facts.  In order

to maintain and expand its budget, the DFW must sell as many hunting licenses as possible.

A hunting season on bears represents a new revenue stream for the Division. More

significant is the personal bias of the Division’s members.  In essence, the people

who make the rules about hunting are people who like to hunt. The Fish and Game Council

and its cronies from various “sportsmen” organizations support the hunt because

they like the idea of killing bears.  The perception of bears as being a threat to

public safety advances the Council’s goal and so little is done to publicize the truth.

Sadly, the mainstream media has followed the Council’s lead.  It seems like a

no-brainer:  if a major theme of a news story is the danger posed by bears, shouldn’t

the reporter investigate the extent of the threat?  Apparently not.  Even the

venerable New York Times failed to cite any statistics regarding violent encounters

between bears and humans.  Two of the state’s largest newspapers, The Star-Ledger and

The Trenton Times, quoted opponents of the hunt but omitted any facts that might have

supported the anti-hunting position.

As expected, the Fish and Game Council approved the hunting season on bears, and

starting this fall bears will once again be legally killed in the Garden State.*

While grass-roots organizations like the New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance (NJARA) have

done an admirable job of countering the negative press, these small organizations lack the

resources of the DFW and can do only so much.  Opponents of the hunt must use every

opportunity to educate the public regarding the almost non-existent threat of a black bear

attack.

It won’t be easy.  As noted bear expert Dr. Lynn Rogers has stated, “It’s

tough to convince people that what they believe is a vicious animal really isn’t.”

Yea! After much public pressure

and many thanks to NJARA, Stu Chaifetz, HSUS, and many others who called to save the

bears, Gov. Christie Whitman requested that the game commission call off the bear hunt and

they granted her request!

[The game commission consists of some governor appointees.]

Black Paw Outfitting Co., Alberta, CA bemoaned the

following: “The only negative in the spring of 2000 season was the high number of

lost bears at 11. Please practice with your weapon of choice, so that we do not have this

occur again.”Photo from: http://www.bearpaw.ab.ca/bear_s00.htm

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