There are probably few subjects relating to wild bears that are more emotive than hunting. On the one hand hunters and hunt supporters are passionately in favour, and on the other the so-called “antis” are equally passionate in their opposition.
Hunting is the legal killing of an animal and should not be confused with poaching, the illegal killing of an animal, which we cover elsewhere. There are a number of methods employed for hunting bears:
- Using bait
- Hunting with dogs
- Shooting with handguns without use of bait, dogs, etc.
- Shooting with bows or crossbows without use of bait, dogs, etc.
- Poisoning (almost always illegal and therefore mainly used by poachers)
In the complex world in which we live hunting is not always a threat to bears; in fact it can be the reverse. Hunters are often some of the greatest advocates for bear populations and, perhaps counter-intuitively, are often conservationists.
In certain areas, for example some of the eastern United States, human encroachment and increasing bear populations make some form of population control inevitable. Given the choice between a managed cull and a managed hunt, there are several factors which suggest that the hunt may be the best solution, not least for the income generated by the sale of licences and permits which can then be used for habitat conservation, population monitoring and conflict reduction measures.
Hunting becomes a definite threat when the population being hunted is already under pressure, is reducing for reasons other than hunting or where there is insufficient population data to be certain what the effect of a hunt might be. Where hunting is a valid means for controlling a bear population that has reached its habitat or cultural carrying capacity there may still be concerns over the timing of the hunt and the methodology used.
Spring bear hunting
Worryingly, a number of countries, states and provinces allow hunting in the spring, when bears are newly emerged from hibernation, typically in a weakened state and hungry. In addition, new-born cubs and yearlings will still be dependent upon their mothers during the period when these hunts take place. Of all hunting practices this is probably the most concerning and Bear Conservation would like to see the cancellation of spring hunts by those national and regional governments that still authorise and promote them.
Hunting over bait
In this method of hunting bears are lured to specific sites where attractive, often strong-smelling, food has been placed. Once bears are used to feeding at the site the hunter will shoot the bear from close by, usually from a treestand or within a hide or “blind”. Whilst regulations usually limit the proximity of the bait sites to dwellings (typically to more than a quarter of a mile) there is still a risk that bears become habituated non-natural foods. If the bait is not regularly provided bears may well go in search of similar foods elsewhere, and a quarter of a mile isn’t far for a hungry bear.
Arguably the point-blank nature of hunting over bait should help avoid the killing of immature bears, cubs and sows. In practice this is often not the case, certainly in part because it is not always easy to tell a sow from a boar. A mother with cubs may well come to a bait site without her cubs so there is no guarantee that orphans will not be created through this method of hunting.
Hunting with hounds
This is not simply a matter of tracking bears using dogs. Rather the dogs are used to locate and then pursue bears until they “tree” to escape from their pursuers (this method does not work for brown bears but hounds can be used for the tracking and pursuit of brown bears). It is a relatively simple matter for a hunter to kill a treed bear. This form of hunting can be extremely stressful for the bears being chased. The method also risks separating mothers from their cubs leading to the false impression on the hunter’s part that the bear has no young and is therefore fair game.
Snares and traps
Various types of trap and snare can be legally used to hunt bears in some countries, states and provinces. Traps are totally arbitrary and cause stress to the bears they capture, particularly if a mother with cubs is caught. They can cause injuries to bears, or the animal may injure itself in trying to escape from the device. There is a significant danger that a trapped bear may be attacked by another animal, typically another bear, or in the case of a mother that its cubs will be predated whilst it is trapped. Further problems will arise in attempting a release if the bear caught is not suitable to be hunted (for example, a mother with cubs or a cub itself). Such problems can result in a fatality to the bear or, in the case of a cub, to its mother.
We believe that it is imperative that hunts are strictly controlled and only take place during designated and strictly enforced seasons, and never in spring. It should be a condition of hunting permits and licences that, following a successful hunt, the hunter must submit biological material (for example, a tooth) for ongoing population research and hunting data maintenance. Most importantly, for so long as hunting is allowed robust population data must be maintained and used to determine “take” levels and whether the hunt should be discontinued.
We also strongly believe that in most if not all cases any authorised bear hunt should be based upon “fair-chase” (which we would define as not over bait, not using hides, platforms, traps or snares and only using dogs for tracking, if at all). Wherever possible only male bears should be hunted and on no account should mothers with cubs, or who may have undetected cubs, or cubs themselves be hunted. Where bears have exceeded the carrying capacity of their habitat or of the local communities (cultural carrying capacity) it may be necessary to employ some hunting over bait as fair chase may not reduce bear numbers sufficiently. In such instances strict controls must be enforced, covering the types of bait used, where they are used and how often they are checked and replenished. All possible steps to avoid the killing of bears with cubs and of immature bears must also be taken. We would strongly suggest that such culls should not be undertaken using permit systems but rather only by wildlife professionals and experienced hunters, all of whom should be accredited marksmen.
Data-gathering: Project Pursuit
Project Pursuit is a data-gathering exercise. Our aim is to gather information on every legal bear hunt from 2006 onwards. We want to document the estimated bear population in the hunt area, the number of bears killed each year, the dates when the hunts take place and the means allowed for the hunt (for example fair-chase only, hunting over bait, hunting with hounds).
Whilst this project is about gathering data that data will be used in our conservation and campaigning work. We accept that the question of whether a hunt should take place is not always a simple yes or no decision.
As detailed above, hunting is a threat when the population being hunted is already under pressure but even in a healthy population there may still be concerns over the timing and hunting methodology used. That is why we have set up this project to record and monitor bear hunts and the associated bear populations.
To find out more about Project Pursuit and how you can help us with our data collection and monitoring click here to send us an email.
Boone and Crockett Club Position Statement on Fair Chase As a means of separating the actions of commercial market hunters from those of sportsmen, an ethical code of hunter conduct was discussed at the first meeting of the USA based Boone and Crockett Club in 1887. The name given to this code was, fair chase and it is defined by the Club as “the ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild, native North American big game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals.”
Boone and Crockett: Defining Fair Chase In-depth article first published in September 2016.
Bear-Baiting May Exacerbate Wolf-Hunting Dog Conflict. The influence of policy on the incidence of human-wildlife conflict can be complex and not entirely anticipated. Policies for managing bear hunter success and depredation on hunting dogs by wolves represent an important case because with increasing wolves, depredations are expected to increase.
British Columbia bans the hunting of grizzly bears (18 December 2017) (Opens in new window)
Should polar bear hunting be legal? It’s complicated. (National Geographic 28 May 2019) (Opens in new window)
See also Poaching.
Page updated 13 February 2021