Saturday, August 14, 2010

Bear hunting

Part of my annual summer routine is to go see mom in Washington, and then stop off in southern Oregon to hunt black bears on the way home. When I tell people what I'm doing, they often ask why I want to hunt bears. What they really mean is "why in the world would you kill a defenseless bear, you cruel person!" Well, the way I hunt entails many hours of solitary sitting, watching, and listening, in between lots of walking. All of these give me a lot of time to think, and this last bear hunting trip I thought a lot about why I enjoy hunting bears.

It turns out that bear hunting combines three things that are very important to me: being out alone with Nature, challenging myself physically and mentally, and getting fresh, natural food whenever possible. My hunting area in Oregon is about an hour and a half from the highway, off of forest service and logging roads. It's a mix of firs, pines, madrone, and some cedar trees, broken up by previously logged areas that have, among other things, berry bushes. Blackberries, gooseberries, blackcap (a type of raspberry that's black when it's ripe), and thimbleberries (bright red, lots of little seeds, but absolutely delicious). There are lots of little creeks and springs, wildflowers, lizards, birds, and a variety of mammals: deer, elk, squirrels, chipmunks, bobcats, and of course black bears.

About 8 years ago I read that southwestern Oregon had the highest concentration of black bears of anyplace in the continental U.S. Conversations with forest service and wildlife biologists confirmed this, and so I decided to give the area a try. The first few years, I concentrated on several areas close to the coast. The weather's cooler there (which I like), and bears were around. I wasn't successful the first two years, but I was slowly figuring things out, and went on to get a bear each of the following four years that I hunted; three of them were from the area mentioned earlier. That is, by the way, a 66% success rate (four years out of six), and 100% success over the past four hunts. That's pretty good when you consider that the average success rate for bear hunters is something like 10%. And most of THOSE guys are locals.

Yet my method of hunting is hardly some great secret. I find isolated roads, usually closed off to vehicles, with berries growing alongside them or in logged areas near the road. I very slowly walk these roads for a few hours after daybreak and a few hours before dark, often stopping to listen and to glass open areas with my binoculars. All very standard stuff; but rewarding in ways beyond just giving me a good chance at a bear. I get to feel the cool breeze, the fresh air, scented of pines and flowers. Dunk my head in a cool stream when it gets hot. Listen to the birds calling, the chipmunks scolding me. One time I was sitting quietly, just watching for movement around dusk when I heard the slightest sound behind me. I slowly turned to see a bobcat, no more than 10 feet away, sneaking up on me! What he would've done with me I have no idea, but when we each saw what the other was, we both about had a heart attack; he skedaddled at warp speed, and I about soiled my drawers!

On a recent hunt I was quietly standing on a hillside on a gorgeous morning, watching an area that I knew the bears liked. After awhile, I heard a small noise behind me; a minute or two later, another. So I slowly turned and there, about 50 yards behind me was a beautiful 4-point buck, trying to figure out who I was. He kind of huffed at me, and so I huffed back! That startled him, and he huffed again; I answered again. This went on for a couple of minutes, and then he slowly meandered off. About 5 minutes later, I had the feeling that something was watching me, turned around and, in almost the same spot, there was a little forked-horn buck staring at me. He wasn't as curious, and so he slowly ambled away too. It was a lovely morning, and seeing those two deer just really made my day!

Since it was so pleasant there, I decided to stay put awhile longer. Then I heard the rather distinct cracking of dry branches downhill from where I was standing. Could've been a deer or elk, but they were coming from down in a canyon where I knew the bears spent each night. And they were rather persistent, which probably ruled out a deer or elk (who are generally quieter than bears). To make a long story short, it took me nearly an hour to find where that bear was. From there, I stalked him for about 20 minutes, staying quiet even on the gravel road, and keeping my scent away from him. Finally, at about 35 yards away, he stepped into a clearing and I had what I wanted. At the shot, he spun, and ran back into the bushes - but only 2 or 3 bounds, and then he collapsed, dead as a doornail. He never even knew what hit him, never even knew I was there. So yeah - a pretty nice morning.

Most days, I don't see another soul when I'm back there; sometimes somebody drives by when I'm in camp and we wave, but that's it. Nobody's out there after dark, so I have an area of 20 or 30 square miles all to myself at night. Similarly, when I'm actually hunting, I'm all alone. If I were to break a leg or take violently ill or something, well - it would be interesting. Out walking the roads, I'll occasionally see or hear a truck, but never anyone hunting like I do. Sometimes it's bear hunters in the trucks, but they don't get out; they hunt from their trucks. Thus, their 10% success rate....

Getting a bear is hardly a slam dunk. I hunted them in the 1980s when I lived in Oregon, in the 1990s in Alaska and Colorado, and then again in Oregon in the 2000s - without success until 2005, which shows what a challenge it is. And just to make sure it stayed a challenge, the last two times I hunted with a primitive muzzleloader rifle; no scope, one shot. That required me to get within 75 yards or less, and just made things a lot more "interesting". A 200-300 pound bear, pissed off if he were merely wounded, well - a guy would be in big trouble. With my experience and a weapon, I've got the advantage; but the bears are anything but defenseless.

The way that I hunt is pretty challenging physically, as well. I put plenty of miles on each day, including some ugly stretches when I decide (against my better judgment) to go off-road up or down a hillside. That's never pretty. Once I get a bear, then the real work starts. Cutting him up (my bears have all been mature males) and hauling him back to the truck, usually in 80+ degree heat - not a lot of fun, and very hard work. So yeah, four hunting trips in a row, successful hunts finding, shooting, cutting up and packing out a bear all on my own - I take a lot of satisfaction in that.

Back home, I spend the better part of a day butchering and wrapping the meat, and grinding some up into burger. The meat is: delicious. Dark reddish/purple from all the berries they've been eating, it has no gamey smell at all, and very little fat; all natural, all organic, no additives of any type. The way our food is supposed to be, IMO. And I did it - all of it. Didn't pay a hunting guide, didn't pay a butcher, with the end result of fresh, healthy, natural food. One less domestic animal that has to suffer in our horrific factory farming system to feed my family. I like that.

By the way, let me just reiterate that the bears I hunt are far from endangered. In fact, there are too many bears for the habitat and they put heavy pressure on other species in the area. That's why southwestern Oregon actually allows hunters to take two bears a year.

So I don't feel guilty one tiny bit for hunting bears in Oregon. I'm out enjoying Nature, challenging myself physically and mentally, and putting (hopefully) some healthy, delicious food on my table while helping to keep the animal populations in balance. How many people can say they accomplish that much with their leisure activity of choice?

(For a more detailed look at ethical issues involved in big game hunting, read my earlier blog essay Ethical Hunters - You Gotta Be Kidding Me!, which can be found under my 2009 archives)
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