Posts Tagged ‘black bear’

black bear hunting

“There is no room for a bear and me in these woods,” my Grandpa Westfall always said. He always said that he’d shoot the first bear he came across, and he said that he would defend himself if he got caught with a little quip.

“If that judge asks if I shot that bear in self-defense, I will just say, ‘No, I shot him in the ass and he jumped de fence!'”

He once scoped out an errant emu in his pasture, dead certain that a black bear had foolishly popped its head out of the woods. He was just getting ready to commit a big game law violation, when the shaggy form raised its head and revealed itself as dinosaur and not the great fell beast of the mountains.

My grandpa was not an ignorant man. He was curious about nature and loved almost every animal. He was a hunter, a self-styled conservationist, who kept pet groundhogs and squirrels as a boy.

But he had a blind spot about bears.  He would always point out that some place called Bear Hollow was the place where the last bear in the county was killed. It probably wasn’t true, because there were always a few bears holding out as renegades in the deep woods. Occasionally, they would wander into more civilized areas, and all the papers would make hay about these wanderers.

Today, the bear population is growing steadily. They don’t make so much news now. The bear season is pretty liberal, and I’ve purchased the bear tag on my hunting license. For a West Virginia resident, it’s only $10, but I’ve never been in a good place to hunt bears.  Some day, I hope to be in the right place, and I’ll take a bear.

But I won’t be taking a bear with the same mens rea as my grandpa might have had if the emu had turned out to be truly ursine on that summer day. I would be taking a bear, but not because I think bears don’t belong in the forests. Bears belong in the forest. Absolutely.

But in taking a bear, I’m getting meat. It is the same meat that sustained my ancestor, Jehu Summers, who became a regionally famous frontier bear hunter in central West Virginia.

To them bears were simple things:  Bear hides for coats. Bear meat for sustenance. Bear grease for ersatz butter and cooking oil.

Both native and white used the bears in this way, and the natives likely did so for 13,000 years.before the Europeans arrived.  Hunting was the relationship between our species and theirs, and it made the bear what it is today:  a shy and retiring beast of the thick woods.

If I take a bear, I will be connecting back to my ancestor, communing with him as the flesh crosses my palate and down the maw.

The bears belong here because they sustained us long ago, and we owe to them to find a place where they can roam.

We hunt the bears to re-enact that ancient bond between bruin and hunter, adversaries in the war of existence who grapple across the same mortal plain.

The Alleghenies need their bears, just as they need people to hunt them. Without either, the landscape rings hollow and bland.

And to live next to large predators, it is of utmost importance that these animals know that nothing good can ever come from the hand of man. The black bear bolts for the brush when you wander into him in the forest, but would he think twice if some fool had been letting him eat garbage out of the backyard? If the bullets and arrows didn’t fly at the black hides, would the bears be bolder and more willing to test the gormless bipeds?

I think answer is yes, so in order to have black bears, there must be hunting. Their fear of man makes them manageable.


As a result of recent elections, New Jersey has slipped away from that Beachmaster Governor to one a little more rational. At least that’s how this Democrat sees it.

But about one thing this new governor seems to have been lost. I doubt he could have made it through the Democratic Primary had he possessed different views, but the new man in charge in the Garden State has promised to put an end to the bear hunt.

Bears in New Jersey have it pretty easy compared to those in West Virginia. The hunt is much more strictly regulated. An established quota is set. Once that many bears are killed, the hunt is called off that year.

In West Virginia, that $10 tag is sold to anyone who has the main hunting and fishing license.  If it gets filled or not, it is immaterial. That license can be bought next year, and if you’re really bear hungry, the state will even put you in a drawing to get a special tag to hunt your quarry in higher bear density areas that get special seasons.

But in New Jersey, bear hunting is controversial. Every year, protesters show up at hunting areas, cut some monkey shine, and get hauled off to the pokey.

New Jersey’s bear hunt has had some positive results.  Nuisance bear calls are down.  The bear population has been stablized.

With the bear hunt axed, though, it’s likely that the bears are going once again start hanging out near people. Wildlife managers with the state of New Jersey estimate that the bear population could double in four years if the bear hunt is abolished.

In the world of suburbs, the bears will do fine, but they will destroy property.  Some might decide that people are good food, and for those who might be confused, it is not entirely out of the question for a black bear to learn to hunt people. It is not species-typical behavior, but it does happen.

Bears that have learned humans hunt them, though, are going to relate to humanity with utter fear.

It is fear that keeps the peace.

And it is that peace that makes room for bears in the world of man.

It is a lesson that New Jersey is going to have to learn again. Ideology says that bears are like dogs, just bigger and tailless. Ideology ignores their cannibalism, their savagery, and the simple fact that they aren’t dogs at all but wild creatures. Yes, they eat mostly vegetable matter, but they won’t pass up a fawn lying the brush.  They won’t think twice about eating alive a deer mortally wounded by a car.  They don’t think as we do about being humane and kind and sportsmanlike.

They think about living as omnivores. Our world provides them many opportunities, and without the fear of man, they will get in trouble.

The government agencies will try to transplant the problem bears, but they often don’t learn anything. They know we’re overloaded with goodies, and they can’t resist.

And for some bears, the only solution is to die at the hands of a government employee, one whose salary and insurance are paid for by the taxpayer.

Wouldn’t a better solution be to have a regulated hunt and use hunting as way to teach the bears about our own essential savagery?  Then, the bears would know not to come into subdivisions and schoolyards and eat garbage and birdseed. And you wouldn’t have to hire a someone to shoot the incorrigibles.  The hunters would pay license fees, and the state conservation agency could pay more biologists to study bears and protect habitat for other species.

That is how West Virginia has dealt with bears. We now have more 10,000 of them wandering our hills and mountains.

Hunting is part of our management strategy for them. It works well, and it seems that having a hunt worked well for New Jersey.

But we will see what the future holds.


Yesterday, I went out with ICOtech predator call.  I go out on the woods with this device in hopes that I might call in a coyote or gray fox and capture it with a camera.

Yes, I am out with a hunting device, but I am hunting only with my camera.

But I have nothing against people who hunt coyotes. I just am not among their number.

Hunting doesn’t really reduce coyote numbers significantly. We’ve been hunting them with the hope of causing extinction for 150 years or so, and all we’ve done is make them increase their range to almost all of North America.

I have a certain amount of admiration of the species. They are survivors, and they are closest thing to wolves we have in this part of the country.

I don’t see them as domestic dogs, but I don’t see them as demons either. I see them as phantoms that lurk in the gray woods and let loose cackling yips and mournful howls in the deadness of night.

They don’t reveal themselves easily. They appear only when they damned well want to.

It’s this challenge that drives me to go into the woods with the call.

I started out with gray squirrel distress for 5 minutes. Nothing responded, so I went to my two gray fox distress calls for 10 minutes. No little gray dog appeared for my camera, which isn’t that much of a surprise. They are much harder to call than coyotes, at least around here.

So I switched to my coyote howls. I have several different iterations that sound like a single one howling, a pair howling, a single one howling with a different pitch, a group cacophony of howling yips, and one that sounds like three coyotes howling a beautiful opera chorus in a language that isn’t Italian or even remotely human.

I switched among these different howl types, and then I would wait five minutes to see if I got a response. I faintly heard what I think may have been a female coyote’s estrus chirp in the woods, but it was a distant chirp nontheless.  This single note of what I thought was an estrus chirp made me stick to my spot, and run through the howls again.

I had gone through five or six different howl sequences, when I heard a gravelly human voice shout from the distant ridge.  This ridge was so thickly forested that I couldn’t see a person there, and what’s more, it was perhaps a quarter mile from where I was sitting.

“You’re gonna get shot!” was what the voice shouted.

I ignored it at first, but then the stupid bastard began mocking my howls.

The land where I was sitting wasn’t his anyway, and I’ve long been allowed to hunt there. The real owners don’t care.

I shouted back at the voice “Shut the fuck up!”

“I’m on my property. I’ll do as I please.”

I shouted several expletives at the voice, which you don’t need to hear, but I flipped the hillside the bird while playing a jay in distress sound at him.

I was so incensed at this man that I went to a different location where the hollow would carry the howls right to his position. I turned it on full blast.

When I told my dad what had happened, he told me to go back out there that you cannot be bullied from doing what you have a right to do.

I didn’t quite feel like going back out there, but my dad took my call and went to woods where I had been calling. He cranked it up full blast for a half hour. No one shouted back at him.

I was so livid at this man for harassing me and ruining my coyote calling session.

But this morning it finally dawned on me why this man had been such an ass:

I scared him.

Rural people in West Virginia are told all sorts of stories about coyotes:

They kill all the deer, even though the deer are still very plentiful, and the poor hunting season in this set of ridges had more to do with a good mast year. Good mast years mean that the does stay up in the most isolated groves oak and beech, and the bucks stay with those does and never once come out into pastures or to big corn piles or feeders.  The only way to get a deer is to use your feet and figure out where they going and where they go when the guns start to crack.

But it’s easy to blame coyotes for the lack of deer at the corn piles. It’s much harder to learn the ways of the deer and get some exercise doing so.

People are also told that coyotes are a mortal threat to humanity– and that they howl just before they attack. I suppose the loudmouth on the hill had heard that story. And that’s why he acted such a fool.

I don’t know who shouted at me, and I honestly don’t care. But as angry at him as I was, I suddenly am returned to my grandpa and his hatred of bears. My grandpa never really knew the full story of black bears, and he didn’t really want to know it.

But he was still the curious naturalist of a hillside turkey hunter that I knew and loved. It’s just he had a black bear-sized blind spot that he didn’t want to fix.

Maybe that loudmouth is the same way, just his is a coyote-sized hole, and one that will cause even more aggravation. Coyotes howl. They announce their presence. Black bears don’t make themselves known at all until you lay eyes upon one.

They are much more mysterious and harder to scapegoat and revile.

But I will not accept his prejudices or let him bully me. I will call coyotes and take photos and you will see them here.

That’s my duty.


My views on wildlife put me in an odd position. I am a progressive Democrat, but I think animal rights ideology is woefully misguided.  I am a hunter, but I am more of an Aldo Leopold sort of hunter than a Ted Nugent.

I see coyotes in the way Leopold came to see wolves in his famous essay “Thinking Like a Mountain.” Leopold describes his sudden sorrow at killing a female Mexican wolf, which he watches die before his very eyes. Years later, he came to realize that wolves truly had a place in nature:

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

We’ve gone over a century without true wolves in West Virginia. The only wolves we have are coyotes, and their smaller size makes them almost a poor facsimile. True, they lift fawns and sometimes pack up and run down adult deer, but they are just as at home hunting mice and rabbits as they are grappling with larger prey with flailing hard hooves and strong legs.

But they do take a few deer, and those removed from the population don’t browse the forests down. Human hunters, though, think those deer belong solely for their crosshairs, and don’t want to share.

The “peace” that Leopold derided in that essay is the false peace that sets humanity at the top of all things and demands that all things bow to his whims and petty desires.  If a twelve-point buck doesn’t walk to the corn pile every deer season then it must surely be that coyotes are eating all the deer.

This is the peace I’m sure that the hilltop shouter wants every year. I bet he spent a lot of time hunting deer in the 90s, when the herds festooned every hillside and a hunter might see dozens of whitetails in a single day’s hunt. State wildlife managers tried to fix that problem by liberalizing doe harvest limits, and after a few decades of sound wildlife management, the deer numbers are somewhat lower than they were in those days of deer plagues.

The 90s deer hunter had it easy, and now the numbers are lower. He must put more effort into the hunt.

And this has come at roughly the same time that coyotes have become fully established and quite numerous as well.

These variables are probably stochastic, but to the hunter who goes home without filled tags, they must be linked. In some places, he would be right, but in the deer’s paradise that is West Virginia, he is most likely wrong.

The culprit isn’t coyotes. It’s the state realizing how bad it is to have a deer overpopulation problem.

My view is controversial among the hunting fraternity, but it really isn’t with most  professional wildlife managers.

But as controversial as that idea is, it is nothing compared to how animal rights people view all hunters as scumbags.

The fact that I hunt animals surely must mean that I am a Trump-loving redneck who hates Mexicans, carries and thumps a Bible, and drives a pickup truck with Confederate flag emblem on my vanity plate.

None of those things fit me. I just find myself– at least in this section of much-debated ideas–in an odd little crevice of nuance.

I see a place in this world for predators, both human and four-legged, and this contention is out of place.  You either want to see all non-human predators killed off, or you want to see all humans stop hunting.

Neither of these really fits an ecological view of the world. Humans are a hunting species. We have been hunting since we evolved in Africa. Following herds brought us into Eurasia and then North America.

But now we live in a world in which ideology is driving real wedges between us. In my country, people are at each other’s throats over a whole host of issues. We’ve become warring tribes

To have a more ecological view as it relates to animal issues is to court controversy, because you ultimately be both a bunny-hugger or an NRA-nutjob.

And it’s not fun to debate both sides.

In the end, I want something like the peace that is made between humans and black bears when they are hunted.  It is a peace that recognizes the importance of human hunters in maintaining wildlife on the land that exists now. It is a peace that doesn’t shun hunting because of ideology. Instead, it sees hunting as part of the puzzle that allows us to have human civilization and large numbers of black living in relative proximity to each other.

It is this kind of peace that acknowledges that humans are the peak of creation but also recognizes that human issues matter.

To stand for both human and animal predators in this era is a risky move, but after looking at all the evidence and spending so much time in woods on my own, I have come to believe that it is the correct position.

But I know I’m not alone.



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I can (in theory) get everything on this trail camera:

I actually haven’t been placing mine on actual game trails but on access roads, and that may have limited all the animal activity I’ve been able to capture.



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The beast of the shadows


It was one of those days in June when the days seem strangely endless. The land was verdant and growing. All the trees were crowned with dark, healthy green leaves, and the grass in the hayfields called for its first cutting.

But that would not happen today. About noon, the skies darkened and a hard summer rain fell. It rained for most of that afternoon.

It was a Saturday, and I wanted to be outside. These balmy late June days very quickly morph into the swelter of July, when you feel as if you’ve stepped into some stinking hot jungle in Southeast Asia and forget that this land has ever seen a subzero reading or has ever been covered in a dry, crisp arctic snow. Those are the days when the air makes the clothes stick to your body as the sweat trails down your back.

Most June days aren’t like that. They are one of times when it actually does feel like you live in actual temperate zone. The rest of the year, it is either looming towards Siberia or steaming into Vietnam.

in this way, my time as a dweller in the temperate forest was limited, and it was being limited now in the downpour.

The rain would stop soon. I knew it would. I’d seen the weather map. The rain would stop.

The length of a wet weekend is something that should be measured in eons, but a wet weekend in late June should be measured in eternities.

So when the rain finally did cease, I was more than eager to go out.

There is no other way to describe the air after a good summer rain other than to describe it as “rainwashed.”  It’s like the whole land has had a good scalding bath. There is a crispness to it that makes everything seem as if it’s been renewed.

The torrents of raindrops trickled down from the great tulip trees and oaks, and the sound of rain still filled the air, though the rain clouds had long since departed.  To walk in a forest after the rain is to listen to downpour’s ghost as canopy sheds the water.

I didn’t think to grab the camera or call the dog. I just needed to go out and be in the forest as it slowly drips dry.

I walked along the old gravel road out to the hayfield. Water gushed along the ditches and into culvert pipes, and the hayfield’s access road was a swampy, muddy mess. I was wearing crocs, which allowed the clay mud to enter through their holes and soil my feet. The summer mud feels nice against the toes, as if it calls me to a time when my kind walked barefoot over the mud, grounded in the soil with every step.

A cottontail rabbit spooked and charged long into the tail grass. I assumed it was a doe with a litter in tall grass below the road, and she was working her way down there to nurse them. My approach spoiled her plans, and I knew she would just hide out in the grass until I was long gone. Then she’d approach her nest and gently uncover the crumpled covering grass blades and stems to reveal the nest. The little rabbits would resting in a bowl of grass lined with their mother’s fur, and she would stand over the bowl while they nursed. Then, she would cover the nest again and go her merry way to graze in the dusk.

If I’d been a little more curious, I would have hunted around the tall grass in search of that nest, but I wasn’t in an exploring mood. I wanted to get to the woods.  Maybe I’d hear the barred owls calling on the opposite ridges or perhaps come across a box turtle out on a worm-hunting expedition after the rain.

Hunting for a rabbit nest in the wet, tall grass just wasn’t what I wanted to do.

So I walked on.

As I entered the woods, the rain kept dripping down the trees. It was almost a hypnotic sound. The evening sun was casting its light through the leaves, illuminating the them as if they were covered in Christmas lights.

It was perfection for a June evening.

I followed the logging road up a steep bank and then followed it along  a sharp curve.

And there before me stood the beast.

A massive black bear stood no more than 15 feet from me.

To say I was shocked would have been an understatement. I’d see bears at zoos from the side of the road, and over the years, I’ve come across bear scat on the forest floor and black hairs in the undergrowth. I’ve even caught bears on trail camera, but never before had I walked into one.

The bear was a shocked with my presence as I was of his. His eyes stared hard at me. The tan markings on his muzzle and above his eyes reminded me of the tan points on a doberman or Rottweiler. But he was like a Rottweiler built along the lines of a gorilla, shaggy fur covering bulging muscles.

His eyes were intelligent but clearly showed his terror. The raindrops dripping from the trees had muffled my footsteps, and by accident, I had approached the bear from upwind. He couldn’t have smelled me.

He was in a bad spot. Black bears have been hunted in West Virginia for as long as people have lived in West Virginia. The indigenous people at their meat and used their fat and wore their fur, and the early mountain men turned to bears as a reliable source for red meat.

He had no reason to see my kind as anything but bad news, and as soon as he realized I was a human, he launched himself through the pines. His form was nothing more than a black shadow that seemed float away at high speed. His feet tore through though leaves and twigs in a loud cacophony as the shadow form disappeared from view.

It was only a brief few seconds, but it had a certain magic to it. The Eastern states have been denuded of all our great predators. The wolves and cougars were killed off in these Allegheny foothills long ago, but the bears remained. West Virginia’s DNR protected the bears. There were only a couple of hundred of them in the state when I was born. Now, there may be as many as 10,000.

The black bear is a survivor, a living relic of what was once wild country filled with great predators. No more dire wolves or Smilodons. No more American lions.

All that remains is this shadow of a beast, which shuffles through the undergrowth on cautious feet.

“If you go out in the woods today. You’re sure of a big surprise,” goes the children’s rhyme about the Teddy bear picnic.

On that June evening, a bear surprised me, and I surprised him. The shadow beast was revealed to me in the clear evening sun just before the solstice.

And just as soon as we met, he slipped off into the world of thickets and shadows and deadfalls. He was hidden again to live the mysterious life of a bear.

In their mystery lies their magic, their allure, their mystique.

And thus it always should be.








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A busted up log, where grubs might be:


And then some scat:


You may notice the black bear hair to the right of the scat.

I tried to get a better photo of it, but it’s obviously black bear hair. There isn’t another animal around here with hair like this.

black bear hair

We still have plenty of bears around these parts, but they are unbelievably elusive.

I walked into one last summer, but they normally keep a good distance from people.

Which is good for both species.



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Simmental cattle deal with a predator!



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Nice bear track, complete with tufts of black fur.


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running bear

All over the world, we hear the story of bears. The polar bear may die out due to climate change. The grizzly bear lives only in tiny pockets of its former range in the Lower 48. The spectacled bear is not long for this world, and the giant panda is an avatar of the movement to save endangered species.

American black bears are not among the endangered or threatened, though.  They are doing well in such densely populated states as New Jersey.

They are also doing quite well in the wild and wonderful land of West Virginia. When I was a boy, my grandpa loathed bears. If anyone mentioned a bear popping up near his land, he would always go “There isn’t room enough for me and bear in these woods.”

I don’t know where this bear hatred came from, but his ancestors were small farmers who may have lost hogs or sheep to the odd roving bear.

I remember one year that something knocked over his 200-pound deer feeder. It obviously had to have been a black bear. At that time of year, a bear would have been in hyperphagic mode, and the taste of cracked corn in the deer feeder would have been a pleasant repast on a balmy October day.

He never caught the bear in question, but I knew that he really wanted to. He wanted to shoot it for daring to be in this civilized world.

The reason that bear never got killed is because its kind learned long ago to live with us.

And the best way to do that is to avoid our kind at all costs.

By the time I was born, there were only about 500 bears in the state of West Virginia, and now there are about 10,000. Those 10,000 descend from those 500 survivors, who taught their cubs how to thrive in a land where the guns are loaded.

If you see a bear in West Virginia, well over 9 times out 10, all you’ll see is a black form charging into the timber to get as far from you as possible.

The bear that thrives is the bear that knows that the best thing to do when encountering one of us is to run away.

I know that other black bear populations where they sometimes hunt people or, at the very least, tear up garbage.

But not here, they survive only because they are afraid. Fear makes them good neighbors.

And that is the only way a bear can thrive.




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