Missouri’s black bear hunt is conservation in action | Opinion

October 15, 2021 7:05 am

The Missouri Department of Conservation announced the state’s first black-bear hunting season earlier this year, set for Oct. 18-27 (photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation).

Missourians should be ecstatic that we are now reopening bear hunting.

Despite the claims in a recent opinion piece by the Humane Society’s Cody Atkinson that this is a “trophy” hunt, black bears have historically been and continue to be hunted for the same reasons that whitetail deer, elk and other charismatic wildlife are.

Hunting fosters a depth of connection to our ecosystems that only comes through consumptive use. Missouri’s hunters cherish the ability to source their own food, understand the ins and outs of wildlife behavior and intimately know the wild spaces around them.

Black bears are highly regarded in the hunting community as a food source, not simply as a wall hanging. Their fat can be rendered down into cooking oil, for candle making, salves and ointments. The meat was historically preferred over deer for its richness and flavor. Should a person decide to preserve its fur, that serves as a reminder of the beauty and strength of bears, a cultural practice that is as old as humans.

Most importantly, however, Mr. Atkinson’s commentary omits the history of conservation in Missouri.

Hunters formed and funded our state’s conservation organizations. Missouri citizens and hunters helped create the conservation structure which we have now. That structure brought back wild turkey, deer, beaver, river otters and now bear from the brink of extirpation. With each rebound in population, Missourians have the chance to renew their connection to the land, the connection that existed ever since humanity stepped foot in the Americas.

Sustainable use of our natural resources is the inheritance of every person living in our state.

Mr. Atkinson puts up a false dichotomy between ecotourism and bear hunting. To pit hunters against ecotourism is a farce. The hunting industry supports 18,000 jobs annually, and according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, generates over a billion dollars a year in revenue for Missouri.

Large swaths of land managed by the state parks system already exist with excellent infrastructure for ecotourism and recreators who are more interested in mountain biking, photography, or setting up an RV than hunting. The bears will move freely between state parks, where hunting is not allowed and people can view them, to MDC lands, to private and agricultural lands, and as we’ve seen, even on highways and soccer fields.

Arkansas’ bear hunting program is direct evidence that well managed bear hunts are indeed no threat to healthy bear populations.

Our bear population is also connected to Oklahoma’s bear population, which has sustainable enough numbers to host a bear hunt. These populations flow between each other and flow between different lands.

The bear hunt occurs largely on MDC managed land, which is already set aside and funded for the purpose of hunting. This has no impact on potential ecotourism. The funds raised by the bear hunt are also a significant source of funding for bear research, habitat restoration and repopulation.

Each person who applies for the hunt pays a $10 fee. The thousands of applications add up to real money raised for ensuring the future prosperity of bears.

The ecotourism vs. hunting argument simply doesn’t hold water.

Mr. Atkinson’s commentary attempts to portray the current system as a wild, no holds barred pet project of the MDC. In fact, it is one of the most conservative hunts nationwide.

The bear season has a 40 bear quota, which is broken into three zones based on bear density in those zones. Every day of the hunt, the hunters must call and check to see if their zone is open before hunting. The manager of each zone can close a zone if they feel the quota may be overtaken. Also, the season is only 10 days long and will close even if 40 bears have not been taken.

Secondly, the estimated population of bears in Missouri is somewhere in the realm of 600-1000 and is expected to double in 10 years despite hunting pressure. Again, 40 bears out of a population of 600-1000 is a small number and that is assuming that the hunters will be successful.

The yearly limits can be reduced if an over harvest occurs. Missourians showed great restraint in the similarly managed elk season and with such stringent requirements, alarmism is unwarranted.

Lastly, the disruption that Mr. Atkinson repeatedly refers to in his commentary is the natural response of wildlife to predatory pressure from humans. It is the same pressure that has existed on our continent for 10,000 years, ever since early humans travelled here.

Human hunting pressure is as natural to our ecosystem and normal as wolves, eagles, and bears themselves.

Mr. Atkinson’s criticisms are not based in science, but rather in his personal philosophy that humans should not hunt. Those convictions are not held by the majority of Missourians.

Hunting continues to be one of the most culturally important traditions of our state and across the nation. Management decisions in Missouri aren’t made based on the relative charisma of a species, but by the science of their populations, their historic importance to the cultures most affected by their presence, and by the conviction that wildlife, wild places, wild mushrooms and wild plants are publicly held resources, to be reasonably distributed for the benefit of Missourians.

That century old mindset, as Mr. Atkinson calls it, is what built our national parks system, created wildlife refuges, conservation areas, funded the research and restoration of our wildlife and made it possible for us to even have this discussion.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Missouri’s bear season has a 40 bear quota

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Gilbert Randolph
Gilbert Randolph

Gilbert Randolph works for a conservation non-profit, and is an avid public land forager, hunter, angler, and trapper. He holds an MFA in creative writing from UMKC and is passionate about helping people connect with their local ecosystems. His writing has been published in the Missouri Conservation Federation Magazine, the Preserve Journal, Northland Lifestyle, and others.