Monday, September 28, 2015

Bear Hunters: Watch Your Step

Gil faced a decision and had just seconds to make it.

The buck of a lifetime had crept up behind his deer stand and was angling away from him and about to slip behind some brush and disappear.  It was not moving the way other deer had as it came into the clearing.

This is probably how this buck had lived long enough to grow into the buck of a lifetime.

Gil was properly equipped.  He had the skill set.  The deer was, as we would later pace off, a mere nineteen yards away.  Gil took his shot.  It was a difficult shot but it was reasonable to believe that he was going to kill that deer.

I met Gil because there wasn't much of a blood trail and Sparta and I were called in to lend some assistance.  In retrospect, I think he hit the deer in the meaty part of the neck or the high back and it will likely survive.

After this experience the buck of a lifetime is liable to become a ghost buck, showing up only at night on random game cameras.

The last wound bed: Sparta took us another 250 yards before loosing it suggesting he went across a highway and into an open field.
Gil is a resident of northeastern Barron County Wisconsin.  His full-sized four wheel drive pickup truck is immaculately clean.  He wiped Sparta's paw prints off the dash within 20 seconds of the last time I got out. He works at an auto body repair shop.  He grew up a few miles away.  He's a hunter, a fisherman, and a land owner.

He is a good-old boy in every best sense of the word and he's had enough of bear hunters.

Specifically, Gil has had enough of bear hunters who use dogs to run and tree bear before dispatching them.

Black bear are an elusive species.  They avoid humans, and move in rather random patterns through the landscape.  Consequently, there are only two efficient ways to hunt them.  The first is to lay bait so that the bear becomes accustomed to traveling to a particular place and eat the bait.  The hunter than ambushes the bear when the season opens.

The second way involves using large fast hounds to catch the scent of recent bear passing and follow that scent to the bear who then climbs a tree to escape the hounds but where it is held until the hunting party arrives.

A neighbor with game cameras on his 30 acre woodlot tells me there a three distinct bear families that make our immediate area home.  I've never seen them, and I spend a fair amount of time outdoors.  I've lived in the area twelve years and I've never seen one that wasn't caught in the headlights of my car, though I run across bear sign and bear dens on a regular basis.

Bait works fine but as a dog man myself I am sympathetic to those who hunt with dogs.  It is an active and kinetic way of hunting.  You'll more than meet your daily step goal on your fitbit.

It connects us as human hunters with our oldest of hunting companions: our tribe members and our dogs.  Baiting bears is fine and I understand why people do it.  It just isn't something I, and those like me, are in to.

Not every abuse of rights comes from the government.
I was surprised when Gil adamantly and repeatedly complained about bear hunters.  Most, no all, previous objections to bear hunting I have heard comes from a place of ignorance, from people unconnected to the region's hunting traditions.

Given the state political situation, I'd have expected him to be more sympathetic and understand their plight.  I'd have expected him to reflexively support other hunters against the anti-hunting lobby, found primarily in the urban centers in the southern third of the state.

The fact is, his understanding of bear hunting was deeper than my own.

His complaint came down to a simple issue of trespassing.

On occasion the violators were hunters from out of state (Minnesota is a short drive from Barron County), sometimes it was a guy down the road.  The brute fact is that he is tired of catching stray hounds crossing his property; he is tired of giving his lecture to their owners.  He has experienced how difficult it is to match hounds caught on game cameras to owners from down the road or seen driving away without of state plates.

He's frustrated by continually finding gut piles next to his field or within site of his deer stand.

His property rights are being abused and ignored but not not by the government.  The problem is his fellow citizens.

He is weary of making the difficult decision to not turn in the fifteen-year old first time bear hunter to the authorities who chased an exceptionally large 450 pound black bear to his property where it was killed. He doesn't want the kid to face the consequences of what is, at root, bad parenting.

It is an age old conundrum, how to confront the assholes without becoming an asshole?

Gil wants to be asked permission.  That's all.  He wants to be respected as a landowner.  He wants bear hunters to go through the hard work of contacting landowners before letting loose their hounds.  Few people will say "no" if they know the people running the hounds. It means bear hunters need to put in the time in the off season of building relationships.  At least in Gil's experience, that is not happening at present.

He didn't say as much but the frustration I heard in his voice reflected a readiness to support the end of hunting bear with hounds if that is what it takes to win back his property rights.

We will always have the complaints of individuals who have nothing but a passing and ill-informed encounter with hunting. Veterinarians will and should continue to have a voice to help us keep our dogs healthy. I welcome canine advocates who may not be hunters themselves but can maintain enough objectivity to help keep us all honest.

Bear hunters are treated well in Wisconsin hunting tradition and law, if that is to continue, they need to keep land owners on their side.

Let's keep these hounds self-actualized
If bear hunters loose rural land owners, hunters who care and know just as much about our wildlife as they do,
turn their backs on bear hunters, they will loose the privilege of hunting bear with dogs.

In the process they will have done harm to other hunters who use dogs in the hunt.  Once the political pendulum begins to swing, it continues to swing until it overshoots the rational middle.

The north does not have the traditions of the south, hunting with dogs is on a less stable foundation.

As someone who only recently was given the opportunity to track wounded game with his dogs, the question has a second order impact on me as well.  Every hunter has skin in the game when it comes to how hunters are portrayed in the political media and we all are at risk of shame when a negative portrayal is correct.

If we do not police our own, we will find that we are all being policed; and deservedly so.

Why should we be granted responsibility if we fail to act responsibly?

Gil had to make a split decision on whether or not to take a shot at a deer.  At least in one part of Northern Wisconsin Bear hunters need to take a long look at their ethical practices.  It is time for some of the long hard work of re-building a relationship of trust with landowners.  They've had to face this problem before and it is time to do it again.

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