By P.J. Reilly
For nearly three decades, Lititz-area farmer Dennis Hess and his friends and family have worn down the tops of north-central Pennsylvania mountain ranges hunting black bears.
They hunt the same way year after year.
They get 25 guys together, fan out across a mountain, and they push it.
Some guys walk, while others sit ahead of the pushers, waiting for bears to be flushed to them.
“We always get something,” Hess said. “Usually we get two a year. Sometimes we get three or four.”
Two years ago, Hess’ gang had a banner season, scoring 10 black bears over the course of the statewide, four-day bear hunt.
“That was a pretty good year, for sure,” Hess said.
Driving is a popular method for hunting bears across Pennsylvania.
“The places they live, it’s so thick,” Hess said. “Driving is the only way to get them out.”
Even still, with driving being a legal method for hunting bears in Pennsylvania, the success rate across the state is only around 3 percent.
Three out of 100 Pennsylvania bear hunters fill their tags in a given year.
It takes 170,000 bear hunters to kill the 3,500-4,000 bears needed to keep Pennsylvania’s bear population from exploding, said Mark Ternent, the state Game Commission’s chief bear biologist.
What if driving bears suddenly became illegal?
What would happen to bear numbers here?
“I would think they would increase, and we would see the number of bear-human encounters increase,” Ternent said. “How many of those encounters would be conflicts is hard to say, but I’d expect we’d see more of them.”
With nearly 30 years of bear hunting under his belt, Hess knows exactly what would happen to bear populations if driving were made illegal.
“They’d explode,” he said. “The chance of you just happening to cross paths with a bear while you’re out pothunting in those mountains is pretty slim.”
Maine voters next fall will be asked on election ballots to answer a referendum question about whether trapping bears and hunting them with hounds and over bait all should be made illegal.
The idea is being supported by a group called Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting.
“Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting seeks to enact long-overdue protections for Maine’s bear population,” the group’s website states.
“Bears are majestic and beloved creatures in Maine. Yet it is the only state to allow statewide hounding, baiting, and trapping. These are cruel and unsporting practices that do not reflect Maine values.”
Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting is endorsed by, among other groups, Humane Society of the United States, Animal Welfare Society, In Defense of Animals and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The anti-hunting positions of these groups are well-known.
And their support of the Maine referendum is being perceived, at least by some hunters here in Pennsylvania, as an attack on all hunting.
A discussion thread started May 30 on the chat room HuntingPa.com titled “PA hunters should take notice of this … ’’ brought the Maine issue to light here.
“This is something we cannot take lightly,” one poster wrote.
Another wrote, “While we may not agree with this type of hunting, we should remember that we all have hunting traditions — none of which are approved by these antis, whose ultimate goal is to stop all hunting.
“Driving deer is considered unethical and unsportsmanlike in Maine. If we turn our backs on our brother hunters in Maine because we don’t care for one particular way they legally hunt, we’ll have no right to ask for, or expect, their help when our own tradition of driving deer comes under fire by the antis.”
Yet another wrote, “If they pull this off, when will hounds for rabbit hunting be gone?”
Lowell Graybill, of Elizabethtown, is president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.
He said his organization has not discussed the Maine referendum, and therefore it does not have an official opinion on it.
But that doesn’t mean Graybill isn’t concerned about the issue.
“This sounds like one of those slippery-slope situations,” he said. “Where do you draw the line? And who draws it?”
Here in Pennsylvania, the federation generally pushes for scientific-based decisions on wildlife management.
A referendum question asked on an election ballot doesn’t sound to Graybill like a science-based approach to the issue of bear hunting.
“I don’t think we would be in favor of an uninformed, or ill-informed, public making decisions on the management of a resource like this,” he said.
Maine bear hunting is nothing like Pennsylvania bear hunting, according to Ternent.
The terrain is different.
“It’s relatively featureless in Maine,” he said, with huge expanses of dense, pine forests in flat or gently rolling country that is sparsely populated.
And here’s the biggest difference — 11,000 bear hunters versus Pennsylvania’s 170,000.
Plus, Maine’s bear population is around 31,000, while Pennsylvania’s is around 18,000.
Because of these differences, Ternent said, Maine has to approach bear hunting differently than other states, such as Pennsylvania.
“We have a lot of hunters, and a smaller (bear) population,” Ternent said. “So our management style is to do things to keep the success rate low.”
Baiting, trapping and using dogs are not allowed in Pennsylvania.
Also, the statewide firearms season lasts only four days, and extensions of up to a week are offered in 13 of the state’s 23 wildlife management units.
“There are places where we are trying to reduce bear numbers and places where we are letting them increase,” Ternent said.
Because Maine’s bear population is bigger and the state has only a fraction of the hunters Pennsylvania has, Ternent said, that state needs the success rate among its hunters to be much higher.
“That’s why they have baiting and trapping and they allow hunters to use hounds,” he said.
Also, Maine allows far more bear hunting opportunities than Pennsylvania.
Maine’s general season runs from Aug. 25-Nov. 29 this year, with baiting permitted from Aug. 25-Sept. 20; trapping allowed from Sept.1- Oct. 31; and running dogs permitted from Sept. 8-Oct. 31.
Additionally, Indian reservations in Maine allow spring bear hunting over bait.
Where Pennsylvania’s bear-hunter success rate stands at around 3 percent, Ternent said Maine would need a success rate of around 30 percent just to keep up with the population.
That hasn’t been happening, even with trapping, baiting and hounds allowed.
An article in the Bangor Daily News last year quoted Randy Cross, a biologist with Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, saying the state’s bear population had grown from 23,000 to about 31,000 from 2005-2013.
“He’s concerned about losing some of the management tools,” Ternent said of Cross’ view of the upcoming referendum.
Baiting is the most successful tool employed by Maine bear hunters, according to the state’s harvest data.
During the 2012 season — the most recent for which numbers were available — 3,207 bears were taken by hunters in Maine.
Of that total, 2,613 were shot over bait.
That’s 80 percent of the total kill.
The second-most successful method was hunting with hounds, which netted 368 bears. Sixty-six bears were taken in traps.
So 3,047 of the total 3,207 bears shot in 2012 were taken using methods that could be outlawed after the November election.
Graybill said he doubts if the PFSC will take up any kind of official position on Maine’s bear-hunting referendum, because there’s no direct impact to Pennsylvania.
But because the proposal is being supported by well-known anti-hunting organizations, he said the federation will be watching.
“We know these anti-hunting groups are much better funded than any sportsmen’s organizations, and we know they have a lot of influence,” Graybill said.
“Anytime they can gain traction with a situation like this, I think that’s something we’re all concerned about.”