Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bear hunting: A tale of two polls

I seem to have bear on the brain these days. Got my first bear tag ever this year, but I haven't filled it yet. Ate my first bear ever tonight, and damn, it was good. And then there's the latest in the bear wars.

A couple days ago, I came across this delightful little gem: The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that a majority of New Jersey voters believe bear hunting should be allowed "if wildlife scientists conclude that bears are exceeding their recommended habitat limits and are destroying private property."

Well, isn't that interesting! I distinctly remembered a poll commissioned by the Humane Society of the U.S. in New Jersey this spring that made it seem like New Jerseyans hate bear hunting. "New Poll Reveals NJ Residents Oppose Trophy Hunting of Black Bears," the headline blared.

So what's going on here? Look below the headlines and you'll see.

But first a little background: New Jersey was one of HSUS' bear battlegrounds this year. The state, faced with burgeoning bear populations, wanted to allow bear hunting again for the first time in some years.

California also wanted to expand bear hunting this year because it's seeing similar growth in bear populations, and HSUS fought the bear wars here too. In fact, I wrote back in April how peeved I was that every HSUS quote about the bear debate in California referred to "trophy hunting" of black bears.

The public takes a dim view of the notion of people hunting just for a head on the wall, so HSUS starts flinging around the word "trophy" whenever it wants to win on a hunting issue. Never mind that putting a head on your wall does not preclude feeding your family with the meat. Never mind that it's illegal to waste bear meat in California.

Long story short, Cali officials backed down in the face of HSUS histrionics, while New Jersey stood firm and its bear hunt will take place Dec. 6-11.

Now, back to those dueling polls. Let's take a look at the first question in the HSUS-commissioned poll:

The state of New Jersey has protected black bears since 1970 with only two trophy hunts permitted in the past forty years. The state is now considering allowing hunters to kill up to 400 black bears. Do you support or oppose hunting of black bears in New Jersey?

Amazingly, despite the loaded language, 35 percent of respondents (registered voters) said they support bear hunting. Forty-five percent opposed it; 20 percent said they were undecided.

Fast-forward to October, when Fairleigh Dickinson University does a PublicMind poll of New Jerseyans on the issue. It split a bunch of registered voters into two groups and asked each one a different version of the bear-hunting question. Here's the first one:

Now thinking about New Jersey wildlife including bears, do you agree or disagree with allowing bear hunting in New Jersey if wildlife scientists conclude that bears are exceeding their recommended habitat limits and are destroying private property?

Honestly, that's just as loaded as the HSUS question. HSUS painted bears as victims of trophy-hungry hunters; this poll painted humans as victims of out-of-control bears. And the results are predictable: 53 percent supported bear hunting under those conditions, 36 percent opposed it and 11 percent were unsure.

Then there was the second question, stripped of emotional taint:

Now thinking about bear hunting in New Jersey in general, do you approve or disapprove of allowing a bear hunting season in New Jersey?

The results? Forty-nine percent approved, 33 percent disapproved, 18 percent weren't sure.

If you look at it in a chart, it's pretty clear:

In case you're wondering, the margin of error refers to the accuracy of the poll. In the case of the HSUS poll, its margin means that if you actually counted all New Jerseyans' opinions on this matter, the results would be no more than 4 percentage points higher or lower than the numbers in the poll results. That figure is 5 percentage points for the Fairleigh Dickinson poll, making it less accurate than the HSUS poll. But even if you factor in those margins, you still get statistically significant variations depending on how you ask the question.

Now, strictly speaking, it's not a good idea to stack two different polls against each other, particularly when they were taken six months apart, using different methodologies. But I think there's a valid point to be made here: If you run around saying "Trophy hunt! Trophy hunt! Trophy hunt!" - which is exactly what HSUS was doing last spring at the time of its poll, not to mention in the poll question itself - it does affect public opinion.

And that's why I call BS on the HSUS when it trots out this rhetoric - it's a bad idea to let it go unanswered.

For the record: Do you want to know what kind of trophies we dig in my house? This kind:

Those are pelmeni, Russian bear dumplings. The bear was courtesy of Cork Graham, and the food was prepared, of course, by Boyfriend, who blogged about it here. It was my first taste of bear ever, and it was amazing - distinctive in a way I can only describe as sturdy, but not at all overbearing (pun slightly intended). It had a little whiff of porkiness, but not much. It was damn good. I want more.

Bear hunting, anyone?

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Albert A Rasch said...


I wonder if anyone in academia has ever really looked at the loaded question? Are there rules as to how a loaded question should be handled?

It seems to me that they are as dangerous if not more so than firearms. I propose we institute the following:
Do not point a loaded question unless you intend to destroy the target.
Never load a question until ready to misuse.
Treat all questions as loaded until proven otherwise.

Hmmmm, sounds about right to me!

Best Regards,
Albert A Rasch
The Range Reviews: AGI Armorer's Course Colt 1911

Richard Mellott said...

Not long ago, I read a story online about the Bears in Monrovia, CA, where they've had over 480 bear incidents or sightings in this Los Angeles County town in the year since the Station Fire. The one line that stood out to me is that Bear probably wouldn't taste great, since they ate garbage, that it would be " licking the inside of a garbage can." I thought, that person doesn't know what they're talking about, since bears are omnivores, like us, and eat anything and everything.
I've also debated hunting bears, and it would definitely be for the meat. I've encountered plenty of them while camping in Sequoia Nat'l Park, and they are pretty chunky. If their diet is adequate, they can have quite a bit of it on their frames. It would also be nice to have a rug, but that really wouldn't be the point.
It is still a hunt that isn't as easy as some think. The challenge and the reward would be great. One of these years soon, I'll take that challenge again. I didn't fill my last tag, in 2005. But I'm a better hunter now. Definitely giving it some thought.

Tom Sorenson said...

On bear meat -

one of the most underrated meat there is. My brother has a mind block about eating a clawed animal, but my wife and I absolutely love it. We put it in a slow cooker with bbq sauce, ketchup, & brown sugar like a pulled pork - the meat is large grained, so it just falls apart like a pulled pork. Delicious!

I know that wasn't the point of the article, Holly, but man I wish more people would just try bear meat before writing it off as poor table fare.

Josh said...

Agnes really liked the bear she's eaten. Personally, I don't see myself hunting them, but I know a couple of spots where you may get a good chance at one.

Jules said...

As an avid bear hunter, I follow these debates much more closely than any other kind of hunting. We do this every weekend for three months a year, running with some very dedicated houndsmen. Hunting them with hounds is somewhat controversial even amongst hunters, but those against it don't seem to really grasp the level of year-round effort that it takes, deeming it "easy." It is not easy, and the sole reason that we don't have hounds ourselves is that we don't have the time to maintain a healthy pack for the other nine months a year.

We don't strictly trophy hunt, although there are some in our group who will only take a really large one. There is usually someone else who is happy to take a small one, and there's always someone willing to take the meat if the hunter doesn't want it. We have my son's first bear in the freezer and at the meat locker to be made into sausages right now.

Bumbling Bushman said...

Bear meat is a fine thing. I'd never turn it down. Hunting them is entirely up to the individual. Push polls on bear hunting suck.

Huntress Livy said...

What states like New Jersey are encountering, as a result of their "let the animals co-exist" mentality, is a serious over population of bear. We all know what happens when a specie is not controlled, which is why, I believe, there is a surprisingly high percentage of people in support of hunting them! They're tired of being scared when they go for a jog, they're tired of their trash being raided and they're tired of their kitties & doggies getting munched!

On a side note -California has some of the largest black bear in North America (skull size) and a great percentage of CA bear killed make Boone & Crocket! Best of luck to you on getting a great boar!

Holly Heyser said...

Albert: I'm sure lots of people have looked at that. I know I written poll questions (in fact, I wrote them for the pollster who did the HSUS poll - used to work with him all the time when I was in the newspapaer business), and I have worked very, very hard to ensure their neutrality. But when an advocacy group commissions a poll, all it wants is results that affirm its position.

Richard: There is definitely a hierarchy of bears I'd like to target based on what they eat, and garbage bears are at the bottom of the list. In the middle is your basic bear in the woods. On top is the guacamole bear - the SoCar bears that pillage the avocado groves. Mmmmm. Bear tacos!

Hank's concern about hunting bears has been what we've heard about how they look awfully human when you take off their skins. I think the meat we ate last night will help him get past that.

Tom: How interesting that it's the claws that bother your brother! It's really hard to describe the meat we ate last night, but if someone had fed it to me without telling me what it was, I might've guessed bear, just because it seemed so substantial. I've heard bear can be like wild pig - you can get a really bad one fit only for heavily spiced sausage.

Josh: Take me there! I'll give you some duck feathers - I promise ;-).

Jules: I know the stuff about laziness is just HSUS propaganda.

The thing I'm not sure I can handle is shooting a treed animal. I know some hunters love the chase, but I love the ambush, because I want the animal to be minding its own business, then just be dead.

That said, I'd really like to try hunting bears over hounds at least once, and here's why: Before I started hunting, I had all sorts of fears about what kind of person I might turn into. I was particularly afraid I'd become callous toward animals. Imagine my shock when I found the exact opposite happening - that the more I hunt, the more I love and respect animals as kin.

I don't know how I'd feel about pulling the trigger on treed bear. But I kill and eat animals all the time, so I don't think it'd be wrong to try it. And the bear we ate last night was a treed bear, so I know the chase and the adrenaline didn't wreck its flavor.

Bumbling: We'll never turn it down either.

Livy: I'm all for letting the people who want to coexist with animals do so, so long as I have the right to establish safe perimeters where I live, and maybe as long as they have to watch that movie about Timothy Treadwell. And personally, now that I hunt, I would never run alone in the woods, and I sure as hell wouldn't do it while listening to an iPod (not that I would ever insult the beauty of nature by drowning it out with earbuds).

As for my hunt, if I'm lucky enough to pull it off this year, I'll take whatever I can get. If I'm lucky enough to get a monster, hell yes I'd get it mounted and have a rug made. But a little 150-pounder would fit quite well in our freezer.

hodgeman said...

Great post Holly!
As an avid bear hunter I can't imagine turning up my nose at black bear meat. Have Hank turn some into sausage- amazing stuff.

As a hunter even I have a dim view of trophy hunting and your analysis of the two polls was fascinating.

What folks fail to realize is that black bears will readily share space with humans and think nothing of living in close proximity of suburbs. In fact, the only time I've felt threatened by a bear was in a city park in Anchorage!

Hope you're successful and as a side note- they really don't look that human to me when you skin them out. Not exactly like you think they'd look but I wouldn't call it human-like. I think its the front paws more than anything.

Holly Heyser said...

Hodgeman, make sure you check back with Hank's blog today to see the details about those pelmeni. There was actually very little spice in them because we wanted to taste the bear and it was wonderful.

And re trophy hunting, I'm an opportunistic trophy hunter. If I can get one, swell. If not, I really, really don't care. I think it'll be a long time before I ever pass up on a sure shot for "something better."

David J Blackburn said...

I get a bear tag every year, and about every other year I find myself in a dilemma.

4 years ago I was deer hunting and the hugest, prettiest, cinnamon-colored bear came within rifle range. It was prettier up close in the scope. I only had a few seconds because the wind was all wrong. I just couldn't shoot it.

2 years ago I was deer hunting again; bow this time. I was doing a slow walk and heard crashing and snapping. So I quick stepped up to a logging road and hurried toward the sound. A couple of dozen yards ahead onto the road stepped a bear small enough that made me worry about a momma bear being around. No momma bear. Over 60 pounds of bear. Legally eatable. This little bear was rolling a log around, then rolling over and over itself. It saw me after a few seconds, crouched there with my longbow drawn.

I must read Winnie-the-Pooh too much to my kids. 2 golden gift shots from heaven...couldn't take them.

Holly Heyser said...

Uh, I think I'd have a hard time shooting a young bear that was playing too!

Phillip at the Hog Blog wrote a similar story about having a perfect shot at a bear while deer hunting and not being able to take it.

On the one hand, I think a lot of these decisions are totally irrational. Whether the bear is feeding, napping or playing, killing is killing. Whether it's a bear or a deer or a duck, killing is killing.

But on the other hand, it's really important to follow your heart, because you're the one who has to live with yourself forever. This is why I never condemn people who tell me, when they learn I hunt, "Oh, I could never do that." (But I still tell them they'd be very surprised at what they could do.)

Chas S. Clifton said...

I saw his post on Facebook about the palmeni. Sounds fascinating. Do you ship them frozen? :)

WVV: bolory. That sounds Russian too.

Cork@Cork'sOutdoors said...

Great stuff, Holly and delighted you enjoyed that bear meat!

Well researched and well-reported...looking forward to reading more bear conservation stories from you! You'll need an extra meat locker when you do...something about bear populations exploding in CA and OR with a double season in OR (fall/spring)! Wouldn't it be grand if they allowed the same in CA...?

Holly Heyser said...

Chas: No, you have to come visit us.

Cork, thank you so much! And congratulations on how well you handle the meat too - very delicious.

Everyone else, if you want to see more about the pelmeni, Hank has blogged about it now - click here.

Ingrid said...

Livy wrote: We all know what happens when a specie is not controlled . . .

Are we talking about bears or humans here? :)

Holly, with respect to Boyfriend's criteria about which animals he'll kill . . .

As a non-hunter, I certainly appreciate that there are certain animals Hank will spare. Any animal left to exist is good news for me.

I realize that he does not hunt coyotes because they remind him of dogs -- and he may not hunt bears because they might remind him of humans. It's obviously an arbitrary and anthropocentric view that could be as easily applied to any animal. My mother first stopped eating chicken because the skin reminded her of human skin.

The truth is, once you get to know birds, too, they are much more complex and "dog"-like than most people would imagine, in their psyches and behaviors. Their physiology betrays them in this regard. But my point is, it seems the rationale hunters often use -- that we humans are just part of the life and death cycle so why not kill as part of that cycle -- stops when it comes to anything resembling humans being killed.

If these statements are to be believed, it seems that human death should be accorded by hunters the same value. But I haven't seen much of that. I don't even hunt but I feel an intense connectedness to life and death, and the inseparable nature of the energy that binds us all.

If there's anything resembling cosmic justice, I think the big joke will be on us, that we weren't the big bananas we thought we were.

Holly Heyser said...

Ha, I wasn't the one who said it, but I'm more than happy to discuss the ways in which our commentary on animals applies to us as well. And I completely agree that we're not as awesome as we think ourselves to be.

What I don't understand very well yet, though, is the reasons for the lines we draw, separating what we will kill from what we won't kill. My no-kill list is pretty short in terms of species - at the top is elephants. Next is anything I won't eat, unless it's threatening me and mine. Then, of course, there's the other no-kill list, which is any animal I consider a friend, regardless of species.

Ryan Sabalow said...

I could never shoot a bear. They look too much like dogs.

Hey, Holly, you picked a hell of a week to come up.

On Tuesday and Wednesday the National Weather Service is predicting temps down to 7 degrees in the Northeastern Zone. That's going to freeze even the big marshes on Tule.

That's too cold for sane people to hunt.

You guys might want to consider saving gas and staying home. All the birds are going to be in the Valley now anyway.

Albert A Rasch said...

There have been a few times when I didn't pull the trigger because the joy of the moment outweighed the joy of the culmination of a succesful hunt. To different types of happiness mind you, but that is what makes it hunting, not shooting!

Best Regards,
Albert A Rasch
A Chronicles' project: Building a Pirogue

Ingrid said...

What I don't understand very well yet, though, is the reasons for the lines we draw, separating what we will kill from what we won't kill.

Of course I don't have the answer. My thoughts ... and this doesn't apply to everyone ... but I do think there's a lot to be said for the idea that we protect what we love -- as one huge determination of what we'll kill. And we also have conditioning about what's appropriate to kill, even if that conditioning is buried from some long-forgotten association.

One of the wildlife organizations I've had the pleasure to work with had something similar in their motto: teach children to love nature because people will care for what they love.

But "love" is a gray-area term. And people can say they "love" being in the outdoors, "love" seeing deer and ducks (and bear) and still "love" to hunt them. But do they "love" that bird the way they love their bird dog? Not usually, because they either don't have the experience of relating to a duck that way, or they choose not to connect with the duck that way.

Of course, farmers who've raised their animals still kill them. That probably speaks to conditioning more than anything. I realize it's conditioning out of necessity. I have farming in my family and in my husband's family, so I'm not speaking out of ignorance.

But I've seen kids and adults both, talked out of their true feelings after having killed an animal. They're told that this is a good thing, a necessary thing. They then develop a different attitude toward that animal and about the appropriateness of harming it. But I would venture that most of us, after having witnessed or participated in our first slaughter of an animal, if we're honest, we will recall genuine and strong feelings and maybe even a revulsion for the process. I'm talking about the VERY first time, not the times after becoming accustomed to it.

And in one form or another, people told that feeling this way toward a "food" animal is wrong. And I do believe some of the feeling toward that particular animal shuts down, whether a person recognizes it or not.

Or, hell, maybe it's just genetic. If crows can pass down fears and preferences to generation after generation of young crows, why not us?

My grandma had nightmares about killing her beloved chickens ... til the day she died. And she was perfectly justified by most peoples' standards -- a chicken or her child's starvation. Still, for whatever reason, she could not draw that moral line and feel "okay" about what she'd done.

Holly Heyser said...

Interesting thoughts, as always, Ingrid.

About children being talked out of their feelings: I can't quite remember exactly how it went down the first time with me - I think I was 7 - but I cried when I saw my dad kill a rooster because it was bloody and scary and upsetting - probably just as scary seeing my Daddy kill something as it was seeing a chicken die. And when we ate the chicken pot pie, I tasted how delicious it was and I accepted that this was the price of food. Was there any parental commentary in there? Probably, but I don't remember it.

But I do agree that people do all variety of things to convince themselves that killing is OK. I've heard many hunters say in all earnestness that they don't believe animals feel pain. I tend to believe that's what they were taught, and it's not in their best emotional interest to question that teaching, because it allows them to do what they do without painful soul-searching.

Personally, I believe animals do feel pain, though I believe they react to it way differently than we do - we are nothing if not melodramatic. And I'm 99 percent sure my parents never justified our food by saying animals don't feel pain. Quite the opposite - we went to great lengths to make our animals happy in life and make their deaths quick.

I'm just willing to accept that pain may be a part of death, and that death is a direct part of my diet.

As for love, I can see the difference very clearly now. I love my cat and I could easily shoot anyone who tried to hurt her. I also love cats as a species, but while I am willing to take steps to help the species (I contribute to spay/neuter funds), I won't intervene in the deaths of thousands of cats every day at animal shelters. Love of species is different than love of an individual. Many of the feelings are similar, but the actions clearly are not.

Does that make any sense?

Cork@Cork'sOutdoors said...

Ingrid --
Killing is serious business. As far as I'm concerned anyone who considers it just a game or sport and doesn't take the seriousness of it shouldn't hunt or fish--I'm often asked, how would you feel if we armed bears?

I spent 4 years fighting in one of the US/USSR's nastiest and most secret wars on two fronts, hunting and being hunting by armed "bears"...does it make me any less sad or inured about killing an animal? No...does it remind me how easily it is to die, and worse horrifically--that we are all as Shakespeare said, worm food? Yes...does it truly remind me how we humans are no better than any other animal on the planet when it comes to feeding and surviving? Yes.

Living things live as the result of the food products provided by the death of another living thing: as for vegans, do they think that carrots don't scream...or that if it doesn't have face that a mother could enjoy that it's not killing? When we forget that, or worse, don't rejoice in our gratitude toward another living things offering to us in its flesh, that's the worst.

Sadly, this is what has happened as more and more aren't raised on farms or ranches and pay butchers to do our killing for's as though when we get a steak or chicken in cellophane we some how are clean from the bloodletting and untouched. Frankly, that's like cosmopolitican France, England, Sweden, and Switzerland paying foreign mercenaries to fight covert wars for control of commodities in Africa and Asia...making them feel as though their money isn't stained by blood...just because it's not nice to look at, doesn't mean it doesn't happen and that somehow everyone who isn't actually picking up a knife or a gun is free from responsibility.

When I was the outdoors columnist for The Times of San Mateo County in the 1990s, a reader wrote in furious that I was shooting doves, possibly killing the doves that returned to her apartment tree every year. Would she be as furious with herself knowing that the development she lived in removed a viable roosting area, removing the reproductive potential of the doves in the area--I couldn't even shoot as many doves if I hunted for a 100 years to catch up with the drop in numbers as a result of that reader's apartment placement...and at least when I killed my doves, they were part of a cycle of life feeding me, much as the worms that will feed off me when I die will feed that dove's descendants...

Ingrid said...

Love of species is different than love of an individual. Many of the feelings are similar, but the actions clearly are not .... Does that make any sense?

It makes sense, of course. And it might be the most insightful observation yet in terms of describing the distinction between us. I guess I simply can't easily separate the two. Once I come to know and understand an individual animal (domestic or wild) I do tend to extrapolate that knowledge to the species as a whole. And frankly, I'm so far gone after all the animals I've worked with, I'm hopelessly enmeshed in the animal psyche in such a way that I simply can't be cavalier. To do so would require me shutting down some part of my understanding.

Perhaps the larger philosophical question goes beyond the issue of what we will do to animals -- or for animals. Maybe this issue actually speaks the difference in our essential "truths" as humans. That is, how do we view ourselves and "our own" in the context of the other -- whether that other is another human or another animal?

I think the answers often depend on our base level idea of survival. I'm not sure how far I'd have to be pushed to bloody my own hand purposefully. I know long-term starvation firsthand, but the equation might change if I were hours from dying. I realize that speaks to a dysfunctional baseline compared to most here. But the point is, my idea of subsistence is quite different from someone who believes their survival depends entirely on having meat at each meal (even though I would argue that no one needs meat at each and every meal). I think most justifications, legit and illegit, come from one's underlying belief about me-versus-them -- and about what it takes for "me" to survive. Maybe the idea of what constitutes rational action on behalf of the self, stems in large part from how balanced or imbalanced that equation is.

@Cork: I suspect you and I agree on quite a few things. The only thing I will challenge in your comment is the necessity of much human killing. There are very few species who kill for such spurious reasons as we do. And I think that's one of the reasons hunting is difficult for us non-hunters -- because some of us have been privy to many acts of wanton violence toward animals, where none needed to exist for anyone's authentic well-being. War certainly constitutes a different form of violent insanity, one which ensured, for instance, that I never met my aunt, my grandfather and many blood brethren. I suppose it's not a coincidence that several people I work with in the animal field are refugees or from war-torn families. Death and killing do take on a different context when it becomes our own who suffer.

Ingrid said...

Love of species is different than love of an individual. Many of the feelings are similar, but the actions clearly are not. Does that make any sense?

I just posted a reasonably lucid reply to this, and lost it all upon pushing "Submit." 404 error, dammit.

I think your observation is spot on and might explain the differences better than previous analyses. For whatever reason, I can't seem to separate the two. Once I know and understand an individual animal, I tend to extrapolate that understanding to the species as a whole. And, when you count the many species I've worked with, it becomes impossible for me to make those distinctions with any sense of clarity or conscience. If that makes sense.

I speculated in my missing comment (probably more articulately than I will here) that maybe there's an issue here, larger than our view toward animals. Perhaps it's a philosophical question of how we see "me" and "mine" in the context of the other -- whether that other is human or non-human.

I think ideas of personal well-being and survival help determine what we will or will not do to animals or other humans. A lot of animal killing is justified on the basis of survival, even if my idea of subsistence and survival would be quite different from most people who post here. A person who sees meat at every meal as a necessity, is bound to have a different idea of "survival" that I do -- and will do things I wouldn't do in the context of that understanding. I've experienced physiological starvation, but did not have any bloodlust as a result. My kind is undoubtedly destined to die out. I've made it easier on the cosmos by not replicating. :)

[okay, copy this to buffer]

@Cork: I suspect you and I would agree on many issues. The one thing I'll challenge is the nature of human killing. There are very few species who kill for such spurious reasons as we do. And, as you understand, war is its own form of unmatched, violent insanity -- one that stripped me of my aunt, my grandfather and many other blood brethren. I suppose it's no coincidence that a number of my fellow animal peeps are from war-torn families, are refugees, or survivors of some form of violence. Killing does take on a different context when it's us or our own being harmed. Whether or not a person chooses to extend that understanding beyond the personal realm probably determines a lot of outcomes.

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