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The History of Killing Bears

The History of Killing Bears

August 7, 2010 – 8:35 PM CDT

JuneNo big news this time.  Everything seems copacetic (that can’t be a real word!).

Lily and Hope are together.

The bears are streaming GPS data into the computer.

We’re working on videos and other material for the classroom outreach project.

We watched in amazement as you widened the lead of Bear Head Lake State Park to nearly 87,000 votes.   We hope June will move into the park early in the hunting season as she did two falls ago.  We hope Lily will also take refuge in the park.  The $100,000 won’t directly benefit the study bears, but it’s nice to see support for this gem of a park within the study area.

We have seen some of your well thought out suggestions for protecting the study bears during hunting season starting September 1, but we are not sure what is necessary.  We’re working with hunting groups to seek hunter cooperation, and the DNR will be asking hunters not to shoot radio-collared bears.  We soon will be posting signs asking hunter cooperation.

We have seen your requests for a statement about hunting.   The following is a start on that.

The History of Killing Bears


Education has changed attitudes and how bears are killed

Summary:  In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, people used poison, traps, and guns to eliminate black bears.  Knowledge and attitudes have slowly improved.   Discussions now center on how to coexist with bears rather than on how to get rid of them.  Hunting leaders are beginning to discuss how bear hunting practices can be improved.

Native Americans

Attitudes about bears have changed over time.  Native Americans viewed bears as intelligent, near-human animals that provided food and clothing.  Some clans speared hibernating bears in dens and performed elaborate ceremonies to show respect, appease their spirits, and thank the bears for giving their lives.  Native Americans had little effect on bear populations.

European Settlers

European settlers had much greater impact on bear populations.  They cleared millions of acres of forest to create farms.  They used poison, traps, and guns to rid the land of bears, wolves, and any other animals they thought might threaten them, their crops, or their farm animals.   Bears were often gut-shot to die somewhere off in the woods.

Killings took their toll

Bounties, market hunting, and unrestricted killing by landowners and hunters took their toll.  By the early 1900’s, black bears were eliminated from nearly half of their former range in the Lower 48.  Grizzly bears were eliminated from 98 percent of their range in that same area.

Fear-mongering at bear expense

By the 1940’s, hunting magazines were shamelessly exaggerating the danger from bears, making heroes of the hunters who killed them.  This fear-mongering continues to the present at huge expense to bear populations nationwide.  In the mid-1900’s, excessive fear led people to eliminate bears from more and more of their former range.  Bounties on black bears persisted through 1965, bringing populations to their lowest point in recorded history.

A national wildlife conscience forms

In the early 1900’s, the nation began to develop a conscience that opposed the destruction of America's wildlife and natural resources.  One group working for reform was the Boone and Crockett Club, founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt.  Club members worked to abolish industrial hunting, address issues affecting wildlife and its habitat, and create national parks, national forests, and wildlife refuges.  They wrote a Fair Chase statement outlining a code of ethics for sport hunting.  However, this conscience remained in its infancy until mid century.  In 1948, Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife management, further raised public consciousness about wildlife issues with publication of “A Sand

County Almanac.”

Forest regrowth

During the 1900’s, farmers abandoned millions of acres of farmland.  The land reverted to forest.  New England gradually shifted from 70 percent farmland to 70 percent forest. To a lesser extent, this shift happened in the Upper Midwest and elsewhere.

New rural attitudes

People moved into the new forest, bringing new attitudes toward bears.  The new landowners no longer had farms to defend.  Many of them moved into the woods to enjoy wildlife.  By the 1970’s, attitudes toward bears were rapidly becoming more tolerant as researchers and many TV programs revealed that black bears are not the ferocious animals people once thought.  People killed fewer bears as “nuisances” and allowed them to repopulate areas where bears had not lived for decades.

New management policies

As public attitudes changed, so did bear management policies.  Most wildlife management agencies now manage bear populations for growth or sustainability rather than for elimination.  Bears are protected outside regulated hunting seasons.

Minnesota bear expansion

In Minnesota, partial protection and education enabled black bear numbers to quadruple from less than 6,000 in 1971 to over 24,000 by 2000.  That meant more bears for enjoyment and harvest.  As bear numbers increased, harvests climbed from a few hundred to a few thousand.

Bear management goals

A goal of bear management has always been to limit bears to a number people will accept. Managers call that number the “the social carrying capacity.”   If bear numbers are too low, people are deprived of hunting and bear-watching opportunities.  If bears become more numerous than people will tolerate, landowners often take matters into their own hands, gut-shooting bears and leaving them to die slowly and painfully over a period of days or months.  A goal of hunting regulations in Minnesota is to limit bear numbers as humanely as possible to “the social carrying capacity.”

Bear numbers going up continent-wide

The number of bears people will accept (i.e., the social carrying capacity) depends on attitudes, which, in turn, depend upon education.  To some extent, what happened in Minnesota is happening continent-wide.  More and more people are learning about bears and getting used to seeing them.  Groups are forming to educate the public about bears.  “Nuisance” complaints are dropping, meaning social carrying capacity is going up.  People are now allowing more and more bears to live around them.  Black bear numbers have climbed to 865,000, the highest number in over a century, and they have done this despite a huge increase in the human populations.

New topics of discussion

Conversations are shifting from how to eliminate bears to how to coexist with them.   Hunting leaders are beginning to discuss how bear hunting practices can better reflect modern ethics.  More and more, we hear “We moved into the bears’ habitat, so it’s up to us to find a way to live with them.”

The North American Bear Center is dedicated to advancing the long-term survival of bear populations through education.  Education is the key to coexistence.  People will not coexist with animals they fear.


Thank you for all you are doing.


—Lynn Rogers and Sue Mansfield, Biologists, Wildlife Research Institute and North American Bear Center

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