It’s Time for Bucks and Bears

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Contributing Writer
Steve Sorensen

Archery season is well underway, bowhunters have already taken some bucks with strong antlers, and gun hunters are getting ready. Bears are plentiful, too. Whether you hunt New York, Pennsylvania, or both, this may be a season to remember. 

As we take a view toward the big game season, let’s not forget the way that most of us got into hunting. Traditionally small game introduced many of us to hunting, and the fact that fewer of us hunt small game anymore may be a seldom-cited reason hunting license sales are declining. (See today’s “The Everyday Hunter®” column for more on the importance of small game.) 

As for deer, some of us think about them day and night. As part of our planning for deer hunting, we bought our licenses as early as August. We may have kept our feet dry, but our minds wandered into swamps and thickets, anticipating a shot at a big buck. Perhaps with the help of trail cameras we got a look at one we hope to put on the wall. We bought our antlerless tags thinking about a doe maybe as meat, or perhaps as a consolation prize if the buck we want doesn’t step out in front of us. Either way, harvesting does is the key to keeping the deer population in balance with its habitat. 

Deer have a way of eating themselves out of house and home. That impacts the animals they share the habitat with too. Hunters may argue over how many does should be killed, but it’s a fact that by killing some does we make room not only for deer but for many other species of wildlife. Any wildlife biologist will tell you even songbirds benefit from an adequate deer harvest, because overabundant deer will eat prime nesting cover for birds. 

This is a good year for acorns, a favorite food of the whitetail deer. White oak acorns are especially favored by wildlife because their meat is a little sweeter. White oak trees can be identified by their grayish scaly bark and leaves with rounded lobes. Red oaks have darker bark and pointed leaf lobes. If you can’t find white oak maybe the deer can’t either, so they’ll be visiting the red oaks. Of course, unharvested corn might create a hot spot, along with other crops, apple orchards, and other fruit and nut trees. 

Hunters who own land often plant food plots, which concentrate deer and let the hunter be more selective in what he shoots. But if you don’t own land, it only means you need to be a little more intentional in the way you hunt public land or private land you don’t control. The landowning hunter invests his time in plowing, planting and cultivating. But not being a landowner is not a great handicap. All it means is that the rest of us use that time in learning where natural food sources are, the routes deer take from bedding to feeding, and where deer go for security. We certainly have enough deer in most places, so just as the landowning hunter doesn’t wait until the eve of deer season to do his planting, the hunter on public land shouldn’t wait until the last minute to do all his scouting. 

Bear hunting opportunities are more available than ever. Bear harvests in the southern zone of New York have been gradually creeping up, which indicates a rising population. While we have far fewer bears than deer, bears also need to be controlled, but for a different reason. 

Bears aren’t the keystone species deer are. Their impact on the habitat is not as great, but they do have a big impact on people and on each other. Bears, unlike deer, are predators. They’re the biggest guy in the neighborhood, and they don’t need to be afraid of other animals. Sometimes that translates into an absence of the fear of people, too. That’s where problems start. 

Several years ago I was hunting on the opening day of deer season in the Allegany State Park, a big tract of land with a couple of campgrounds that are busy in the summer. The local bear population becomes dependent on food scraps wherever people throw food away, so the Park has plenty of bears. The fact that bear hunting is not permitted in Allegany State Park doesn’t help. One big bear walked right up to me, no doubt expecting a handout. It’s reasonable to assume he was accustomed to people being a source of food. I kept my Snickers bars to myself, and after about five minutes of hovering within seven feet of me, he walked away reluctantly. 

Hunting bears has lots of opposition from people who don’t understand wildlife dynamics. New Jersey’s governor, for example, recently responded to pressure from activists by banning all bear hunting on all state-owned land. It was the fulfillment of a campaign promise to people who love slogans such as “Killing Is Not Conservation.” (By the way, that’s a falsehood.) Still, the activists aren’t happy. For them, it’s an all or nothing proposition. They want to end bear hunting completely on state land, federal land, and private land. Everywhere. All the time. Forever. 

You probably know New Jersey is not wilderness. It’s the most densely populated state in the country, so all the ban will do is create more conflict between bears and people and risk the health of the bear population. Bears need space, and not having it creates more stress and introduces health problems. Just a few weeks ago a very unhealthy black bear walked through my front yard. He had a bad case of sarcoptic mange, which is at epidemic levels in some areas. It will probably kill him. That’s why wildlife professionals, not governors and not activists, should be making wildlife management policy through sound biological science.

Wildlife does not recognize state boundaries, so the decisions made in one state will affect another. If one state doesn’t control its bear population, it will create a bigger challenge for neighboring states. New Jersey’s governor has made a decision that will impact New York and Pennsylvania, and it will make bears in his own state less healthy and create more conflict.  

So as you go deer hunting, remember that New York’s hunting license includes a tag for bears, and the seasons for deer and bears are concurrent in many places. If you see a bear while you’re hunting deer in New York’s southern tier, maybe you should look at it as an opportunity for another trophy. 

So stay safe in the woods this year, know and obey the regulations, keep a positive attitude, and good luck.

About

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He writes for top outdoor magazines, speaks at sportsman’s dinners, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.