Oct. 24 marked the opening day of Kentucky’s black bear archery season, which was scheduled to run until Oct. 30, or until the quota of five female or 10 bears overall was met, whichever came first. Before nightfall on the opening day the season was over. Twenty-two bears had been arrowed and tagged, including 10 females.
The results of the one-day hunt are phenomenal and certainly bolster the claims of Kentucky wildlife officials that the bear population is increasing and expanding throughout Eastern and Southern Kentucky, although a breakdown of the bear kills reveals that a majority of the bears were taken in the four-county Pine Mountain corridor, an area that has been home to bears since the 1980s. The remaining bears were taken in six other counties.
The one-day harvest numbers suggest a burgeoning bear population, but the numbers do not tell the real story of the recent archery hunt.
Darker, more sinister forces may have been at work, while wildlife officers looked the other way or pretended not to notice.
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Fair chase bear hunting with archery equipment is an extremely difficult pursuit, especially in October before the leaves have fallen. Spotting and stalking a black bear during near-full foliage is tough. Patterning a wide ranging creature like a black bear is darn near impossible. Bears are slaves to their noses and stomachs year round, but more so in the autumn, when the need to lay on fat sends the bears on feeding frenzies that normally take them far and wide.
Yet, 22 hunters managed to do the near impossible on the same day. How did they do it?
Thanks to this year’s total failure of the acorn crop, the bears most important fall food source, bears have looked for alternative food sources and found reliable substitutes in the form of bait, usually shelled corn, scattered around many a deer hunter’s tree stand or blind. It is perfectly legal to bait for deer in Kentucky and many hunters do, particularly archery hunters, who need the animal to get in close.
In years like 2015, with little mast available, deer are drawn to the corn like bees to honey. So are other animals, especially bears, and therein lies the problem.
It is likely that every bear killed during the archery season was killed while going to bait, coming from bait or while feasting on bait. Baiting for bears is illegal in Kentucky and every hunter who reads the rules or talks with his hunting buddies knows that it is illegal to hunt bears over bait.
But, the temptation to hunt a bear over bait can be great. A bear is a tremendous trophy, a coveted trophy. It’s also a trophy that an otherwise lawful hunter might be tempted to break the rules for, especially if the hunter knows that he won’t be caught or even questioned by authorities.
Wildlife officers simply shrug their shoulders over bear baiting in Kentucky, and do very little to stop it. They know the law can’t be enforced so long as deer baiting remains legal during bear season. It doesn’t matter if a bear brought to a check station has a gut full of corn or donuts.
Unless a wildlife officer catches a hunter in the act of taking a bear over bait, there is no way to prove when or where the bear consumed the illegal morsels.
People who care about bears should demand changes that put fair chase back into the archery and firearms bear seasons. Otherwise, all we are left with is the legalized assassination of bears.
James Bowling of Middlesboro is a retired circuit judge and hunter.