“Hound Dog, do you copy?”
Joe Russell grabbed the radio from the dash of his black Silverado. “Yeah, Big Pants, I got two of them dogs now but I’m still missing PJ. I hope they turn that bear soon.” The seatbelt alarm chimed for the 20th time as we rocketed down the forest service road, throwing dirt and gravel. Driving with his elbows Joe glowered at the handheld GPS unit. “They’re really in a shithole now, right up on top of the mountain.”
On the glowing LED screen of the unit two dog-shaped icons labeled “Chase” and “Diesel” appeared crossing the tightening topographic lines that represented the rise south of us. Then suddenly, the former become a question mark.
“Shit, I just lost Chase. We’ll see if we can pick him up at the end of this track.”
As if on queue, the gravel road ended in front of us. Joe leaped out of the Silverado and held the GPS unit up above his head. Quickly unsatisfied, he ran back to the truck, jumped back in the driver’s seat, and grabbed the radio.
“Big Pants, we just lost Chase. Can you see him?”
“Negative, Hound Dog. He’s not showing up down here.”
“Damn, I hope Chase and PJ haven’t lost the trail. Diesel won’t tree that bear on his own.”
* * *
I had never seen a bear before, much less hunted one. Its not that I was some suburban, city slicker. Having grown up waterfowling on the Chesapeake Bay I was no stranger to guns and game. I had hunted turkeys and deer but there were no bears within 100 miles of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. After moving north for school I had been in the presence of the species. I had hung food at night while camping and seen scat and scarred trees. But I had never seen a bear in the flesh, and certainly had not dreamed that I would ever use the bear tag on my Vermont hunting license. Indeed, most of what I knew about hunting the animal came from a Faulkner story called “the bear”. But then Joe Russell agreed to take me out with him running black bears in the Green Mountains..
“Your going to hunt a bear?!”
My girlfriend’s was far from the only negative response. The vegetarians were horrified. My mother was concerned for my safety. Teammates thought it manly. These reactions are indicative of the range of feelings people have for the animal. Bears can variously be adorable or monstrous, majestic or pesky, delicious or gamey.
Our fascination with the species stems from their many humanlike qualities. Like us they are large, intelligent omnivores that can inhabit a variety of environments and stand on their hind legs. Like us they also vary immensely by individual in size and temperament; no two bears are the same. Though in Vermont black bears average between 120 and 180 pounds, across North America they may weigh anywhere between 50 and 800 pounds. Contrary to common belief, the species is not usually dangerous to humans. Attacks on people do occur but they are extremely rare and many involve either provocation or habituation to humans. The small size of Vermont’s bears further diminishes the odds of a fatal encounter. Indeed, the last documented instance of a bear killing a human in the state occurred in the 1940’s under unclear circumstances. Statistically one is much more likely to be killed accidentally by another hunter or by a dog. The plain fact is that bear hounding is not particularly dangerous or daring. My teammates back-thumping was misguided and my mother could rest easy.
* * *
Before the sun rose I met a group of muddy trucks at the McDonalds in the town of Brandon, Vermont. Men clad in worn Carhartt jackets and heavy logging boots leaned against their 4X4s, clutching paper cups of steaming coffee. Soon, a black Silverado pulled in into the parking lot. The truck’s bed was fitted with large steel boxes that supported a carpeted, elevated platform. Moans, barks and the musty odor that drifted out across the parking lot suggested strongly that these were kennels. A small man hopped out of the trucks cab. He shook my hand quickly and introduced himself as Joe Russell. He was clad in thick heavy weathered boots, paint-flecked workpants and an old, green sweatshirt. Joe had solid build and lacked the ubiquitous stomach bulge of his companions. His buzzed head, thin beard and upright posture gave him a no-nonsense look of efficiency.
“Listen Joe, if we tree a female today, I’ll do my best to getcha her number, eh,” teased a man learning against a similarly outfitted truck. Wayne also owned a pack of hounds. He and Joe coordinated the hunts. Wayne looked about the same age but seemed to lack the apparent agility of the other houndsman. He wore a faded Yankees cap over his neatly shaved goatee and spewed forth an almost constant stream of jokes. Laughing easily, he emanated coarse cordiality.
One by one, Joe and Wayne took the dogs out of their truck bed kennels and placed a GPS collars around their necks. These would allow them to keep track of the hounds once they were pursuing a bear. Each hound also sported a shock collar for discipline and a magnetic collar to allow Joe and Wayne to coordinate the dog’s position through radio telemetry if the GPS unit failed. So outfitted the wiry hounds looked almost bionic, antennae flopping from their necks, GPS units flashing red.
In the yellow light of McDonald’s sign, the hunters chatted leisurely, refueled their vehicles and bought snacks for the day ahead. A couple kids flitted through the vehicles. The fraternal insults intensified as the men regrouped around Wayne’s truck.
“Well I guess these hounds want to find some bear.”
Joe pronouncement seemed final. The men moved towards their 4X4’s. I got in the back seat of his Silverado and we joined the procession of trucks leaving the still-dark parking lot.
As light filled the world, we drove into the foothills of the Green Mountains. The man riding shotgun quickly introduced himself as Jeff. He appeared to be the prototypical Vermonter. From out under a thick mustache he spoke in a rounded, North Country accent. Jeff wore a flannel shirt, vest, blue jeans and tall muck boots. A lifelong deer and turkey hunter, he was relatively new to bear hounding. Jeff had ridden with Joe for the last couple years and this season had purchased his first hound. His twelve-year-old daughter had shot her first bear in September.
After turning off Rt. 116 onto a quieter back road, the truck convoy came to a halt. Joe got out and took one of the dogs out of the kennel. The hound quickly hoped onto the carpeted platform on top. Then Joe chained it to the railing that ran around the box’s exterior. He jumps back in the truck and we continue down the road, this time at a slower pace.
“That my strike dog, Chase. He’ll start hollerin’ if we cross a bear scent. That’s called strikin’ and you’ll know it when it happens.”
Several minutes later, Chase abruptly began to howl, letting a series of low, reverberating, bawls. We stopped and Joe went around and unhooked the hound from the railing. Chase leapt down off the truck and began investigating the woods on the side of the road. The remaining truck behind us also stopped, and everyone emerged to watch the strike hound. He sniffed and began running loops through the nearby maples.
“See that? He’s trying pick up a hot trail.”
After orbiting the truck several times the hound retuned to the tailgate. Joe chained him up to the railing again and we continued.
“That trail was two cold for Chase to start. That, or it was something else, a moose or coon that set him off wrong. If he finds a fresher trail he’ll keep making noise when you let him down off the box onto the scent.”
This scene repeated itself several more times as we drove the gravel roads through the hills. We would stop when Chase struck, let him down only to have him return after a few laps around the area. As we drove, talked and investigated strikes I began to piece together Joe’s hunting history.
Born in East Middlebury, he has spent his entire life in central Vermont. As a small child his father and grandfather took him out running rabbits with beagles. He has been an avid hunter ever since. When Joe was in his late twenties he was hunting raccoon with an older fellow from town, who had run bear hounds in his youth. Together, the two decided to get some dogs. Since then hounding has become Joe’s way of life. Training, breeding and caring for his 15 hounds is a job 364 days a year. Beyond hunting season from September to November, there is the summer training season when dogs gain experience and bears are not actually shot. Then there is bobcat season in January, which has a training season of its own.
When I asked him what the best part of bear hunting was he answered “the dogs” without hesitating. He simply loves working with his hounds. Over the years he has hooked more than one once causal participant on bear dogs. Joe bred Jeff’s new hound. Similarly, Wayne began his bear hunting career with some of Joe’ hounds. His passion for the dogs is contagious.
* * *
On a rocky, 4X4 track above East Middlebury, Chase began to howl louder than he had all morning.
“Shit, that’s a good strike,” said Joe.
After being let down off the box, Chase continued to bawl as he ran about.
“Now he’s making some noise. He might be on something decent now.”
Jeff and I stood with our pockets in our hands and waited. Chase had taken off into the forest to the east, his howls now echoing through the gray hardwoods.
“Well, guess we might as well lets these dogs run”
Joe moved to the kennel and opened the latch. As soon as he had the hounds blew out the door and exploded off the tailgate. They scatted, running into the woods in all directions. Only two followed the trail correctly. Joe immediately chased after a black-mouthed cur and a plott hound that had gone off to the wrong side of the road. Calling after them, he caught the latter and began dragging it in the direction Chase had gone. A young redbone-Labrador, milled about the tailgate and howled, clueless but clearly thrilled to be there. After a short while, Joe muscled the dogs that had not followed the scent back into the kennel.
Now, Joe and Jeff sat on the tailgate, clutching GPS unites which displayed the departure of the dog-shaped icons. Soon the symbol began to blink and become question marks. Joe radioed another truck to see if they had better signal:
“Big pants, do you have any of them dogs.”
“Negative we just lost Diesel. He was the last one showing up.”
“Roger that Big pants, we lost ‘em too. We’re coming out.”
Then we were moving again, trying and pick up a better signal on the hounds. “Sometimes the GPS works better when we get a bit farther from the mountains,” Jeff told me. And so we drove, first through the valley then back up in the mountains, all the while watching the GPS receiver. “Big Pants,” who I had since discovered received his radio name due to his immense girth, did the same in his own truck. Between the GPS units of the two trucks we tried to pinpoint the hounds’ locations. After an hour or two the icon label Diesel began flashing with the word “treed.” Jeff and Joe cheered. But by the time we got to the trailhead that would get us closer to the bear’s location, Diesel’s icon was moving again. Then it again became a question mark. It seems the plott hound had not held the bear at bay. Based on their previous readings the dogs and presumably the bear were all somewhere on the mountain slope above us. The before they disappeared they had a mere half mile off. Trouble is that distance was straight up the steep Green Mountain Escarpment.
Neither this fact nor the wear of his forty-some years deterred Joe. In a flash, he dawned a blaze orange cap and a hunting pack and slung a rifle over his shoulder. As some confused Prius owners looked on, he sprinted up the trail, alone.
“Man, he’s got some energy,” I ventured, “Guess that’s why they call him Hound Dog”
“You haven’t seen the start of it,” answered Jeff.
* * *
My bear hunting adventures elicited a wide range of responses from my fellow liberal arts collegians. “Is it legal,” “Are they overpopulated?” and “What do you do with them?” were all common responses. These reactions form an interesting lens with which to examine the ecological and ethical underpinnings of bear hunting. They also reveal a general lack of familiarity with the practice and culture of the tradition. Humans have always hunted bears to sustain themselves. Hides are used in clothing and rugs while teeth and claws are often incorporated in jewelry. Bear grease serves a multitude of purposes: a substitute for lard, butter or bacon grease, a sealant for shoes, a balm for dray skin. And then there is bear meat. Ninety percent of Vermont bear hunters surveyed in 2008 listed “food” as the reason they hunted bruins. Yet many of my friends seemed surprised when I answered they’re questions with “ya eat ‘em.”
Another common concern is whether hunting places the species in danger of extinction? According to Forrest Hammond, Vermont’s bear biologist, the answer to this question is unequivocally no. The state’s Fish and Wildlife Department is charged with maintaining the bear resource for people of Vermont. It monitors the number of all game animals and adjusts hunting and wildlife management programs accordingly. Specifically, Hammond told me that state’s objective is to maintain a stable population of 4500 to 6000 bears. Hunting is perhaps the state’s most important tool in pursuing this goal. A single bear tag comes with every Vermont hunting license. This means licensed hunters may kill one bear per year. Even in the face of this pressure, the number of bruins in the state has increased by 4% per year since 1990. Hammond told me that Vermont is currently trying to reduce the bear population by extending the 2013 hunting season by four days.
Why would the state want to actively reduce the number of bears? Essentially, because an increasing population means an increasing incidence of bear-human conflict. As those who live in bear country know the species enjoys eating many of the same things we do. Their weaknesses include honey, garden vegetables, apples and corn. The result is damaged crops, chomped bird feeders and smashed beehives. Over the recent decade, nuisance bear reports have increased proportionally with the state’s populations. These interactions are more than simply unnerving and costly to farmers and beekeepers. Such bears cost taxpayers in wildlife staff hours and damage reimbursements. Occasionally, the animals themselves pay with their lives when the state euthanizes particularly problematic individuals. Therefore, Vermont seeks to minimize these conflicts by attempting to maintain the population at a predetermined level. The state’s goal for bear population size reads as follows:
Identify an appropriate bear population objective that ensures the viability of a wild, free-ranging bear population, provides for hunting opportunities, and satisfies human social expectations and tolerances for nuisance bear occurrences.
Thus despite the misconceptions of fellow college students, bear hunting is legal and widely accepted part of bear management. Participating hunters harvest bears largely to consume them and to take part in a sporting tradition that stretches back across thousands of years.
* * *
“Wounder, got a copy?”
“Roger Hound Dog, we got a big bear down, up Goshen,” Wayne crackled through the radio.
Our own hunt had ended unsuccessfully. All the dogs had lost the scent. Up on the mountainside, Joe had rounded up the tired hounds and brought them back down out of the woods. However, Wayne’s dogs had apparently found more success. They had treed a large bear in Goshen. Standing on the hillside above, a ten-year-old boy had shot the animal dead.
By the time we got to Goshen, they still had not brought the large bear out. Joe quickly borrowed an ATV and soon after the animal road out of the woods for the last time on the back of the yellow Arctic Cat. Wayne said he thought he weighed more than 300 pounds making the male one of the largest bears they had ever killed.
A fascinating part of hunting is being able to touch and examine animals you so rarely get to see up close. So I was eager to not only see but also touch my first bear. Of course I hid this enthusiasm in the presence of the grizzled, North Country hunters around me. Subtly, I went and touched its furry back. Then I lifted the big head, impressed by its weight. Even in death the bear has an air of power and significance. As I took it in, trucks began to accumulate around us. Hunters and passersby began to gather, nursing Gatorades and Bud Lights while snapping pictures with phones and cameras. Then a rotund lady came out from a house across the street, clearly excited.
“That’s the bear that’s been scarrin’ the hell outta me for a month. Eating on my bird feeder and gettin’ the dogs all wound up. Oh I’m so glad you got him.”
* * *
Two weeks later Joe was itching to run a bear. The weekend after Wayne hounds treed the big bear we had ridden for hours in the rain and failed to find a good scent. But today seemed a better day. The sky was clear and most of Joe’s family had come on the hunt. His wife Mandy and young daughter Lilly rode sat beside me in the back seat of truck. Mandy had curly blond hair and wore a gray sweatshirt with a picture of red bone hounds barking up a tree trunk on the back. It read “Red Bone Hounds, Going Deep for the Meat.” His eight-year-old Lilly sat next to her mother wearing a blue and purple striped shirt and jeans with flowers embroidered up the legs. She giggled, visibly excited about the chance to shoot her first bear.
Joe’s son Devin Young son Devin was riding in another truck. Despite the chill autumn he had appeared that morning in the parking lot wearing only a faded Gap t-shirt and kid-sized camo pants. He had a single tuft of long hair in the middle of his buzzed head that gave him the aspect of a diminutive punk rocker. At ten, he was already on his way to becoming an experience hunter, having slain a bear, several deer and many small game animals.
The morning started well with a few good strikes up. Then higher in the mountains, Chase let out a deep bawl. Letting him off he took off howling. Quickly Joe dropped his pack and the hounds launched into the woods. As the dogs moved south we edged up in the Silveradao. Then looking at the GPS Joe said, “If them other dogs is running something it’s about to cross being us.”
We all turned and stared out the rear window of the truck. Then something flashed across the road in front of the vehicle. We all turned in time to see two hounds disappear into the trees on the other side of the road.
“Well shit, there goes whatever it was. Lord, I hope it ain’t a moose.”
Apparently the hounds would sometimes chase moose, a fruitless and dangerous endeavor that I could imagine this might resulted in a goodly amount of choice language on Joe’s part. Joe jumped out Silverado and walked up the road to look for tracks.
“Good, don’t see no moose tracks. Hopefully they’re running a bear.”
Out in the wood the bawling of the hounds echoed through the trees, distant but clear.
“Listen to em. They haven’t pounded like that for a long time.”
“Not since we shot that bear in the beginning of the season.” Jeff added.
“We just might tree us a bear today.”
* * *
On September 26, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a controversial bill banning hunting bears and bobcats with hounds. This legislation brought the total number of states that have banned hounding to 33. The recent battle in the Golden State showcases the controversy that surrounds bear dogs. Critiques say it is cruel and unsporting. They argue that hounds do all the work and are frequently abused, placed in danger, and often abandoned when the do not perform or grow old. Furthermore, critiques say running bears during training season (without killing them) stresses the animals dangerously. Finally, they argue that mothers maybe be separated from cubs and later shot leaving the young bears to die.
My experiences with Joe speak directly to many of these arguments. The supposition that hounds do all the work is plain wrong. Hunters spend untold amounts of time, energy and money in purchasing, training and maintaining their hounds and equipment. For Joe, hounding is a year round way of life. He cares for and feeds 15 dogs every day of the year. Yes, during the actual hunt the dogs find and tree the bear. However, the hunt doesn’t end there. The hunters must hike into wherever the hounds have treed. This can be a simple as walking fifty yards off the road, but more likely it involves hiking for miles up thickly wooded mountainsides. After a bear has been shot its bulk must be dragged back out of the woods. Then a hunter must recover any dogs that have lost the trail, a process that can take hours of hiking. Therefore, saying that bear hounding requires little effort is simply incorrect.
I also found little evidence for the alleged abuse of the hounds. Joe often told me that watching and listening to the dogs he trained as they hunted was the reason he got involved in the sport. He himself has never even shot a bear. Accordingly, the thought of him abandoning his dogs seems ludicrous. Sure, they are not treated as house-bound, suburban golden retrievers. They are working animals. Yet, Joe certainly does not starve and beat dogs as some Animals Rights Groups have suggested. Indeed, such behavior would make little financial success. Skilled strike dogs like Chase cost thousands of dollars. A $4000 reward was recently posted for several hounds believed stolen from southern Vermont in September. Therefore, houndsman have many reasons to treat their dogs well.
Bears hardly ever touch Joe’s hounds. He said that they were too smart for that. To be certain this is not always the case. Joe himself told me of several mountain lions he had seen killed by dogs while he was hunting in Arizona. Yet, it seems the proposition that hounds and their quarry universally injure each other is false. However, the argument that the hounds stress bears during both the training and hunting season seems logical. That being said, the bears I witnessed in trees while hunting with Joe did not seem upset. Indeed, one could hardly stay awake. Additionally, the training season is a critical part of being able to hunt effectively during the actual harvest season.
Both Wayne and Joe argued that hounding, unlike still-hunting, allowed hunters a chance to examine the bear once treed. This way young bears and mothers with cubs could be spared. Both emphasized the importance of this advantage vehemently. Joe said that even if cubs split away from their mother during the chase, some hounds would usually split off to follow them, thus alerting the hunters to their existence. This assertion, echoed by other houndsman, runs contrary to the Animals Rights argument that hounding often leads to mothers being killed when they become separated from their cubs.
Vermont’s houndsman are not ignorant of the controversy surrounding their passion. Though only 10 to 15% of the bears harvested in Vermont are shot over hounds, houndsmen contribute disproportionally to the successful management of the states population of bruins. The Vermont Bear Hound Association chase off nuisance bears with their dogs. This actually protects the bears by keeping them away from human settlements where they may be shot by state officials or nervous residents. Additionally, the organization recently bought the Fish and Wildlife Department a double-chambered, trailer-born, bear trap. This gift helps the state to remove and relocate problem animals without killing them. In this manner the bear houndsman seek to promote the good name of their passion.
* * *
“Hound Dog do you copy? We got a bear in a tree up Four Corners in Goshen,” said Wayne through the radio.
“Yeah Wounder, is it a shooter?”
“Roger, bout 160 or 170 I’d say.”
“Well you got someone to shoot it.”
“Negative, but I heard Miss Lily was with you today.”
It appeared Wayne’s hounds had also met with success. It was decided quickly that Big pants, Jeff and Devin would stay and monitor the bear that Joe’s hounds were following, while we delivered Lily to the base of the tree in Goshen for a crack at her first bear.
Autumn’s leaves thickly blanketed the forest floor, sloshing as we moved through the grey trunks. Joe led the way with the rifle. Mandy followed, leading Lily by the hand. Clad in her father’s clownishly big green hunting coat, she was doing her best to keep up. Lily had not yet taken her hunting safety course. Today she was hunting under a mentee license. If she did shoot a bear, it would be marked with Joe’s bear tag.
“You remember where to shoot it, right Lilly,” asked Mandy in a whisper.
“Yeah mom, right in front of the shoulder.”
“That’s my girl,” said Joe from up ahead. “Now remember everybody when we get close to the tree we got talk real quietly.”
As we walked, the voices of the hounds grew louder. Closer still, their pounding barks began to drown out all else. And then we were there. It was at once chaos and calm. The dogs were all about bawling, pulling at the leashes that held them to tree trunks. Wayne and some other men stood about like guards with rifles and cameras, looking up at the large hemlock in the center of the scene. There up in the branched was a black mass. As I looked, it moved a bit and I made out a brown muzzle. The bear was looking intently down at the pandemonium below it.
Joe found a tree to prop up the rifle in Lily’s shot. The little girl tucked the gun in her arm, as her father bent to help her aim. He whispered something inaudible.
The rifle cracked. The hounds quit barking and the woods echoed for a second with the report. Yet, the bear appeared unhurt.
“Ok sweet heart, take your time” Wayne encouraged. Lily adjusted her aim as the dogs again began to pulse. Then the rifle boomed again. Immediately, too quickly, the bear tumbled from the limb, snapping bows as it came. It hit the ground rolling, a black blur, running already. But other shots echoed through the trees and the bear’s progress came to an abrupt halt.
Quickly, the hounds were loosed on the carcass. The snarled as they bit into fur, shaking the head furiously. This was apparently necessary to allow the dogs to connect the outcome of the hunt with the chase. Yet it was a powerfully brutal sight. The dead bear shuddered as the dogs shook it furiously. Meanwhile, Joe hugged Lilly. A smile on every face, we congratulated her.
* * *
“Hound Dog copy? We got your bear in a tree up over the Snow Bowl.”
“Yeah, Big Pants. Is it a shooter?
“Ayah, maybe. Small, bout 120 pounds I’d say”
“Huh, well I’d love some of my young dogs to get on it. Is Devin with you? He hasn’t filled his bear tag yet this season.”
“Negative Hound dog, he didn’t want to hike in over the mountain.”
“Lazy little bastard. Oh well, were heading your way now”
Throwing gravel we doubled back towards Big Pants. We found Devin sitting in truck at the top of the mountain pass. The fact that the bear apparently wasn’t very big didn’t help him out of the cab. So the rest of us started up the trail. It took us the better part of half any hour to get to the mountaintop. Then we plunged down the other side, through thick spruces. Finally, the voices of the hounds became audible. We pushed on and suddenly we were at the tree.
The bear sat in the crook of the yellow maple, fast asleep. Below it was the pandemonium of the dogs. They barked from their leashes. One was loose and jumping against the tree. Standing on his hind leg to get closer to the bear, he had raked off the outer bark of the trunk. Another had bitten a sapling off at the base, cutting his gums on the splintered wood. Big Pants and Jeff kept watch.
“Its been sleeping most of the time we been here. Not too concerned bout us. Anyhow, Who’s gonna shoot this bear, Joe?”
He turned to look at me.
“Ford, if he wants to.”
* * *
A friend and local hunter had told me that as the season progressed, serious bear houndsmen were often looking for people with unfilled bear tags to ride with them. Joe and Wayne liked to have young kids be shooters, but since Devon had not wanted to hike in after the bear the flatlander from Maryland appeared to be next in line.
I had been thinking about this moment for weeks. But now I was actually looking the bear in the eyes. Was it right to kill this animal, especially over the bawling hounds? It was undeniably cute, doglike, as it rested with its head on its paws. I thought of friends who had asked how one could even contemplate killing and eating such a charismatic creature? At the time, I had responded that the chicken breast on their plate had once been an adorable chick. Yet undeniably there was something more significant in killing a bear. It was simply different than shooting a duck or even a deer.
Perhaps it is because bears are so like us. Incredibly intelligent omnivores, caring parents that can manipulate things with their paws, they seem to automatically gain our human sympathy. And yet despite this connection men have always hunted bears. The animal in the maple above me might yield thirty or forty pounds of meat, food from a region not productive of much else. We cannot eat briars and shoots but bears can and we can eat bears. Like Vermont’s grass-munching cattle, they convey previously unavailable calories to us humans.
And what is more this bear had lived free and wild. Unlike the majority of the animals our country consumes, it had not been raised within some nightmare feeding operation. Instead of being pumped full of antibiotics and wading through its own excrement, it had spent it years as it pleased, ranging these mountains. If one is going to make the grave choice to eat animals let it be one such as this.
And so I took up Jeff’s rifle. The trigger was cold in the chill autumn air. The gun was light in my arms. The .30-.30 had a short barrel. There was no need for a long shot; the bear was only 30 yards off, up in the tree. I put the scope’s reticle on the bear’s neck, about 3 inches behind the paw on which the animal was resting its sleeping head. Breathed in deeply. Let the air out slowly, tried to quiet those little movements you don’t realize exist until you look down a gun barrel. Squeezed the trigger.
* * *
It was a strenuous haul up the mountainside. Holding the leashes attached to a collar on the bear’s neck with one hand, Joe and I clambered up the slope. We pulled through raspy spruces and up over ledges, lugging the heavy, awkward carcass behind us. By the time we reached the top of the mountains we were both drenched in sweat. There, we lifted the bear onto a truck that Wayne had somehow maneuvered up the ski trails and road down to the trail hear. There we met up with the rest of the company who had been showing off Lily’s bear to every hiker that had parked at the trailhead.
Next, we trucked off to Joe’s house for photos. A large group of friends and extended family member gathered and snapped pictures as Lily and I as we held up the bear’s heads. Budweiser’s were passed around and people talked easily. I could not help but recall some inflated description of Native Americans celebrations after the harvest of a large animal. Yet the festival did not last long. Soon we were driving to the tiny town of Orwell to check in the bears at Buxton’s general store (an actual country store). Vermont, like all states, requires that big game be checked in to help the Department of Fish and Wildlife to monitor population. Lily’s bear weighed in at 172 pounds, while mine weighed 122 pounds. I had been thoroughly one-upped by the eight-year old girl.
Now we went across the street to the town office/beauty parlor/butcher shop.
Because Joe and some of his family members worked at the processing establishment as skinners during deer season, they had permission to use the stall. In succession, each bear was hung by one of its rear legs and skinned. To accomplish this Joe cut the skin from one foot to the other. Then the hide is pulled back towards the head. Next we cut down the stomach and sawed open the chest cavity. The organs were pulled out through the resulting opening. Finally, we had to remove the coat of fat that the bears had accumulated already in preparation for winter. On the back of the larger carcass this was two inches thick and extremely greasy. After the skin was taken off, everything became slick. We would later use dish soap on the floor in an attempt to cut the grease that now covered the concrete.
After the organs and fat are removed the animals were ready to either be butchered immediately hung in a cooler for a couple days (or outside if it is cold) to age. Because bones, hide and fat make up a large part of all game, the amount of meat that comes off a carcass is much less than the live weight. My 122-pound bear became 25 manageable packets of steaks and stew meat, about 30 or 40 pounds of meat. Joe estimated that his family of 5 would get 30 meals out of Lily’s slightly larger animal.
* * *
Cutting the fat from the bear’s back, I felt surprisingly little regret. I had ended the life of a magnificent and intelligent creature. Yet, unlike the industrially produced meat I distain, the bear represented truly local sustenance. I believe such meat is the most ethical kind that one can consume. Bears are not threatened with extinction. Indeed, hunting is an essential part of Vermont’s careful management of the species. These efforts seek to maintain the population at a level that is simultaneously sustainable and tolerable to those living in close proximity to bears. Additionally, I found many Animal Rights Organizations claims about bear hounding too be murky or even pointedly untrue. When training, care and equipment are considered; bear dogs are the most time-consuming, expensive and physically demanding way to hunt the animal. Similarly, Joe had little impetus to mistreat the dogs. I am sure there are cruel and abusive hunters yet I cannot say whether they represent the majority. I believe that many of modern society’s issues with bear dogs have deeper roots in its increasing isolation from the realities of the natural world.
Back at Joe’s house, we carried the dressed carcasses into his garage. We placed one on the butcher block in the center of the room. As Joe oiled the wood, I asked him what he thought of bear meat.
“I love bear meat. I rather have it than deer or anything else. But I don’t have to put one in my freezer every winter. In fact, this is only the second one we’ve had. No, runnin’ bears is about the dogs for me. Working with my hounds, listenin’ to them, seeing the young ones get better and better. Just training them. That’s my favorite part.”