Bear Facts About Hunting

Black bear in Pocahontas County, West Virginia
A ‘treed’ Black Bear

Deer came in the night to crunch the corn, a wild turkey arrived at breakfast to nibble wheat berries, and a raucous family of ravens cleared the rest. I rarely wait long for something interesting to turn up in a stone’s throw from my front step.

But I hadn’t heard baying for a long time and felt irritated at the breach of peace on Memorial weekend. I grabbed my camera and binoculars, leaving coffee to go cold on the deck, and ran into the trackless forest strewn with boulders under Middle Mountain that lately wore a green mantle.

After nearly a mile of making a beeline I slowed to approach the hullabaloo. All the while I thought about the mama bear and cubs caught in my game camera a couple of nights earlier. Did they hang around?  If so, had they become quarry for West Virginia hunters?

Bear hunting hounds
Bear hounds go crazy having ‘treed’ the bear

Closing in, I spotted a pack of nine hounds jumping and howling around the base of a tall maple tree, their eyes fixed on the canopy. Each dog weighing about 40-50 pounds was colored a mixture of brown, black or white. Most too intent on their goal, a chestnut one with its tail wagging attached itself to me, jumping up to lick with a lolling tongue. It might have made a fine pet, though none of mine ever had ribs I could count when its chest expanded with deep breaths. The others were equally lean. Each had three collars, one strapping a small black box with a 9” aerial.

I leaned back to gaze fifty feet up to the first fork where a black form moved. I tried to shoo the dogs but nothing distracted their obsession. I even pushed them aside to stand with my back to the bole but they treated me as part of the tree, landing muddy paws all over me. I never saw a more frenetic scene in the woods, and clambered up a bank, sapling by sapling, to avoid the maddening noise I feared could aggravate my tinnitus. 

At the top I had a clear view of the bear. It looked down, often shifting its position. I decided to wait until the hunters arrived, guided there by sound and radio transmitters. This is not the hunting season but I’ve heard that armed men are occasionally tempted to shoot. The nearest dwelling is 2-3 miles away (except ours), and only a couple of wildlife law enforcers in a vast county.

An hour later, two men arrived carrying orange dog leashes and a heavy bag. No firearms. They startled me as I didn’t hear movement through the understory. If I surprised them, it didn’t show when they found me petting the dog and watching the melee below. I wonder if they assumed I came out of curiosity to see a ‘treed’ bear and approved of hunting with dogs. Only half true. The second half I kept to myself to avoid confrontation, as in politics when I know neither I nor my opponent will concede, instead reserving expression for the ballot box or in writing to try to influence policy. Even more important when meeting rifles and crossbows in the woods. A number of states have banned hunting with dogs but the tradition persists as a fiercely defended right in parts of Appalachia.

We watched the bear for several minutes, photographing it from different angles. It had a long pale nose and glossy black coat; at around 300 pounds one of the largest I’ve seen in those woods. I thought it looked more handsome and noble than any of us standing there on two legs or four.

Black bear descending maple tree

The men rounded up the dogs, tying them to branches. One tapped the base of the tree with a heavy branch and when broken he bashed vigorously with a rock. I asked the other what he was doing.

“It’ll bring the ‘baar’ down. Dunno why but perhaps vibrations make ‘im think the tree’s unsafe.”

After several minutes the bear slid under the bough. The man moved away. I pointed my camera half way down the long trunk, my finger ready on the trigger.

I’ve seen bears clamber down in panic when I stumble on one feeding in the canopy. It reminds me of a fireman sliding on a pole to an emergency. I only had time for two clicks before he was on the ground, galloping along the stream bed.

Relieved to see him get away safely, I asked the men how far they had to walk the dogs back. I knew they must have driven to the nearest point in a truck with a kennel in the bed, an odd vehicle on first encountering one.

“Not yet. Dogs need more training.’

That was the hardest moment to suppress an objection. The poor creature was already terrified. It had run ahead of dogs without inflicting a terrible injury on any of them, easily done by one swipe. Each dog released in turn dashed after the bear.

The woods around me fell silent again. My return journey started by losing grip on a branch to slide on my buns down the bank muddied by recent rain until stopping in the stream bed. I felt angry for being clumsy and frustrated at powerless to protect the old man of the woods. I wished him well.

Half-an hour later at the house I heard distant baying again.

Next post: Common Tern

Appalachian Poet – Bertie Jane Cutlip

Outside a country store in the Allegheny Mountains, she stood behind a table covered in mason jars of home-made apple jelly and pickles. It was one of those glorious fall days in

Pocahontas County, West Virginia
Sharp’s Country Store, Slaty Fork, WV

West Virginia, so I lingered to buy some of Bertie’s homemade apple jelly and a stapled booklet of poems. Seeing my interest, she recited a couple from memory. I recall one was an ode to her home state and the other a tragic-cum-humorous story about a mouse. I was told she memorized over 100 of her poems, most of them end rhymes or couplets that celebrated country life, family, friends and animals over a long and often hard life. I listened to more over the years whenever I visited her mobile home in a quiet hollow (‘holler’) of Webster County.

Eventually, I offered to help her reach a wider audience. I recorded videos in her home and have now compiled her best poems in a published anthology for her 96th birthday in June 2020.

My favorite poem is ME, A MURDERER:




Should They Who Pay the Pipeline Call the Tune?

We gathered along an empty country road to gaze at the wounded hillside. It now has an orange stripe of bare earth instead of a green canopy. The sight reminded me of how skin contracts from the path of a surgeon’s knife, leaving a trail of blood seeping from underlying layers of fat and muscle.

Natural gas from fracking
Atlantic Coast Pipeline in WV

After the dozers finished the cut, huge trucks and cranes laid sections of 42-inch pipes in a line for welders to join together. This was an advance section of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Our group of 30 observers were mostly from environmental organizations in West Virginia, along with a few locals and this correspondent.

A web of pipelines across the continent conveys natural gas and oil to ports and power stations. The ACP connects the fracking shale fields in the north-western region of the state to North Carolina over 600 miles away. It passes through private and public property, up and down mountains, and under hundreds of streams. The Mountain Valley Pipeline is another gargantuan project an hour’s drive west. Both have paused while the courts decide if they meet legal standards for crossing streams.

Before they snaked across our landscape, numerous homeowners posted NO PIPELINE signs in their front yards and petitioned lawmakers and federal organizations to rigorously examine the alternatives and risks, but permits were approved anyway. A few large landowners benefited from leasing the rights of way, but most rural folk objected to eminent domain that overrules their property rights, the disruption of quiet lives and despoliation of scenery, as well as pollution. Their interests were easily trampled over by corporations that want the shortest route (even if more hazardous) to save money and trouble from more argumentative folk nearer urban centers. Piping energy is a big business ($Bns) and offers rich dividends for investors.

Plans were published last year for an underground mine safety research facility close by. The site is adjacent to one of our friends, an ex-coal miner who lost a relative in a mining disaster. Safety must not be neglected while coal is still mined, but why plant a facility in this valley that will send shock waves like earthquakes through rock and underground rivers? I recall the prospectus calmly noted about 2.5 miles between the testing site and the pipeline, but I measured under 2 miles on a topographical map. We await news after I raised an alarm.

gas pipeline
US Energy Information Administration

This is the worst terrain for safety and the environment, and engineers have rarely struggled with it. Not only is it mountainous, but the geology is karst. Limestone is riddled with caves, sinkholes and underground waterways that are poorly mapped. Heavy rain causes landslides, more so after erasing the ground of forest cover and other vegetation. We worry that hydraulic fluid and oils will leak into groundwater to spoil drinking water in wells and springs. They threaten aquatic life, not only protected species but trout that attract fishermen from out of state to pristine streams that helps the fragile local economy.

I admit a personal interest. We have a home nearby and it is not comforting to be told we are just outside the two-mile blast zone should a spark ignite gas from a leaking pipe. Nothing engineered is 100% safe. A smaller pipeline in Beaver County, PA, blew up in 2018. A family had a narrow escape when their home was destroyed a quarter-mile away, and several high voltage pylons were toppled.

I won’t condemn pipelines out of hand. They are better than dispatching combustible fuels on trucks and trains (remember the explosion that killed almost 50 people in Quebec in 2013?). But I don’t have confidence in how decisions are made and executed. Corporate interests easily ride over country people, native Americans, Canadians, and other minority communities. Politicians should represent their constituents first, but too many seem closer to corporate executives with deep pockets. That leaves the courts as guardians of laws to protect public drinking water and protected species.

Some questions about other controversial pipelines now encircle the ACP and MVP projects. Why build them when we should cut back on fossil fuels and put the investment in renewable solar and wind power? Was there a full accounting of ALL the costs: economic, social and environmental? Is the industrial euphoria another gold rush for the few to profit and leave the environment degraded like 19th century California? It is awful to imagine how people will suffer if the coronavirus pandemic triggers an economic depression, but it may halt the pipeline craze. I know people who would be glad if pipes lie redundant in the ground, but they will sigh at the scars left on their beloved hills and mountains.

Next Post: Looking into Hollow logs