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

Bearly in Spitting Distance

I had to post this news while it is still fresh in my mind. Around noon today, I decided to take a break from writing and have lunch on the deck of our Allegheny Mountain home. I hoped to see some wildlife.

A pair of hummingbirds was squabbling around the nectar feeder, but the scene was otherwise peaceful. The heads of Queen Anne’s Lace were drooping at the end of their season in the little glade, and beech leaves at the forest edge were still. Only the tops of quaking aspens fluttered in the slight breeze.

I thought I caught a movement in the corner of my eye, but when I turned sharply I only saw the hummers. I went back to my coffee and sardines on toast.

I was still munching when a black form cast across my retina, and looked up. At a measured distance of only 18 feet away, well within spitting distance, was a black bear weighing 250 or so pounds—perhaps the biggest beast I have seen here. How it didn’t see me I don’t understand, unless bears are even more short-sighted than I assumed. He or she was an awesome sight. I was amazed that such a bulky animal could wander so close on a gravel path without making a sound.

Black bear
Sooty bear checks out my camera

It put its nose into the air, but didn’t catch my scent, and then its eyes scanned this way and that, but still didn’t notice me despite sitting directly in its vision without anything between us. I had frozen with my sandiness held aloft a few inches from my mouth, and hoping it wouldn’t notice them!

Black bear
Night-time visitor

After this close encounter, which lasted only seconds rather than the minutes it seemed, the animal sauntered on. I knew where it was going. I had seen it every day since arriving on the weekend, but only through my window and mostly at dusk or later. It goes to find corn under my automatic feeder close-by. My best view was from the downstairs bathroom. It is surely the only shower stall in the county from which you can watch bears, though it’s unnecessary to be bare to enjoy the experience.

I now feel an affinity for the animal I named Sooty, although it doesn’t share my sentiments. On another occasion when it spotted me, it scampered into the woods like a frightened rabbit. But I enjoy the company and fear for its safety. I hope it stays around this refuge and doesn’t bother my nearest neighbors down the valley.

Yesterday, my only visitor of the week arrived to make an indoor repair. He is one of biggest bear-hunters in the county, and he regaled me with stories of tracking down animals as we sat on the deck after he finished the job. But I feel like Sooty’s parent and am keeping mum.