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December 09, 2016
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Black bear controversy in the Catskills

John MacNaught

The population of black bears in the Catskills is steadily rising. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) 2013 black bear harvest summary, 636 bears were taken in the southeastern zone of the state. This number is up from the 2012 hunting season, which had a take of 442 bears, and is also higher than the previous five-year average of 521 bears taken per season.

The DEC has recently released a 10-year black bear management plan for 2014-2024. Several changes are being proposed in an attempt to stabilize, and eventually reduce, the population of black bears in the Catskills. The most controversial proposed change I have heard people debating is the proposed implementation of a 16-day early firearm season for black bear hunting beginning the first Saturday after Labor Day.

Through people I have spoken to and public comments I have read, I gather that the proposed early hunting season is a concern to hikers and other fall recreationalists within the Catskill Park. The month of September can offer some of the most rewarding hikes as exhausting temperatures begin to drop and fall foliage emerges with shorter day length. As both an avid hiker and an avid hunter, I have a good understanding of both sides of this argument, but I strongly believe hikers and hunters can co-exist with no concerns for safety as long as the proper measures are taken.

Since the 1960s, an early bear season has occurred within the Adirondack Park during September and October even as thousands of recreational hikers enjoy the fall foliage. From my personal experience of hiking in the Adirondacks during the early bear season, the general public has little concern for their safety knowing that hunters are in the woods with them, and any hiker who is concerned is wearing blaze orange to be seen more clearly.

Black bears are generally skittish animals and will avoid interactions with humans whenever possible. For convenience, most hikers use marked and maintained trails, which black bears typically avoid when people are actively using the trail, unless to travel for only a short distance. From the hunter’s standpoint, he or she will likely choose to pursue a bear well away from a trail where people actively hike, because chances for success are too low near the trail. [Finally] the DEC has no record of a hunting-related injury ever to have occurred upon a hiker in the past 50 years (or more).

I have seen public comment asking the DEC to consider allowing hunters to take more than one bear and to extend the bear season longer into December as an alternative to an early season. This would likely have minimal effects on populations, as most hunters don’t set out to shoot a bear; they will only shoot one if given the opportunity, and the majority of bears have already entered their den by the first week in December.

The DEC is accepting public comments on the black bear management plan for 2014-2024 until July 7. It can be found at www.dec.ny.gov/press/97082.html, along with instructions on how to submit. I encourage all who are interested to do so, or to contact the Catskill Forest Association at 845/586-3054.

[John MacNaught writes Facebook postings, along with education forester Ryan Trapani, for the Catskill Forest Association.]