In the Field

Is Bear Hunting Necessary and Ethical?

Wildlife Photography Blog & Photo Expeditions | Wild Revelation Outdoors

A question that I’ve been asked countless times from my guide service clients over the years, especially my bear viewing and photography clients in Alaska, is if bear hunting is really necessary and why it’s allowed. To objectively answer that question, one first needs to understand the relationship between predator and prey animals…especially in regard to within an animal’s own species, as with bears.

In many areas throughout North America, there is a significant imbalance between the number of predatory animals VS the number of prey animals. In some instances this imbalance is due to poor habitat or habitat destruction, resulting in prey animals not having enough cover or food, which makes them weak, easy to find targets for predators. In other cases though, this imbalance is due to an overabundance of predatory animals themselves. In the lower 48, for example, small game species such as rabbits, quail, pheasants, turkey, and others similar animals have been decimated in certain areas that are overrun with coyotes and other predators. Not to mention, massively overpopulated numbers of coyotes also gobble up newborn calves from nearby cattle ranches, as well as even prey on people’s pets.

A similar phenomenon has taken place over the years in locations such as Idaho and Montana where elk populations in some areas of those states have been reduced as much as 80% due to a disproportionate number of wolves. Likewise, in parts of Alaska, an overabundance of large predatory animals, such as grizzly bears, black bears, and wolves, have been responsible for a significant reduction of other species of wildlife, especially moose, whose calves are a primary target for predation. These can be rather sensitive topics, especially for those who live in such areas. And that’s why it’s important to get the facts on such issues, instead of consuming information based on mere emotion and opinion. If you’d like to read actual studies on some of these issues, based on extensive scientific research, click here, and here. But to get back on topic, in such circumstances of overabundant predator populations, thinning out a specified number of those predators is an important and relatively fast conservation tactic to bring back a healthy balance between predator and prey.

A pack of wolves hot on the trail of a cow elk.
A pack of wolves hot on the trail of a cow elk.

This tactic is also applied to maintain a healthy number of predatory animals among their own species, especially in regard to bears. One of the biggest natural threats to healthy bear populations is often the bears themselves, as mature male bears can wipe out a population of cubs in their area by killing and eating them, which they regularly do both for food as well as a means of influencing the mother bear to come back into her reproduction mode again. In many parts of Alaska, a specific number of bears is harvested each year in key locations…based on extensive scientific research…in order to keep the population as a whole healthy and in balance.

Brown gear/Grizzly bear kills cub
Bear cubs, like this one, are regularly killed by aggressive male bears both for food, as well as to bring the mother bear back into heat.

Many critics of such measures often say that predator control efforts are not needed and that Mother Nature can take care of herself…which she can, and does…however, it can take Mother Nature decades to bring back into balance what scientifically sound conservation tactics can bring about in just a few years or less. Not to mention, Mother Nature’s way of balancing wildlife populations is often through disease, habitat destruction, and other means which can negatively affect species of wildlife that have been in balance previously.

As an example, the bear population on Kodiak Island, Alaska, is the healthiest it’s ever been, and this is larger due to a well-managed hunting program. What’s more, as ironic as it may seem to some, the primary reason the Kodiak brown bear even exists today is because of hunters. During the early 1900s, the iconic bear almost became extinct due to unregulated killing by cattle ranchers and others who placed tremendous pressure on the bear population. Meanwhile, hunters and other concerned conservationists joined together and worked for the bear’s protection. And, in 1941 they were rewarded for their efforts by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who set aside almost two million acres (1.987 to be exact) which is now the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Active and effective wildlife management practices, of which selective, well-regulated hunting is a major component of, is what continues to be responsible for a healthy, thriving population of Kodiak brown bears.

Hunters in the early 1900's joined together to push for protection and regulated hunting of the Kodiak Brown bear, which eventually led to the founding of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in 1941
Hunters in the early 1900’s joined together to push for protection and regulated hunting of the Kodiak Brown bear, which eventually led to the founding of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in 1941.

On a personal note, while I’ve hunted and eaten black bear over the years, I’ve never had an interest in hunting the Kodiak bear or coastal brown bears. I’ve simply grown too fond of them and have developed a great kinship toward them. So, I’ll continue to hunt them with my camera, fish alongside them on my favorite salmon rivers, and respectfully share the wilderness with them as an honored guest.

To see more photos, check out the video version of this story by clicking here.

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How to photograph bears. Photography book. Joseph Classen.
To learn more about bears, check out my book, How to Photograph Bear – The Beauty of the Beast.