What is the worth of a bear’s life?

March 15, 2021 6:00 am

(Nevada Department of Wildlife photo)

In 2018, the nation’s fish and wildlife agencies in conjunction with their own polling agency and a couple of universities conducted a national survey of public attitudes regarding a variety of wildlife management issues and values. Nearly 44,000 citizens were queried as to their preferences. 

The respondents were grouped into four categories: Traditionalist, Mutualist, Pluralist and Indifferent. Traditionalists regard wildlife as a commodity or product to be “harvested”; Mutualists advocate treating wildlife with respect and tolerance; Pluralists are a combination of those two categories; Indifferents had little interest in the topic.

Among the topics explored in the survey, anthropomorphism (the attribution of human characteristics to non-human species) drew interesting responses. Mutualists and Pluralists were nearly identical in their views (shown below as a combined average of the two categories). 

  • Do animals have Free Will? 66% agreed.
  • Do animals have Intentions? 70% agreed. 
  • Do animals have Consciousness? 75% agreed.
  • Do animals have Minds of Their Own? 85% agreed
  • Do animals have Emotions? 85% agreed

(Traditionalists scored much lower on all items.)

Wildlife management agencies, including the Nevada Department of Wildlife, do NOT as a rule, manage wildlife species by individual. Jack Robb, Deputy Director, Nevada Department of Wildlife said recently, “We don’t manage animals. We manage populations.”   

Game species in Nevada can range in population numbers from mountain goats and bears (300-400) to mountain lions (1,400), bighorn sheep (12,000), elk (17,000), pronghorn (29,000) and mule deer (93,000).  

Based upon the emerging and emphatic public attitudes regarding anthropomorphism, wildlife management agencies such as the Nevada Department of Wildlife are facing new management challenges. How can the agency continue to manage for “populations” when most of the public sees important human-like characteristics to be present in wildlife species that the public “owns” and enjoys as a Public Trust asset? Does the notion of managing only “populations’ need to be flexible in certain situations?

Turning to our case in point, there is no question the public sees the bear as one of several iconic wildlife species, alongside the bald eagle, wolf, bighorn sheep and others. Bears have their homes, their friends, their habits. Tahoe residents know them by name, by lineage, by where they live, by their relatives, by their personalities, their quirks, their preferences.

The unpopular black bear hunt in Nevada was created in 2010 (after an 80-year absence) by the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners. The first bear hunt occurred in 2011.

Nevada has a sparse black bear population numbering a few hundred (400 +/-) animals living mostly along the Sierra Front and close-by mountain ranges. A quota of 20 bears represents the number of adult bears (male/female) that can be killed each year. The hunting season runs from September – November.

Here’s a question:  Why have a black bear hunt given such a small population? Is there some biological or “management” reason to kill up to 20 bears/year, particularly when 30-40 bears/year are killed by vehicle collisions, other accidents, or by the Nevada Department of Wildlife for urban/bear conflicts?  

Here’s what we know are NOT reasons for the bear hunt:

  • The Nevada black bear hunt is NOT for management purposes, that is to control the bear population or to manage urban/bear conflicts in the Lake Tahoe Basin. The Nevada Department of Wildlife confirms this.
  • Hunting black bears in Nevada is NOT a way to improve their status or quality. Bears are not killed in a random manner but according to characteristics attractive to the hunter. Targeted animals are often the largest, most attractive (color, size, other features) and successful in their environment. Removing these bears deprives the remaining (limited) population of valuable future genetic contributions.
  • The black bear hunt has nothing to do with assuring public safety. There is no record of a fatal human/black bear encounter in Nevada’s modern history.

What, then is the rationale for Nevada’s black bear hunt?  The answer is simply stated: “Hunter Opportunity.”

Although absent in Nevada Revised Statutes, Nevada Administrative Code, or agency regulations, the term “hunter opportunity” is a behind-the-scenes, often unspoken, but powerful motivational factor that highly influences decisions by the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners (most of whom are Traditionalists).  “Hunter opportunity” often trumps other management options more favorable to wildlife.

We now have the ingredients to respond to the title of our piece.  Given Nevada’s unique circumstances regarding its limited black bear population, here is the key question:

Does “hunter opportunity” …. the ability for a hunter to get an adrenaline rush by killing a bear … outweigh the worth of the life of that individual bear being killed?

We think not. What’s your answer?

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Don Molde
Don Molde

Reno-based Don Molde is president of the Nevada Wildlife Alliance, and has actively participated in the state Wildlife Commission's deliberations for over four decades.