Isabella Johnson: Black bears are an asset to Vermont landscapes and public health

This commentary is by Isabella A. Johnson, who is in line to earn a master’s degree in public health from the University of Vermont this year.

 As a graduate student working toward a master’s degree in public health, it becomes increasingly clear how fortunate I am to live in Vermont and share the landscape with abundant wildlife that contributes greatly to biodiversity. 

Many Vermonters enjoy wildlife-watching as a way to simply reduce stress. Just observing a mother bear tend to her cubs right from our kitchen windows is an instant dopamine boost. This was especially needed during the Covid-19 lockdowns of the not-so-distant past. 

Aside from our own mental health, black bears, a keystone species, provide public health benefits related to our shared environment. With bears now exiting their winter dens, it’s an opportune time to raise awareness about their value on our landscapes and their biggest threat: humans.

It’s in our best interest to adopt a One Health perspective, meaning that health is transdisciplinary, intertwined with the health of wildlife and our shared environment. We should keep this in mind as we consider why black bears are worthy of improved protections.

As a keystone species, these magnificent animals help define ecosystems, benefiting the health of other wildlife species. One way bears help promote biodiversity is by seed dispersal: Following meals, bears leave behind droppings that contain seeds from the berries they eat, dispersing the seeds throughout their habitat. 

Bears disperse over 200,000 seeds per hour per square kilometer while foraging for fruits and then excreting them on the landscape. And when they dig for roots and insects, they aerate the soil. Additionally, with the Covid-19 outbreak, many are paying closer attention to emerging zoonotic diseases (diseases transmissible from animals to humans). One of these includes brucellosis, a bacteria sometimes found in animal carcasses and their afterbirth that, if exposed, can cause serious health conditions in humans and domestic as well as other wild animals. 

Predator species like coyotes are most beneficial at scavenging the carcasses, but black bears are opportunistic eaters as well and will feed on the remains, thus aiding in the reduction of spread of disease.

Despite the vital role that bears play in our shared environment, they are hunted and killed in astonishingly high numbers in Vermont, with 20% of the Vermont bear population killed off during the last hunting season — in many cases in exceptionally cruel ways. The reason Vermont Fish & Wildlife allows a hunting season may surprise you. The bear hunting season is not based on the “biological carrying capacity” — the capacity of the land — instead, it’s based on what the public will tolerate, or the “social carrying capacity.” 

Opposingly, according to Vermont Fish & Wildlife data, nearly two-thirds of Vermont residents actually want the bear population to remain the same in their county, meaning that Vermonters want bears in their communities. So, why are they being hunted so aggressively?

Vermont has one of the longest bear hunting seasons in the country, from Sept. 1 through the end of November, including the use of hounds. It also has an unacceptably long hound “training” season that starts on June 1 and runs the entire summer. Cubs are still tiny in June, and this activity places both the mother bears and their cubs at risk as hounders unleash packs of hounds on them, chasing them for miles through the woods, into roads and onto private property. 

During the 2021 hunting season, almost half of the 841 bears killed were female. That means many cubs are left to die, since they stay with their mother for 16 months, sometimes longer. Wildlife ecologists see female bears as having higher value to the bear population than males because they rear the young. Bears have a low reproductive rate, and therefore cannot sustain this level of killing year after year. 

Hunting is also changing bear behavior, such as forcing bears to change their foraging habitats and become more active at night, even though they are not nocturnal, impeding their ability to forage successfully.

Some “sportsmen” have argued — incorrectly — that bear populations and human-bear conflicts are positively correlated and that hunting bears prevents future human-bear conflicts. However, studies prove that "human-bear conflict was not correlated with prior harvests, providing no evidence that larger harvests reduced subsequent human-bear conflict." 

The best way to reduce conflicts with bears is by changing our behavior, such as using electric fencing to secure chicken coops and beehives. Despite what some may think, approximately 88% of all bear “incidents'' recorded by Vermont Fish & Wildlife during 2021 were simply that a bear was seen. That’s hardly a conflict and not worthy of being labeled an "incident."

So what can we do? Since the No. 1 threat to bears is us, the most important thing we can do is change our behavior. Check out the Get Bear Smart Society’s tips for deterring bears and managing attractants

We must reevaluate Vermont’s bear hunting and hounding laws and do better by these magnificent animals.

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