Wildlife Wars: Animal Defenders Struggle to Change Hunting and Trapping Traditions in Vermont | Seven Days Vermont

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Wildlife Wars: Animal Defenders Struggle to Change Hunting and Trapping Traditions in Vermont 

Published September 29, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

click to enlarge A treed bear - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • A treed bear

The young black bear was munching on ripe ears of corn in a Newbury field when she heard the hounds yapping shortly after dawn. They barked intermittently but not in the manic, incessant way they would if they'd caught wind of her.

She waited, hidden in the little crop circle she'd carved, deep enough in the field to conceal herself but close enough to the forest so that she could slip away in case of danger.

That danger was growing nearer by the second, and its name was Butch Spear. The 69-year-old head of the Vermont Bearhound Association was prowling the edge of the field in his pickup, with six dogs in the truck bed and a loaded .45 Magnum pistol on the dash. A retired contractor with a bushy white beard and booming voice, Spear has patrolled the back roads of Orange and Caledonia counties and beyond for years in search of black bears.

Beginning on June 1 each year, Spear and his pack of GPS-collared hounds crisscross the landscape most mornings to find, chase and corner some of the state's 3,500 to 5,500 black bears. He does so, he says, to prevent the animals from destroying farmers' crops, to instill a fear of humans and to get his hounds in shape for bear-hunting season.

That's the period from September 15 to November 21 when licensed hunters in Vermont can kill — or "harvest," in wildlife management lingo — one bear apiece. Last year, hunters took a record 925 of the animals. Of those, 155 were killed with the help of dogs.

Spear has an outsize impact on Vermont's annual hunt because he also acts as an unofficial guide for those seeking a surefire way to bag a bear. Last year, hunters accompanying him and his dogs killed six bears, cooperation that is legal as long as no money changes hands.

"I don't even allow people to give me gas money," Spear said.

So when he and his dogs approached the little corn den on a recent Saturday, the sow, as female bears are called, had good reason to feel threatened.

click to enlarge Hounds encircling a treed bear - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Hounds encircling a treed bear

At risk of being cut off from her escape route to the forest, the bruin burst out of hiding and bolted across the narrow dirt track, 20 feet from the pickup. Driver Michael Jolley of Groton, an accomplished hunter himself at age 17, slammed on the brakes and pointed at the dark blur as she disappeared into thick brush. The dogs, their heads poking through holes in their custom-made mobile kennel, went wild.

Spear and Jolley scrambled out of the truck and wrestled the writhing canines from their chains. One by one, Buster, Joe, Sis, Lil Girl, Clutch and Dawg dashed away in pursuit, baying in delight.

"Some people call that a nasty sound," Spear said. "I call that music."

Brenna Galdenzi calls it barbaric.

The cofounder and president of Stowe-based Protect Our Wildlife, Galdenzi puts chasing bears with dogs high on her long list of unethical and unnecessary Vermont hunting practices. Hunting with hounds, trapping furbearers, killing coyotes without using their carcasses — all these traditions appall her, and she's not shy about saying so.

Since founding POW in 2015, Galdenzi and her group have campaigned to raise public awareness of hunting and trapping practices they find abhorrent, and to pressure legislators and state officials to ban or restrict them.

Her efforts have provoked pushback from hunting and trapping interests who see her ilk as intolerant outsiders attacking long-held traditions. Wildlife managers express dismay that POW's focus on the suffering of individual animals or actions of a few bad actors distorts hunting and trapping traditions, unnecessarily polarizes the public, and undermines support for habitat conservation. Such opposition has so far left POW with more setbacks than successes.

But that may be changing. Galdenzi's pointed criticism of hunting and trapping has emboldened allies, recruited throngs of passionate new ones and armed them with powerful social media tools to spread their messages. Some legislators now want Vermont's Fish & Wildlife Board, long packed with hunters, to welcome more diverse viewpoints. They're also considering limits on some practices, including hound hunting. Developments such as these, as well as new restrictions on the use of hounds on some federal land in Vermont, convince Galdenzi that a shift in how the state manages wildlife may finally be within reach.

"I feel very motivated and uplifted that there is now a revolution under way in Vermont because of us," she said.

Tracking Public Sentiment

click to enlarge Butch Spear's bear hounds - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Butch Spear's bear hounds

Galdenzi's pursuit of what she views as a more enlightened approach to wildlife management has so far been a mixed bag.

She has focused public attention on the practices she opposes through advertising, media interviews, social media and legislative testimony, stoking outrage in the process.

In 2018, that work bore rare fruit. After a long campaign by POW, Vermont became the second state, after California, to ban coyote-killing tournaments.

Since then, however, POW has had few wins, and Galdenzi admits frustration at the pace of change in a state she said is deeply resistant to any restriction on hunting rights.

For this, she blames the leadership of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, namely outgoing Commissioner Louis Porter. She decries the structure and makeup of the Fish & Wildlife Board, which has long been stacked with political appointees who are fishing, hunting or trapping license holders.

She also cites opposition from hunting and trapping organizations and their lobbyists as helping to keep the state stuck in the past.

"This isn't the 1950s," Galdenzi said. "Wildlife is facing the sixth mass extinction, and Vermont Fish & Wildlife just continues on with business as usual."

She points to a June meeting of the Fish & Wildlife Board, when the panel considered four petitions from animal rights advocates. One had been submitted by POW and three others by a newer organization, the Vermont Wildlife Coalition. They called for shortening the otter trapping season; closing the trapping season for most furbearer species, including fox and bobcats; imposing a moratorium on the trapping of fisher; and limiting the use of trail cameras that alert hunters in real time to the presence of game.

The board unanimously rejected all four petitions.

That meeting was emblematic of how POW's concerns have been treated by the board and the department, Galdenzi said. "They treat us like gum on their shoe," she said.

During the more than four-hour meeting, department biologists presented detailed explanations of their work, trends in the wildlife management field and the health of the populations of the species in question. They came across as sympathetic at times but also defensive, accusing the petitioners of cherry-picking data to make their cases, undermining the department's credibility and wasting everyone's time.

"We all felt like we were just kids being chastised," Galdenzi said. "We were being discredited and marginalized. They couldn't even throw us a bone."

Several developments give Galdenzi hope, however.

One is the recent decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to scale back hunting with hounds in the Vermont portions of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. Created in 1997, the refuge protects nearly 40,000 acres of land in four states in the Connecticut River watershed, including the 26,000-acre Nulhegan Basin in Vermont's northeast corner. After a public review process, refuge managers recently shortened by two months the hound training season because of the impact dogs can have on the habitat of ground-nesting birds, according to Andrew French, project leader at the refuge.

In addition, permits will now be required to run more than two hounds at a time in the Nulhegan. On the 286-acre Putney Mountain unit of the refuge, in southern Vermont, running hounds is now barred so as to avoid conflicts with surrounding property owners.

POW had lobbied hard for a total ban on the use of hounds in the Conte but still cheered the limited restrictions. Hunting rights groups took a different view.

A shorter training season means hound hunters do not have sufficient time to prepare their packs, said Mike Covey, president of the Vermont Traditions Coalition, which advocates for hunting, trapping and fishing rights. That will erode their ability not only to prepare for hunting season but also to help landowners frighten off problem bears.

"If their lifestyle is squashed because of the opinions of a handful of people who don't like it, then the state is the loser in this, and bears are the losers in this," Covey said. "The result is going to be that when there is a conflict with a bear, that bear gets killed."

Federal and state land managers try to align their hunting and trapping policies on public land, but in this case the refuge's focus on protecting migratory bird species tipped the balance in favor of rules to safeguard birds, French said.

"Having a group of dogs running through nesting bird habitat is not necessarily helpful," he said.

French is more concerned that such polarizing feuds over wildlife management are undermining the collaboration and compromise needed to accomplish the long-range goals of habitat conservation.

"I know what we need to be doing right now, and it's not arguing over this," said French. "If people want to protect our wildlife, they should be working to protect land for wildlife and for people."

The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department opposed the change and feels the federal comment process was flawed. The decision nevertheless tells Galdenzi that some wildlife agencies are beginning to take seriously the shift in public sentiment toward protecting wildlife for its intrinsic value rather than its uses as meat, fur or sport.

Another encouraging sign for Galdenzi is the departure of Commissioner Porter, whom she views as having been hostile to her group's goals. Porter, appointed by former Democratic governor Peter Shumlin and kept in place by Republican Gov. Phil Scott, recently announced plans to step down to become general manager of the Washington Electric Co-op. Scott has praised Porter's leadership and has not yet indicated when he'll appoint a replacement.

A new commissioner more sympathetic to and willing to work with anti-hunting groups could help usher in a more modern, conservation-minded approach to wildlife management that reflects the public's strong distaste for certain hunting practices, Galdenzi said.

Porter strongly disagrees with POW's criticism of his department and notes that many of the hunting and trapping practices POW seeks to ban are in fact proven wildlife management tools. Hunting bears with dogs, for example, instills in bears a healthy fear of contact with humans. Banning the practice would likely lead to more bear-human conflicts and an inevitable increase in the number of creatures being killed.

Eliminating recreational trapping because people find it offensive could also have significant unintended consequences, Porter said. The void would just be filled by professional trappers who remove nuisance beavers for property owners and throw away the carcasses, as has happened in Massachusetts since its 1996 ban, he said.

But social-media-savvy Vermonters appear to be accelerating a shift in public opinion against certain hunting practices, evidenced by recent viral videos posted by a Peacham duck farmer.

click to enlarge Morgan Gold posting the property line at his Gold Shaw Farm in Peacham - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Morgan Gold posting the property line at his Gold Shaw Farm in Peacham

Morgan Gold, who moved to Peacham from Washington, D.C., in 2018, made the videos to document run-ins with raccoon and bear hunters and their dogs on his 160-acre property. One features a confrontation with Spear, the bear hunter, after Spear's dogs had treed a young black bear.

Gold has shared videos of the encounter on social media channels with nearly 2 million followers. Versions of the video with Spear have generated more than 3 million views on Facebook and 14 million on TikTok. They've prompted tens of thousands of comments and fueled more than 95,000 signatures on a petition to ban hunting with hounds, branding the practice a "menace to Vermont residents and wildlife."

Some lawmakers are listening. Several pending bills at the Statehouse would restrict hunting and trapping practices. These include H.172, which would ban the use of dogs in bear hunting and limit trapping to situations where the wildlife is a nuisance. Another, S.129, introduced by Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington), would change the makeup of the Fish & Wildlife Board to provide a wider range of viewpoints.

"By far, the majority of Vermonters want their voices to be heard on this issue," Campion said. He expects the topic to be "front and center" in the upcoming session because people, especially young people, are increasingly sensitive to animal welfare issues, he said.

"Just because we've been doing things for 300 years doesn't mean we should continue to do them," he said.

A Clash of Values

click to enlarge Brenna Galdenzi with her dog, Snoopy, at her home in Stowe - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Brenna Galdenzi with her dog, Snoopy, at her home in Stowe

One of the most common complaints about those who seek to restrict hunting and trapping in Vermont is that they weren't born in the state and don't understand its traditions. Spear, who was born in Newbury but grew up in upstate New York, prides himself on being a seventh-generation Vermonter.

"You might be a transplant to Vermont, but you'll never be a true Vermonter," he said.

Although many of Galdenzi's supporters are natives of the state, even some decision makers share Spear's outlook.

"These people come into this state because they 'like it,'" former Fish & Wildlife Board member Bill Pickens said during the June meeting, using air quotes. "And they get here and find out what we do, and they can't stand it anymore."

He could have been talking about Galdenzi.

She and her husband moved to Stowe in 2010 from Rocky Hill, Conn., where she worked in the financial planning industry. A committed vegetarian, she began volunteering for the advocacy group Green Mountain Animal Defenders and soon realized that trapping was a thing here. Someone showed her a photo of a trapper beside a bobcat in a leghold trap, and she had a visceral reaction to the image.

"The bobcat has such fear in its eyes, it struck a primal instinct in me," Galdenzi said. "I thought I was looking at something that was illegal."

She became more involved in the group's anti-trapping campaigns, but the Burlington-based nonprofit — which also focused on spay and neutering programs — only had so much bandwidth, she said.

"I think the public has really been waiting for an organization that is really an unapologetic voice for wildlife," she said.

She founded POW to be just that. Her sense of outrage still permeates much of its work. The all-volunteer group's website and Facebook page are replete with videos of hunting and trapping practices, particularly images of animals in distress. Many are selfies taken by hunters and trappers who share them on social media. Galdenzi and POW volunteers repost and share them with their followers, who often respond with outrage.

A Facebook post from June 13 last year includes a photo of an unidentified young man with glasses looking into the camera, a red fox caught in a trap behind him.

"This kid just posted telling us that trapping is needed. Future serial killer," the post read.

"Love to see his foot in a bear trap!!" one commenter added.

This is where POW crosses the line, by assailing hunters who aren't doing anything illegal, said Covey, the sportsmen's lobbyist. It's one thing to attack policy makers or professional advocates like him, but to expose people to public ridicule just for exercising their rights is wrong, he said.

"They'll attack random individuals simply because they don't believe those individuals should be allowed to live their lifestyle," Covey said.

Galdenzi says hunters and trappers who have shared images of themselves on social media platforms are fair game. POW has more than 18,000 followers, so she and fellow volunteers can't be expected to police every post, she said.

"Are there comments on our Facebook page that are mean-spirited and inappropriate? Absolutely," she said.

She doesn't condone the use of harassing language on the site, she said, but then acknowledged that she wrote the post calling the trapper a "future serial killer." She said she did so after he'd shared the picture on POW's page in an apparent effort to antagonize her members.

"This image just really rubbed me the wrong way, and I responded quickly without really thinking about what other terminology I could have used," she said.

She said studies have shown desensitization to the prolonged suffering of animals can be a sign of psychopathic tendencies, and the act of stopping to take a smiling selfie while a frightened animal struggled nearby struck her as fitting that category. She has since removed the comment.

Criticism of POW's tactics distracts from what she considers the indefensible fact that hunters and trappers often kill animals not for the meat or the pelts, which are usually worthless, but just for the pleasure of it, she said. A more typical post, she noted, was one that shared a photo of a trapper posing on a couch with a dead river otter. The trapper is Covey. She urged her followers to refrain from personal attacks.

"That is what the opposition does, and we don't want to stoop to their level," the post reads.

Hunting for Change

click to enlarge Butch Spear (left) and Michael Jolley collecting bear hounds after a hunt - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Butch Spear (left) and Michael Jolley collecting bear hounds after a hunt

Vince Illuzzi is one Vermont native who questions some traditional hunting practices. The former state senator, who has been Essex County state's attorney since 1999, recalled how advocates such as the late activist Iris Muggenthaler testified in Montpelier in the 1990s against the use of leghold traps. While there was not much traction for a ban at the time, the practice always troubled him, he said. Illuzzi said he hunted deer as a young man but gave it up as he pursued his legal and political career.

While he understands that many view hunting and trapping as cherished traditions, Vermonters have also shown that they can change when it's the right thing to do. Lawmakers used to have to swear they were Protestants to take a seat in the legislature, he noted.

"People evolve. My thinking has evolved," Illuzzi said. "Civilization is a work in progress."

Illuzzi thinks hunting bears with dogs and trapping furbearers in leghold traps are cruel practices that should be relegated to the history books. He signed a petition circulated by Derby resident Walter Medwid urging the Fish & Wildlife Board to better reflect a population that is increasingly opposed to recreational trapping.

Medwid, the cofounder of the Vermont Wildlife Coalition, said wildlife management departments around the nation are struggling to adapt to an environment in which they remain beholden to the hunters, trappers and anglers whose license fees fund their departments. The state needs to broaden its narrow view of who it manages wildlife for, he said.

"Wildlife is held in a public trust. It is not owned by any stakeholder group but by all the public and must be managed to reflect all of the citizens," Medwid urged the board at its June meeting.

Most residents now oppose trapping, with 65 percent supporting a ban on the practice, according to a 2017 survey conducted by the University of Vermont's Center for Rural Studies. Bringing the state's regulations into alignment with such views is needed to "modernize Vermont's wildlife governance and bring it into the 21st century," he told the board.

Veteran furbearer biologist Kim Royar responded that the department is well aware attitudes toward trapping have changed but said that's only one factor policy makers need to take into account.

"It's not a popularity contest. It's about what's in the best interests of the resource and people's connection to that resource," she said.

Revenue from all license types makes up about a third of the Fish & Wildlife Department's $26 million budget, with another third coming from federal excise taxes on ammunition, Porter said. That means two-thirds of its work is funded by hunters, trappers and anglers. Higher fees have offset somewhat the steady overall decline in total license sales.

Since 1985, annual sales of in-state fishing licenses have dropped by 15 percent, to 88,591. In-state hunting permits have fallen 42 percent, to 55,290. Most dramatically, trapping permits have plunged 75 percent, to 747.

The actual number of those hunting is greater, however, when lifetime permits are considered, Porter said.

Fish & Wildlife's services, including wetlands restoration, development review and habitat conservation, benefit everyone in the state, Porter noted.

"Those who do not pay through excise taxes or license fees are getting a tremendous amount of great work done for a small amount of money," Porter said.

Medwid and others in his organization have no beef with people hunting game such as deer and turkey, but he believes passionately that predators need particular protection. He was director of Minnesota-based conservation group International Wolf Center from 1993 to 2007 and participated in the controversial effort to return wolves to Yellowstone National Park. Apex predators such as wolves and bobcats don't need to be hunted to control their populations because they self-limit their numbers based on the available food supply, he said. The same principle applies to predators in Vermont, he said.

"There is no reason, ecologically, to hunt bobcats. None," he said.

click to enlarge David McLam, who processes game in Bradford, showing a molar removed from a bear that will be submitted to state biologists - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • David McLam, who processes game in Bradford, showing a molar removed from a bear that will be submitted to state biologists

Porter doesn't disagree but strongly objects to the characterization of his department as behind the times or beholden to hunting and trapping interests. State wildlife biologists are some of the most experienced in the nation and make decisions based on sound science. If a species has a healthy and abundant population, there is no scientific reason to limit their taking, he said. Controlling animal populations is just one justification for hunting, Porter said. Others include harvesting animals for their meat and pelts, enjoyment, and spending time outdoors and with family, he added.

"Do you view hunting as intrinsically a bad thing that should be limited except where necessary for population management? Or do you view hunting as an intrinsically good thing, provided it's not having some negative impact on the population?" Porter asked. "Those are fundamentally different worldviews that are at the center of this disagreement over Vermont's future."

Those who oppose some or all hunting often draw a dividing line between "consumptive" uses of wildlife, such as hunting and trapping, and "nonconsumptive" uses, such as bird-watching. But Porter rejects that as a false dichotomy.

The hunter who shoots a deer and eats it has clearly consumed that animal. But, he said, so has the driver who hits one on the way to the supermarket, or the mountain biker whose favorite trail network fragments the forest. People who build homes in wildlife habitat, or birders who tromp through nesting areas, can also harm wildlife.

"If you don't like people wearing fur because of the impact on wildlife, but you're wearing clothing made out of plastic or cotton, recognize the impact you're having," Porter said.

The notion that the department hasn't evolved to focus on nongame species is just false, he said. Fish & Wildlife spends vastly more of its time and energy on protecting nongame species such as loons, eagles and peregrine falcons and their habitats than it did 30 years ago, Porter added.

The characterization of the department as insensitive to the suffering of animals is also wrong, Porter said. In fact, many of the trapping regulations in particular — the types of traps allowed, how and where they are set, and the requirement that they be checked daily — are in place to limit unnecessary suffering, he said.

While the 14-member Fish & Wildlife Board hasn't approved any of the petitions from animal advocacy groups during his tenure, Porter rejects the suggestion that the board and the department are biased in favor of the status quo or didn't take the petitions seriously.

The department's support for reasonable changes to hunting and trapping law also demonstrates that it is in no way dismissive of such concerns, he said. For example, in 2019 the department backed new regulations on professional, or nuisance, trappers. The rules now require paid trappers to take a course, regularly check traps, and report when cats or dogs are accidentally snared.

Similarly, the department supports a version of a bill that would require hunters to retrieve and dispose of the wildlife they kill, to prevent what critics say amounts to "wanton waste."

But when petitions seek to ban hunting or trapping practices for philosophical reasons instead of biological ones, that becomes an issue for the legislature, he said — not a group of appointed volunteers.

If the governor appointed members to the board who didn't hunt, fish or trap, as animal welfare advocates have sought for years, Porter said, he would have no problem as long as "they were supportive of the fact that hunting, fishing and trapping is a part to our wildlife management."

And if they support deer and duck hunting but not, say, trapping bobcats in leghold traps?

"They should run for the legislature," he said.

'Liberty ... to Hunt and Fowl'

click to enlarge Vermont Game Warden Will Seegers patrolling the Peacham area - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Vermont Game Warden Will Seegers patrolling the Peacham area

Hunting is enshrined in the Vermont Constitution, which gives residents "liberty in seasonable times, to hunt and fowl on the lands they hold, and on other lands not inclosed."

That means hunters can take game on private land not posted with signs every 400 feet denying them that right.

Confusion over this rule appears to be at the root of the confrontation between Gold and the hound hunters on his land. First, a group of raccoon hunters and their dogs traipsed across his property close to midnight, provoking a heated exchange and calls to game wardens and state police.

"They were rude and basically telling me, 'We've been hunting this land for years, so we've been doing this a lot longer than you, butthead," Gold recalled.

While some signs had been up on his property, he acknowledges that, at the time, he hadn't posted enough of them or updated his registration with the town as a no-hunting zone, as required annually.

Warden Will Seegers said when hunting dogs accidentally cross on to posted land, hunters are supposed to seek permission from the property owner to retrieve their dogs. Since Gold's land wasn't properly posted at the time, the raccoon hunters didn't break the law, and no citations were issued, Seegers said.

The encounter nevertheless upset Gold, his wife, his guard dog, and his flock of duck and geese. During a recent interview on his farm, Gold said he recognizes he's the quintessential flatlander who has moved to a place with traditions and is now complaining about them. But the more he looked into the issue, the more that hunting with dogs struck him as inherently in conflict with private property rights. Even if his property were properly posted, hound dogs on a scent wouldn't care, setting up inevitable conflict between neighbors, he said.

"It seems bizarre to me that people are able to release their dogs, let them run uncontrolled across the landscape and then ask for forgiveness from landowners when something bad happens," he said as he stapled yellow "private property" signs on trees in the woods along his farm boundary.

That's exactly what happened earlier this month when Spear showed up at Gold's property, explained that his dogs had treed a bear and then asked if he could retrieve them. Gold initially told Spear to scram but then agreed to let him fetch his dogs and tagged along with his video camera. Gold has posted hundreds of videos of life on his farm on YouTube; advertising connected to the videos has generated the bulk of the farm's income.

"I was a YouTube celebrity even before I got home!" recalled Spear, who doesn't use email, let alone social media.

The two parted ways agreeing to meet to further discuss their differences. That has yet to happen.

click to enlarge Corn grower Les Morrison checking on bear damage in his Peacham fields - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Corn grower Les Morrison checking on bear damage in his Peacham fields

Spear knows Gold is within his rights to post his land but also thinks he's being selfish. Gold is effectively preventing his own neighbors, such as Peacham corn farmer Les Morrison, from being able to use a tried-and-true management tool.

"That means the people that have lived here, people that have hunted the same land that their father and their grandfather hunted, can no longer go on that land," Spear said. "It's legal, but is it right?"

Gold counters that he's had to take steps such as installing electric fencing and training a guard dog to keep predators off his farm, and he thinks those suffering corn damage from bears might consider similar techniques with "less collateral damage."

Spear has continued to send his dogs after bears, including the sow who fled the cornfield in Newbury. That day, Spear made no effort to keep up with the chase on foot, which would have been futile. The animals shot down a steep ravine and were out of earshot in moments.

He and Jolley hopped back into the pickup and drove around for the next half hour looking for the dogs on their multiple GPS trackers. Eventually the men headed up a logging road, got out of the pickup and — after Spear took a hit off his asthma inhaler — followed a signal toward a spot several hundred yards away.

They scrambled through thick brush, hopped a creek or two and found their bear about 25 feet up a towering hemlock tree. The dogs circled the base of the tree, baying like mad. Spear recorded a short video, apparently as insurance against the hunt being misrepresented.

He acknowledged that some members of his organization think he's foolish to continue talking to journalists, given the recent unwelcome attention Gold's videos have attracted to their sport. He said he was speaking on the issue solely as an individual hunter and was doing so to dispel misinformation, including the impression that hunters harm cubs. He would never kill a nursing mother because that means her cubs would starve. "If I accidentally shot a sow with cubs, I'd feel bad about it. I do have a heart," he said.

Unlike shooting a bear on the ground, which sometimes leaves just a split-second to make a firing decision, shooting a treed bear allows hunters to take their time. They can determine the animal's size and gender with reasonable certainty and ensure a clean shot.

The practice, however, is controversial even in hunting circles.

"Clearly, if you're sitting in your truck and you're waiting for your dogs to tree a bear and then you're driving as close as you can to that tree and then you're walking up and shooting the bear, that's not fair chase," said Justin Spring, director of big game records for the Montana-based Boone and Crockett Club, the nation's oldest wildlife habitat conservation organization, which supports hunting.

Spear doesn't agree and feels that bears are sufficiently wily, which makes it fair to pursue them with dogs. The GPS tracking collars merely keep his hounds safe and allow him to find and retrieve them more quickly from people's land.

In any case, Spear wasn't interested in killing the treed sow, which he estimated to be a mere 130 pounds. He and Jolley weren't even armed. The season is long, and Spear said he had plenty of time to find stouter quarry with which to stock his freezer.

Even so, he reckoned the sow would think twice about camping out in a cornfield again.

So he and Jolley leashed their dogs, led them a short distance away and gave the bear — the 42nd one Spear had cornered this season — an easy escape route. When the woods quieted, she cautiously made her way down the trunk, plopped to the forest floor and disappeared.

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About The Author

Kevin McCallum

Kevin McCallum

Kevin McCallum is a political reporter at Seven Days, covering the Statehouse and state government. He previously was a reporter at The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, Calif.

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