Kirk Robinson: We should learn to live peacefully with wild animals in Utah

Pursuing a bear with dogs does nothing to preserve the state’s wildlife.

In response to the Salt Lake Tribune’s June 7 article, “Bear capture case illuminates dark side of pursuing wildlife with dogs for ‘sport’”:

The story and the accompanying video are about an incident that occurred three years ago in Grand County, where a black bear was chased by a pack of nine hounds until it dropped from exhaustion, unable even to lift a paw to defend itself from being bitten. The dogs were not called off for about two minutes. Then the bear was put into a dog box and reportedly released again a couple of days later to be pursued again.

Bear and cougar pursuit with hounds is legal in Utah. People who engage in it are not after a kill, just the excitement of the chase. In addition, there are legal hunts for these animals that typically also involve pursuing them with packs of hounds until they are treed or cornered for an easy kill. There is also bear baiting, which involves dumping a pile of smelly garbage in the forest, then shooting the bear with an arrow when it shows up to check out the promise of an easy meal.

It was illegal not to call the dogs off immediately and to cage the bear. But was it fair chase? There is no legal definition of fair chase, but it is usually explained as hunting that gives the quarry a reasonable chance of escape. Does bear baiting satisfy this definition? How about pursuing bears and cougars with hounds? It is true that sometimes the quarry gets away, but it is not easy to do, especially when, as often happens, an animal gets chased repeatedly.

Does being chased by hounds harm the animals? Clearly, it didn’t do this particular bear any good. And what if it was a lactating female with cubs? (The story does not say it wasn’t.) It is illegal in Utah to knowingly pursue or kill a bear or cougar with cubs, but hunters cannot normally tell whether the animal being pursued is a lactating female until they catch it. The dogs pick up the scent and almost invariably bring the quarry to bay before the hunter arrives. Almost never is an enforcement officer on the scene.

Life in the wild is hard for bears, particularly in a drought when food is scarce. The energy budget is slim, especially for sows with cubs. Will a bear suffering a calorie deficit from being chased become more prone to search for an easy meal at a campground or cabin and end up hurting someone? How are the bear and lion cubs affected if mom is killed or is not producing enough milk? These are factual questions with moral implications that should be addressed.

There are no scientific studies showing that pursing bears or cougars with hounds, let alone killing them in general hunts, is necessary for scientifically sound wildlife management. Instead, there is an abundance of research from the last 20 years showing that, ironically, hunting predators causes some of the very conflicts with humans it is intended to prevent.

Despite this, several hundred bears and cougars are legally killed in Utah each year for sport and trophy. On the other hand, no one has ever been killed by a cougar in Utah and only two people have been killed by black bears in recent memory — very hungry ones. Those bears were put down by the authorities.

Most people have by now come to value wild animals as intelligent, sentient and emotional beings with their own needs and interests. Perhaps we would do well to learn to live peacefully with them.

If a bear or cougar should become a serious problem, it can be removed. But we should not pretend that constantly harassing them and killing them accomplishes any good beyond generating revenue for the Division of Wildlife Resources and giving enjoyment to a small number of people.

Kirk Robinson.

Kirk Robinson, Ph.D., is executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy, Salt Lake City.