by Chris Pomorski
For the veteran sportsman, hunting in what remains of New Jersey’s once-profuse wilderness can be a vexing and undignified experience. I have this on good authority from an Alaskan transplant named Tom Slaughter, who has been shelled with birdshot on a pheasant shoot and had deer bait stolen from him by a stranger while hunting in a Garden State forest. On a third occasion, in the winter of 2005, in a little-populated community in the northeastern part of the state, Tom looked on, dumbstruck in the snow, as another man made off with the carcass of a bear he had shot.
Tom explained all this to me in the frosted predawn dark of one Monday last December, the opening day of bear season. We were rumbling in his fifteen-year-old light gold Chevy Suburban along winding, empty roads, past the Wanaque Reservoir and Ramapo Mountain, making for a hunt site Tom had staked out in Passaic County. Three months earlier, a few miles away, Darsh Patel, a twenty-two-year-old Rutgers student, had been mauled by a three-hundred-pound bruin while hiking with friends, earning the unfortunate distinction of being the first person in recorded New Jersey history to die of a bear attack.
The hunt wasn’t retributive. The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife had scheduled an annual six-day hunt long before the attack, as part of a five-year population control plan. Nearly sixteen hundred bears had been taken over the last four years, and official estimates suggested that in the northwest counties of the state, where black bears are most numerous, the population had been reduced by about thirty percent. But Patel’s death inflamed a long-running debate between supporters of the hunt and a small, vocal opposition. “Animal rights activists have been calling bears ‘the dolphins of the forest,’” Anthony Mauro, the chairman of the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance, told a local reporter. “But things like this can happen. I think that is why the attack may have been good, to help sober up people a little bit.”
Growing up in New Jersey in the nineties, I never encountered a single bear — or even anything to suggest the presence of bears. We had raccoons in the chimney, the occasional squirrel incursion, but nothing more serious. There had been that episode of The Sopranos where a black bear destroyed some of Tony’s patio furniture, but this I had taken as a surrealistic one-off, a comic metaphor about the mafioso’s bizarre habitation among the plastic surgeons and poolboys of North Caldwell.
As it turns out, New Jersey has pretty much always had bears, and often, quite a lot of them. The black bear, which is the state’s only ursine species, held dominion over the region’s wooded areas when the Dutch showed up to claim it in the early seventeenth century. We know this in part from bone fragments found in the kitchen middens of the Native Americans known as the Delaware or the Lenape, reliable information about whom is otherwise scant, not least because a lot of it lies sealed beneath parkway and parking lot. The Dutch — and the other Europeans who followed — quickly discovered that bears could be inconvenient while clearing forests for towns, lumber, and agriculture, and set about slaughtering them indiscriminately. (This fate befell more or less every creature they encountered, up to and including other humans.) It’s unclear exactly how numerous black bears were at the time of European arrival, but they were commonly sighted throughout the region that would later be called New Jersey. By the mid-twentieth century, the fewer than one hundred of them that remained had been corralled into the northern precincts of the state.
But for the last sixty years or so, New Jersey has protected bears from unlimited hunting, and their numbers have rebounded, to some thirty-six hundred in the northwest areas of the state. Kelcey Burguess, who is the principal biologist for the NJDFW, told me that as a function of cultural carrying capacity — a metric central to wildlife management throughout the country, which is calibrated based on how well humans tolerate a given species — the ideal density for black bear is about one per three square miles. Some three-square-mile plots in North Jersey now have ten.
Ursus americanus is born in midwinter in twos and threes, helpless and blind. Barring an untimely intervention, it will live perhaps twenty years in the wild, stretching to about five-and-a-half feet in length and packing on between two hundred and six hundred pounds. Name notwithstanding, a black bear may be bright blond, cinnamon, or blue-gray. All have twenty curved, non-retractable claws, each more than an inch long, which they use to dig for roots and insects, climb trees, and savage carrion. (Black bears rarely bother humans, but Burguess gave me to understand that playing dead in the presence of a curious one makes for a poor survival strategy.) The black bear’s omnivorous predilections tend not to endear it to people who make a living from agriculture. A man who would identify himself only as Eric, who runs a grain corn and Christmas tree concern in northwest Sussex County, told me that many local farmers view the bears as vermin. “They eat anything and everything,” he said. “And they crap all over the place. The crop damage is way worse than anything you’d get from deer.”
Though Burguess believes that most New Jerseyans remain as oblivious as I was to the bears in their midst, black bears have, in recent years, been spotted in all twenty-one state counties. A spin through local press archives provides some hint as to why even non-farming residents might consider that a problem: In 2012, a bear galloping full tilt shattered the glass doors of a Sussex County elementary school and proceeded to stroll the hallways, startling a custodian. In West Milford, a housebreaking bear was euthanized after a tracking tag identified her as a repeat offender. A third, apparently savvier bear, in Vernon, entered a home through a window, turned on the kitchen faucet, availed himself of snacks, and exited before police arrived at the scene. Authorities in Ridgewood pursued a tree-climbing bear for the better part of a September day, as “neighbors followed the bear saga from block to block,” and recess at the Ridge school was held indoors. Thirty miles away, in a Jefferson Township development, a bear, likely car-struck, walked around upright, sparing its injured front legs.
The Sunday night before the hunt, I dined on backstrap of Wyoming elk with Tom Slaughter and his wife, Linda, in their rambling nineteenth-century Bergen County home. (I’d met Tom through the New Jersey Hunter Forums, a website to which I’d posted a thread advertising my interest in the bear hunt.) Tutored by little more than YouTube videos, Tom had recently installed a working chimney and a coal-burning stove, with a handsome surround he’d cut by hand from stone slab. A brawny, thirty-six-year-old Coast Guard veteran and a ventilation equipment salesman by trade, he is a figure of monumental manliness: Six feet, two inches tall, with a close, reddish beard and short, thinning hair. He is possessed of even-keeled good humor, a rosy-cheeked smile, and an enthusiasm for his hobby that rises to the level of expansive personal philosophy.
Tom hunts two to three weeks a year in the unruined landscapes of Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana, Alaska, and upstate New York. “I’d go crazy living here if I couldn’t get out and hunt,” he told me. Set up on a sawhorse in the Slaughter home was a fearsome, open-jawed floor covering made from the pelt of an eight-hundred-pound Grizzly, and in the basement, a pair of freezers containing, on a representative evening, some three hundred pounds of elk and forty pounds of antelope. (Linda is permitted one shelf between the two for the storage of frozen veggies, mac and cheese, Bagel Bites, etc.) Off the coast of Mexico, Tom likes to pull in Marlin from a fighting chair. He forms his own bullets from molten bulk lead.
Indecently early the next morning, in the back of Tom’s Suburban, as we motored toward our hunt site — a tract just south of New York, with a lake to the east — was a Model 870 Remington slug shotgun, effective from about seventy-five yards. Part of the trouble during Tom’s last New Jersey bear hunt, when his quarry was stolen from him, was that he’d used a muzzleloader, a diva of an instrument roughly resembling what a pirate would have carried circa Treasure Island. His first shot had succeeded only in wounding his target, and before he could reload, the bear ran off, into the gunsights of the other hunter, who happened to be ensconced in a treestand nearby.
After an hour or so, we left paved road and ascended into a wooded public parkland. The way forward narrowed to a path of hard, rutted mud not much wider than our bumper and closed in by dense, barren forest. Ahead, the flat heads of three reflective nails flashed from a tree trunk. We parked, and with thirty minutes to first light, crept over a leaf-strewn rise threaded with exposed roots. Tom wore a wool bib in woodland camo with matching jacket, and carried his shotgun slung upright over his shoulder from a camouflage strap. Among boulders blushing with seafoam lichen, we settled in — Tom on a pad custom-made for critter stakeouts, I on a turquoise foam kneeler that Linda uses in the garden. It was about twenty degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps a hundred yards off, Tom had deposited bait: dog food, pizza, spoiled chicken, and deer. My borrowed orange hunting vest, which had recently been rinsed of venison gore, emitted the olfactory tang of old-fashioned butcher shops. Uphill, mountain bikers zipped by in yellow pinnies. “I didn’t realize there was a trail there,” said Tom, looking dejected.
After a time, we took up the bikers’ trail, which was strewn with deer and coyote scat, and marked faintly with the prints of bear, spackled with frozen leaves. Sounding rather like a James Patterson novel, Tom called our new tactic “spot and stalk.” He raised his binoculars and we peered at dark, still forms, listened for snapping twigs. “The noisiest thing in the woods this time of year is a squirrel,” he said ruefully.
Tom’s disappointment was mostly on my behalf. In his experience, only one hunt in ten is successful, and the spotting seemed to be for him at least as important as the stalking. “That’s why it’s called ‘hunting,’” he said, “and not ‘shopping at Costco.’” Tom almost never says “kill”; he talks about “being lucky enough to harvest” a bear, a mule deer, an elk. It’s a construction common among hunters that seems to be at once a wary reflex — honed to deflect criticism from the animal-rights contingent by suggesting reverence for their prey — and, in most cases, true veneration.
My previous exposures to hunting had pretty much all been literary, and I couldn’t help comparing Tom’s take on the subject with those in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and Raymond Carver’s short story, Sixty Acres, and especially, in Faulkner’s The Bear. In that story, Ike McCaslin, the young heir to his family’s Mississippi estate, goes after Old Ben, an ancient shamanic black bear with one crooked paw. In Faulkner’s hair-bristling phraseology, Old Ben is “an anachronism indomitable out of an old dead time, a phantom, epitome and apotheosis of the old wild life.” His chase is a kind of password — Open Sesame — that accesses a numinous essence: that old wild life. Hunting Old Ben, Ike feels accepted into a wilderness that once seemed to him hopelessly enigmatic. He comes to call it “his mistress and his wife.”
But it’s a star-crossed affair. Before the tale’s end, Old Ben is killed, and the woods he roamed are sold for lumber. As the logging trains come on, the wilderness, at last, is a thing “the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear like pygmies about the ankles of a drowsing elephant.” And I could see, now, why hunting might be especially appealing to people otherwise beset by industrial and technological development. Even if you ended up doing more spotting than stalking, it made you consider the natural world — the way a hoof turns over turf, how light filters through the dark places — as you might a puzzle you were to trying to solve. Despite its violence, or maybe in part because of it, hunting could make you feel less apart.
The road between our hunt site and the nearest of the five check stations where hunters were required to register their kills cut through a piebald landscape. Some of it looked like the “Kiss Her Where It Smells” New Jersey of popular imagination, with malls, shopping centers, and market-defying quantities of Dunkin’ Donuts. Other stretches had cornstalks and cattle, mud-spattered horses, silos, barns, and fields in bleached winter hues that stretched to distant evergreen stockades. We rolled through one-stoplight towns with dozing diners, where low wooden buildings flourished satellite dish medleys of space station-like complexity. Between towns, dignified farmhouses set on enviable acreages loomed above the road. The grandest of them didn’t appear dedicated to agriculture so much as to looking regal in the agrarian mode, and I mumbled something about the last of the gentleman farmers. “Yeah,” Tom said, looking skeptical. “Or the gentlemen who bought the farmers out.”
The check station was a low, peeling building beside a two-way road at the northern limit of the Whittingham Wildlife Management Area, a nearly two-thousand-acre reserve of fields and woodlands unbroken by trails. Across the road, perhaps twenty protesters held signs and mounted chants: “Stop Bear Hating, Stop Bear Baiting!” It was an older crowd, more women than men. They were bundled heroically. But the air was cold in a way that felt malevolent. It depressed their chants, which the wind carried off like the moans of restless spirits.
Behind the building, in a lot of large-gauge gravel, stood a green metal structure that looked like the framework of a swing set. Trucks pulled beneath it one at a time so that Fish and Wildlife employees could attach chains resembling canine chokers to the ankles of the bears that lay in the truck beds. When they’d been secured, the bodies rose like sacks on a mechanical hoist, and a digital screen gave a reading. These were the largest dead bodies I’d ever seen, though when they arrived, they’d been emptied of innards, which were left in the woods. Blood matted the bears’ faces and fur, making the coat tacky so that it stood up in tufts. It streamed red in the plastic flutes that lined the backs of the trucks and off into the dust, slurrying darkly.
Kim Tinnes, a genial, middle-aged woman with short hair and a no-nonsense manner, directed a handful of Fish and Game workers, who scanned each carcass for microchips. With a hole-punch, they took take a DNA sample from each animal’s ear, and excavated teeth for age verification using a hook and pliers. Thickly-built men, resplendent in camo coveralls and bits of fluorescent orange flair, gathered round, comparing notes. Despite arriving bear-less, Tom was in high spirits among his fellows. He recounted successful previous hunts like a letterman tallying conquests in the locker room. (Tom had advised me the night before that when he’s asked what he likes to hunt, he sometimes replies, “White tail.”) Several hardy souls removed gloves, the better to pinch Skoal from their tins.
After perhaps thirty minutes, a big pickup with two bodies in back pulled beneath the scale. A man in his early sixties stepped from the driver’s seat. He was broad and gnomishly short, puckered like something left in the sun, with a gnawed lump of cigar jacked between his molars. His name was Jiroux. His son, a taller and somewhat better preserved model, declined to identify himself; fielding questions from local reporters, he noted that to load their bears, they needed assistance from several men employed by his father, a landscaping contractor.
After they’re shot, bears are a pain to move; they turn into great bags of jelly. Each rise of the hoist was accompanied by a quivering of furred flesh. The larger of the bears, the son’s, was a female weighing more than a hundred and ninety pounds. Kim Tinnes guessed that she was mother to the smaller one, a yearling. Steam escaped between the fatty curtain flaps around the cleavage in the larger bear’s abdomen, through which the guts had been extracted. Her head lolled, dried tongue stuck between clenched teeth. The eyes were clenched, too, suggesting the accuracy of the Xs used to signify death in old cartoons. Jiroux’s son said that he planned “a full mount,” a taxidermied diorama that would restore the bear to a more adversarial posture.
It didn’t seem likely, after a while, that anything was going to happen at the check station that I hadn’t already seen, and Kim Tinnes was getting bear blood on my notebook, so I walked across the road to get acquainted with the opposition. Since bear hunting in New Jersey got back on track, protesters have turned up annually at the check stations, which makes a certain amount of sense. Where better to shout down the people who literally have blood on their hands? I spoke with an older woman named Donna, who had soft gray hair and a sign that said “Innocent Souls We Love You,” and with a middle-aged woman from Vernon who wore jeans and purple earmuffs. I heard from a retired science teacher named Jerome Mandel, who seemed on the point of rage-induced stroke. (Mandel: “Murderers! Cowards! You piece of garbage!”) The protesters told me that New Jersey’s was a trophy hunt, pure and simple. They complained that hunters were allowed to shoot cubs — an unusual provision in bear-hunting states — and that the state had misrepresented its bear numbers. Some protesters accused the Christie administration of corruption, though what that had to do with bear hunting was unclear. For most everyone on this side of the road, hunting seemed to be an expression of unforgivably poor taste, if not of outright evil.
While men like Tom — a firearms enthusiast and truck owner, a Bill O’Reilly fan and a skeptic of man’s role in climate change — also make natural, familiar political enemies for people like Jerome Mandel, the protesters seemed to be missing the larger context. The state’s estimate of cultural carrying capacity for black bears is largely a function of the number of complaints it receives about ursine nuisance, and the NJDFW cites reduced complaints as evidence of the bear hunt’s efficacy. In 2014, the hunt yielded two hundred and seventy-two kills; it was subsequently expanded for December 2015 to include an optional four-day extension, with the aim of eliminating eight hundred bears. (As of publishing,
four hundred and eighty-nine bears had been culled
.) Next year, an October season may be added, and the bag limit doubled.
Given that it is on behalf of all the people who call wildlife control — when bears get into their tool sheds or gnaw at their unwashed grills — that the hunt takes place, these citizens would seem to make more appropriate targets of protest. When black bears were hunted nearly to local extinction, it was very easy get used to living without them. And now that they’ve gone forth and multiplied, it seems that to the degree we believe they have value, it doesn’t go much beyond flattering our sensibilities: furnishing authenticating detail to landscapes more or less wild, or providing something to hunt or to coo over. “We want people to appreciate black bears,” Burguess told me. “So they don’t hate them or want them all gone.” But absence, of course, is what makes the heart grow fonder.
As sunlight waned, Tom and I drove back to our hunt site to see if we couldn’t surprise a bear at dusk, when the animals tend to feed. But the bait pile was undisturbed. We found only the seating pads we’d left behind, and we set out to make a last pass over the trails. Tom’s mood was mellow. It had been, for the most part, a peaceful day in the woods, and it was time to consider other dinner options. Tom was thinking pizza.
Shotgun blasts, three of them, came at intervals. Echoing at a distance, they reminded me of nothing so much as what you hear in Westerns — reports from revolvers, fired at close range by unhurried men sure of their targets. “Sounds like somebody’s got a bear,” Tom said, cocking his head. “That, or else it’s a deer hunter who doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
Photo by brownpau