When I recently came across news that Tennessee is on track for a record bear harvest this year, two questions sprang to mind:
1. People in the 21st century still hunt bears?
I am of course aware of the long historical association between Tennessee and bear hunting, an awareness I owe partly to that catchy little 1950s Disney ditty about Davy Crockett.
I also am now aware that Tennesseans will apparently hunt darn near anything. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which provided the heads-up about the bear harvest, lists seasons for squirrel, grouse, rabbit, quail, dove, woodcock, Wilson snipe, crow, Canada goose, wood duck/teal and armadillo.
And beaver, bullfrog, coyote, groundhog, striped skunk, spotted skunk, bobcat, fox, lynx, muskrat, river otter, weasel, raccoon and possum – which the agency refers to as “opossum.” I refuse.
Mind you, that’s just the small game. Bears fall into the big game category, along with deer, elk and (oddly, it seems) turkey.
“Black bears are one of Tennessee’s state treasures and no other animal exemplifies the wilderness experience like them,” the agency website states. “[W]e all love bears in our own special ways,” it states, adding that “it is everyone’s responsibility to keep them wild and keep them alive.”
Except, I suppose, for the ones we shoot dead.
Oops. There goes my bias again.
I should probably know better than to bring any of this up. Years ago, in a different column setting, I poked gentle fun at duck hunters. A duck hunter friend whom I quoted played the role of foil.
Duck hunter nonfriends did not find it humorous, at all. They took offense and flooded the Letters to the Editor for days with barbs for me.
“Maybe someone will take Joe Rogers duck hunting for Christmas – and leave him,” wrote one of my more restrained critics. Another said my “knee-jerk reaction to duck hunting makes him appear to be nothing more than another anthropomorphizing simpleton.”
Obviously, I did not learn from that experience.
Faced with the bear harvest info, I turned again to my duck hunter friend to see if he’d ever stalked the big creatures.
He has not. I asked if he would consider it.
“Sure,” he said. “If I lived in Alaska, or some other area that had a large enough bear population, I would probably certainly have no more aversion to hunting bear than I would to fishing for halibut.
“In addition, if I were in an area where a bear had become a nuisance predator and posed a real threat to me, my family or my livestock I would certainly hunt it.”
Perhaps that explains some Tennessee bear hunters. It’s hard to imagine thinking of the animals as foodstuff, though people do eat them. I gather bear tastes something like venison.
I asked my friend what determined what he would or wouldn’t hunt.
“Game population, need or desire for meat, to a certain extent economy of return on investment (amount of meat compared to time, trouble and expense), amount of personal enjoyment (kinda like I love to eat catfish, bream and bass but get most enjoyment for bass fishing) and personal taste,” he said.
“For example, unless I were teetering on the edge of starvation I would never hunt coconut, cantaloupe or okra!”
I’d sooner hunt or eat any of those than bear, but to each his own.
Getting back to Mr. Crockett and that ditty: He was not born on a mountaintop, but on a river bank. He preferred to be known as “David,” but “David, David Crockett” doesn’t deliver the same folksy appeal.
And while it is extremely unlikely that he actually “kilt him a b’ar, when he was only 3,” he did brag in his autobiography of having bagged 105 bears in a single hunting season. The 21st-century legal limit is one per license per year.
I think we can call that progress.
Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.