Bears have become a proxy for bitter fighting over whether hunting is a legitimate means of wildlife management, or a cruel leftover from colonial times. To date, the answer’s been pretty clear.

“Bear” with me here, because this story is relevant to the ongoing dialogue/debate/diatribe taking place in the media, among policymakers and between people in conversation every day in this country. It’s about Nature, about our relationship to the “natural order” and to the traditional diets that have sustained the inhabitants of North America for, oh, about a dozen millennia or so.

It begins in Maine, where the Pine Tree State’s bear population has grown to more than 30,000, a 30 percent increase from estimates made in 2004, when voters rejected a measure to ban the use of bait, dogs and traps to hunt bears.

This year, Question 1 on Maine’s Election Day ballot was straightforward: “Do you want to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety, or for research?” And voters provided an equally straight up answer: “No” — by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin.

Despite hundreds of thousands of dollars pumped into the campaign by the Humane Society of the United States, the vote came down to whether Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife would be allowed to effectively manage bear populations, or not. Because it’s no guarantee that populations can be kept in check just by telling hunters — even experienced hunters — “Here’s your bear tag. Now go get ’em.”

Nor will the Maine vote end the controversy over how to deal with the incursions of Ursus americanus into populated areas, however. According to the report by North Country Public Radio (in Maine), black bear populations are increasing in many parts of the northern United States — and that’s causing some serious problems as roads, homes and developments infringe on bears’ traditional territory:

  • Black bears were caught raiding a candy store in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York, wandering through a Chicago suburb, and snacking their way through corn fields from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania.
  • In New Jersey, a black bear mauled and killed a Rutgers University student who was hiking with friends in the northern part of the state.
  • Closer to my home, a black bear spent several days roaming through the toney suburb of Issaquah east of Seattle two years ago, rummaging through gardens and trash cans until finally captured and relocated by Animal Control officers.

“There’s more sprawl. There [are] more people living in bear habitat,” Steve Heerkens, a wildlife biologist with the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation, told Maine’s MPBN. To compound the problem, Heerkens noted that there are few, if any, natural predators around to keep bears in check.

Like me, you may be wondering what animals “prey” on bears. None, really, although mountain lions will kill bear cubs, occasionally a moose can deliver a fatal kick during a confrontation and mature male bears can and do kill each other fighting over females.

Which in that respect, makes them not much different from people.

(By the way: Did you know that the myth of bears that develop a “taste” for humans is wildly exaggerated? The only known bear species to actually eat the people they attack are polar bears, and if you’re messing with a polar bear, you probably deserve to become lunch).

And it’s people — hunters, poachers who capture cubs for sale on the black market and developers who try to wipe out bear populations in areas targeted for golf courses, condos or commercial development — who are the real threat to the survivability of bears. However, given the growing number of “interactions” between humans and bears, which almost always end badly for people, the emphasis on protecting bears from humans may have to be re-visited.

Only means of control

Which is already happening. In fact, 29 states have conducted regulated bear hunts to control population numbers and minimize the encroachment of bears into ex-urban areas. In New York, the state expanded its bear season to include areas that hadn’t had a bear hunt since the 1950s, the goal being to keep bears out of suburban areas of Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester. The latter city’s suburbs were where my brother and I grew up “hunting” frogs and squirrels in the woods surrounding our house with our kid-sized bow and arrows.

We never graduated to the top of the food chain, but encouraging hunters to do exactly that is now on the agenda of many state wildlife agencies.

“Well-managed” hunts are the best means of effective control, Heerkens noted, especially since most bear hunters do salvage the animal’s hide, skull and meat.

Of course, bear meat has always been a traditional food: Native Americans and the continent’s early settlers all considered it a staple. In New Jersey, which re-introduced bear hunting in 2010 following several dangerous incidents when bears invaded suburbia, the state has an official online hunting guide offering such recipes as “Grilled Bear Loin with Brown Sugar Baste” and “BBQ Bear Roast.”

Others go even further. Wild game cookbook author Hank Shaw, who runs the James Beard Award-winning website Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook (http://honest-food.net/), has developed such recipes as Black Bear Osso Bucco and Russian Pelmeni Dumplings with Bear. On his website, Shaw explained that bear meat is often considered tough and “gamey,” but only because people aren’t cooking it correctly.

“From a cook’s perspective, black bear is like beef wearing a hat made of pork fat,” he has famously stated.

But while bears are aggressively invading human habitat, bear meat isn’t going to gain hegemony on fine-dining menus any time soon. As is true with most wild game, federal law prohibits the resale of any bear meat from wild animals to retailers or restaurateurs. More importantly, nobody is domesticating bears with the idea of marketing the meat and/or fur. Deer, elk buffalo and even wild boars can be farm-raised, but bear has been and likely always will be available only through hunting.

So despite its long history as a suitable center-of-the-plate staple, cultivating a market for bear meat is out of the question. Thus, hunting has to be authorized exclusively for population control. And that’s an approach to makes animal activists even angrier than a female bear defending her cubs.

But other than abandoning thousands of homes and resorts located in forested areas, the only tool wildlife managers can use to minimize human-bear contact is controlled hunting, which flies in the face of the philosophy of virtually every veggie/vegan advocate alive today.

Like bears, their numbers are increasing, too, so this year’s vote in Maine won’t be the last time that the validity of hunting is confronted.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.