By Ashley K. Pankratz
After the killing of a wounded black bear by Amherst police in July, one thing is clear: Western New Yorkers want a say in how wildlife is treated. Black bears in particular evoke reverence and awe. Often unfairly maligned as vicious, they are actually reclusive and shy. In recent years they have begun to make a modest comeback in parts of New York.
Letchworth State Park, “America’s Favorite State Park” and a beloved Western New York destination, recognizes black bears as a selling point. Visitors can sit in the giant paw of a bear sculpture, or purchase bear-themed memorabilia. Though sightings in Letchworth are extraordinarily rare, many visitors hope to be among the lucky few who will glimpse a bear in the wild.
Unlike parks that protect wildlife, Letchworth is now open to recreational bear hunting. The widely publicized killing of a large bear in December outraged many park supporters.
It’s uncomfortable to imagine what hunted animals endure, but science confirms that they suffer as we do. The “once in a lifetime bear,” as he was dubbed by the hunter, was shot and left to die overnight. The hunter claimed to respect his prey, but was shown grinning and hoisting the dead bear for a photo that was later shared on social media and in local papers.
Some attempt to justify hunting in Letchworth by citing the potential danger of bears to people, though statistically, hunters themselves pose the greater threat. Others claim that population control is at the center of lethal management, but a 2016 press release by NYSDEC Acting Commissioner Basil Seggos proves otherwise: “DEC’s … strategies are working to increase the black bear population and allow for expanded hunting opportunities.”
Aside from the dangers of hunting to visitors, the use of lead ammo is linked to the poisoning of bald eagles and other non-targeted wildlife. The killing of any wild animal, especially an apex predator such as the black bear, impacts the biodiversity of the entire system, and begs the question: If wildlife can’t live naturally on land dedicated to the preservation of nature, where can they live?
The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation states that wildlife “belongs to everyone and no one,” but Letchworth bears are effectively being stolen from the thousands of visitors who long to see one in the wild. Rather than allowing living assets to be gunned down as “sport,” Letchworth should educate visitors on the value of black bears and on coexistence strategies.
Recreational killing has no place in Letchworth or any other state park. With hunting season approaching, it’s imperative to let park officials know that majority refuses to accept it.
Ashley K. Pankratz is a member of the Animal Advocates of Western New York Wildlife Education Committee.