Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Study in Contrasts

Outside the town of Hamburg, Pa., sits a Cabela’s, part of a retail chain, on a hill overlooking a shopping mall, restaurants and the motel where my husband and I recently stayed.

Hamburg, Pa.
Cabela’s calls itself the world’s foremost outfitter, and if you need a tent or camoflage clothing or a fishing reel or a shotgun or subsidiary items, you can get it there.

A few miles north is a mountain top, part of the Blue Mountain chain, on which anywhere from 10 to 100 people can sit from late August through November. The way the mountain ridges are situated, raptors follow the warm thermals (rising air) down the ridges. If there is a north wind pushing them, so much the better.

This particular mountain, then and now known as Hawk Mountain, was where early in the last century farmers and sportsmen - who now might’ve gone to Cabela’s had it been around - lugged their guns and their gear and their liquid refreshments up the steep, rocky slope to the top to take advantage of those flying conditions to shoot the eagles, ospreys, buteos, accipiters, falcons and harriers out of the sky, just for the fun of it.

In the center of the Cabela’s in Hamburg there is a two-story pyramid. There are multiple ledges on this “mountain” on which stuffed animals are in various poses suggesting what they looked like before they were “bagged.” This was some prodigious hunter, and some of the animals include a card with his name and the date of the shooting. The animals range from the smallest hare to a polar bear, with plenty of elk, foxes and sheep in between.

Broadwing hawk, September, 2012
 In front of it, Cabela’s put a bronze plaque. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to photograph it. The gist of the message is to praise the “American sportsman” for his efforts in supporting conservation and bringing back several species from the brink, allowing birders and hikers like me to enjoy ourselves.

This may seem counterintuitive. Killing animals to save them?

But as Cabela’s points out, hunters have to pay for licenses. They buy duck stamps when they go after wild ducks. The money from these licenses and stamps help pay for state and federal conservation efforts, including enforcing hunting laws and buying land for wildlife refuges that prohibit hunting.

When the Hawk Mountain sportsmen were shooting the raptors for the hell of it, they had no licenses. They had no rules telling them what they could shoot, at what time of year and how many they could “bag.” It was just something they’d always done, and local guides could make money off it.

When some concerned citizens disgusted by the slaughter bought the mountain (and later much of the surrounding property), it took many years and quite a few confrontations before the hunting stopped. The passage and enforcement of federal law protecting all migratory birds - especially raptors - from being hunted helped a great deal - once it was enforced.

Now, you can argue that all these rules and regulations - the duck stamps, licenses, etc. - are an infringement on your “constitutional” (although it is nowhere stated in the U.S. Constitution) right to kill whatever the hell you want, wherever, etc. Too many rules! Too much government interference!

We all know there are still too many people who break the rules because no one is going to stop them from doing what they’ve always done.

These are not the people Cabela’s has in mind, I think. Those hunters are the ones who know when to quit, who enjoy the sport but don’t break the rules and get nonhunters pissed off at them. If you look at a map of Pennsylvania you’ll see Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is surrounded by state game lands, where a licensed hunter can legally hunt every day but Sunday. Hunting and fishing draw as many people to the state as Hawk Mountain does, perhaps more, and the state does its best to promote both.

Enjoying, not hunting, the raptors on Hawk Mountain.
I don’t mind responsible hunting. You need to hunt to provide food or clothing for your family? Go to it. Protecting your chickens- or even your pet poodle - from predators? Fine.

It’s already the season for cross-bow hunting of deer in New Jersey, and shooting with shotgun is not far away. Many of the hunters give the meat to local kitchens to feed the homeless, if they don't take it for themselves. Suburban yards aside, there are too many deer eating the understory plants in our forests, which has a very great effect on birds and other animals in those forests. A hunt is needed.

There will be another bear hunt this year n NJ. Like the deer, the bear population has gotten out of control in the most populated state in the nation thanks to rules prohibiting their shooting and suburban sprawl into areas where once were woods.

This is one case when the rules do not help. Unlike raptors, bears are increasingly unafraid of humans and will do a lot of damage to you, your pets and your property, unless it becomes a large piece of roadkill, which is becoming more common.

And while it isn’t the animals’ fault developers have put people in areas they had no business being in, no one is going to suggest the town of Morris Plains, for example, exile all people and let the animals go where they want.

(I know there are some people who would love this. These are the people who feed bear, or dismantle the traps the state puts out for them. At a recent Christmas party I met one person who went from meek little man to snarling, angry bear and threatened me for suggesting that a short bear hunt might be a good thing to minimize dangerous confrontations.)

The hunters on Hawk Mountain were not responsible people. Those who participate in New Jersey’s deer and bear hunts are responsible, if only because by buying those permits they are committed to following the rules. Those who don’t follow the rules should be caught and punished.

An all-too-common scene.
I watch the raptors flying over my yard and I’m thankful they were allowed to rebound in population when the hunting stopped. As Cabela's noted, alot of species have come back in recent years.

I can’t, unfortunately, say the same for the deer or the bear.

When I moved to my home nearly 20 years ago the deer would scatter when you came up the driveway. No longer, although I‘ve figured out some tactics to move them off my yard and I keep all my plants behind netting to minimize the damage I‘ve learned they inflict.

As far as I know I have never had a bear pass through my yard and go after my bird feeders. I can’t say it will never happen. I don’t want to come face to face with a black bear, and I hope this year’s hunt is successful.