Pa. Tradition: 'Watching the Bear Come In'

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A few miles outside of Jersey Shore, Stan and Rob Shrader are parked next to the Antes Fort firehall in their green pickup, waiting on the game commission.

    In the bed is a young black bear which Rob shot earlier that morning near the Shrader family camp in Clinton County. For more than 60 years the family has hunted in the mountains around the camp, one generation after the other.

    Today the father and son, who come from New Oxford, are the first hunters at the station. They won't be the last.

    Inside the firehall's vehicle bay, Pennsylvania Game Commission officials are setting up the scale on which they will weigh the bears brought in this day, the first day of bear rifle season in Pennsylvania. After weighing each bear, a tooth is pulled, which is used to determine the age of the bear.

    On a good day they'll weigh and pull teeth from more than 125 bears.

    The Antes Fort firehall is in the heart of bear country. The mountains that frame the valleys of this part of north-central Pennsylvania are among the best habitat in the nation for the black bear.

    More than 100 years ago, men would make their names and become local legends for their prowess at taking bear from these hills, a practice which decimated the bear population and led, by 1980s to a massive conservation effort to save the bear.

    Today, there are more than 15,000 black bear in the state and Pennsylvania is considered a model for how to conserve and manage the species, Ursus Americanus.

    But Antes Fort is also the home for a unique event playing out at check stations during the four-day bear season in the rural parts of the state.

    Inside the firehall's vehicle bay this crisp Autumn morning, a few curiosity seekers are already waiting, "to watch the baer come in'' as they say. By the end of the day, more than a thousand people will have made their way to the fire station to watch the hunters bring their bear in, a tradition in these parts.

    A few old timers will spend the entire day here, swapping hunting stories and commenting on each bear. Others, often moms with kids in tow, will drift in and out with the ebb and flow of bear into the check station.

    By the evening, a crowd will have gathered and the spectator bleachers set up to hold them all will be full.

    "The Musquaw or Black Bear, is a native of Pennsylvania and Canada and most of the other States of the Union. In the far west a brown variety of the same species is found. In gait the animal is plantigrade, and is capable lifting itself on its great hind feet and of remaining erect with the greatest of ease. When attacked in close contact, it rears up and strikes terrific blows with its fore-paws, which often cause dreadful injuries to its antagonist.'' 
     
              - John C. French, 1921, 'The Black Bear of Pennsylvania'

    THE HUNT BEGINS

    In the woods of Pennsylvania, man has hunted the black bear for as long as the two species have shared territory. The conflict between the two heated in the mid-1800s, as more and more of the state's natural forest was settled.

    By the 1890s almost two-thirds of the state's land was cleared for agriculture. Faced with a massive loss of habitat, the black bear began to come into more and more conflict with people.

    "They had good reason to kill bear,'' said Gary Alt, who at one time was the preeminent bear biologist in Pennsylvania. "People (at the time) were just eking out an existence.''

    Writing in 1921 in a treatise on black bears, author John French urged the state to offer a bounty for bears that were nuisances, and urged hunters to kill bruins, regardless of season or protected status.

    "When bears have taken to the business of stealing cattle, sheep or hogs, there will be no peace in the neighborhood, until freed from the presence of these marauders,'' French wrote. "The taste of blood intoxicates the bear and he seems to become an inebriate, while the opportunity remains to satisfy his desire for the particular food on which he has banqueted at will; but such cases are rare, and they should be slain as soon as may be possible, in every case, regardless of protective law or closed season.''

    Hunters needed little urging. At the time, bear were prized for their meat, fur and fat. Claws and skulls could fetch top dollar as curiosity pieces in Philadelphia and New York.

    Adding bear to a diet was not only good for protecting your farm, it was also good for your family's nutrition and income.

    "The bear's paws are armed with long, sharp talons which are not capable of retraction, but which tear through the flesh and are most efficient weapons of offense when urged by the powerful muscles which give force to the bear's body and limbs. Should the adversary elude the quick, heavy blows of the paws, the bear endeavors to seize the foe around the body and by pressure to overcome its enemy. In guarding itself from blows aimed at itself the bear is adroit and wards off the fiercest strokes with the dexterity of a trained pugilist'' 
     
              - John C. French, 1921

    A FAMILY AFFAIR

    Up until 10 years ago, the bear check station in Antes Fort was at the Game Commission office on state Route 44. It was shifted to the fire hall to handle the crowds that began attending.

    As each hunter arrives, he backs his pickup truck -- it is almost invariability a pickup -- into the vehicle bay. The crowd, which until now has been chattering in the lull between bears, falls silent as the pickup's gate is lowered.

    They wait expectantly while Larry Sheats, a game commission worker, hooks up the overhead scales and begin to lift the bear.

    "Adult female, field dressed," Sheats calls.

    Then a pause while the scale does its work.

    "175 pounds."

    The crowds' chatter picks up once more, as the wives, children, gaffers and unlucky hunters compare and discuss the bears. Decent sized bear -- 200 pounds or more, are worthy of attention and remark. Cubs, or young adults less than 100 pounds, are the subject of mutters or are dismissed as unworthy of the crowd's attention.

    Behind the game commission officials, a tally is kept on a white board. Each bear's weight is recorded. As newcomers drift into the firehouse, they usually check the board before grabbing a seat to see how the hunt is progressing.

    Paul Confer has worked the check stations for as long as there have been check stations. He retired from the game commission after 35 years, and each year, swears he won't be back. But each year he returns to greet the hunters as they come to the station.

    Most of the older hunters he knows by name. When a young buck comes in with a bear, Confer asks after their fathers, or grandfathers.

    Earlier in the day, when things are slow, Confer and the biologist on station invite the kids up close, to touch the bear, to learn about the science behind taking a tooth, or bear management.

    Jim Renn, of Sunbury, is himself an old bear hunter. Today he has brought his son and grandkids - visiting from Texas - to watch the bear.

    "There's not many places you can go in the nation and see something like this," he said. 
     
    As his grandkids pepper the biologist with questions, Renn grins.

    "This is what it's all about,'' he says.

    Each year the game commission considers ending the check station program. It isn't really a necessity, they'll admit, to keep tabs on the now-healthy bear population. 
     
    But the program's effect on the community, the people who gather to watch the bear come in, the sheer popularity of the check stations, are some of the reasons the program continues, year after year.

    They're also why, Confer said, he keeps coming back.

    "Most of these people, I don't see them but once a year," he said.

    "The diet of the bears is of mixed character and they are capable of sustaining existence on either a vegetable or a purely animal diet, to be either carnivorous or vegetarian at will. They are harmless animals at most times, when undisturbed, contenting themselves with fruit, honey, nuts, roots, snails and insects, and similar articles of diet, rarely attacking the higher animals, except when driven by dire necessity.'' 
     
              - John C. French, 1921

    ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE

    Modern bear hunting in Pennsylvania can be marked by one year: 1976.

    That was the year, Alt said, that "all hell broke loose."

    In 1976 the black bear population was estimated at around 1,800. That year -- in one day -- hunters killed roughly a third of all the bears believed to be left alive in the state.

    The public and politicians in Harrisburg demanded that something be done. Alt, who had recently graduated from Penn State, was called in to testify before the state Senate. The next day he was offered the job of managing Pennsylvania's bear population.

    Hunting seasons were canceled for two consecutive years, then permitted only in limited areas the next few years after that. To rebuild the population, pregnant female bears were captured and released in areas closed to hunting.

    In a highly controversial move, a bear license program was implemented, while cub hunting legalized.

    People screamed on both sides of the issue, predicting disaster.

    Out in the mountains, the bear population rocketed back up, to levels not seen in more than a half-century.

    "I do think having closed seasons for a number of years in the early 1980s let them build up, and boy did they ever," Alt said. "It kept growing and has be growing right along...Not many states have had the population explosion we did.''

    "In combat with man, the bear exhibits a fearful ingenuity and 'the strength of ten men and the sense of twelve,' he directs attack upon the head of his antagonist and may strike off the scalp at one blow. Then use teeth instead of claws on the prostrate foe whose senses seem blunted, while under the bear.'' 
     
              - John C. French, 1921

    MORE THAN A HUNT

    It's dinner time at the Antes Fort firehall.

    Inside, fire company volunteers are cooking up a classic north-central Pa. menu: Sausage, hamburgers, pierogi, and sticky buns, perfect for a day spent in the cold.

    Coffee and hot chocolate are consumed by the gallon, keeping volunteers, game workers and spectators alike warm. 
     
    It has been 37 years since all hell broke loose in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Since then, the black bear -- and hunting the black bear -- has undergone a sort of renaissance.

    Records, both for weight and total annual harvest, stand in danger of being broken annually. 
     
    Large bears, which were once a rarity, are, if not common, not once-in-a-lifetime sights either. The record for Antes Fort -- 600 pounds -- was brought in only two or three years ago. 
     
    It would be easy to dismiss the gathering at Antes Fort as a gruesome spectacle, or, as one fireman laughed, "rednecks rednecking it up.''

    To do so would be a disservice.

    There is more going on in this firehall than a celebration of the hunt, or an annual re-affirmation of man's place as the state's alpha predator.

    To be sure, there are elements of all of that. But if you watch the interaction of the hunters, the old timers, the children and their wives, there's a sense of community being renewed, not unlike old friends at a high school football game, or a class reunion.

    Earlier in the morning, as Rob's bear was being weighted, Stan Shrader pulled Confer aside.

    Confer didn't recognize Stan, but he knew Stan's father, Robert, by name. Even though he was from New Oxford, near Chambersburg, Robert was a fixture at the station, having hunted the mountains of Clinton County for more than 60 years.

    Confer asked Stan if his dad would be stopping by -- they had missed him last year.

    For a moment, Stan couldn't speak. Robert, Stan told Confer, had passed away last year, just prior to the season.

    Confer hung his head for a moment, then passed his condolences along.

    "I'm real sorry to hear that,'' Confer said. "He was a good man.''