By TOM LEONARD
Police and Park Police officers take photographs of the bear that broke the New Jersey state Black Bear record
Mark Rogalo had been hunting the same woods since he was ten years old, but even he couldn't believe his luck the other day.
The 52-year-old builder from Boonton, New Jersey, had been walking up a trail for just five minutes when, looking up towards a ridgeline studded with mountain laurels, he saw something 300ft away. Shiny and coal black, it could only be one thing, and a glance through his binoculars confirmed it — a three-year-old bear sitting on a rock, licking her paws after a good meal.
It was to prove her last. Moving cautiously up the side of the hill, Mr Rogalo ducked behind the trees and rocks as he edged towards her. He was 120ft away when he chambered the first cartridge into his semi-automatic 12-bore Winchester shotgun.
Prize kill: Trevor Rozmus, 13, at the weigh station with a big black bear
'The bear heard that sound,' he said. 'She got a little edgy, and I immediately chambered a second round, pulled up and shot. I just didn't have any time to waste.'
The 14st 4lb bear took a shot in the lung and a second in the hip but kept on charging down the hill before disappearing over a rock.
The hunter found her behind it and finished her off with a third shot to the heart. Now, there's 2.5st of bear meat in his brother's freezer along with a bear head which Mark doesn't know what to do with. 'I'm not into trophies, I hunt to relax,' he said. 'But it was an amazing day.'
Running for its life: An American black bear cub climbing a tree trunk in the annual bear cull in New Jersey
His animal was one of the first kills in a hunt that has become the most controversial in America — an annual officially-sanctioned bear cull little more than an hour's drive from New York City, which has incensed animal rights activists and some environmentalists.
New Jersey is popularly regarded as one big suburb of New York — best known to TV viewers for the mobsters of The Sopranos and the even more ghastly participants of reality shows like Jersey Shore.
But state officials insist it is overrun by bears — nearly 3,400 in New Jersey's 1,000 square miles of bear country, giving it the densest population of the animals in the States. Complaints about bear 'incidents' have soared. There have been nearly 3,000 so far this year, including 76 cases of bears breaking into homes, 57 livestock killings and two non-fatal attacks on humans.
'I hunt to relax': Bear hunter Mark Rogalo poses behind an animal in the snow
And so officials allow licensed hunters who have taken a two-day bear hunting course and paid the $80 (£50) fee to, as they call it in politically correct parlance, 'harvest' no more than one bear each.
Protesters, who tried unsuccessfully in court to close down this year's hunt, claim the cull is cruel and unnecessary — just a bunch of wannabe Davy Crocketts lying in wait so they can blast one of nature's most imposing creatures at point-blank range for a trophy.
Is it really that easy? Some 6,500 bear hunters head out each year but only 450 or so ever return with one.
I couldn't help wonder, however, what people would think of the hunters if they could see what was happening to the dead bears now — manhandled like sacks of potatoes, their once fearsome teeth pulled out for tests and their stomachs slit open to remove the innards and preserve the meat.
For me, the thrill of the chase had been replaced by the sadness of seeing just how pitifully small some of them were. One hunter had shot a cub. Shrugging his shoulders, he said he hadn't seen the mother.
Behind him, the next pick-up truck brought in a huge 25st female bear to be weighed and logged. It dwarfed the skinny 13-year-old boy who had killed it with just one shot. Trevor Rozmus had gone shooting with his dad after school. All the boys in his year hunted, he said, while all the girls were appalled by it. 'We're going to get the head and the paws mounted on the wall so it looks like it's about to attack.'
'Have you got bears in Britain?' Sergeant Birmingham of the New Jersey State Police asked me with a grin. 'Because you can take some of ours back with you.'
I shook my head. I think we'll stick with Winnie the Pooh.
Thursday, December 22, 2011
By TOM LEONARD