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Loaded for Bear

State biologist Tom Beck wants hunters to think before they shoot. It's been a hard sell.

Tom Beck began hunting forty years ago, shooting squirrels outside his tiny hometown of High Springs, in north Florida, when he was six years old. As he grew, so did his enthusiasm for hunting. This year he bought five separate bow-hunting licenses in three states, and last month he killed his first moose with an arrow, which will put him well on his way toward his annual goal of stashing 250 pounds of game meat in his freezer before the Colorado winter sets in for good.

Bruce Gill, Beck's boss at the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW), is impressed. "This is the most prolific and accomplished hunter in the state of Colorado," he says. Adds David Petersen, a wildlife writer who lives in Durango, "Tom hunts more than anyone I know who doesn't get paid for it."

Despite such testimonials, Don Clower, president of Idaho's Sportsmen's Heritage Defense Fund, remains unconvinced of Beck's allegiances. "Oh, Tom Beck is definitely anti-hunter," he says. "He just spews animal-rights rhetoric." And a month ago Bob Radocy, president of the Colorado Bowhunters Association, added his voice. In a letter to DOW's director, Radocy suggested that Beck had become so out of touch with hunters--and particularly bow hunters--that perhaps he'd be better off in some other line of work.

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"If Mr. Beck has so little respect for the persons who ultimately pay his salary through their license dollars, it might be time for a change," Radocy wrote. "His disregard for sportsmen's values and concerns is irresponsible. Sportsmen do not appreciate this abuse of our hunting heritage by individuals like Mr. Beck, in his open support for animal-rights issues. Mr. Beck has his own agenda, and we see it in direct conflict with the efforts and beliefs of most Division personnel and Colorado hunters."

Beck has become accustomed to the labels and epithets, and most of the time he manages to shrug them off. He lives on twenty acres seven miles outside the small town of Dolores, northeast of the Four Corners area in the San Juan Mountains, so he can pretty much pick and choose whom he listens to. And since he spends a lot of time in the woods doing his DOW job, which is studying bears, he can be hard to track down himself. Sometimes his answering machine goes on the fritz, and sometimes he doesn't get around to fixing it for a few days.

Recently, though, Beck has started to stick his neck out from his isolated home. He did it first, reluctantly, in 1992, when Colorado hosted a fierce debate over how its bears ought to be hunted. As DOW's bear man, Beck was called on to explain his considerable research regarding the relationship between the state's bears and its bear hunters. Although the law prevents state employees from politicking, Beck is opinionated, and he is firm in his opposition to certain bear-hunting techniques. That is not hard to discern when he speaks on the subject. So when Amendment 10--which bans the hunting of bears using dogs and bait, and in the spring using any method--passed by a wide margin, many hunters blamed Beck.

This year Beck involved himself more willingly in the same debate, accepting invitations to speak about bears--on his own time--in Idaho and Michigan, which both featured ballot initiatives similar to Colorado's 1992 measure. With each visit, Beck gained more enemies in the hunting camps: "A lot of locked jaws and beady-eyed stares," he says, recalling the reception he enjoyed from a large portion of his audiences.

Yet the number of sportsmen in Idaho, Michigan and Colorado who have questioned Beck's personal commitment to hunting is nothing compared to the hordes who started gunning for him this past summer, when the editors of Outdoor Life attempted to print a short essay by Beck outlining his views on bear hunting, bear hunters and the state of blood sportmanship in general. It was thoughtful, but undeniably critical. Worse, it had been written by an avid and highly successful hunter.

Before the article ever saw print, hunters who had been tipped off about its impending publication began peppering the magazine with anti-Beck mail and threats. The publishers, fearful of offending subscribers, pulled the piece; the editors resigned in protest.

Being a target for hunters has never been an easy way to make a living, and Beck concedes that "when you're just standing here by yourself, the island gets awful lonely." But he's thought a lot about hunting, and he's got a lot on his mind. "Generally," he says, "we've made it easier and easier to kill an animal. Which brings us back to the question: Why do we hunt?

To people who cannot accept the idea of killing an animal, there has never been an adequate explanation for why some individuals do. But, Beck says, that is not the group that threatens hunting. Rather, it is the hunters themselves who refuse to think about their sport or to tolerate legitimate questions about their methods.

"Hunters think that what I'm doing is harmful to hunting," he adds. "But I think what they're doing is extremely harmful to hunting." Increasingly, people are starting to take Beck's side.

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