She had one shot at this

Local woman with muzzle-loaded rifle finds bear in her sights

GHENT–Ten black bears were legally shot in Columbia County during the hunting season this past fall.

One of those bears was bagged by Dona Whiteman, a 64-year-old grandmother packing a muzzleloader.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) enacted changes that opened new areas east of the Hudson River to black bear hunting and established uniform bear hunting season dates across the Southern Zone beginning in the 2011 hunting season.

“The proposed adjustments to bear hunting in the southern bear range are part of our continuing effort to better manage bear populations and provide excellent hunting opportunities in New York State. Black bears are thriving in New York and have expanded their range considerably in recent years. Increasing opportunities for bear hunting in the Southern Zone will help alleviate agricultural and homeowner conflicts with bears, provide recreational opportunity, and facilitate wise use of bear meat and hides,” DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said in a May 2011 press release.

The counties opened to black bear hunting for the archery, regular and muzzleloading seasons included all of Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, Columbia, Rensselaer and Washington counties, and the portion of Rockland that was not already open for black bear hunting.

In fact, quite a whopper of a bear, a 400-pounder, was taken in the Town of Claverack in Hollowville, according to Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman Rick Georgeson.

Sitting down with The Columbia Paper at her dining room table looking out upon a busy birdfeeder, a pond and a wooded hillside across Angel Hill Road, Mrs. Whiteman said it was on the backside of that rise where she sat in her tree stand with her .50 caliber modern muzzleloader, December 12.

With permission from her neighbor to hunt on the land and her pre-scouting for deer signs done before the season opened, Mrs. Whiteman was waiting in hopes of filling her doe permit.

Once she climbed the tree and tied herself into the stand with a harness, she hoisted up her seven-and-a-half pound gun and loaded it. She uses a ramrod to plunge measured amounts of gunpowder and a bullet down the barrel and sets a primer pin to start the firing mechanism. The one-shot muzzleloader, which nowadays can be outfitted with a scope, is accurate up to 100 yards, though the bullet can travel much further. It takes her about a minute and a half to load the gun using components she carries with her in re-sealable plastic bags. Then she sat and listened.

She saw a doe come out, its fawn zipping around her. Mrs. Whiteman took out her “buck grunt” a device that produces a sound an adult male deer makes and saw a little buck appear to check out the competition. She watched quietly as birds and small animals moved all around her.

Then she heard a “snap,” another “snap,” then a “crunch.”

With all her years of listening in the woods, she has learned, one snap of a branch usually means she is about to see a deer. The snapping of several branches means a person or “an unknown” is walking through the woods.

Thinking she was about to see a hunter emerge, she was shocked to see instead a bear’s “a big black head followed by a big black body.” She said her brain was telling her “it can’t be so, it shouldn’t be.” Once she grasped the reality of what she was seeing, she remembered that along with her deer tag, she had a bear tag and decided to shoot it.

Coincidentally, she’d had a conversation with a bear hunter that same morning about where to aim on the animal’s body for a clean kill. She took about 10 seconds to make sure her shot would hit a vital organ toward the front of the bear and pulled back the trigger. The bear fell, then ran and was done in 50 feet, she said.

She sat in the tree for another hour or so, still waiting in hopes of getting a shot at a doe.

As darkness fell, she walked home and during a conversation with her husband and a friend about how their day of hunting had gone, she mentioned, “Oh, by the way, I shot a bear.”

When they got the animal home, they measured from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail–seven feet long, it weighed in at 185 pounds. It was an adult male, a friend guessed, about three-years-old.

In accordance with the law, she reported the kill to Environmental Conservation Officer Jeff Cox, who came to the house and extracted a bear tooth to be analyzed at the DEC lab. He told Mrs. Whiteman that under normal circumstances, the bear should have been hibernating, but that the animal must have had a good food source and was still out “blundering around.”

Not having prior experience with bear, and having been told the meat would spoil quickly and was not very tasty, the Whitemans took the bear to a taxidermist in Rhinebeck who agreed to buy the hide. They did keep about 15 pounds of the meat–the backstraps or chops, which they said were delicious.

Though she considered having the head mounted, she feared it would look like a big Labrador retriever head hanging on the wall.

A hunter for 34-years, Mrs. Whiteman, nee Kern, grew up on a dairy farm in Austerlitz, the youngest of four children, three girls and a boy. She learned early that it was necessary to manage wildlife like woodchucks, coyote and especially deer that would eat down fields of corn and hay and trash the family vegetable gardens.

Then she married into a family of hunters and her interest in the shooting sports “snowballed.”  She also fishes and she and her husband, Paul, have a crackerjack beagle named Josie, who takes them rabbit hunting.

Before her retirement, Mrs. Whiteman worked for the state Department of Transportation as a flagger, laborer and truck driver, which included plowing snow. It was hard work, she said, changing tires and putting on chains, but “I learned the equipment and did the best I could.” Before that she cleaned houses and worked with a commercial electrical contractor doing everything from installing traffic signals and generators to lights on an airport runway.

“It’s not all about going out and blowing Bambi away,” said Mrs. Whiteman, who has two freezers in the basement, one for game and the other for garden harvest. “If you don’t want to eat what you shoot, it’s not mandated; the meat can be donated to Hunters for the Hungry.” The Whiteman’s gave one deer away to a friend who wasn’t able to hunt last year due to illness. Nothing goes to waste.

A former bow hunter who gave it up when her shoulder began to hurt, Mrs. Whiteman stresses hunting safety and etiquette. She encourages anyone interested to take hunting safety classes and to go out in the woods with someone skilled to listen and learn to hunt properly.

“Be respectful of the game and landowners and be as good as you can be,” she said.

A mother of three and grandmother of six, Mrs. Whiteman said none of her children are interested in hunting, though they are certainly supportive of her.

Currently learning to handle a handgun in preparation for getting a pistol permit, she is fascinated by shooting and wants to keep learning.

To contact Diane Valden email .

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