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Posted: Wednesday, June 29, 2011

By MARK HEINZ of Cody Enterprise

Joe Kondelis was still in high school when he and a friend decided to try hunting bears.

Though they had experience with other species, bear hunting was a completely new venture.

"I had no idea what to do," Kondelis said. "My dad had taught me to hunt, but he didn't hunt bears."

Before long, he was enthralled with the species and the sport, and his enthusiasm has only deepened since.

"I like deer and elk," he said. "I like hunting them and eating them, but if the Game and Fish were to tell me I could hunt only one species, it would be bears."

A native of Butte, Mont., Kondelis moved to Cody in 2005, and has pursued black bears in the Big Horn Mountains, as well as the rugged country west of Cody.

"Bears are my favorite animals," he said. "I love being out among them. For me, it's not just about the kill."

Bear hides and fur can be used for a variety of things, including for display or to make blankets and pillows, he said.

And although many people might not think of it as good table fare, Kondelis said bear meat can be superb.

"It makes great sausages, salami, jerky and roasts," he said.

Since bears can carry trichinosis, meat should always be cooked thoroughly.

Kondelis and a handful of friends in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho recently formed the Yellowstone Country Bear Hunter's Association, in hopes of spreading their passion for bears to other sportsmen.

The group has applied for 501(c)3 status, so they can start hosting fundraisers. They plan to put the money directly back into bear conservation, or such things as bear-proof garbage barrels, to help reduce conflicts with humans.

Kondelis hopes Yellowstone Country Bear Hunters Association will thrive, and eventually join the efforts of more established hunting and conservation groups.

"I know it's going to take some time," he said. "The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has been around for decades, we've been around for only a year."

Right now, his primary focus is bringing more attention to black bears.

With wolves and grizzly bears grabbing headlines, and deer and elk at the top of most hunters' lists, black bears can be forgotten, he said.

State agencies don't seem as diligent about tracking black bear populations as other species, Kondelis said.

He added that he and the other bear hunters would like to see a comprehensive study on what effect the burgeoning grizzly population has had on black bears in the Greater Yellowstone.

Black bears and grizzlies can sometimes compete for resources, "and I don't think even the biggest black bear is going to try fighting a grizzly over food," Kondelis said.

While acknowledging their observations are only anecdotal, Kondelis said he and his friends have noticed black bears seem to become more scarce or timid in grizzly habitat.

Another part of the Yellowstone bear hunters' mission will be to support having grizzlies here taken off the Endangered Species list and put under state management.

Game and Fish officials have said if they gain jurisdiction over grizzlies, it's likely at least some public hunting of them will be allowed.

Kondelis said he would welcome that.

"We like grizzlies and we want them here," he said. "But we would like to see them delisted and be able to hunt them."

Kondelis said he doesn't mind sharing space with the lumbering bruins. Despite often hunting in griz country, he said he's yet to have a serious run-in.

Still, he knows people who have. He thinks hunting would help reduce human-grizzly conflicts and put more vested interest in preserving habitat for all bears.

Regardless of what happens, Kondelis said he'll keep enjoying the outdoors, and will never tire of hunting bears.

"My wife, our daughter and I like being outside, that's it for us," he said.

"Bears have distinct personalities, and they come in such a wide variety of colors and sizes," he added. "They are unpredictable. That's what I like about them."

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