Now that the public has gotten into the habit of regulating bear hunting through initiatives, the issue has become increasingly polarized.


That became obvious this summer when Colorado bear biologist Tom Beck stepped out of the hunting culture to write an essay critical of the sport and attitudes toward it. Among other observations in the essay, which was scheduled to run in the September issue of OutdoorLife magazine, Beck had asked: "How fulfilling is it to shoot a bear with its head in a barrel of jelly-filled donuts?"


Reaction was angry and organized, and Times Mirror executives pulled the piece from the magazine at the last moment. In response, the two top editors of Outdoor Life immediately resigned: "It was one of those situations where you either sucked it up and quit or you don't and are forced to live with yourself and represent something that you think is essentially gutless," Stephen W. Byers, the magazine's editor in chief, told The New York Times.


Although outraged bear hunters had never seen the article, which was adapted from a new anthology, A Hunter's Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sport, they'd gotten the gist of what he'd written and that was enough.


Perhaps what alienated hunters most was Beck's saying that society had a right to become intimately involved in hunting, and that the real issue was not so much hunting as the conduct of hunters.


"While the biological rules set the outer limits for what we kill, the sociological rules dictate how we kill," Beck said.


Beck finished his quashed article this way: "I look back with fondness to 1978, when I first began studying black bears in the wild. I was so dumb: I only wanted to know as much as possible about bears, which I found and still find awe-inspiring. Knowledge is what I craved.


"What I've learned is a little about bears and a lot about human behavior. Most days that makes me wish I were a bear.


"Today much of my energy goes into attempting to reform my profession and my fellow hunters. I do so for many reasons, some of them selfish. I want to keep hunting. I want to keep learning and living with wildlife. These things can only happen if we bring a stronger social consciousness to our roles as wildlife managers and hunters. We must change or we will cease to exist."


Beck's essay can be read in its entirety in David Petersen's A Hunter's Heart, $25, published by Henry Holt and Co., 115 W. 18th St., New York, NY 10011 (212/886-9200). Petersen dedicates his book of 41 essays to Tom Beck, "who embodies all that's good in a hunter, a wildlife manager, a conservationist and a friend."


*Betsy Marston