Foul hunting tactic under attack in the West

  • The bear hunter who left this baiting station was fined $500

    Frank Erickson
 

To many Westerners, luring an unsuspecting black bear with rotting meat and then shooting it is cruel and unsporting, not to mention messy.

"It's such an exceptional practice," says Aaron Medlock, a former Fund for Animals attorney who now works for the Humane Society of the United States. "It's so different from regular hunting."

Lawsuits by the New York-based Fund and other wildlife advocates have already forced the Forest Service to temporarily ban bear baiting on Wyoming's national forests. Their continued efforts could eventually lead the agency to ban bear baiting on all national forests in the 11 states where the practice is legal. Bears in Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington and Alaska would be that much safer.

Colorado voters banned bear baiting in 1992, and Oregon voters narrowly passed a citizens' initiative in November, banning hunting of bears with poisoned bait and hunting of bears and cougars with dogs (HCN, 11/28/94).

But in Wyoming, where bear baiting on federal lands has long been a mainstay for some outfitters and where most of the citizens hunt, a ballot initiative seems unlikely. Recognizing this, the Laramie-based Friends of the Bow began waging a scrappy legal battle in 1991.

In Wyoming, as in all states, the state Game and Fish Department regulates bear hunting. But in the 1970s some national forests began issuing hunters special use permits because they realized the state program wasn't tough enough. The permits restricted baiting to areas where it wouldn't threaten water quality, put bears and campers in dangerous proximity or attract endangered species like grizzly bears and wolves.

In issuing the permits, the Forest Service never studied the effects on the black bear population or the broader environment, a point not lost on the members of Friends of the (Medicine) Bow. In 1991, the group challenged a permit for baiting in the Medicine Bow National Forest. Worried that the wildlife group might start challenging every bear-baiting permit, the Forest Service decided to get out of the business altogether and hand bear-baiting regulation on forests over to the state.

A series of procedural bungles surrounding the change in policy, however, allowed Friends of the Bow and its allies to start a legal merry-go-round, beginning with a lawsuit in 1992. In its latest response, the Forest Service temporarily banned bear baiting in Wyoming and issued a new national baiting policy.

Under the rules proposed last April, the agency would consult with the state on setting baiting restrictions, but not issue permits, says Tom Bandolin, assistant to the Forest Service's wildlife program manager in Washington, D.C. The agency could still override a state baiting decision if it threatened the environment or human health and safety, he says.

"We're telling our people to work it out with the state agency," Bandolin says. "If they can't, then issue a closure order."

The agency says it will consider 14,000 public comments it has received as it writes a nationwide environmental assessment and a biological opinion, due sometime in December. But wildlife activists predict the agency will avoid the tough questions, and that they will be forced to sue again.

"It's always been their position that this is just a procedural thing," responds Don Duerr, co-founder of the Friends of the Bow. "The reality is they have never studied the impacts of bear baiting on national forest lands."

Duerr has been trying to get the agency to do just that ever since he encountered a messy baiting site on the Medicine Bow several years ago.

"It was disgusting," he says. "Every other public land user is prohibited from littering. Why are these guys allowed to trash the forest?"

Duerr also found that neither the state nor the Forest Service knew the size of the state's bear population or whether hunting with bait was hurting it.

The state is paying more attention to bear populations, and state wildlife managers maintain that bear baiting isn't significantly diminishing the bear population. Game and Fish spokesman Al Langston says bear baiting isn't as easy as it looks.

"Lots of people think you just put out Twinkies and sardines and it's a fish-in-the-barrel hunt. Only a very small percentage of bear hunters ever get a bear," he says.

But hunting pressure on Wyoming bear populations is increasing, says Dave Moody, the state's large-predator coordinator. Twice as many bear-hunting licenses are issued now as 10 years ago, he says, and the recorded black bear kill has risen steadily, peaking in 1991 at 238 animals, 79 of them females. Approximately 60 percent of the bears killed were baited.

Some hunting groups and wildlife officials say the Fund For Animals and its allies have more than bear baiting in mind. "The ultimate purpose of these court actions is to bring an end to all forms of hunting, one step at a time," warns Larry Kruckenberg of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

But Kruckenberg advises hunters not to blindly fight the move to ban bear baiting. Surveys show that the majority of Wyoming residents approve of hunting but disapprove of bear baiting.

For more information, write Director, Wildlife, Fish and Rare Plants, Forest Service, USDA, P.O. Box 96090, Washington, DC 20090 (202/205-1206).

The writer is a former HCN intern who now works for an Oregon weekly newspaper. Paul Larmer contributed to this report.

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