Idaho hunters ask public to bear with them

  • Black bear

    Neal and Mary Jane Mishler

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Unarmed but dangerous critics close in on hunting.

Lynn Fritchman is used to spending time with dead bears. The third-generation Idaho hunter inspects bears for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game after they've been killed by hunters. But over the years Fritchman heard more and more hunters brag about how easy it was to hang around a barrel of jelly donuts and rotting hamburger meat; eventually they'd shoot a bear lured to the feast. He became disgusted.

Now he spends 10 hours a day helping a new group, the Idaho Sportsmen for Fair Hunting, in its campaign against "unethical" black bear hunting. If the group gathers 41,335 signatures by July 1996, voters will decide whether to ban three forms of bear hunting - using bait, tracking with dogs, and hunting in the spring when females are nursing cubs.

During the last five years, the Humane Society of the United States has successfully used the ballot box to tighten up rules of the hunt in Arizona, California, Colorado and Oregon. But Idaho may be different. Thirty-seven percent of Idahoans hunt, making it unofficially the most pro-hunting state in the country. It is also the only state in the continental United States that allows all three bear-hunting methods.

Last year Idaho hunters shot 2,500 bears; poachers took an untold number as well. Idaho's strong hunting constituency also is matched by the state's Fish and Game Commission, which opposes any change in the regulations.

When Fritchman's petitions hit the streets early this fall, another new group, the Sportsmen's Heritage Defense Fund, issued a call to arms. In Salmon, some of its members surrounded petition organizers and waved their own brochures in front of passers-by.

"People walk away from the petitions because they don't want a conflict," says Kathy Richmond, a Clayton resident who has volunteered to gather signatures in towns around the state until July. But many who got past the hecklers to sign, she adds, told her they were hunters.

Greg Brown, a computer technician at the University of Idaho in Moscow, became a target of bear hunters when he founded the Idaho Coalition United for Bears. Hunting advocates bombarded the university president with 130 letters telling her to fire Brown. After that, Brown says, he passed the leadership of the coalition (which includes Idaho Sportsmen for Fair Hunting) to Fritchman.

Hunter Don Clower, who took time away from this season's hunt to lead the Sportsmen's Heritage Defense Fund, defends his group's methods. He says members protect Idaho from "a tiny group of outsiders coming in with people and money to tell us what lifestyle we should enjoy. They don't care about bears."

Clower says the main issue for sportsmen is their belief that "wildlife needs to be managed by professionals and not the ballot box."

Local papers in Idaho have taken up that aspect of the issue. "When you kill an animal, it's a damn personal thing," Kimberly bowhunter Clayton Nielson told The Times-News in Twin Falls. "It's like going to the bathroom or having sex."

State agencies agree the public is intruding. "If we can't manage according to good science, it would hamper the agency operation and the future of wildlife," says Idaho Fish and Game spokesman Jack Trueblood. The bear population would soar, says Trueblood, and the agency lacks the staff or money to handle troublesome animals.

"We have every sportsmen's organization, trapping association, and hunting group in the state on our side," says Clower. "They know the bear doesn't need saving in Idaho."

Members of Fritchman's Sportsmen for Fair Hunting disagree, saying that bears are the slowest-reproducing mammal in North America. They say the state wildlife commission's position protects bear-baiters and hounders - the 5 percent of bear hunters who kill 20 percent of the bears. Some are guides who make money by treeing or baiting a trophy for a client to shoot; others sell bear innards, a legal act in Idaho. A powdered gall bladder can fetch $5,000 in Asia. Poachers, nearly everyone agrees, are also liable to bait bears.

Last March, Idaho Sportsmen for Fair Hunting group offered to withdraw its ballot initiative if the commission prohibited just one of the disputed tactics. "They said not only no, but hell no," says Fritchman. "We have exhausted all approaches."

Although Kathy Richmond and her husband are often the only members of their small group out gathering signatures, they are certain the citizens' initiative will pass if it makes it to the ballot. Sportsman Clower tentatively agrees. That is why, he says, it must not get to that point. "I know they (hounding and baiting) must seem like dirty business to people who don't hunt."

If Colorado is any indication, Idaho will remain a popular state for bear hunting even if the initiative passes. Just three years after Colorado voters abolished the spring bear hunt, bear baiting, and hunting with hounds, the state's bear population is right on target, says Tom Beck, a bear researcher for Colorado. He also says hunting interest has soared and hunters' success rate is as high as it was before.

But interaction between bears and humans has also increased dramatically, causing some disgruntled Coloradoans to say they'll try to repeal the new law. Beck blames the more frequent bear occurrences on Colorado's population boom: People are building subdivisions in bear habitat. But he also points the finger at bears who have become dependent on human handouts. "They are wandering around looking for bait," Beck says.

For more information, contact Idaho Coalition United for Bears, P.O. Box 1456, Boise, ID 83701 (208/345-8259) or the Sportsmen's Heritage Defense Fund, P.O. Box 1399, Meridian, ID 83680 (208/888-7020).

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