As anybody who has camped in national parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone knows, bears love human food. "Yogi" and his ingenuous friends have kept several generations of engineers busy designing "bear-proof" garbage cans and food-storage boxes for campsites.
So it's no surprise that hunters have taken advantage of bears' appetites during hunting season. With a ripe pile of smelly meat and a hiding spot in a nearby tree, the hunter's odds are improved considerably.But those concerned about the bears - for environmental or humanitarian reasons - have been protesting to state and federal officials. As a result, the United States Forest Service is reexamining its policy on bear-baiting. Meanwhile, several states have banned or restricted the practice, and in Oregon this November, voters are expected to vote on the use of bait (and dogs) to hunt bears and cougars.
Of the 27 states that license black-bear hunting, 11 allow baiting. These are Alaska, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
On April 14, the Forest Service issued a "notice of proposed policy" that, in essence, would give state fish and wildlife agencies regulatory power over bear-baiting on national forest land. In studying the issue, the Forest Service determined that neither an environmental assessment nor the more detailed environmental impact statement is necessary to make the policy change.
Opponents of bear-baiting (and of what they see as Forest Service deregulation) say the practice is unsporting. Lawyers for several environmental groups wrote to the head of the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain region: "Baiting does not involve any act of `pursuit,' which is a defining characteristic . . . of any act of hunting."
Don Duerr of "Friends of the Bow," a private group working on behalf of the Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming, says, "We have a number of substantial concerns. The bears end up getting used to human scents and food, and this creates a dangerous situation. It causes bear-human encounters in which the bears almost always lose."
Their criticisms include the littering of public forests with rotten bear bait.
While black bears are plentiful enough to allow their killing by hunters, baiting has led to the destruction of at least several endangered grizzly bears. Baiting also is believed to have increased bear poaching - especially for gall bladders, paws, and other body parts that draw a high price in Asia.
Defenders of baiting say setting out a pile of doughnuts (a particular favorite) or other attractive human food does not necessarily guarantee a successful kill.
At public hearings in Washington State in March, some speakers testified that it is the only way a person in a wheelchair, for example, can hunt.
While most government agencies report that black-bear populations are stable, there are indications that hunting may be having an adverse effect.
The typical bear killed in Wyoming is four or five years old (about the age of puberty), which could reduce the rate of reproduction over time. Since most bears shot by hunters are female, this could affect reproductive rates as well, especially in those six Western states that still allow a spring hunting season, when many females are still nursing their cubs.
The public has until June 13 to offers comments on the Forest Service's proposal to change bear-baiting policy in all national forests.