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Congress wrestling over bear baiting

WASHINGTON — Hunters and wildlife lovers are dueling over whether Congress should allow nine states, including Utah, to continue to permit bear hunters to pile food as bait and then shoot bears attracted by the smell of the feast.

Wildlife groups say "bear baiting" is unsporting, inhumane and dangerous — as leftover bait piles may make bears used to human food and lead them into populated areas where trash cans offer similar meals. They want it banned on federal lands.

But hunter groups say the tactic is a valid way to hunt in heavily forested areas where visibility is limited, it isn't as easy as it sounds and it may be a tool needed by some states to control growing bear populations.

The two sides battled Thursday in a hearing before the House Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans.

"Most people believe that it is unfair and unsporting to lure a bear with food and shoot the animal while he or she is gorging on food," testified Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.

"Bear baiting" is allowed in Utah only for archers. It is allowed for all bear hunters in eight other states: Alaska, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., a sponsor of the Do Not Feed the Bears Act to outlaw bear baiting on federal land, testified that "there are few differences between bait piles and what a bear might find in a garbage can, dump or campground."

He said gaining a taste for human food from leftover piles can lead bears into populated areas and work against other efforts by federal agencies, such as the National Park Service, that have created "bear-proof" trash cans and have urged visitors not to feed bears to reduce dangerous bear-human encounters.

However, Rep. Colin Peterson, D-Minn., said bear baiting is needed to control burgeoning growth of bear populations in his state and others.

"If it were not for sport hunting and bait use, Minnesota's bear population would be expected to grow at a rate of approximately 20 percent per year," he said.

The Bush administration opposed the bill, saying the federal government should not interfere with state oversight of wildlife and hunting.