Should We Bait Black Bears With Doughnuts? Maine Voters Will Decide

On Tuesday, Maine voters will decide how best to hunt the growing black bear population.

Every August, black bears in Maine's woods may find a mouthwatering surprise waiting for them among the trees: Barrels overflowing with old doughnuts, pastries, molasses, and leftover deep-fryer oil.

It's a rare bear that doesn't hang around to chow down on such temptations. Some will even come back for more. But a few weeks later, when bear-hunting season opens, those animals receive an altogether different surprise at the so-called bait barrels: Deadly gunshots or arrows from hunters who are hiding nearby.

For decades, Maine hunters have employed baiting to bag a bruin. But that could change on Tuesday, when Maine voters will decide whether or not to keep the practice.

Proponents of a ballot initiative to outlaw the practice say it's just plain cruel, while the tactic's defenders say it's a vital tool for controlling the state's bear population.

Maine hunters kill about 3,000 bears every year, the majority at bait barrels. The fate of two other legal hunting methods will also be decided by Mainers on Tuesday: Trapping the animals with foot snares and cage traps and tracking them with dog packs.

If Mainers approve the November 4 referendum, which has become one of the hottest issues on the ballot—only "fair-chase" hunting, as the old-fashioned stalking method is termed, will be allowed.

"Hunting helps keep the bear population stabilized, which is what the public wants," says Randy Cross, one of two bear biologists with the state's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

But ban proponents believe that baiting, trapping, and dog hunting are "cruel and unfair," says Katie Hansberry, a wildlife advocate with coalition Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, which gathered the more than 78,000 signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot. The coalition includes the Humane Society of the United States and Wildlife Alliance of Maine, among others.

Of 32 bear-hunting states, Hansberry says, "Maine is the only one that allows all three of these cruel and unfair practices. It's a black mark on our state."

Don't Feed the Bears?

Baiting for bears is common—it's legal in 23 of the 32 U.S. states that allow black bear hunting—but it's a particularly touchy issue in Maine because the species' numbers are growing. There are about 30,000 black bears that roam the state's 42,905 square miles (111,234 square kilometers) of bear habitat. In comparison, about the same number of black bears are found across the state of Washington's State's 184,827 square miles (478,699 square kilometers).

Washington's Fish and Wildlife Department does not designate particular habitats for the bears; the animals are simply "where you find them." (Read about hunters who conserve wildlife in the latest issue of National Geographic magazine.)

Hansberry and other supporters of the Maine ballot measure argue that it's not sporting to dump large quantities of human treats in the forest and then shoot the bears that have learned to feed at the barrels. They also say the practice breaks a cardinal rule of wildlife management everywhere: Don't feed the animals.

"It increases the likelihood of human-bear conflicts," Hansberry says, adding that nuisance bear encounters in Maine have increased by nearly 25 percent to about 500 a year over the last decade. (See "Canada Mauling Reflects Spike in Human-Bear Encounters.")

Trapping or pursuing bears with dogs are also inhumane methods, Hansberry argues, saying they cause undue stress and suffering.

But Maine's state wildlife biologists staunchly oppose the proposed ban, saying it will actually lead to more problems between people and bears as both populations grow. (See pictures of U.S. hunters.)

"These are our most effective management tools," says Cross, who argues that they remain the best way to control the bears' numbers.

If Maine hunters don't kill between 3,000 and 4,500 bears each year, he says, the animals' population will soar—causing many bears to die from starvation and disease. "That's not what people want to see," Cross says.

Danger at the Donut Barrel

Cross says that bear baiting helps to eliminate potential nuisance bears because the donut barrels attract both young bears, those under five, and elderly bears, those 20 and older.

Younger bears are drawn to the barrels because "they're bolder and do riskier things," and have not learned to be wary of humans, Cross say. Older bears are drawn in, he says, because they're desperate for food. He says both groups of bears are the most likely to get into trouble with people.

Cross disputes Hansberry's contention that bears that feast at barrels grow accustomed to people, noting that the barrels must be placed 1,500 feet (500 yards) from any human habitation or campground. (See "Please DO Feed the Bears, Biologist Says.")

Cross says there will be more nuisance bears in Maine if hunters are restricted to stalking or sitting in a tree stand, hoping a bear strolls by.

"It's almost impossible to walk through the woods to hunt, or to have a clear enough view to tell a female bear from a male," says George Matula, a wildlife biologist at Unity College in Maine who supports the ban. "A hunter will be lucky to spot a single bear."

Chasing "the Big Boy"

But wildlife biologists in other states, such as Oregon, Colorado, and Washington, that have banned the same methods—baiting, trapping, and hounding—are skeptical that Maine's hunters will fare so poorly if the measure passes.

"Our coastal forest rivals those of Maine for density," says Doug Cottam, a wildlife biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Newport office.

"Spotting bears used to seem impossible here, too," he says. "The forest is like a jungle." He points out that since baiting and hounding were outlawed in 1994, "our hunters have adapted; they've learned the bears' habits."

These days, Cottam regularly hears from hunters who've seen multiple bears yet resist pulling the trigger until they come upon the animal they want: "the Big Boy."

"They want that large, older male, and they're more selective now; they'll wait for that shot," he says. "And they're doing it effectively without bait or hounds."

Hunters in Oregon have apparently come to appreciate the old-fashioned stalking method, as numbers for the autumn bear hunt have nearly doubled, from about 15,000 before the ban to 30,000 today. (Oregon now also has a spring hunt.)

And sportsmen and women are killing as many black bears as before—taking between 1,200 and 1,450 annually from an overall Oregon population of between 25,000 and 30,000. (Related: "More Women Give Hunting a Shot.")

In Maine, voters faced this same ballot measure a decade ago. They defeated it then, but by a narrow margin, 53 to 47 percent. Commentators predict a close vote this time, too.

"No one is calling for an end to the bear hunts," Hansberry stresses. "But they should be fair and not cruel. They should give the bears a sporting chance—just as they do deer and moose."

Follow Virginia Morell on Twitter.

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