KENAI - While some big game hunters may be satisfied to wait for fall to stalk quarry such as moose and caribou, an ever-increasing number of hunters are taking part in spring hunts for black bears. On the Kenai Peninsula anyone interested in hunting bruins over a bait station must first attend a bear baiting clinic.
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"It's a one-time requirement for anyone that wants to set up a bait station in Game Management Units 7 and 15, which is all of the peninsula," said Larry Lewis, a wildlife technician at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office in Soldotna and the instructor of these free clinics.
Lewis already has given three bear baiting clinics this month, with the clinic at the Kenai Peninsula Sport, Rec and Trade Show drawing the largest crowd.
While many of these folks are hunters aiming to satisfy state requirements to use baits and scent lures during the upcoming season, some of those who attend have no interest in killing bears, Lewis said.
"Anyone wanting to bait black bears is required to attend a bear baiting clinic, so people that want to use bait to photograph bears, or just watch bears in their natural habitat, must also attend," he said.
Lewis also said he welcomes those opposed to the idea of bear baiting, although he rarely has detractors attend.
"My hat's off to anyone, even those opposed, that want to come and learn about bear baiting to make informed decisions," he said.
Although much of the clinics are spent discussing topics such as regulations, firearm and tree-stand safety, Lewis said a clinic would be incomplete without a discussion on ethics, since bear baiting is a controversial issue.
Some people believe attracting bears to bait stations is inconsistent with the idea of fair chase, but Lewis said he disagrees with this notion. He likened responsible bear baiting to another widely accepted hunting technique - hunting white-tailed deer using a tree stand and calls, scents and lures to attract them to a site.
"In regard to fair chase, people think it's just as easy as dumping doughnuts in the woods and shooting a bear, but it's not that easy. It's not easy at all. In fact, as a method, the success rate is fairly low. Only around 18 percent (of hunters utilizing bait) are successful," he said.
Lewis said bear baiting is challenging due to several factors.
"First, it's difficult to find a site," he said.
This is partially due to state regulations that require bait stations to be at least ¼ mile from publicly maintained roads or trails, and shorelines of bodies of water, such as the Kenai, Kasilof and Swanson Rivers and Kenai Lake.
Bait stations also must be at least one mile from residences, seasonal-use cabins, campgrounds and other developed recreational areas.
"You also have to pick a site that a bear will feel comfortable coming into, you have to run the site - replenishing the bait - in a way that makes them feel comfortable, and you have to be there when the bear comes in and have that bear be legal," he said.
Sows with cubs and cubs themselves are illegal to harvest, but Lewis said this is another advantage to hunting bears over bait.
"With our topography and habitat of numerous trees and thick vegetation, spot and stalk hunting for black bears would be very difficult. Baiting allows hunters to stay in one area and bring bears to them, which also allows for selectivity," he said.
Selectivity allows hunters to thoroughly view, at relatively close range, a bear they are considering harvesting to ensure it is legal. Sows with cubs may - out of caution - initially approach a bait station without the cubs, but since she will linger for the bait, a hunter could look for signs of motherhood, such as prominent teats or the cubs hiding nearby in brush.
Bait stations also allow trophy hunters the selectivity to wait for large bears, and to select bears with quality hides.
"Bait stations also allow hunters more time to make a good, clean shot," he said.
Since it is illegal to bait brown bears on the peninsula, Lewis said he emphasizes using the correct bait in the proper amounts during the clinics, so participants are more likely to bring the right animals to their sites.