Scorned by animal rights groups and reviled by some hunters, the practice of bear baiting is under the gun in Alaska from an odd mix of conservationists and professional hunters.
The state Board of Game has dismissed repeated requests over the years to outlaw the practice of luring black bears with human food. So, foes this year are seeking a ballot initiative to let voters decide the issue.
"The whole idea of using bait to attract bears, I don't think it's fair. Not really a civilized thing," said Lowell Thomas Jr., a former lieutenant governor and one of the backers of the initiative.
Thomas, who says he only shoots animals with a camera, said he was asked to take up the initiative by conservationists intent on ending the practice.
Black bears lured by bait stations account for about 18 percent of the 2,500 bears killed by hunters each year, the state Department of Fish and Game said. Many hunters look down on the practice, though hunting groups in Alaska say it shouldn't be outlawed.
Less revered and more abundant than the giant grizzly and brown bears that wander Alaska's backcountry, black bears are taken both for their meat and as trophies.
State Fish and Game biologists have no good estimates on the number of black bears in Alaska, but say the population is well over 100,000.
Alaska is one of nine states that allow hunters to maintain bait stations in remote areas of public lands. The others are Idaho, Utah, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming. In addition, Arkansas allows bear baiting on private land.
The Humane Society of the United States and the Friends of Animals are trying to organize a referendum to ban bear baiting in Maine. Voters in Colorado, Oregon and Washington have banned the practice in recent years.
"It's not surprising wherever baiting occurs, it's enormously controversial," said Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society. "It cannot withstand public scrutiny, because it's so unfair to the bear and because it causes obvious conflicts between bears and humans."
Professional Alaska guides George Pollard and John Erickson are also backing the initiative drive to outlaw bear baiting. Initiative supporters must gather more than 23,000 signatures to get the measure on the 2004 statewide ballot.
Both guides say that the practice is unethical and putting out bacon grease or doughnuts conditions bears to consider humans as a food source.
"We are teaching them to eat garbage out in the woods," said Erickson. "Once you get a bear in the dump, they are a garbage bear."
Officials at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve asked the Alaska Game Board to restrict baiting in that park last year. They withdrew the request after complaints that it would make it more difficult for people in the area who depend on the game they harvest for food.
Federal legislation recently introduced by Reps. Jim Moran, D-Va.; and Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., would end bear baiting on federal lands. The legislation has drawn opposition from a number of hunting groups, as well as the organization that represents state wildlife management agencies. They say it's a state issue and the federal government should stay out of it.
It also drew the wrath of Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, who suggested some Alaskans would react violently to such a ban.
"I wish I had my native people in here right now," Young told Moran during a hearing. "You'd walk out of here with no head on."
But in fact, supporters say, a poll they commissioned last year shows strong support among Alaskans for such a ban.
Doug Pope, a former state game board chairman active in conservation issues, said the influence of sportsmen's organizations in Alaska make it unlikely the ban will be enacted by politicians. "The only place that it makes sense is on a statewide vote," he said.
But that's what hunters fear the most: wild Alaska falling under the sway of the urban centers of Anchorage and Juneau, where fewer people hunt.
Many hunters who support bear baiting - or at least support the right for other hunters to practice it - don't see the distinction between that and hooking fish with bait or using decoys or calls to lure game birds. And if hunting is harvesting, this is an effective and efficient way to do it.
The State Department of Fish and Game has no official stance on bear baiting, leaving it to voters to decide. Boone and Crockett, the sportsmen's organization that formulates ethical hunting standards, makes no distinction in its trophy records between baited bears and those shot by other means.
George Faerber is a 57-year-old hunting guide from Trapper Creek near Mount McKinley who fears much of his livelihood could fall to a referendum.
"I don't feel I can take a client out and take them on a snipe hunt, if you know what I mean," Faerber said.