Bear baiting prop sparks debate over what's a fair chase

Supporters say baiting habituates bears to human food; critics say rules should be decided by game board

Posted: Friday, October 08, 2004

Hidden between the lines of propaganda on the proposed ban on black bear baiting lies a question about one of Alaska's biggest traditions.

The ballot initiative on bear baiting will gives voters the power to decide what constitutes ethical hunting in Alaska, wildlife officials and hunters said this week.

Alaska voters will decide Nov. 2 on the controversial initiative to prevent hunters from setting out food, such as bacon drippings, to attract black bears.

Alaska is one of nine states that allows black bear baiting, but the list has been shrinking in recent years due to similar ballot initiatives in other states.

Black bear populations are in good shape in Alaska, said Doug Larsen, a regional supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which has maintained neutrality on the Alaskan ballot initiative.

The debate over whether Alaska hunters should be allowed to continue to set out food at bait stations is, fundamentally, about "public values," not wildlife conservation, Larsen said.

Alaskan advocates of the ban say hunters should be forced to practice "fair chase" on their prey.

They also claim baiting habituates bears to human food.

It comes down to ethics and safety, said Hoonah hunting guide John Erickson. "Hunting is a way of life, but hunting isn't just going out and killing stuff," Erickson said.

State airwaves and postal mail have been saturated with propaganda for and against bear baiting in recent weeks.

In the most recent development, the Division of Elections mailed out official election pamphlets containing claims by U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, that Lower 48 animal rights groups are driving the ballot initiative as part of a broad effort to destroy hunting, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and other Alaska cultural icons.

The initiative is sponsored by Alaska-based Citizens United Against Bear Baiting, which denies any involvement from Outside groups.

The state Department of Fish and Game allows hunters to kill about 650 bears per year at bait stations scattered throughout Alaska.

For about 20 years, however, the practice has been illegal in Juneau and in the Anchorage Bowl. In Southeast Alaska, bear baiting was banned in Unit 1C, an area including Juneau on the east side of Lynn Canal stretching from Eldred Rock, 20 miles south of Haines, to a point south of Endicott Arm.

Bear baiting was also restricted in Haines last year, due to safety concerns and incidental attraction of brown bears.

Juneau wildlife biologist Neil Barten said the Juneau ban was enacted at a time when the city was struggling with a "horrendous" bear problem related to human garbage.

Two hunters in the Juneau area are now proposing that the Alaska Board of Game reopen black bear baiting in Unit 1C. The board will vote on the proposal in November.

One of the two hunters, John Cooper, said he supports bear baiting because it is a selective way to hunt a specific bear. Though baiting takes time, it appeals to older hunters because it doesn't require traipsing through the woods for long distances, he said.

The Juneau proposals would be moot if Alaska voters enact the statewide ban, wildlife officials said.

Alaska hunters were first forced to obtain permits for bear baiting because of a ban on intentional feeding of wildlife in Alaska. The ban came after truck drivers began feeding bears along the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, said Cathie Harm, a regional Fish and Game biologist in Fairbanks.

Retired U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Edgar Bailey, of Homer, said he's been fighting bear baiting in Kenai for 15 years because he thinks it's unethical and because it habituates bears to human food. "I find it incredible that they can disseminate lies like that," he said, referring to the elections pamphlet provided by the Alaska Division of Elections.

While a number of Southeast Alaska hunting guides have come out against bear baiting in recent years, it is the main method for hunting black bears in the Fairbanks area.

Organizations such as Alaskans for Professional Wildlife Management and the Alaska Outdoors Council are fighting the proposed ban.

Congressman Don Young has recorded a radio ad in which he says the initiative would allow regular Alaskans to be fined for leaving out their dog dishes.

When sought for comment on the proposed ban Thursday, a Young spokesman provided an e-mailed recording of the Congressman's radio ad.

Jennifer Yuhas, executive director of the Alaska Outdoors Council, said that the main reason she opposes the ballot initiative is that "we think these sort of things should be decided through the open, public process."

The process she referred to is the Alaska Board of Game's regulatory framework for annual hunting regulations, in which members of the public and regional councils are able to propose new or revised hunting guidelines for their communities.

"Most of the complaints I'm hearing (about bear baiting) could easily be addressed through the channels that are already open," she said.

Yuhas also said the ballot initiative is "poorly written" and "goes too far," allowing state courts to fine anyone who intentionally sets out food, for any reason, to go to jail and be fined up to $10,000.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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