Bear Baiting Could Go to Vote Application for initiative Certified
Baiting bears would mean breaking the law under a proposal that could be up for a popular vote next fall.
The state Division of Elections announced Thursday that Lt. Gov. Loren Leman has certified an application for a 2004 ballot initiative banning bear-baiting. If the sponsors of the initiative petition can gather enough signatures, the question of whether to make the activity illegal would be placed on the 2004 state ballot.
Sponsors and supporters of the petition argue that baiting bears--luring them to a hunting spot by leaving food for them--leads to garbage-bear issues and is contrary to fair-chase hunting rules.
"You can't call that fair chase hunting because chase means pursuing an animal, and you're not pursuing an animal," said retired Kasilof hunting guide George Pollard, one of three petition sponsors. "You're just sitting waiting for an animal to come to you."
Baiting brown bears is prohibited in Alaska, while baiting black bears is legal throughout the state, except on national wildlife refuges and National Park Service land.
Hunters in populated areas, such as Fairbanks, must take a class first. Bait stations must be registered and signposted, and must be located at least a quarter mile away from any publicly maintained trails or roads and a mile from any houses.
Alaska is one of nine states that allow bear-baiting, out of 27 where bear hunting in general is permitted. Voters in several other states have banned baiting by initiative in recent years.
Though sponsors said the focus of the initiative is baiting bears for hunting, the language is broader than that, stating that "a person may not bait or intentionally feed a bear for the purpose of hunting, photography or viewing." Violation of the law would be a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Feeding wild animals is already illegal in Alaska, but it is currently legal to bait bears for viewing or photography purposes as well as for hunting.
The bill has three sponsors: Pollard, Hoonah guide John Erickson and Lowell Thomas Jr., former state senator and lieutenant governor.
Certification of the petition means the three have gathered 100 names of people willing to gather signatures to put the measure on the ballot, and also that the ballot language has been cleared by the state Department of Law. In order to get the measure onto the ballot, the sponsors will have to gather 23,286 signatures spread over at least 27 of Alaska's 40 election districts.
Thomas said he expects the measure will pass if put to a vote.
"There are a lot of people in the state here that have a different slant on wildlife," he said. "I think people have begun to appreciate that all God's creatures include wildlife as well."
But others argue that bear-baiting is a necessity for catching bears, which can be hard to spot in the heavily wooded Interior, and that keeping bear numbers down helps boost other game populations.
"In this country, black bears can be fairly difficult to hunt unless you use something like bait," said Dick Bishop, former head of the Alaska Outdoor Council. "We've always considered it fair-chase. It's by no means a sure thing in terms of either finding, or being able to shoot or kill a bear."
In addition to the fair-chase issue, some argue that bear-baiting encourages nuisance bears by getting bears used to the human food often used at bait stations. While some of the bears attracted to bait stations are killed--after all, that's the idea--Alaska Wildlife Alliance Wildlife Director Paul Joslin noted that some of them, like brown bears or black bears with cubs, can't be hunted.
"In essence, you end up with a population of bears that have been trained to see human-related foods as OK," he said.
Joslin argued that allowing bear-baiting runs contrary to great efforts put forward by the state and various organizations to keep people from feeding bears.
"We allow this one kind of exception that's a glaring exception," he said.
Others say there's not much evidence that bear-baiting has caused any problems in the Interior. Tom Seaton, assistant area biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said he thinks the opposite may be true, since bait stations help thin bear numbers.
"Enough bears are harvested that might be interested in bait stations that those bears are removed from the population," he noted. "In that sense, I believe that bear-baiting actually decreases the number of bears out there causing problems."
But Seaton admitted the jury is out on the effect of baiting in the Interior.
"I can see the mechanism that bears can be habituated by bear-baiting," he said.
Bear-baiting is a big deal in the Interior: In recent years, between 64 percent and 79 percent of the black bears shot around Fairbanks have come from bait stations. In 2000, nearly half of the baited bears killed statewide that were reported to Fish and Game came from parts of hunting unit 20, near Fairbanks.
There is also a debate over bear-baiting at the federal level. A subpanel of the U.S. House Resources Committee is currently considering a bill that would ban all bear baiting on federal lands.
Reporter Tom Moran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 459-7590.
Wolf Song of Alaska, P.O. Box 671670, Chugiak, Alaska 99567-1670