Forces Push Bear-Bait Ban
DRIVE: Some longtime hunters join effort to place practice before voters.
George Pollard has killed hundreds of animals during 35 years as a hunting guide in Alaska. Now his sights are focused on the controversial practice of bear baiting -- hunters luring black bears with doughnuts, bacon grease or other aromatic substances, then killing them.
Pollard, 77, wants Alaska voters to do something the Board of Game will not: ban bear baiting. It's a lazy, unethical, dangerous practice, he says. Most Alaskans will agree, he believes, if they can vote on it.
A statewide vote moved a step closer last week when Lt. Gov. Loren Leman approved the application submitted by Pollard and two other well-known hunters, former Lt. Gov. Lowell Thomas Jr. and master guide John Erickson, to put the ban on the ballot. They now have a year to collect 23,285 signatures. The earliest it could appear is the next general election, in November 2004.
The sponsors believe the ban will sail through. A poll they commissioned last September found broad public support, they say.
But they're likely to meet stiff resistance from supporters of the practice, which is currently under fire in Congress. Bear baiting has been banned in three states during the last decade, and hunting advocates don't want Alaska to be next.
"It's going to be hot," predicted Jesse VanderZanden, executive director of the statewide hunting and fishing coalition, the Alaska Outdoor Council.
Hunters kill about 2,500 black bears a year in Alaska, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, but fewer than 20 percent statewide are taken at bait stations. The practice is most popular on the Kenai Peninsula and the Interior, where the forest cover is thick and hunters can't scan beaches and hillsides from boats.
At a department-sponsored baiting clinic in Soldotna in 1997, state biologist Ted Spraker -- now retired and a member of the Game Board -- said popular baits include old pastries, dog food, chicken fat, fish heads and carcasses.
"Essentially, you are feeding the bears," Spraker told the Peninsula Clarion at the time. The feeding continues for several weeks. Hunters can then wait at the station to shoot a bear of their preference.
Brown bears cannot be shot using bait stations, nor can black bear cubs or sows with cubs. The bait season in most of Alaska is open eight to 10 weeks in spring and early summer.
Advocates say there's nothing unethical about baiting. It allows hunters, especially bowhunters, to get close enough to their prey to be both selective and effective. Setting out food for bears is no different from putting salmon eggs on a fishing hook or duck decoys in a pond, they contend.
Opponents disagree, arguing that baiting is unsportsmanlike and creates a public safety hazard. Kenai Peninsula grizzlies are becoming food-conditioned at the stations, ban sponsor Pollard said, and since they can't be shot, the animals are developing a taste for human food.
"When that bear gets those jelly doughnuts or Twinkies, he knows that's not natural food. If that's taken away from him when they close the bait station, that bear goes around searching, and it might be in somebody's house," he said. "It's hypocritical for Fish and Game to make it illegal to leave bird feeders or garbage out for any bear, yet you can take that same garbage and dump it in the woods and it's legal."
Fish and Game has done little research on bear baiting, said David James, the state's chief wildlife biologist in the Interior region. But he said he doubts that bait stations create nuisance bears. Bears don't need to be taught that jelly and grease are food, he said.
"Bears are the ultimate food-finding machine," James said. "That's how they make their living."
Bear baiting is extremely popular around Fairbanks, with more than 70 percent of the black bears taken in Game Management Unit 20 shot at bait stations, state statistics show. If the ban were enacted, the black bear harvest would plummet and probably send more bears to garbage cans and bird feeders, James said.
While the Department of Fish and Game considers bear baiting a management tool, he said the agency is not likely to takes sides on the ban. "This is a societal value and the public has to sort that out," he said. "That's why we have the Board of Game to ultimately make those decisions."
The Game Board banned the feeding of all wild animals in 1977, but in 1982 rewrote the rules to allow bear baiting. It has upheld the practice several times since, even though a Fish and Game poll in 1994 found Alaskans generally opposed to it.
Last fall, a coalition of bear-baiting opponents commissioned a poll by the Anchorage-based Dittman Research Corp. and found similar results, said Paul Joslin of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance. More than 60 percent of 500 respondents in 64 communities said bear baiting should end.
Though voters may support the ban for a variety of reasons, Joslin said the initiative drive is largely to override the Game Board.
"It's not about hunting. It's about fairness in the decision-making process," Joslin said. The Game Board has been stocked with hunters and trappers, he and other critics of the board argue, largely ignoring all others. If the board won't reflect the prevailing attitude of Alaskans, voters will, he said.
"We need to recognize a different set of values than we recognize right now," he said.
Many hunting advocates dispute that the decision-making process is stacked in their favor. Some of them argue that hunters are the ones under attack by anti-hunting forces.
Hunters are already gearing up for the fight, said Rob Sexton of the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance.
"This is a continuing attack on sportsmen's rights in the state of Alaska, and we would hope sportsmen would rally together to defeat the attack," he said.
But Game Board member Spraker is prepared to lose, he said last week.
"It's not a biological issue, it's a values issue," he said. "It's just going to be one man's or one woman's values against another. The board has always said that if you don't like bear baiting, don't go."
Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 257-4310
Wolf Song of Alaska, P.O. Box 671670, Chugiak, Alaska 99567-1670