Biologist Takes on Bait Ban
GOAL: The initiative process is the wrong way to change hunting rules, he says
"My goal is to drive a stake through the heart of the process," said retired state biologist Wayne Heimer.
Retired state wildlife biologist Wayne Heimer has never hunted black bears, he said, much less engaged in bear baiting -- the practice of setting out dog food, bacon grease, pastries or other edibles to bring bears into hunters' cross hairs.
But the longtime Fairbanks hunter resents the idea of managing the state's fish and game by voter initiative. He calls it unconstitutional and said Lt. Gov. Loren Leman erred when he approved the bear-baiting initiative effort June 19. Heimer has filed a complaint in Alaska Superior Court asking the court to halt the initiative drive or keep it off the ballot.
"My goal is to drive a stake through the heart of the process," Heimer said.
Black bears are plentiful in most regions of the state. Alaska Department of Fish and Game statistics show about 2,500 black bears are killed every year; just under 20 percent are taken at bait stations. It is illegal to shoot a brown bear or grizzly over bait.
Baiting is particularly common in densely forested areas where sighting bears is difficult. It requires a bait station permit from Fish and Game. Then hunters set out aromatic foods, spices and sometimes fish or animal carcasses to attract the bears. When the animals become accustomed to finding food at the site, hunters wait in hiding, then shoot the bear of their choice.
Many hunters staunchly defend the practice. Some liken it to using salmon eggs to attract fish or setting out decoys to draw waterfowl. The tactic is particularly popular among bow hunters, who say it gives them a clean and accurate shot.
Baiting has been allowed in most of Alaska except during a few years in the early 1980s, when feeding many wild animals was made illegal. Since the practice resumed, the Alaska Board of Game has repeatedly turned down proposals to ban it.
Now a group calling itself Coalition United Against Bear Baiting wants to put the question to voters. It needs the signatures of 23,385 registered voters, but that doesn't look like a hurdle, said coalition member Paul Joslin of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance. More than 12,000 signatures have been gathered since the petitions became available in early July.
"I'd be extremely surprised if we weren't able to get the necessary signatures," Joslin said. "There's very little opposition out there, in part because there's very little good you can say about bear baiting."
The petition is finding wide support, he said. Some hunters, including initiative sponsors Lowell Thomas Jr., George Pollard and John Erickson, want to ban baiting because it's not fair chase, Joslin said.
Some voters have signed the petition because they stumbled onto baiting stations unintentionally, Joslin said, or because they fear the stations are placed too close to homes and roads.
But many have mentioned concern that a baiting station is just a form of feeding wild animals, he said.
"There's been so much education on 'don't feed the bears,' 'take bird feeders down come spring,' 'don't leave garbage out overnight,' " Joslin said. "The average person is unaware that there are thousands of bear dumps (baiting stations) scattered around the state, and they're uncomfortable with the concept that that practice goes on."
If the petition gets enough signatures, it will go on the November 2004 general election ballot, unless the Alaska Legislature writes a law in the meantime that accomplishes the same goal.
Joslin is optimistic that state voters will halt bear baiting, if given the chance. Though most Alaskans support hunting, "there are limits beyond which the public says no, we really don't want you to go there," and bear baiting is beyond that limit, he said.
Heimer is afraid Joslin may be right but said the initiative process is the wrong way to change hunting rules. Wildlife policy should be made not by public vote, which can be swayed by media campaigns and interest groups, but by the boards of fish and game, as set out in the Alaska Constitution.
"We've got to protect that system," which is world-renowned for its democratic nature and good track record, Heimer said. "If we can't protect it from initiatives, we might as well hang it up."
He argues that Leman wrongly approved the bear baiting petition because of a section in the constitution that says initiatives cannot be used to dedicate revenues. The Alaska Supreme Court in 1979 declared that state land was an asset that cannot be allocated by initiative, and Heimer hopes to convince the court that Alaska's fish and wildlife fall into the same category.
That argument isn't likely to prevail, said Anchorage attorney and former Game Board member Doug Pope. He won a case before the Alaska Supreme Court in which the opposing attorney used the same tack.
"That's been briefed, argued and decided," Pope said, and the court voted unanimously against it. "It's a slam-dunk case."
Heimer isn't dissuaded by court precedent, however.
"The initiative process to limit hunting, consumptive harvest, methods and means -- it's an industry throughout the U.S." that yields cash for conservation groups, he said. As soon as the bear-baiting issue is settled, he continued, "they'll find something else that can be painted as socially unacceptable. If you can get the urban folks to support it, it's gone."
Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 257-4310.
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