Voters across Alaska sided with the small number of hunters who use food to lure bears into their sights and shot down a proposed ban on bear baiting by a wide margin Tuesday.
The response to Ballot Measure 3 came as no surprise to ban opponents, including Mike Fleagle, chairman of the Alaska Board of Game. He called the vote an indication that "Alaska is finally realizing we can't bend over backwards to these animal welfare groups that are trying to force their way of thinking on us."
Alaskans for Professional Wildlife Management, a coalition of hunting and sportsmen's groups, spent nearly $500,000 to defeat the ban. It painted the measure as having too many unintended consequences, such as stiff fines and jail sentences for attracting bears to bird feeders.
Backers of the ban disputed that and other statements in their opponents' advertising campaign, complaining that the flood of money from outside Alaska tipped the election.
"I can't say I'm too surprised (at the results) because of all the money put into this by the Outside fellows, and all the untruths they've told," said initiative sponsor Lowell Thomas Jr.
But the battle over baiting isn't over, he said. "This business just has to be abolished."
Thomas and longtime hunting guides John Erickson of Hoonah and George Pollard of Kasilof started the initiative effort last year, saying they put the question before voters because the Alaska Board of Game had refused to ban the practice.
Baiters leave out pastries, grease and other aromatic foods to entice black bears into an opening, where they can be killed.
Ban backers argued that baiting is unethical, as well as unnecessary. Alaska has an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 black bears, of which about 2,400 a year are killed by hunters. Of those, about 600 are shot at bait stations.
Proponents of the ban also called baiting unsafe, because it gives bears a taste for human food that can lead to conflicts with humans.
But hunters, including many who do not use bait, poured money into the effort to kill Ballot Measure 3. They saw it as a first step toward banning all hunting, and collected substantial contributions from sportsmen's groups both inside and outside the state.
Various chapters of the Safari Club International, including several in Alaska, gave more than $100,000, and the Ohio-based U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance gave $50,000.
The biggest single contributor was the Virginia-based Ballot Issues Coalition, which formed in 1998 to fight citizen-driven ballot initiatives on wildlife issues and gave Alaskans for Professional Wildlife Management more than $150,000.
Hunters who use bait maintained that the practice is ethical, saying it gives hunters a clear view of the target and a clean shot. It is particularly valuable in areas where thick brush makes it hard to stalk bears using traditional methods. Some guides also use bait to provide their clients a sure shot.
In its $480,000 advertising blitz, APWM hardly mentioned the term baiting. Instead, it sought to convince voters that the proposed ban was too broad, too vague and would have unintended consequences, such as preventing state biologists from using food to trap nuisance bears.
That argument resonated with many voters, including Bridgette Vaughan of North Pole. "There's such a fear here that if a bear eats out of a garbage can in your backyard, you can go to jail," she said. "I don't think anything should be taken out of the control of Fish and Game."
Janet Schaefer of Fairbanks agreed. "Wildlife shouldn't be managed by a ballot initiative," she said.
But many of those who favored the ban focused on the practice of baiting itself. "If you want to go hunting, go hunt, not bear bait just to get a bear rug," said Maija Johnson of Kotzebue. "I just don't think it's right. If you're to get a bear , pitch a tent to get it right, like the Natives used to."
Brian Bailey of Sitka voiced a similar opinion. He said he finds baiting offensive, and voted against the ban. "I'm a sportsman," he said, "and I don't think it's a sporting way to get bears."
Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 257-4310.