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Alaskans Defeat Measure to Ban Bear Baiting

Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News Miner / November 3, 2004

It was a clean kill.

Alaska voters shot down a ban on bear baiting in decisive fashion on Tuesday, which means hunters will continue to be able to lure in black bears with doughnuts, dog food and other greasy foodstuffs to shoot them at close range.

Fifty-nine percent of Alaska voters were opposed to a proposal to outlaw bear baiting in the state, with more than half of precincts reporting Tuesday.

With 360 of 439 precincts reporting, 132,432 voters had voted against the measure while 92,391, or 41 percent, were in favor.

If passed, baiting or intentionally feeding a bear for the purpose of hunting, photographing or viewing would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $10,000 fine.

"If they do that, the next thing they're going to do is take away our guns, and then where are we going to be?" said 71-year-old Maggie Ross of Two Rivers. "I may be a Texan, but I've been an Alaskan for the last 35 years, and I think we've got pretty good laws and people here."

Bear baiting is illegal in 41 states. A similar ballot initiative that would outlaw the baiting, trapping or hunting of bears with dogs in Maine was too close to call at press time early this morning, with opponents of a ban holding a slim 52 to 48 percent lead.

Supporters of Ballot Measure 3 in Alaska contend bear baiting is unsportsmanlike and dangerous because it conditions bears to look for human sources of food.

Opponents argued that bear baiting is a useful wildlife management tool, particularly in those areas of Alaska like the Interior where dense vegetation makes it nearly impossible for hunters to get close enough to shoot.

Mike Scibor, a 60-year-old Fairbanks salesman, said hunting regulations should be determined by professional game managers, not private individuals.

"Game management by ballot box has never been an intelligent move," he said.

In Alaska, bear baiting can be used only to hunt black bears, not grizzlies. Alaska has between 100,000 and 200,000 black bears, and approximately 25 percent of the black bears taken in Alaska are shot over bait stations. Last year, 579 of the 2,386 black bears harvested were shot at bait stations.

Nowhere is bear baiting more popular than Fairbanks. Each spring, hundreds of hunters drive out roads like the Steese and Elliott highways north of Fairbanks or Chena Hot Springs Road east of town and use four-wheelers to haul doughnuts, dog food and other ursine delicacies to bait stations, which usually are nothing more than a 55-gallon barrel with a hole in it chained or cabled to a tree.

Last year, almost half--908--of the 2,118 bait stations registered in the state were in Game Management Unit 20, of which Fairbanks lies in the middle. Last year, 180 of the 240 black bears reported taken by hunters in Unit 20 were killed at bait stations.

Voters in Fairbanks cited several reasons for voting against the ban, from a fear of animal-rights groups invading Alaska to that fact it's the best way to hunt bears in the densely-forested Interior.

Jerry Knoll, a 63-year-old logger from Two Rivers, called it "a ridiculous issue."

"It affects such a small amount of the (bear) population," he said.

Ken and Gale Sifford voted to keep bear baiting legal in Alaska.

"I don't see anything wrong with it," said Ken, a 57-year-old employee at the Federal Aviation Administration who describes himself as a hunter but not a bear baiter.

Roger Havens, a 33-year-old truck driver and hunter, voted against the ban. Throwing someone in jail who took a photo of a bear that gets into their trash is ridiculous, he said.

"If a bear knocks over my trash can, I'm going to shoot him," Havens said.

As long as hunters are abiding by the state's meat salvage laws, they should be able to bait bears, said Dave Whipple.

"They're good eating and damn near impossible to find unless you're baiting them," said the 28-year-old cement contractor.

Mike Ralph, 33, who said he's a meat hunter and "a conservationist as well," voted against the ban. He figures pre-modern people who hunted for food didn't shy away from baiting animals.

"We're predators," he said, adding that it's the best way to hunt in the Interior's thick forest, where there are "a lot of bears."

Opponents of the baiting ban portrayed it as too far reaching and poorly written. Alaskans for Professional Wildlife Management, a group formed to fight the ban, ran several ads that claimed the new law could result in a $10,000 fine and up to a year in jail if a person took a picture of a bear when it came into their yard and got into trash or a bird feeder.

That's why Wendy Dickman, a 24-year-old school teacher, voted against the ban.

"A year in prison, I think that's way too much," she said.

Other voters said the initiative was poorly written and left too many doors open.

"It seemed written a little bit broad," said Marilyn Wright after voting against the bear baiting initiative at Gene's Chrysler.

"I thought it was a crock," said Jason Schoening, who voted against the bear baiting initiative at Tanana Middle School.

He said the penalties are too harsh, the whole thing too vague.

"It's something I don't feel is really an important issue," said Schoening.

Buddy Brown, president of Tanana Chiefs Conference, voted against the ban even though he finds baiting "despicable." Brown grew up as a Koyukon Athabascan in Huslia, where spiritual beliefs dictate very specific treatment of bears.

But Brown said he doesn't want to impose his personal views on others.

"Maybe it's not fair for me, living on the Koyukuk River, to say they can't bait bears," he said at a TCC rally in the Chena River Convention Center.

Wolf snaring, a common practice in rural Alaska, already survived one narrow vote, Brown observed. And predator control options in general, which many Native communities support, are always targeted by national environmental groups, he said.

Voters who supported the ban typically did so for the same reason--they didn't feel baiting bears was a sporting way to hunt.

"I think people should hunt black bears using their hunting skills and hard work, just like my bird watchers find birds without using tapes to call them in," said Dan Wetzel, a 58-year-old tour guide from Two Rivers who caters to bird watchers.

Collette Kisselman, a 39-year-old hospital transcriptionist, supported the ban for the same reason.

"I don't consider it sporting to sit in a tree and shoot a bear baited with human food," said Kisselman.

She also questioned conditioning bears with human food, something the Alaska Department of Fish and Game advises against.

"To bait bears with human food and expect them to stay away from people . . . I think it's a bad idea," said Kisselman.

Even though a large percentage of bear baiters are military personnel in Fairbanks, Fredrick Thompson, a 35-year-old soldier at Fort Wainwright, voted to ban the practice.

"Hunting is a sport," he said. "If you want to hunt bears, go out and find one."

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