Wolf Song of Alaska News

Bear Baiting More Humane Than Long Shots

Craig Medred / Outdoors / Anchorage Daily News / November 7, 2004

On Wednesday, I woke up feeling sorry for many of the Alaskans who voted in favor of a failed state initiative to ban bear baiting.

Nearly every supporter of the ban I talked with before the election thought he or she was voting to do something to help black bears. Maybe those voters will feel better today knowing that belief was misguided.

It is unlikely a ban on bear baiting would have caused the state's annual black bear kill to drop by a single animal. More likely is that a baiting ban would have ensured additional bears died unpleasant deaths.

How can that be?

The answer rests in the way bears are hunted here. A few are shot over bait. Still more are shot along salmon streams, which is basically a natural form of baiting.

And a big number are shot in the mountains in the spring, when they are out foraging for the first greens of spring, or in the fall, when they are after the last berries of the year.

Hunting bears on the alpine tundra is difficult. Bears are usually hard to stalk. As a result, some hunters take long shots at these bears. Long shots maximize the chances of a wounding an animal.

The farther you are from your target, the less likely you are to hit it.

Gravity pulls a bullet down as it flies. Winds deflect a bullet as it moves through the air. Distance magnifies any problem with your aim.

For instance, if you twitch when you pull the trigger and jerk a shot to the right, it might be off by an inch at 25 yards. That will grow to four inches at 100 yards, eight inches at 200 yards, and so on.

That's why, when shooting at long distances, it is a lot easier to miss a bear's vital area than hit it. If this meant the hunter also missed the bear, that would be fine. Usually, it means the bullet hits the bear in a nonvital area.

Given that bullets also lose energy as they travel over distance, what you end up with is a bullet more likely to tear up a lot of flesh than to kill. The result: a wounded bear.

Some wounded bears are tracked down and killed. Others crawl off into the woods to die.

No one can say how many bears might have suffered this sort of death if baiting had been banned.

And no one knows how many of the people who practice bear baiting might have shifted to hunting bears other ways. No doubt some would have, and all of those ways have their downsides.

I'm no big fan of bear baiting. I don't do it. I have no desire to do it. I don't even think it's particularly fair.

But nature isn't fair, either. Fairness is a human idea, separating the civilized world from the natural world. The natural world doesn't operate on fairness, it operates on luck.

If an animal is lucky, it survives. If not, well ...

Consider the moose calf who's enjoying its new life until stumbling into the path of a hungry grizzly bear and getting killed. That's nature.

How many people reading this column know someone who got cancer. Probably almost everyone. Was it fair? Of course not. It never is when nature has its way.

The issue with hunting, thus, shouldn't be with fairness. It should be with humanity. That's the real standard by which hunting techniques should be judged:

Do they do as much as possible to ensure that animals are killed as quickly and as painlessly as possible?

By that standard, bear baiting rises above other hunting techniques. Bear baiting puts a hunter in position to carefully choose his or her kill and to take a relatively close shot at a known angle and a known range.

You might not like the idea the bear was tricked into putting itself in position to be killed. But the fact is that bear baiting is among the more humane ways of killing bears.

It's just too bad the people who sponsored the initiative weren't more honest about that. Instead, they led a bunch of people who know nothing about hunting or bears -- except that they love the latter -- to believe this was an initiative to do something for the animals.

Instead, it was an anti-hunting scam, down to that nonsense about how bear baiting would condition bears to human food, leading them to venture into trouble in Alaska cities.

If you want to know how far fetched that idea is, think about this:

Wherever scientists capture bears in North America, whether to fit them with radio collars for study or to relocate them because they are causing problems, they capture the animals in culvert traps baited with the same sorts of baits used by bear baiters.

And in all the years of capturing bears this way, no scientist has voiced concern that this sort of baiting might be encouraging bears to return to civilization looking for more.

If it was a problem, don't you think one of them might have said something?

A bait station doesn't encourage a bear to go to town looking for food; it encourages the animal to hang around the bait station in the same way garbage encourages a bear to hang around a neighborhood.

In either case, the problem isn't what the bear is eating, it's where the bear is living.

So if you really want to do something for bears, start at home by dealing with your own baiting. Take care of your garbage. Don't give a bear a reason to hang around the city, because that's the kind of conditioning that does get bears into trouble -- not bear baiting.

Daily News Outdoor editor Craig Medred can be reached at cmedred@adn.com

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