“I bought a trailer load of 10,000 pounds of licorice, parked it in my garage, ran an ad in the local shopper and sold it all.” says one of the largest bear bait suppliers in Minnesota who sells about three million pounds of bait per year to bear hunters in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Maine. According to the most recent survey in 2014, Wisconsin bear hunters dumped an estimated 4,639,700 gallons of bear bait in over 82,340 bait sites, much of it on public lands.
Bear baiting is not a sport. It’s a business. And with the start of bear hunting season over bait which begins today, millions of gallons of fryer grease, cake icing, caramel, syrup and other human food waste will be dumped in the north woods of Wisconsin to attract bears. But bears aren’t all that is being attracted to these dump sites, many on public lands, federally protected wolves, deer, raccoon and other wildlife are becoming conditioned to expect food handouts from humans as well.
Anyone unaccustomed to bear hunting “tactics” in Wisconsin would be forgiven for believing that such dangerous practices are highly regulated by any governing wildlife agency, such as the case in Minnesota and Michigan, where bear baiting is only allowed a few weeks before hunting season and baiters are required to register their bait sites with local wardens. Such is not the case in Wisconsin, where the Department of Natural Resources allows hunters to dump as much food as they want in the forests, beginning in mid-April until the end of bear season in mid-October. Registration of sites? Not required in Wisconsin.
The lack of any truly substantial regulation of bear baiting in Wisconsin has led to a wildlife nightmare, where the natural balance of our public lands is thrown heavily out of whack, all so Wisconsin hunters can kill thousands of bears annually, easily and legally. Last year, 4,198 black bears were legally killed in Wisconsin. Of those, 3,478 were killed over bait, or with dogs tracking bear from bait sites. The only thing different in 2016, is that starting today, more bears will be killed. The statewide quota is set at 4,750 animals.
The huge gaps in standard forms of hunting regulations and bear baiting has led to a boom in selling human food waste as bear bait. Bear bait suppliers readily find sellers in the factories that produce the food, which are sometimes factory close-outs, outdated, off-color or misshapened. The food waste is sold by the semi-load to bear bait suppliers, who turn around and create their own blends and mixes that they believe will condition bears to readily expect food from humans.
In most hunting, altering the natural habits of your prey to increase your chances of success is considered unsporting and downright unethical. But in Wisconsin, it is encouraged. And if simply dumping millions of gallons of food in the forest is not enough to condition bears, one of the preferred tactics is called “banging the bucket.”
Bear hunters say it best themselves: “…experienced guides swear by this trick. Bears aren’t stupid; they understand that the bait site is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, and that humans are the reason for the smorgasbord in the middle of the woods. After filling the bait station, bang hard on the bucket a few times. Chances are, the bears that are frequent flyers are bedded within earshot and it will create a “Pavlov’s Dog” type of effect. The bears will associate human activity on the bait site with food, and if they hear you enter the woods during open hunting hours, they will relate it to food instead of fear.” Taken from a recent bear hunting online forum.
The statement that bear baiters are striving to condition bears to associate humans with food, not fear, should be alarming to public lands managers. Anywhere you travel on U.S. Forest Service land outside of the midwest, you will be told repeatedly, that a fed bear is a dead bear, because once a bear has become conditioned to associate food with humans, they are destroyed because of the threat they pose to public health and safety. Not in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, where it is only illegal to bait for bears if you DO NOT intend to kill them.
In Wisconsin, bear hunters are encouraged to make their own bait too, from waste oil collected from restaurants, “Grease is great! It’s widely available (many restaurants and fast-food chains change oil supplies daily), and it’s handy (mixes conveniently with wheat and oats in a five-gallon bucket). Moreover, get grease on the pads of baited bears, and you’ll advertise your bait’s location to the rest of the clan.” One such individual bear baiter online said he goes through thirty 55gallon drums of bait each season.
Encouraging or allowing non-target animals to feed from bear baits is illegal, but every bear baiter knows it happens, and it only took a day of researching online bear hunting forums to discover that it is indeed a regular practice, “When you first start the bait, leave the stump open, so the scent of the bait can get into the air, and the “Little Critters”can drag some bait around leaving a scent trail.Another trick I employ,is to pour corn syrup on the nearby trail.The animals get this “sticky stuff” on their feet, and wherever they travel,they leave a scent trail to your bait!”
Wolf Patrol has been reporting illegal bear baiting practices to DNR for over a year now, but the practice is still continuing. During the 2015 Wisconsin bear hunt, I had a conversation with the DNR’s Chief Conservation Officer, in regards to exposed bait we were discovering throughout the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. He said that as long as the bait was covered initially, bear baiters are not responsible or libel for other wildlife feeding from such spilled bait.
But the lack of regulation and enforcement of bear baiting is contributing to the violent conflict between gray wolves and bear hunting hounds, which are routinely released near bait sites. This Summer, 26 such bear hounds were killed by wolves, before the hunting season even began. Why are so many wolves choosing to occupy lands being baited for bear? Its simple, they are beginning to identify the bait sites as a food source of their own or as an attractant for prey animals such as deer.
Bear baiting isn’t helping. Just listen to what these bear baiters say is their standard practice: “I took a brand new paint brush and simply smeared the peanut butter and cake frosting all over the trees and stumps around my bait site. Keep in mind that this counts towards your 10 gallon limit, and also, DO NOT put it on any trees that you wouldn’t want damaged, like oaks or apple trees. I found that the peanut butter oil seeps into the bark and stays through rain for months afterwards. Coon and bear will lick, claw, and chew these spots on the trees, sometimes killing the tree in the process.”
Another bear baiter says, “Throw grease all over the bait site. The grease soaks into every leaf, tree, stump and log in the area. When you enter the woods, the smell of grease is lingering throughout the canopy. Bears that visit the bait site will have greased soaked into their pads and the thick fur on their legs and feet. Upon leaving the bait/area and tracking grease all over the woods, they are creating a Hansel and Gretel bread crumb trail, for other nomad bears to follow.”
The response from bear hunters whose hounds have been killed as a result of bear baiting and hound training isn’t a commitment to clean up their act, its to demand another wolf hunt. Many of these same hunters are those who want federal protections lifted, so they can resolve these reported problems without having to give up their “sport.”
Wolf Patrol is respectfully requesting that DNR:
1.) Require the registration of bait sites.
2.) Place a limit on the number of bear baits allowed.
3.) Restrict the practices of bear baiting and hound training in known Wolf Caution Areas.
Wolf Patrol is also asking national forest managers to ban bear baiting & bear hound training in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
Please join us in our call for action to resolve this preventable mis-management of our public lands and wildlife. You can also join us in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest on September 14, when we will be patrolling known Wolf Caution Areas during the hound hunt for bear.