12/02/17: Last week Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) officials convened with special interest groups like the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association and the Safari Club International, to make formal harvest recommendations for the 2018 black bear hunt. Wisconsin is home to one of the largest black bear hunts in the world, with a kill quota set at over 4,000 bears annually since 2009. Since then, the statewide quota has hovered between 4,000-5,000 animals, with a recommendation made at this year’s meeting of the Bear Advisory Committee (BAC) to set the 2018 kill number at 4,550. The highest quota on record to date was in 2010, when 5,133 bears were legally killed, almost all, with the aid of bait and dogs. (Of the 4,134 bears legally killed in 2017, only 54 were hunted without dogs or bait.
Wait, why am I reading about a bear hunt on a group called Wolf Patrol’s website? The answer can be complicated, but here it is: In Wisconsin, bear hunters are allowed to train and run dogs after bear and also set out human food waste as bait to attract the animals. This IS how you hunt bear in Wisconsin, either by sitting over a bait you’ve maintained for weeks or months, or by running dogs after bear you’ve been artificially feeding since July. While the popular hunting practice of loosing thousands of packs of hounds and dumping literally millions of gallons of bait in black bear habitat every year is horribly problematic to bear behavior and physiology, it also is impacting wolves occupying the same habitat in northern Wisconsin, much of it public lands.
Since the return of the gray wolf to Wisconsin, conflict arises when bear hounds are chasing bears, and trespass through wolf territory when packs are fiercely territorial of young pups. The ensuing wild and domestic dog fights have resulted in dozens of hunting dogs being killed (and often eaten) by the much larger wolves. In 2016, 41 bear hounds were killed by wolves and ten injured in 36 separate incidents, almost all on public lands.
Bear hunting practices in Wisconsin essentially begin in summer, when literally thousands of dogs are allowed to chase bears from July 1st, until the end of the bear hunt in mid-October. This is called the bear hound “training” season. It is also legal to bait for bear as soon as they emerge from hibernation in mid-April. As of 2015, no license of any kind is required by the WDNR for either the practice baiting or hound training. WDNR regulations (one sided, single page) state that anyone, resident or not, can feed wild bears up to ten gallons of food waste on private and public land in bear/wolf habitat, in as many bear baits as your heart desires, without a limit on the number of bait sites, as long as they are being used to hunt, not watch or photograph bears.
Conflicts with wolves and bears is not something the WDNR is good at preventing. Wisconsin is a state that bows to the pressure of bear hunters, who sit at the table with state biologists responsible for setting not just hunting quotas, but also any limit on any controversial or problematic hunting practices. At the 11/29 Bear Advisory Committee meeting, federal agents with USDA’s Wildlife Services (which is responsible for dealing with nuisance bears and wolves) said they were surprised in a state like Wisconsin, with “such a liberal baiting policy” that so far in 2017, they only had to capture and relocate 100 “nuisance” bears. In recent years, that number has reached as high as 400.
No one in the WDNR will say that the unregulated feeding of bears, by an impossible to know amount of people is a problem. There is no objective by WDNR, USDA or the US Forest Service (most baiting and hounding in Wisconsin takes place within the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest) to prevent conflicts between humans, bears and wolves, despite the fact that every WDNR biologist sitting at the BAC table this week knows that the quickest way to create a nuisance bear or wolf, is to feed them.
There was a moment during the meeting, when WDNR officials were reviewing the format bear hunting regulations are provided to the public, asking if BAC members or WDNR, USDA or USFS personnel thought any changes were necessary. When asked whether there needed to be any type of public education campaign to make the public aware of bear-wise behavior to avoid conflicts, not a single mention was made about potential risks posed through bear baiting on public lands in Wisconsin.
In October 2017, a young wolf began to be seen by railroad workers as far north as you can go in Wisconsin, on the edge of the town of Superior. Because the wolf showed minimal fear of humans and wouldn’t run off when train horns were blown, the decision was made by federal and state authorities to capture and kill the wolf, which was done on October 29th, 2017. In the media report on the incident, WDNR’s Northern Wildlife Supervisor, Michael Zeckmeister said, “Normally, any type of negative wolf encounter with humans is a function of wolves being fed by humans…” whether wolves or bears, he said people should not be feeding either.
Perhaps the most disheartening thing as a wildlife advocate, is to once again, be at a “public” meeting of a state wildlife agency, and see the table filled with those whose number one interest is the killing of said public trust wildlife they are there to manage. Its all about the money. Groups like Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association and Safari Club International, which are unapologetic trophy hunting organizations, are routinely welcomed into state wildlife agencies because they provide necessary funds to state biologists to operate and manage wildlife.
Here’s where little differs state to state in regards to public agencies entrusted to protect wildlife. Not only do many like Wisconsin, have a legal mandate, requiring that they set annual hunting seasons for animals like bears and wolves, all state wildlife agencies rely on hunters for their general revenues. And in Wisconsin, money from trophy hunting organizations is not only going to the WDNR, its going to politicians also.
Long before Trump began the same practice on a national level, special interests groups in Wisconsin were handed the reins to public trust wildlife in exchange for dollars. And here’s where it gets personal.
During the summer 2015 bear hound training season in Wisconsin, Wolf Patrol made its debut, documenting bear baiting & training practices taking place in Polk County. The local Sheriff’s department claimed to have the authority to charge us with hunter harassment, but failed to do so because the training season technically wasn’t hunting, and Wisconsin then hunter harassment statute only applied to hunting activities.
Fast forward less than a single year, and Governor Scott Walker is attending the annual Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association (WBHA) conference in Rothschild, to sign into law “The Right to Hunt Act”, which now purportedly makes illegal any photographing or documentation of any practice related to hunting, including baiting and the training of hunting dogs. The unconstitutional law hasn’t stopped Wolf Patrol and is currently being challenged by two of our crew members and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
The power of trophy hunting special interest groups like the WBHA can easily be seen in Wisconsin, and last summer when its members repeatedly confronted members of Wolf Patrol in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, accusing us of violating their special rights law, the WDNR facilitated a meeting where its conservation officers, US Forest Service law enforcement officers, the Bayfield County Sheriff and county prosecutor all agreed that we indeed had the right to monitor bear hunting practices on public lands. At the meeting, Sheriff Paul Susienka said in response to the WBHA’s unhappiness over their interpretation of The Right to Hunt Act, “We allow all legal activity…its the high courts of the land who’s opinion matters the most.”
WBHA officials refused to meet with Wolf Patrol to discuss the constitutionality of the new law, but did agree to meeting with the WDNR’s Chief warden, Todd Schaller. In that and following meeting last summer, WBHA officials were told by WDNR to stop telling their members that Wolf Patrol citizen monitors were violating any laws.
Getting back to this year’s Bear Advisory Committee meeting. When it came time to make actual number recommendations on the number of bears to be killed in 2018, WDNR personnel first asked every committee member around the table whether they’re constituents would be “happy” with each of the kill numbers being recommended for each bear management zone. Although there is a seat at the table occupied by a representative of Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, to ensure that tribal interests and treaty obligations are met, not a single seat of the Bear Advisory Committee seat is occupied by a pro-animal advocacy, environmental, or wildlife appreciation organization. The deck is literally stacked against bears and wolves in Wisconsin.
If there was someone sitting at the Bear Advisory Committee table who’s constituents were the bears and wolves themselves, let alone the many people who have expressed concern or opposition to conflicts between bears, wolves and humans, what would they have to say at this meeting? First, lets explore the mission of the BAC.
WDNR Bear Advisory meetings like these are open to the public, but the intent of the meeting is not to solicit public comment. Bear Advisory committee members are not required to acknowledge non-stakeholders (except with dirty looks), and the DNR personnel on hand are there to negotiate directly with the BAC, with these end of meeting recommendations then going up to the state Natural Resources Board to decide whether to approve of this year’s suggested black bear quota and other rule changes.
Five of us waited the prerequisite duration of the meeting (7 hours) for the three minutes we would be allowed as representatives of those who appreciate bears and wolves on all fours and breathing, to speak. The agenda allotted 15 minutes at the end for public input, and although there were other members of the public in attendance, only five choose to speak, all addressing concerns related to the intentional feeding of bears and the long bear hound training season when most wolf depredations on hounds are known to occur.
In attendance at last week’s meeting were not only myself and two others representing Wolf Patrol, but also Melissa Smith, with Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf and the Endangered Species Coalition, and three other Wisconsin residents. Originally, Wolf Patrol attended this year’s BAC meeting to support a citizens resolution introduced at last Spring’s Wisconsin Conservation Congress (WCC) to shorten the baiting season.
The WCC is the avenue by which, we as citizens, forward ideas or suggestions, to then be heard at the annual Spring WCC hearings, which are held in each county. These become resolutions, which are then placed on a ballot, to be voted on the by state residents. If your resolution wins the required vote, it next goes to the appropriate committee, such as the Bear Advisory Committee. Many BAC members are also members of the Wolf Advisory Committee.
In 2015, an apple farmer in Jackson County forwarded a resolution addressing length and limits of bear baiting that was quickly shot down at the Bear Advisory Committee meeting at the Meade Wildlife Center later that same year. While its not surprising that the bear baiters comprising the BAC would be opposed to any limitations on their ability to bait or run dogs on bear in Wisconsin, what I found repugnant, were individual BAC members who treated the Jackson County resident, a quiet and polite older woman with disrespect.
At the 2015 BAC meeting, members responded with literal gasps of disgust when told by the public and the Jackson County resident that releasing bear hounds in known WDNR Wolf Caution Areas was contributing to conflicts between the two animals. The only solution this committee was willing to support as a solution to the conflict created by bear hunters using baits and hounds, was to call for more recreational wolf hunts before Wisconsin became overrun with wolves.
Remember, this is the procedure and avenue by which, we as members of a democratic society are allowed to participate in the process by which laws that govern public trust wildlife are written, and that every citizen should be welcomed to contribute towards in a informed and educated manner.
Instead, those of us who do not hold seats on state committees that govern wildlife, however informed we might be on any particular issue, whether as a bird watcher, canoeist, apple farmer or ethical hunter opposed to the hunting norm of Wisconsin, are allowed entry, given a few minutes to speak, but public participation pretty much ends right there, with the blank stares of pro-hunting, trapping and killing interests who are simply waiting for us to stop talking.
Back to the reasons why Wolf Patrol was at this year’s BAC meeting. Six citizen resolutions were forwarded to the BAC this year from the 2017 Wisconsin Conservation Congress. Four related to the best interests of bear hunters, altering baiting and hounding season dates, another related to the ability to transfer bear tags amongst elderly hunters, a third asking for the doubling of the bear quota for one year, which would amount to a kill of more than a third of the total state black bear population, and the last would prohibit baiting for the few weeks before opening day of the bear hunt, when “bait-sitters” not “hounders” are allowed to hunt first.
The remaining two resolutions relate to restrictions on bear baiting, and would bring Wisconsin in line and similar with bear hunting regulations for both neighboring states of Minnesota and Michigan, which allow baiting, but under more regulated circumstances, such as requiring for the registration and limitation on the number of bait sites a hunter can use. One resolution, (re-introduced by the same Jackson county resident) would reduce the length of time it is legal to bait from 7 to 3 months.
What’s worth noting is that in Wisconsin, if you care about wildlife, as a hunter or non-hunter, you are still given an equal voice at this level of the process. There is no way to slant the vote in your favor, unless you can convince all WCC attendees of the benefit and value of a forwarded resolution. In the Brown County WCC Spring meeting, the resolution limiting and requiring registration of bear baits passed 49-12. In Jackson County, the apple farmer’s amended resolution to shorten the bear baiting season in Wisconsin passed with 42 voting in favor and 9 votes against.
Remember, these citizen resolutions at best, are still only recommendations to the final decision-making body, the Natural Resources Board. Ultimately, it is these Governor appointed positions that decide the fate of Wisconsin’s wildlife.
Whether heard or not, it is still important for us to fill the small gap offered to us as advocates, and be however small, a voice for the vastly larger majority of the public who do not support policies like bear baiting, bear hound training & hunting. That is why those of us in attendance at this year’s BAC chose to speak and address those issues that WDNR and BAC members refuse to address.
The first elephant sitting in the room to not be ignored but identified by members of the public was that in Wisconsin, the black bear population is artificially maintained far beyond its carrying capacity, simply to serve bear hunters. An estimated 35,000 black bears occupy the state, the vast majority in the upper third portion of the state. The main argument in favor of bear hunting in Wisconsin, is to control numbers and minimize conflict. Yet more and more of the bear harvest is of smaller animals, and indicates that most of the bears being killed are only 1.5-2.5 years old.
Its younger bears that are taught as cubs by their mothers where to find food, and many sows in Wisconsin are teaching their cubs to eat from bear baits. A recent study published in The Journal of Wildlife Management and conducted by WDNR biologists found that in the study area within the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, 40% of a black bear’s diet is composed of human provided food. Whether from a farmer’s crop or hunter’s bait, bears in Wisconsin are being overfed by humans. The same report found that the high caloric value of bear bait meant that bear fertility was being effected and sows in Wisconsin are birthing more cubs on average, than they ever have before.
Earlier in the BAC meeting, bear kill permits issued to farmers were being discussed. Agricultural producers who can verify damages in excess of $1000, caused by bears, are given kill tags to be filled during the regular bear hunting season. But the problem expressed by WDNR conservation officers attending the BAC meeting was that farmers are using these tags to invite out of state hunters to shortcut the many years it takes to legally wait for a bear tag, and come hunt on their private lands. And although agricultural kill permits dictate that the first bear seen on the targeted farms property should be shot, wardens report that smaller bears are passed up until a larger trophy-sized bear visits the bear baits that are legally placed on the farmers lands. A former official with the WBHA admits, “Allowing these guys to attract bears to a place they are trying to keep bears away from, just doesn’t make any sense.”
All other public testimony at this year’s BAC meeting was to address conflicts arising from bear baiting and hounding. One elderly gentlemen stated that hunting used to be an ethical practice in Wisconsin, but what he saw being done today with baiting and hounding disgusted him, and he still hunts.
In my own personal testimony, I stated that none of us who represented bears and wolves alone at the BAC were asking for bear hunting to be banned or even the practices of baiting and hounding, we were simply asking that these practices be addressed so there were fewer conflicts. Nothing that any of these resolutions before the Bear Advisory Committee suggested would put Wisconsin bear hunters under stricter controls than those for bear hunters in any other state, we simply are asking that baiting be limited and with better regulation to aid conservation officers charged with the enforcement of hunting regulations.
When I returned home from the BAC meeting, there was an email in my inbox from the WDNR official facilitating last week’s meeting. The morning of the meeting, myself and another crew member were some of the first people to arrive at the municipal building where the meeting was to be held. To facilitate the BAC meeting, the rows of chairs in the room had to be cleared so tables could be set up, so we jumped in to help. The email was a short thanks for helping set up the room, but also mentioned was my testimony, so I took the opportunity to tell this WDNR official exactly how I felt.
I told him there was nothing more depressing than to see special interest groups lined up at the public trough, dividing up public trust wildlife like it was some pie. Despite this, I stated that we were grateful for the opportunity to participate (even if only for three minutes) and that we would respect the process, and offered Wolf Patrol to help in any volunteer capacities WDNR allowed for citizens and groups such as ourselves. I said that ultimately, I looked forward to, “one day soon, when there will be more stakeholders like ourselves represented (at the BAC table), people who don’t have a vested interest in killing bears or wolves, but people that represent those of us who still love Wisconsin wildlife and getting into the woods.”
Its not just what Wolf Patrol has witnessed Wisconsin bear hunters doing in wolf territory that’s a problem, many more people including other bear hunters think its time to rein in baiting and hounding on Wisconsin’s public lands. In the 2017 bear hunting season, I was personally contacted by four separate bear hunters who were having recurring troubles with hound hunters.
One bear hunter told me that when he threatened to call the local sheriff over the issue of trespassing bear hounds on his private property, individuals within the hounding party told him to be careful because hunting cabins were known to burn down over the winter. Another property owner did call the police on hounders, and the next day found the locks on his gates filled with glue.
In Sawyer County, where Wolf Patrol documented illegal trespass committed by hound hunters in the 2017 bear season, over 55 calls to the county sheriff’s office of “dogs at large” were registered this year. One call came from a 90-year old woman, who said every morning beginning in July, she is awoken by the sounds of baying hounds. She said she was afraid to let her grandchildren play outside for the fear of getting caught up in a dog fight or be cornered by a fleeing bear.
The last conversation I had with a hunter irate over Wisconsin’s months long bear hound training season, and who himself was after bear this year, said that allowing hound hunters to begin chasing bears in July, amounted to conditioning bears to first, not only rely on artificial food sources delivered by humans, but the practice was also teaching bears that the only consequence of feeding from bait sites, was to be chased and treed, but that bears knew that the hounds would be pulled off, as is required before the actual hunt begins. This bear hunter testified that while the bear hound training season was meant to train hounds, it was actually training bears to be run with dogs.
There’s nothing to indicate that 2018 will be any different in regards to bear baiting, hounding and hunting. Despite the published research, despite the chronic problem with depredations and nuisance complaints, the WDNR is posed to give its stamp of approval to another massive bear kill, that will more than likely include multiple conflicts between bears, wolves, other hunters, landowners and public land users.
This is why citizen monitoring of public lands hunting practices is more important than ever. In a state where anyone can feed the bears, hunt at night, with the aid of silencers, at literally any age, and with any amount of dogs you’d like, its up to us to expose these horrendous public lands policies. Yes, Wolf Patrol believes its time to tilt the scales of wildlife policy, with the first step being pressing for legal change to existing bear hunting policy that negatively impacts bears, other wildlife, the public and landowners.
Its also important that we recognize that change may not come from a public agency in the back pocket of special interest hunting groups, but may only come from continuing to “out” Wisconsin to the rest of the world via the media and social media, until enough pressure is felt to result in positive change. Until then, groups like the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association can expect their hunting practices to remain under the lens of Wolf Patrol’s cameras.
ACTION UPDATE! It’s not too late for you to see for yourself, the uneven dynamics that lead to antiquated wildlife management policies like bear baiting and hounding! The Wisconsin Conservation Congress resolutions spoken of in this article will be voted on at a December 9, 2017 Bear Advisory Committee meeting. Below is the agenda for the meeting.
If you agree that Wolf Patrol’s efforts to change Wisconsin bear hunting practices are worth a fraction of the support the WDNR receives from trophy hunters, please consider making a contribution! We are the only organization in the nation challenging bear hunting practices in the field where they occur, but we cannot continue without your support. Wolf Patrol is a 100% volunteer organization, that survives solely with public support. We receive no pay or large grants, only your public support!
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