Wisconsin Bear Hunting Not What You Think

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Bear hunters running dogs in a August 2018 Wolf Caution Area in Burnett County.

Laura Menefee’s article first appeared in “It’s Our Nature Vol. 19 Issue 1” the newsletter of the Fox Valley Sierra Group of the John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club 

I accompanied Wolf Patrol, a wildlife advocacy group, during the 2018 Wisconsin black bear hunt which ended October 10th. 4,500 bears were taken, most with the aid of bait, hunting hounds, or both. We patrolled Forest County Wolf Caution Areas (WCAs) in known wolf territory posted by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) where wolf/dog conficts, usually fatal, occurred. We documented active bear baits and continued hounding activities in WCAs. We spoke with hounders who agreed to be video taped. rough radio and visual contact, staying well away from active hunts, we monitored hound operators.


Photo posted on Facebook by guide/outfitter operating in Florence County, September 2018.

None of it was what I expected.

In 2016, 34% of bears were taken with the aid of hounds. Wisconsin regulations state no “pack” of hounds may exceed 6 in number while in pursuit of a bear. is rule does not apply during training season, July 1 through August 31. Neither do shooting hours nor licensing, as Wisconsin eliminated the Class B license in 2015, allowing unlicensed operators to run dogs on bears, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, during the hottest eight weeks of the year. e regulations do not de ne how many “packs” of dogs may pursue a bear at one time.

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Unregistered active bear baits in 2018 WDNR Wolf Caution Area in Forest County.

At the hunting season close, we monitored a group with a total of 10 hounds in pursuit of one bear. They expressed repeated confusion regarding the number of dogs “on the ground” once the bear was treed. Not all operators were in visual, or “line of sight” contact with all of their dogs at any one time. Dogs are tracked via GPS collars.

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Hound hunters conversing with Wolf Patrol monitors in Forest County, September 2018.

Hounders we spoke with expressed concern that “large groups are able to [maintain] more bait sites than small groups. e large groups keep 100 or so baits, which is maybe overkill,” they conceded. Bait sites near highways are favored, as hounders drive with one of their dogs on top of the “box” – a crate loaded in the back of a pickup truck – to “scent.” en the operator turns the dogs loose – typically right along a highway, but also on county and Forest Service roads. Hounders have been documented illegally blocking highways and private roads during a hunt.

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Looking for a bear’s scent in 2018 Wolf Caution Area in Burnett County.

WDNR defends baiting as a means to “determine age class and gender.” Nevertheless, the mean age of male bears “harvested” in Wisconsin for 2017 was 2.4 years of age, 3.7 years for females. 59% of the total are 1-2 years old. “Bait sitters” observe the frequency of “hits” to their bait sites, and the size of the bears “hitting” them, using sign at the site and trail cams. Bait is supposed to be inaccessible to other wildlife species, but wolves, deer, martins and many other species are documented at bait sites.

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Bait typically consists of junk food: cake mix, donuts, jelly, canned fruit, pretzels, cooking grease, marshmallows, cookies, frosting and candy. Chocolate, a known toxin to canids and felids, is “discouraged,” but not illegal in Wisconsin. Only meat is restricted, but suppliers sell products that smell like meat. Five million gallons of bait are placed in Wisconsin annually, baiters voluntarily reported in 2014.

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One of the many Wisconsin companies selling toxic to wildlife food waste as bear bait.

Bears become habituated to human-provided food sources. In 2017, 747 nuisance bear complaints resulted in 373 bears being relocated from “problem areas,” usually within close proximity to active baits. 585 bears were relocated in 2016. In 2016, 47 Agricultural, or crop damage, permits resulted in the killing of 118 bears.

Hounders we spoke with expressed their belief that “without hunting [black bear] with dogs, the population would explode.” Nevertheless, the population is doing just that, in spite of the WDNR “harvest goal” of 5,000 bears from the estimated population of 28,700. WDNR analysis determines Wisconsin black bears obtain over 40% of their caloric intake from bait, contributing to increased litter sizes.

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An exposed bear bait in 2017 WDNR Wolf Caution Area in Sawyer County.

Since 2015 tag holders register their kill electronically. ey are required to mail in a tooth sample for age and sex classi cation. While it is illegal to kill a sow with cubs, there is no enforcement of this. Neither is the tooth sample requirement enforced: a post card reminder is sent, with no further action taken, according to Scott Walter, WDNR Large Carnivore Specialist. 375 samples remained uncollected upon publication of the 2016 report.

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Once the bear is treed, the operators contact the “shooter,” the person holding the bear tag, who has arranged with an operator or club to have a bear treed, so they can shoot it. On this occasion, the shooter was not onsite. It took an hour for her to show up to shoot the bear out of the tree. There are no studies estimating the number of cubs orphaned annually by hound training and hunting.

Laura Menefee – Conservation Writer, Nature Photographer October 22, 2018 – Sturgeon Bay Wisconsin

You can send your comments on Wisconsin’s new bear management plan by April 14, 2019: