As an avid hunter who has left a lot of boot prints in Maine, I find bear baiting (garbaging for bears, as I prefer to call it) repulsive and embarrassing. It’s called “hunting,” but it is no more hunting than buying cod at Hannaford is fishing.
Once hooked on garbage, bears learn to seek it around human dwellings, where they’re apt to get shot on either side of someone’s door. As the U.S. Forest Service accurately puts it, “A fed bear is a dead bear. Most conflicts between people and bears arise as the result of food. Human foods, human garbage and even pet foods are attractants to black bears.”
If you feed bears in order to photograph them on land managed by the feds, you’re likely to get busted. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, on the other hand, says it’s fine to feed bears — but only if you’re trying to kill them.
In June 1981, Gray’s Sporting Journal — a literate, lavishly illustrated celebration of fair chase — sent me to Jackman to write about Maine bear baiting. The practice is no different now except that it’s allowed only in late summer and fall.
I was armed with a camera, but paying clients toted high-powered rifles, Bowie knives and big-bore handguns. Some had ammo-laden bandoliers draped across their chests. All were from out of state.
Before we were driven to the baits, Jack, our outfitter, sat us down for a safety lecture. He held up an enormous pair of skivvies, placing his index finger through a hole at the center of a stiff, black circle the size of a frying pan. The previous owner had drilled the hole when he’d been practicing his quick draw. “I think I shot myself in the ass,” he’d intoned as he stood in the gravel road, wide-eyed and swaying.
Jack got the guy stitched up and next morning had him sitting on a thickly cushioned chair to spend the day in a cloud of blackflies opposite a bucket of reeking garbage. When the grateful client asked Jack what he could do for him, Jack said: “You can give me your skivvies.”
In 2004, having been briefed by his Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Maine’s then-governor, John Baldacci, proclaimed that without baiting, his state would be unable to “control the growth of the bear population so the population pressure doesn’t force bears into areas with high human populations.”
But baiting has facilitated that growth by providing Maine bruins with millions of pounds of food per year.
Wildlife management should be the responsibility of trained professionals. But when those professionals shirk their responsibilities and circulate untruths, a referendum is all the public has left.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous of these untruths is that in heavily wooded states fair-chase bear hunting is impossible. That’s like the canard I’ve often heard in Maine that ruffed grouse can’t be shot unless they’re on the ground. I would rather go shopping than ground-sluice a grouse. And I would rather clean a McDonald’s dumpster than assassinate a bear with its head in a bucket of rancid cheeseburgers.
Tom Beck, an accomplished fair-chase bear hunter and the bear biologist for Colorado until he retired in 2002, offers this: “After we banned baiting, it took only two years for our hunters to get to the point where they were killing more bears than they were before. They learned how to do it. There was this large pool of hunters convinced — mostly by the outfitters — that you had to hunt with bait or hounds. These guys didn’t want to spend the money on hounds, and they were opposed to using bait. When they learned the truth, the number of bear hunters skyrocketed.”
For all who defend garbaging for bears and call it “hunting,” I have this question: How can there be a thrill of the chase when there’s no chase?
Ted Williams, a former information officer for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, writes about fish and wildlife for national publications.