Don Meredith Professional Writing

Baiting and Fair Chaseby Don H. Meredith © 1999
(published in the October/November 1999 Alberta Outdoorsmen)

"Is shooting an animal over bait, or one that has been run up a tree by dogs, a morally enriching activity?" — Ann Causey, 1992 Governor's Symposium on North America's Hunting Heritage.

Like others at the sportsman show, I was drawn to the crowd watching the video screen showing a cinnamon black bear in the woods. Then I saw why the hidden camera was getting such good pictures. The bear was interested in a large, rusted barrel that obviously had something desirable in it. The expression on the animal's face as it raised its head out of the barrel was like that of a family dog caught pulling a steak off a dinner table. It's ears were laid back and it had a half grin on its face. It reminded me of the bears I had seen at garbage dumps in national parks before those parks had cleaned up their acts. Being scavengers, the bears couldn't resist the excessive waste of human food. Like watching the bears at the garbage dumps, I felt uneasy watching this animal on the video screen, as if it was degrading itself.

The video jumped to a much larger, darker bear pulling something out of the same barrel with the same expression as the previous animal. It dropped to all fours. Then, something streaked from the left woods, barely registering on the video. The bear recoiled, bawling like a hurt calf, and then ran into the bush to the right. I did not wait to see the outcome. As I turned to leave, an older gentleman who was also walking away looked at me and said, "If that's hunting, I've got a barrel of fish you can shoot." The revulsion on his face matched what I was feeling inside.

That was my first experience with the issue of bear baiting. At that time, the government had recently permitted baiting for black bears in the province, and up until then, I really had no opinion about it. Since then, I have talked to several hunters and outfitters that regularly use baits for black bear and what they describe is a lot different from what I felt that particular day. They believe attracting bears to bait allows the hunter to better assess the bear's age, sex and condition, and to make an effective and quick kill. In other words, hunters who hunt over bait are much less likely to kill a female with cubs or a less desirable bear, and more likely to make a clean kill when they do decide to shoot. But such explanations beg Causey's question — is it moral to hunt over bait?

Again, personal ethics step in ahead of government regulations. The Alberta government has a simple view of bear baiting. There's an abundance of black bears in the province (grizzly bears cannot be taken over bait) and they are often nuisances that can threaten people and property. Baiting bears increases the number of black bears killed, thus helping control the black bear population. Therefore, baiting black bears is legal in prescribed locations under prescribed conditions.

I do not hunt bears so baiting them is not a personal issue of mine. However, like many hunters, I am concerned about the image bear baiting portrays of hunters and hunting. Of all the issues raised by anti-hunters, this is one that has divided the hunting community. As a result, many jurisdictions across North America have either banned bear baiting or the issue has been narrowly defeated in referenda.

The argument about bear baiting boils down to a hunter's concept of fair chase. "Fair chase" is a term that every novice hunter learns early when he or she is studying hunting ethics. It identifies a basic principle of hunting that exhorts a hunter to give his quarry a fair chance to escape being taken. In other words, no excessive measures should be used to entrap or otherwise reduce a game animal's chance of detecting and escaping the hunter.

Those who oppose bear baiting argue that taking a bear from ambush while it is preoccupied with feeding on bait is not following the fair chase principle. They contend that hunters using bait are not really testing their skills as hunters as much as they are as marksmen shooting at fixed targets. The animals are drawn into a trap against which they cannot resist, sometimes even knowing that the hunter is around, and in the case of sows with cubs, often sending their cubs up trees before approaching the bait.

On the other hand, hunters who favor bear baiting argue that it is fair chase because the animal decides whether to come to the bait or not. They point to the hunter's ability to better assess the animal coming to bait, and to make a clean and quick kill — another basic principle of hunting ethics. They contend it is no different than waiting for deer or elk to come to an alfalfa field, or using game calls or scent.

To me, waiting for an animal to come to a regularly occurring food source or attempting to locate and draw the animal in using an artificial call is quite different from attracting it to an irresistible bait that causes the animal to disregard its normal cautious behavior. Animals approach feeding areas cautiously, and considerable hunting skill is required to get around their protective behavior. Similarly, animals approaching a call do so cautiously, especially if the call is not well made. It takes skill to do a proper job and getting close is not guaranteed.

I know that setting up a baiting station properly and safely also requires skill, but is it the right way to hunt? I'm not convinced it is, and we could leave the subject as a simple disagreement within the hunting community. However, anti-hunters have made it an issue outside the hunting community because they see it as a vulnerable flaw in our hunting ethic. Chances are good the fate of bear baiting will not be resolved by hunters but by non-hunters who will be asked if this is how they want their wildlife treated.

Next month, Canned Hunts.

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Check-out Don's adventure novels:

Grizzly One
The Search
for Grizzly One
Dog Runner
Dog Runner