Mitch Cummings hunts black bears with day-old jelly doughnuts, chocolate cupcakes, Twinkies, and white bread. He buys 200 pounds of pastries for $20 at a bakery, takes them to his bait site in the woods near his home in Bethel, Me., stuffs the sweets into a barrel, and waits with his rifle for the animals to feast.
Cummings bagged an ursine trophy this way during last year’s summer hunting season. This year he wasn’t as lucky. He saw plenty of bears, though, via a game camera he sets up to watch the site from home after dark. One evening Cummings watched one rear up on its hind legs at the site—which is only a half-mile from the nearest house—and dump the barrel full of goodies into its mouth. Another night the camera caught a total of 11 bears gorging on the pile. “Bears are very smart,” he says.
Maine has one black bear for every 44 residents—and a growing number of human-bear contacts. Last year, when that tally hit a record 870, bears were spotted pawing over trash cans and trying to get into bird feeders—one even toppled a flagpole. In September a principal at a Kennebunkport elementary school called students in from recess because of reports of two loose bears.
To animal rights activists, the source of the problem is obvious: Bear baiting whets the animals’ appetite and teaches them to associate the scent of people with a tasty meal. “Baiting promotes bad bear behavior,” says Wayne Pacelle, head of the Humane Society of the United States. Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has come to the opposite conclusion. Each year, hunters in Maine kill almost 3,000 bears—80 percent of which are lured to their death with something sweet or savory. Without hunting by baiting, “more bear-human conflicts will occur,” says Commissioner Chandler Woodcock.
Maine voters may get to decide whether it’s time for the state’s bears to go on a crash diet. The Humane Society is collecting signatures for a bear ballot referendum. Voters would be asked to ban baiting, trapping, and hounding, in which a pack of dogs chase a bear up into a tree so a hunter can shoot it.
After the group pushed similar measures in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, all three states outlawed baiting. Randy Hampton, a spokesman with Colorado’s wildlife agency, says the ban has made it harder to keep the ursine population in check but that the state has managed fine. It allowed in more hunters—and in doing so, boosted the number of bears killed.
If the Humane Society’s effort in Maine is successful, state officials predict less fun for hunters. Those who bait and hound come home with a bear pelt on 26 percent of their outings. The hunters who stalk bears the old-fashioned way, by following their tracks and droppings, get a kill only 3 percent of the time.