• U.S.

HUNTING’S BAD SPORTS

4 minute read
Richard Woodbury/Coeur D.Alene

Lynn Fritchman, a third-generation Idahoan and retired Army colonel, likes to shoot game animals as much as anyone else in his rugged state, where 1 out of 5 residents has a hunting license. But when it comes to bagging a black bear, one of Idaho’s choice trophies, he won’t have anything to do with two popular hunting methods: using bait to coax it to a killing ground and using dogs to tree it. Says Fritchman: “It’s deplorable. Those things take all the sport out of hunting.”

Like a growing number of hunters, Fritchman has joined cause with animal-rights activists like the Humane Society to reform hunting practices. He heads the Idaho Coalition United for Bears (I-CUB), which is pushing a November ballot initiative to outlaw baiting and hounding bears as well as stalking them in the spring, when sows emerge from their dens with newborn cubs. This fall, hunting- and wildlife-related measures are on the ballot in several states (see chart). Those determined to reform hunting practices have resorted to popular referendums because the legislative committees and regulatory commissions that oversee hunting are usually controlled by the sport’s hard-liners. So ballot initiatives are “the only effective means to get at the outrages of hunting,” says Cleveland Amory, president of the Fund for Animals.

The new proposals seem to reflect public opinion. Although nearly three-fourths of Americans approve of hunting, 62% believe that many hunters violate hunting laws or engage in unsafe or unethical practices, a three-year study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found. In fact, a majority of hunters oppose the very practices that reformers are seeking to outlaw, according to a 1992 study by Idaho’s fish and game department. Says Jim Posewitz, founder of the Orion Institute, a hunters’ group promoting reform: “Unless we address some of these practices that work to erode the concept of fair play, they will be addressed for us.”

Reformers are taking particular aim at baiting–using food to lure game into an ambush. With black bears, the bait station is typically set deep in the woods; fruit, pastry and livestock carcasses are placed in a large barrel or piled on the ground. Defenders of baiting point to the long hours and exhausting effort it takes to stalk and kill a bear. But critics like Colorado bear biologist Tom Beck ask, “How fulfilling is it to shoot a bear with its head in a barrel of jelly-filled doughnuts?”

Another controversial method is to use hounds, which will run a bear for hours until they corner it in a tree. The canines are sometimes fitted with telemetry gear that can radio their location back to a team of hunters in pickup trucks, who then move in for an easy kill. Too often their shots are not fatal, detractors say. “Anyone who has ever heard the screams of an animal being torn apart by dogs knows why we are fighting for this cause,” says Stew Churchwell of Idaho Sportsmen for Fair Hunting.

Still, reformers face formidable opposition from sportsmen’s groups and gun clubs. “The issues boil down to whom do we want to manage our wildlife–professionals or people with a hidden agenda?” asserts Don Clower, chairman of Idaho’s Sportsmen’s Heritage Defense Fund. In Idaho, foes of the bear proposition count the Governor and nearly all state legislators on their side, and initiative backers complain they are being outspent 4 to 1. In Michigan as in Idaho, opponents contend that abolishing spring hunting, baiting and hounding would lead to an onslaught of bear problems and thwart hunters.

That has not been the case in Colorado, which voted to ban all three practices in 1992. Nuisance-bear reports are up, but that is blamed largely on the growth of the human population and weather conditions, especially drought. Last year was Colorado’s best bear-killing season since 1989. All the more reason, say advocates, to push for reforms. “If we all want to be hunting in 40 years,” warns Fritchman, “we’d better do away with practices that are now viewed as repugnant.”

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