In October of 2019 I was in the Porcupine Mountains on a self-guided black bear hunt over bait. After a long and unsuccessful week, the early October weather turned overnight and I was stuck out in 20-degree temps with a 3 season tent and no real winter gear (it had been 65 degrees when I got up North). Wanting to continue hunting the weekend I admitted defeat and checked into a local hotel in Ontonagon for a few days. I would wake up early, enjoy a hot breakfast, and spend the day trying to spot and stalk bears while my cellular trail cam monitored my bait site for me.
When I returned to the hotel each night tired and cold from a day of hiking I would spend some time relaxing in the hot tub while I checked trail cam pictures. This trip had turned from 6 days of backcountry hunting to well not exactly roughing it, but I digress. One evening, a nice older gentleman and I got to chatting in the hot tub and I explained that I was up hunting. He proceeded to tell me about hunting when he was younger and that he was ok with all forms of hunting except bear hunting with dogs and or bait. I was a bit taken aback that a fellow hunter could have something against another hunter about the legal method of take he was using.
Back in 1996 there was a ballot initiative in Michigan to ban bear baiting and hunting bears with dogs. The proponents of the proposal argued that hunting a bear with bait was unethical and dog hunting was inhumane. Luckily 61.7% of voters voted down the proposal.
The thing that non-hunters don’t understand is that bait hunting is not easy. I spent hundreds of dollars on 250lbs of granola and sweets that I carried up North with me for my hunt. I then loaded it up in 50lb bundles and hiked it back in the backcountry woods a mile back each time through a very thick brush. After a week of watching the site, I had one bear coming in, but he was too smart to show up during the day and ultimately my hunt was unsuccessful.
Hunting bears with bait is not even close to a guaranteed success. The unit I hunted in the UP only had a 27% success rate. So 3 out of 4 hunters who put in all the work required for baiting a black bear came home empty-handed.
Bears are extremely secretive animals. It is why it is so hard for wildlife biologists to count them. They are too smart and have much too acute of a sense of smell for us to get close to them.
We do not bait bears to make the hunt easy. We bait because it is (for the most part) the only chance we have of seeing a bear in the dense woods of Michigan. When tags are issued, the DNR needs to count on a certain number of hunters being successful to maintain the biological goals for population control each season. If these are not met the population can get to a larger number than they can safely manage. This is especially concerning with bears who can cause some significant conflicts with humans when they get overpopulated.
Now, I’m going to explain why Bear Baiting is much more ethical than not baiting. Bears are notoriously difficult animals to judge by size and age. If we see a deer 100 yards away it only takes a second or so to realize that it is a mature deer and a buck. Because bears are a large animal, it is much more difficult to figure out if we’re seeing a 1 yr old female or a 5-year-old male. To be ethical hunters and protect the bear population we should strive to harvest older males as much as possible. Having a bear come into a bait site gives us a much longer window of time to view and interact with the bear. This greatly increases the chances of not harvesting a sow with cubs or a younger bear by itself.
As a bonus, the use of metal bait barrels in Michigan can help measure the size and (as a function of size) the age of the bear. We can compare the bear to the size of the bear. The old rule is that if the bear wouldn’t fit in the 50-gallon barrel the bait is in, it is a large and mature bear.
Finally, getting the bear to spend time near us while eating the bait allows us to ensure that we are only taking the most ethical shots at the animal. This increases the chances of a kill that is as quick as possible and greatly reduces the odds of wounding an animal and not recovering it after.
The number of Americans who hunt has been on a steady decline since world war 2. As of a 2016 poll, only 4.4% of the US adult population hunts. We have got to stick together. If Anti-Hunters can ban bear baiting then it opens the gate for them to ban other methods of hunting and even animals we hunt.
Banning the baiting of bears is the low hanging fruit for the anti-hunters. After all, most hunters view it as a less than honorable method of hunting. They think, “It’s not very fair to bait bears…just let them ban it. I don’t need to bait deer to kill one.” Anti-hunters play on the emotions of the public by portraying bear hunters as lazy and evil for wanting to hunt cute baby bear cubs via bait.
Clay Newcombe, author and owner of Bear Hunting Magazine and accomplished bear hunter, calls bear hunting “the gate”. The idea is if we let anti-hunters in through this gate then what we like to hunt will be next.
I have explained why bear baiting is necessary and ethical. We as hunters must stick together. The next time someone is disparaging bear-baiting or any other legal method of take, politely correct them and take the time to explain why hunting is ethical and necessary for conservation.
Remember to Guard the Gate or what you like to hunt may be the next thing they want to ban.
Please consider joining the Michigan Bear Hunters Association if you would like to support this cause and learn more about Bear hunting. It is one of the oldest conservation organizations in Michigan and as a bonus your membership includes a subscription to Bear Hunting Magazine.
Photo by Ryan Snyder