Bear baiting jeopardizes grizzlies, Hailey nonprofit says
Lawsuit advanced in federal court in May
Emily Jones Jul 24, 2020
Idaho Mountain Express
A lawsuit seeking to ban the practice of bait-hunting black bears in Idaho and Wyoming has survived legal challenges from both the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this year.
That’s good news for grizzlies, according to the Hailey-based nonprofit Western Watersheds Project, one of three plaintiffs in the case.
The lawsuit, filed in June 2019, contends that baiting black bears—or habituating them to food stations, thus creating regular dining patterns and making them easier targets—has led to the inadvertent deaths of federally protected grizzly bears in Wyoming and Idaho.
According to Talasi Brooks, Western Watersheds staff attorney, only Idaho and Wyoming allow hunters to bait black bears in national forests. The concern, she says, is that hunters could shoot grizzlies due to mistaken identity.
“At least three grizzly bears have been killed in Idaho by hunters since 2007,” Brooks said. “We believe there’s a real possibility that this could happen again.”
In Idaho and Wyoming, black bear baiting is not allowed in certain designated grizzly bear habitats. In Idaho, grizzly recovery zones include the Kootenai, Idaho Panhandle and Lolo National Forests, as well as the Selkirk ecosystem in the northwestern corner of the state. But grizzly populations have expanded into north-central Idaho from the Greater Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems, Brooks said, and aren’t diligently tracked by state and federal agencies.
“Habitat charts aren’t regularly updated. When you have grizzly bears that aren’t commonly known to frequent a certain region, but they’re present there, those bears are not protected,” she said.
One example she gave was a grizzly bear accidentally shot in 2007 by a black bear hunter in the Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forest.
“It’s thought that that grizzly was the first to enter the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness complex in a very long period of time,” she said.
Two other grizzly bears in Idaho, one in 2014 and one in 2015, have been accidentally killed by licensed hunters. In Wyoming, 20 grizzly bears have been accidentally hunted in national forests since 1996.
Brooks said the lawsuit filed by Western Watersheds, Montana-based Wilderness Watch and Santa Fe, N.M.-based WildEarth Guardians hopes to bring the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service together to re-review Idaho and Wyoming’s policy allowing black-bear baiting. The agencies’ jointly-prepared environmental assessment on bear baiting, required per the National Environmental Policy Act, dates to 1995, she said.
According to Fish and Wildlife’s 1993 biological opinion on the effects of black bear baiting, the Forest Service must initiate conversation with Fish and Wildlife if a grizzly bear is mistakenly hunted. That has not happened, Brooks said.
“If new information comes to light and reveals that a federally protected species like the grizzly bear is being affected in some way, and that information hasn’t been considered, these agencies need to consult on that,” Brooks said.
This past spring, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that it did not have legal grounds to reinitiate consultation with the U.S. Forest Service on the baiting policy. On May 7, however, U.S. Magistrate Judge Candy Dale ruled that that argument was unsubstantiated, and both agencies had a duty to reinitiate consultation.
Following the ruling, Brooks said the court will be conducting a conference with all parties, but it’s unclear when that will happen. Attempts by the Idaho Mountain Express to reach the Idaho Fish and Wildlife Office and the Forest Service for comment were unsuccessful.
Brooks said the heart of the matter is that while bear baiting is banned in designated grizzly habitat, grizzly bears ultimately “don’t know where those lines are drawn on the map.” She added that baiting is contrary to any responsible wildlife conservation ethic and can lead black bears to become food-habituated.
“Bear baiting is incredibly un-sportsmanlike—there’s nothing ‘fair chase’ about it. It’s reprehensible that Idaho allows it,” she said.
Earlier this month, a food storage order went into effect in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area to prevent bears from becoming nuisance animals, exempting black bear hunters using bait stations. Brooks said the exemption could be viewed as hypocritical.
“Baiting can absolutely lead to food-habituation. It’s designed to attract bears and keep them returning,” she said.
Idaho Fish and Game regional spokesman Terry Thompson, however, said there isn’t evidence to support that conclusion and rules such as a seven-day baiting period prevent habituation.
“Bait stations are only allowed when the hunter obtains a required permit. The other limiting factors that keep bears from becoming food-conditioned is the length of time that the bait can be put out and where it can be placed,” he said. “The regulations are very specific.”