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Battle Over Bear Hunting Plan To Ban ‘Heinous’ Methods Exposes Regional Rifts

Sun., March 24, 1996

Ed Lehman’s home, several miles down a road that’s barely a road, is filled with animal heads and skins, trophies from hunting trips going back several decades.

He’s shot and eaten bears, elk, deer, cougar and a wide variety of exotic African wildlife. Warthog, Lehman noted, makes a tasty pork roast.

Forty miles and a world away, Coeur d’Alene carpenter Mike Toutant wears no leather, eats no meat, and would like to see hunting banned.

The former U.S. Marine was fined $558 recently for hanging from the roof of the Spokane Arena during a circus, holding a banner to protest what he considered mistreatment of the elephants and other animals.

The two men are on opposite sides of Idaho’s effort to ban some types of bear hunting. Toutant spends his weekends collecting signatures to force a November vote on the ban. Lehman spends much of his time trying to stave off the measure.

In North Idaho, where hunting is as much a family tradition as a sport, some residents view the initiative drive as a threat to their way of life. Others, including many hunters, are rethinking what they consider “fair chase” of game animals.

So far, the Idaho Coalition United for Bears (I-CUB) says it has gathered about half the 41,335 signatures it needs by July 5 to put the initiative on the November ballot. The initiative would ban three “unsporting” methods of hunting black bears:

Using dogs to chase down and corral or tree a bear for point-blank shooting.

Planting bait - jelly doughnuts, rotting meat, fruit - to draw bears, while a hunter hides nearby.

Hunting bears in the spring, which can orphan unweaned cubs, leaving them to starve or be killed by predators.

“Can they come up with some sort of ethical defense for what they do? I don’t think they can,” said Toutant. “People feel it’s kind of a heinous, unfair way to hunt.”

Many traditional bird, deer and elk hunters are appalled by these techniques, according to a 1992 survey. Many of the I-CUB members collecting signatures are longtime hunters, including the group’s chairman, retired Army Lt. Col. Lynn Fritchman.

Similar arguments swayed Colorado voters, who in 1992 overwhelmingly passed an initiative nearly identical to the one proposed in Idaho.

In the Panhandle, state officials estimate there are 4,000 black bears. Last year, 380 were killed. Only one-fifth of the successful hunters used dogs or bait.

Although relatively few hunters use baiting or hounds, opponents of the initiative paint the proposed ban as a sort of camel’s nose in the tent: tolerate it a little, they say, and soon there’s a big, big problem. Ultimately, Lehman believes, initiative proponents want to ban all hunting.

“They’ve taken on a small group of sportsmen, and they’re going to use the emotional appeal of running bears and orphaning bears,” he said. “This is the tip of the iceberg.”

That battle cry has drawn dozens of sportsmen’s groups and more than $145,000 to the Sportsmen’s Heritage Defense Fund, the group fighting the initiative. I-CUB has raised $18,600.

Still, the 1992 survey by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game suggests that most Idahoans - hunters and non-hunters alike - oppose the three types of hunting. Some 74 percent of those surveyed opposed bear-baiting; 67 percent opposed the use of dogs, and 59 percent opposed spring bear hunting. Idaho is the only state in the lower 48 that still allows all three methods.

Washington residents are trying to ban bear baiting and hunting with hounds. Montana banned hunting with bait and hounds decades ago.

Ballot initiatives, which depend on costly advertising and massive petition drives, are a way for voters to bypass state fish and game commissions, which normally set hunting regulations. The commissions, critics charge, are reluctant to limit hunting for fear of angering the powerful sportsmen’s lobby.

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission opposes I-CUB’s initiative, saying the bear population is healthy and “at desirable levels.” The commission argues that fewer hunting methods mean more bears, and that more bears mean more bear damage to livestock and property.

“Trees and animals need to be managed, and managed properly,” said Lehman, sitting at his home overlooking a pristine valley ringed by mountain peaks.

Lehman, 55, grew up in a logging and ranching family near Yakima. Four years ago, convinced he’d found paradise, he moved his family and his construction business to the valley north of Laclede.

He began hunting at 13, following his father and brother up canyons in search of deer. He delights in taking his grandsons hunting, and hopes his young granddaughter will hunt as well.

Lehman has hunted with hounds for about seven years. He loads his dogs into his truck, then drives around until they catch a bear scent. Released, the dogs track the bear. When their barking turns rapid, it means they’ve treed or cornered a bear, and Lehman begins following them.

He said he’s treed about 15 bears, but shot only one. The rest he let go, because they were females or wouldn’t make a worthwhile trophy.

“They (I-CUB) try to depict the hunter as a cold-blooded killer pursuing helpless animals,” Lehman said. “People who don’t understand the need to control animal and predator populations buy into that emotional promotion.”

Last year, Lehman for the first time tried bear baiting, which he says is no less ethical than using duck decoys. Both baiting and hound-hunting allow hunters to get close to the bear, making it easier to determine its sex. It is illegal to kill female bears, or sows.

As for spring bear hunting, Lehman said there’s little difference in cub survival if a mother bear does get shot, regardless of season. In fall, the cubs need the mother to teach them how to find a den, and need her warmth to survive winter, he said.

“I have no problem with their beliefs,” he said of I-CUB. “But I am tired of people trying to push their ideals and morals on me. I’m not insisting they eat meat or anything. I don’t want them dictating my life.”

In Coeur d’Alene, I-CUB member Toutant scoffs at the idea that forests and wildlife need humans to manage them.

“That is the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard,” he said. “We’ve been here for about 200 years. How did the place get along without us for all those thousands of years?”

Toutant said he’d like to see hunting banned, but believes it will never happen, especially in Idaho, which has more sportsmen per capita than almost any other state.

“That’s a utopian pipe dream,” he said.

Toutant, 34, grew up in Spokane. After getting a degree in graphic communications at Eastern Washington University, he spent four years in the Marine Corps. In 1989, he started carpentry work in Seattle, where he was introduced to the animal rights movement.

“I want to educate people to widen their circle of compassion for all living things,” he said.

He’s taken petitions to malls, stores and post offices in Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint. Half of the people are willing to listen to his pitch, he said. Of those, about half sign the petition.

“People have a certain ideal of hunters as somebody trying to feed his family, not a trophy hunter, someone who’s cautious and concerned about the wildlife he’s going after,” he said.

Hounding, baiting and hunting bears in the spring fly in the face of that sporting ethic, he said. Hunting with a pack of hounds terrifies bears, separates sows from cubs and can lead to dogs killing cubs, he said. Panelists from fish and game departments in six western states bear his claims out. Dogs typically kill cubs that aren’t quick enough getting up a tree, the six-state panel said, and spring pursuits of any bears deplete energy reserves and increase bear mortality. “It does not give the bears a very fair chance,” Toutant said.

Toutant sees using bait as little more than sniping.

“It’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” he said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos (2 color)

MEMO: See related story under the headline: States using ballot box to resolve hunting fight

See related story under the headline: States using ballot box to resolve hunting fight

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