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Environmental groups threaten to sue Forest Service over bear baiting in Idaho and Wyoming

In this July 25, 2014, photo, a black bear in captivity awaits handouts at the the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray, Maine. A coalition of environmental groups is threatening to sue the U.S. Forest Service for allowing black bear hunters in Idaho and Wyoming to hunt over bait stations. (Robert F. Bukaty / AP)
By Eric Barker The Lewiston Tribune

A coalition of environmental groups is threatening to sue the U.S. Forest Service for allowing black bear hunters in Idaho and Wyoming to hunt over bait stations.

The groups that include the WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project and the Western Environmental Law Center contend baiting violates the Endangered Species Act because of the potential to harm grizzly bears.

Both states allow hunters to use bait to attract black bears, which can legally be hunted. Grizzly bears are protected by the ESA and can’t be hunted.

According to a news release from the groups, the federal agency once managed bear baiting on the land it oversees. But in 1995, they say, the agency took a hands-off approach and left decisions about bear baiting to state wildlife management agencies that have authority over hunting and fishing in their states.

Bear baiting is banned in states like Oregon, Washington and Montana. The groups say the Forest Service regulates the way in which food is stored on its land in areas where grizzly bears are present, but it makes an exception for bear baiting.

“Everyone knows that a fed bear is a dead bear,” said Sarah McMillan, WildEarth Guardians conservation director. “This is why the public is asked to take steps to avoid leaving attractants and food at campsites in grizzly bear country. But in Idaho and Wyoming, individuals seeking to kill black bears can dump hundreds of pounds of doughnuts and other foods in these same forests to attract and kill bears. It makes no sense.”

The groups filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue Wednesday, which says bear baiting can impact grizzly bears in two ways. The big bruins are sometimes attracted to bear-baiting stations and shot by hunters who mistake them for black bears. Baiting can also habituate grizzly bears to human food sources and cause them to seek out populated areas where they are likely to run into problems.

“Over the past 23 years, we’ve seen a large number of grizzly bears killed at black bear baiting stations in Idaho and Wyoming, including the first grizzly to make it to Idaho’s Bitterroot region since 1949. New science also reveals the consequences of using attractants to kill black bears are more serious than originally thought,” said Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center representing the groups.

In 2016 a North Idaho teenager was charged with the unlawful killing of a grizzly. The 14-year-old’s father was also fined for baiting too close to their Wallace home. According to the father of the boy he’d sent his son to check on the bread and apples he had put out to draw in black bears. The boy, armed with a .30-06 rifle, saw the bear at the bait and shot the animal twice, including a head shot that killed it. The boy said he thought the grizzly was a black bear.

In 2007, a guided hunter from Tennessee shot a grizzly bear over bait in a remote section of the Kelly Creek drainage. The hunter, who mistook the grizzly for a black bear, reported the incident to fish and wildlife authorities.

The groups are asking Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials to examine the issue and conduct an analysis on the impacts of bear baiting on grizzly bear populations.

A 1996 initiative that would have banned bear baiting in Idaho was rejected by voters.

Eli Francovich contributed to this report.