Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated the legality of bear baiting in the U.S. The practice is legal in some form in 11 states.
Conservation groups on Wednesday announced plans to challenge the legality of bear baiting in Idaho and Wyoming, two states where the hunting practice is still legal, citing concerns for human safety and grizzly bear populations.
The Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, issued a statement of intent to sue addressed to the heads of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture and Forest Service, alleging violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Bear baiting allows hunters to place food meant to entice black bears. In Idaho, hunters must obtain a bait permit to do so. Though it wasn’t immediately clear how many permits Idaho Fish and Game issues each year, statistics from 2016 show more than 1,200 black bears were killed over bait.
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The conservation groups allege that baiting could have a negative effect on grizzly bears, which are still considered an endangered species despite recent efforts to de-list bears living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In a Wednesday news release, the groups urged the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife to analyze the impacts of bear baiting on national forest lands occupied by grizzlies.
In the past, bear baiting was illegal on national forest lands. In 1995, the Forest Service turned regulation over to the states. Idaho and Wyoming chose to allow the practice, while Montana, Washington and Oregon banned baiting altogether. At the time, the Forest Service “assumed the impacts to black bears and other wildlife, including threatened grizzly bears, would be negligible,” the conservation groups said in the news release.
While it’s currently only legal to hunt black bears, other animals can be attracted to the bait, the environmental groups said. The notice of intent to sue pointed out several incidents in Idaho and Wyoming where grizzly bears were killed at or removed from baiting sites meant for black bears. The most recent occurred in North Idaho in September.
‘Hundreds of pounds of donuts’
The wildlife groups also said they’re concerned bear baiting could cause more dangerous run-ins with humans.
“Everyone knows that a fed bear is a dead bear,” said Sarah McMillan, WildEarth Guardians’ conservation director, in the news release. “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 donuts and other foods in these same forests to attract and kill bears. It makes no sense.”
Last summer, an Idaho City man was mauled by a black bear at a baiting site. He survived, but Statesman readers questioned the fairness of luring animals to a site in order to kill them.
That’s part of the reason baiting is not allowed in Montana — state officials say it defies the principles of “fair chase” and bear-friendliness.
The baiting opponents also said they feel the practice is inconsistent with food storage policies put in place by the Forest Service. Those orders aim “to help keep ... forest visitors safe by avoiding encounters with bears and by preventing bears from being attracted to campgrounds, trailheads, picnic sites and other areas frequented by people.”
The agencies named in the notice have 60 days to respond before the environmental groups file suit.