At war in the woods
Some methods of bear-hunting raise questions and concernsDecember 11, 1996
web posted at: 7:00 a.m. EST
From Correspondent Jack Hamman
(CNN) -- In the upper reaches of Michigan, as the leaves of autumn explode into bright colors, Keith Huff and his friends continue a ritual they've repeated for the last 30 years.
To them, the first frosty mornings of fall are the best, because that's when they gather for their hunt -- scouring the woods in search of bear.
But Huff and his friends don't venture out alone. They are accompanied by hounds, animals trained to help track and kill.
"As long as the hounds keep moving, we can stay right close to (the bear)," Huff said.
To these hunters, using hounds to hunt bear is the finest sport they know. Yet there is controversy.
Bears inhabit almost all 50 states, and bear-hunting is legal in more than half of them. The question, therefore, is not whether to hunt bears, but how to hunt them.
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A political issue
Some controversial methods of bear-hunting are already illegal in many parts of America, with more states proposing restrictions and bans. The use of hounds, called hounding, is often cited.
In this political year, the issue became a hot campaign topic. Voters in many areas saw graphic commercials in which bears were mauled by hunting dogs.
In one spot, a shot rings out, and dogs, equipped with radio tracking collars, chase an injured bear cub up a tree. Hunters follow closely behind and shoot the bear down, where it is surrounded by the waiting dogs. The narrator announces, "Still alive, the dogs finish the job. This isn't hunting."
Hounding enthusiasts say such commercials are unfair and misleading.
"You'll see the video showing where the dogs take a bear down and eat him up," Huff said, "but ... I don't know if those are staged videos. I've never had that happen here. That never happens to us. And I don't know where they're getting this propaganda."
"They play war games with the bear"
"It's a magnificent animal. Hunt it, but show it some respect." Those words come from Bev Rogers, who along with her husband, Jim, head up the Michigan campaign to stop hounding. They believe it violates a basic ethic of hunting -- that a hunted animal be given a fair chance.
"They play war games," she said. "They play war games with the bear up here."
To Jim Rogers, hounding undermines the sport of bear-hunting.
"Does that become hunting anymore when it's that certain?" he asked. "I mean, is that what we want? A big game farm?"
The Rogerses have spent the better part of 10 years on their campaign, and things have often turned ugly. Over the past several months, they've received dozens of harassing phone calls and other ominous threats, including a sheet of paper reading, "When we can't hunt bear with dogs anymore, then we're going to hunt YOU."
The practice of baiting
Bear hunter Richard Smith uses a different -- but equally controversial -- method in his sport. He baits bears.
Smith carries a heavy backpack to a carefully selected site where he knows bears usually look for acorns. Smith then dumps a load of bread, berries and donuts on the forest floor. He covers the bait with logs so heavy only a bear could move them. Then he takes cover and hides, waiting on his prey.
While this method also angers some people, Smith strongly defends his practice.
"Well, in Michigan, we have regulations that protect cubs, and females in the company of cubs," he said. "So, it's important for a hunter to get a good look at bears they see."
Baiting, he added, reduces the chance that a mother bear or one of her cubs will be shot accidentally.
Smith doesn't worry that people may view his method as unfair to the animals. "I'm sure they support, like we support, only shooting legal animals. This provides us the opportunity to do so."
Image is everything
Many people who oppose hounding and baiting are themselves hunters. They worry that an otherwise indifferent public will try to restrict milder forms of hunting if the more controversial techniques are allowed to continue.
Lynn Fritchman, who heads the campaign to ban hounding and baiting in Idaho, believes hunters must portray a positive image.
"Eighty percent of the population doesn't hunt," he said. "And whether they are willing to allow the 20 percent that do hunt depends, to a large amount, on the image that they create in the minds of the non-hunter."
"You already have every advantage in the world," said Jerry Jones, an Idaho hunter. "You have spotting scopes, you have night scopes, you have rifles and shells. ... Just walking up and shooting a bear out of a tree from 20 feet away is not a sport."
"There are never any guarantees"
Although most Americans don't hunt, they generally tolerate hunting. In many states, the future of hounding and baiting bears may be decided by people who will never see a bear in the wild.
"They want to eliminate us," said hunter John Cryderman. "They want to eliminate all hunting. That's the bottom line."
But Jim Rogers said that is not true. "We'll always support hunting," he said, "but not all types of hunting."
In fact, in states where hounding and baiting have already been banned, bears are still hunted. But now, it's much more difficult in certain terrain.
For Keith Huff and his hunting party, it took three days into this year's excursion before the first kill. For the man who pulled the trigger, Rollie Harmes, it was the "thrill of a lifetime," a moment he said he would never forget.
"One thing about it, when you go hunting, there are never any guarantees," Harmes said. "It's the opportunity to be out in the hunt. This is America, where (you) have the freedom to follow your sport."
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