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In Pursuit of Gem State Bears

Hunting the 'Ursidae' mammal according to Idaho rules

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Sitting in a tree stand with a Kermit the Frog doll is not what I would call a normal day. The trail cameras set up on the bear bait indicated that a cinnamon-colored bear had been coming to feed at about 8:30 p.m., so I set myself in the tree stand at about 5 p.m., giving me and the bear plenty of time in either direction.

When I had showed the pictures of the cinnamon bear to my kids, they started calling it "Fozzie"--yes, after the Muppet character of the same color.

As I settled into the stand, I noticed a green arm sticking out of my backpack. I investigated and found a 14-inch green doll--another Muppet character. So there we were, Kermit and I, hunting a cinnamon bear my boys nicknamed Fozzie, silently waiting for a bear to saunter into the bait about 30 yards in front of me.

I had gotten my spring tag easily. Idaho, unlike other Northwest states, sells its spring bear tags over the counter. Almost all units with bears have a two-month season as well--mid-April to mid-June is normal. Some units even have a two-bear harvest limit. The season is a month longer than that for turkey and about seven weeks longer than most elk seasons. With the few bears I have actually seen in the wilds of Idaho, I began to wonder why we had such a liberal bear hunting season.

Apparently, Idaho has an abundance of black bears, and that wealth has its benefits and its drawbacks, according to Craig White, a biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

"The reason that we have so many black bear in Idaho is our abundance of forested habitat," White said. But having an abundance of bears is not always a good thing.

"By the late '90s, the Lolo and Lochsa areas were suffering from a lower-than-normal elk herd population. Bottom line is that black bears have an effect on elk calf mortality. ... Spring bear hunting season essentially allowed for our elk calves to survive in the first 30 days. We liberalized the black bear season to help elk calf survival," said White.

"In 1943, black bears were classified as a big game animal in Idaho, but it wasn't until 1973 that resident hunters were required to have a tag in their possession while hunting. Before that, there was little protection provided and you could just about shoot at anytime."

Bear populations were low and the creature lacked respect from the conservation and hunting communities.

Eventually, two Idaho biologists, John Beecham and John Rohlman, started studying the subject of Idaho black bears. The culmination of their work was the book Shadows in the Forest: Idaho's Black Bear.

According to White, the book and associated research "totally changed our bear management system" and led Idaho to have "some of the highest bear populations anywhere, especially in the Lolo and Lochsa areas."

The effective management increased populations, the increased populations affected the elk calf survival and thus the elk herds. In order to help the elk herds, IDFG allows spring bear hunting.

Oregon also allows limited bear hunting in the spring but has a different set of rules. First, a hunter's name needs to be drawn from a random lottery. Additionally, it is illegal to hunt over bait or to chase and tree bears with dogs. Both of those activities, within certain parameters, are legal in Idaho.

Asked to explain the difference in the two states' laws, White said: "People have different values on things. Some don't feel that it's fair chase to hunt bears with dogs. ... It is just a cultural values thing."

So there I was sitting over a completely legal bear baiting station looking at the backside of Bogus Basin. Baiting is not an exact science, but it is close. In some areas, at least those with cellphone reception, you can actually watch your bait cameras in real time. They will remotely turn off and on with movement on the bait.

To run a bear bait, a hunter needs to register the site with the IDFG. Many rules apply to what is allowed to be used as bait. The basics are: no game animals, no game fish and 200 yards from the nearest road. Bears, like humans, are omnivores and will eat just about anything. Popular baits are things like popcorn and cull onions, or anything that is sweet. They love them some sugar.

Being creatures of habit, bears will often get into a routine with the bait site. They will hit at specific times of day, most often in the late evening and early morning. The goal for a hunter is to sneak in to the bait site and wait for the bear to show up for a meal.

On the hunter's end, this is often an expensive proposition. About twice a week during bear season, they have to haul up hundreds of pounds of food to keep the bears interested in the site. Gas, time and the cost of food are prohibitive to all but the most dedicated.

Another method of bear hunting is the old-school European method of hound dogs. The dogs catch the scent of a bear and then chase the creature until, exhausted, the bear climbs a tree. The hunter, following the sounds of the dogs barking or maybe a GPS attached to the hounds, approaches the bear and dispatches it. This long-held tradition comes in a direct line from fox and stag hunters in the old world. Again, this is an expensive proposition. Specially trained dogs, expensive equipment, the danger of wolves killing your dogs and fuel alone make running bear dogs prohibitive.

And another law that applies to most takes in Idaho does not apply to bears: the wanton waste law. Essentially, a hunter can shoot a bear and leave everything but the skull and hide behind. The meat will be eaten by other creatures, surely, but the whole notion of killing and not eating a big game animal is a tough pill to swallow.

"It is a decision made by the [Fish and Game] Commission. Bear meat isn't required to be salvaged. The rule has gone back and forth over the years. We have let the rule become more liberal to help reduce the population. Bear are not a species that most want to eat, it is a predator," said White. "Also, some areas are very difficult to get in and out of. So we don't ask the hunters to pull the meat out that they might not eat anyway."

White added: "We encourage animals to be used to the fullest extent. We require the bear hide and skull to be removed. They are often used as an educational tool.

"Black bears are an awesome species to view but we need to control them so we can have elk as well. In most areas, we are meeting our goals and objectives."

Bear meat also has a few problems of its own according to naturalist and author Steven Rinella. He notes that bears tend to have a trichinosis problem, the disease that until this year, the FDA thought pigs would give you so they asked that you cook your pork to well done. Rinella notes that "in Montana's Lincoln and Sanders counties, 100 percent of the bears tested over 6 years of age have tested positive for the parasite." The bears get the disease by eating trash that contains the round worm Trichina Spiralis.

Rinella added in an article posted to petersonshunting.com that, "nowadays, over 90 percent of U.S. trichinosis cases are attributable to bear meat." While Rinella notes the potential dangers of bear meat, he concluded his article with advice on cooking it. The best way to deal with the trichinosis problem in bears is to cook the meat past 137 degrees. This almost assuredly will kill the bug and any chance you have of contacting it.

"Remember," Rinella wrote, "you killed it, you eat it."

For me, bait hunting bear is an exercise in patience, listening for the cracking of sticks that indicate something walking into the bait. Staying awake is the hardest part. But off in the distance, I heard a shuffle and my eyes caught a streak of cinnamon making its way through the brush. Excuse me, I think Kermit and I have some work to do ... saving elk calves.

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