Mark Weigner slept under black bear hides in the back of his SUV outside the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters on Sunday night.
He was there along with some 30 other people to stake their claims to the federally issued black bear baiting permits on the refuge, which became available Monday at 8 a.m.
"Back in the '90s you might have four or five people the morning they're going to issue permits," Weigner said. "Now they just come earlier and earlier."
His black bear blankets were appropriate for the occasion and necessary for the evening's low temperature.
"They're warm," he said.
The parking lot at the refuge spilled over with pickup trucks, campers and motor homes early Monday as those in pursuit of permits milled about the lot.
The men were waiting for their prey -- in this case a black bear bating permit, not a black bear.
The crowd, clad in hunting camouflage, Carhartts and hiking boots, drank coffee and shot the breeze. One bearded loiterer was wearing a T-shirt with the words "Bear Whisperer" and a clip-art image of a half-eaten human.
The hunters, some of whom arrived Saturday morning, ate hot dogs, told stories and drank beer during their camp-out.
"It's kind of like a tailgate deal," said Tim Elder, of Sterling.
Elder was standing around talking to fellow Sterling residents Dave Powell and Stan Kulich a little after 7:30 a.m., waiting for the office to open.
"We're going to stay here until the first football game starts," Kulich joked.
According to Todd Eskelin, biological technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, free permits are issued for 207 exclusive one-square-mile areas within the refuge that are open to black bear baiting on a first-come, first-served basis. The season opens May 1 and goes until June 30.
"So far, we're going to probably issue the same or less than last year as far as permits but people are coming earlier and earlier to get a particular spot," Eskelin said. "It's getting a little crazy."
The refuge might have to revisit the permitting process, he said. Forty-two permits were issued Monday morning.
Eskelin said that the waiting game for these prospective bear baiters probably has more to do with them being comfortable in a particular spot, or it being more convenient to access, rather than it actually being a better area.
But that didn't stop those like Weigner, all lined up to pick their areas.
"There are only so many prime spots; that's why there's so many of us here," Elder said. This is his 15th year of getting a permit to bait.
Those waiting created their own list to keep track of who shows up and when.
"You sign the list, you stay here. If you leave you're scratched off," said Powell, who had been waiting at the refuge since Saturday night. The first person on the list got there early Saturday, he said.
The list is mainly an etiquette thing, explained Kulich. Those waiting for permits create it themselves and then give it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff to keep the process orderly.
The thing is, said Kulich, there are a lot of areas available for bear baiting on the refuge but most are inaccessible.
Of all of the spots available there are probably only 35 or so accessible, said Monte Roberts of Soldotna.
He stopped by earlier Sunday to check out the competition and then decided to come back and get a place in line.
"We thought we wouldn't get a spot," he said.
Next year he's going to come on Wednesday, Roberts said.
Getting a spot doesn't actually mean that you'll take a bear, though.
"To actually get a bear you got to put a lot of time in there," Elder said.
In his 15 years baiting he's only taken four bears.
"I'm not out there to take every bear that comes in," he said.
An advantage of baiting is being able to size up the animal before shooting it. It is illegal to shoot sows with cubs.
Baiters use dog food, doughnuts and popcorn to try to entice the animals under their tree stands.
"Sometimes it's three to four days before you see a bear even though your food is gone," Powell said.
"They're tricky," added Kulich. "They're laughing at us more than we're laughing at them."
A lot of brown bears also come through the areas, he said, but regulations allow only black bears to be shot at baiting stations.
"So there are a lot of photo opportunities, not shooting opportunities," Kulich said.
Watching the wildlife is a big draw for many of the hunters.
"It's the whole nature experience," Kulich said.
That's something Weigner enjoys about this type of hunting, too.
"I like being out in the woods and watching the bears as they approach the bait -- how quiet and stealthy they are," he said.
And he likes the meat. Spring black bear meat is delicious, he said.
"That's what we had for supper last night. Bear burgers," Weigner said.
Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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