FAIRBANKS (AP) The debate is heating up over bear baiting, which could become illegal if opponents are successful in launching a ballot initiative next fall.
Last week, the state Division of Elections announced that Lt. Gov. Loren Leman has certified an application for a 2004 ballot initiative banning bear baiting. In order to get the measure onto the ballot, its sponsors will have to gather 23,286 signatures spread over at least 27 of Alaska's 40 election districts.
Baiting brown bears is prohibited in Alaska, while baiting black bears is legal throughout the state, except on national wildlife refuges and National Park Service land.
Alaska is one of nine states that allow bear baiting, out of 27 where bear hunting in general is permitted. Voters in several other states have banned baiting by initiative in recent years.
Sponsors and supporters of the petition argue that luring bears to a hunting spot by leaving food for them leads to garbage bear issues and is contrary to fair-chase hunting rules.
''You can't call that fair chase hunting because chase means pursuing an animal, and you're not pursuing an animal,'' said retired Kasilof hunting guide George Pollard, one of three petition sponsors. ''You're just sitting waiting for an animal to come to you.''
Though sponsors said the focus of the initiative is baiting bears for hunting, the language is broader than that, stating that ''a person may not bait or intentionally feed a bear for the purpose of hunting, photography or viewing.''
Violation of the law would be a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Feeding wild animals is already illegal in Alaska, but it is legal to bait bears for viewing or photography purposes as well as for hunting.
The bill has three sponsors: Pollard, Hoonah guide John Erickson and Lowell Thomas Jr., former state senator and lieutenant governor.
Opponents argue that bear baiting is a necessity for catching bears, which can be hard to spot in the heavily wooded Interior, and that keeping bear numbers down helps boost other game populations.
''In this country, black bears can be fairly difficult to hunt unless you use something like bait,'' said Dick Bishop, former head of the Alaska Outdoor Council. ''We've always considered it fair chase. It's by no means a sure thing in terms of either finding, or being able to shoot or kill a bear.''
In addition to the fair-chase issue, some argue that bear baiting encourages nuisance bears by getting bears used to the human food often used at bait stations. While some of the bears attracted to bait stations are killed, Alaska Wildlife Alliance Wildlife Director Paul Joslin said that some of them, like brown bears or black bears with cubs, can't be hunted.
''In essence, you end up with a population of bears that have been trained to see human-related foods as OK,'' he said.
Others say there's not much evidence that bear baiting has caused any problems in the Interior. Tom Seaton, assistant area biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said he thinks the opposite may be true, since bait stations help thin bear numbers.
''Enough bears are harvested that might be interested in bait stations that those bears are removed from the population,'' he said. ''In that sense, I believe that bear baiting actually decreases the number of bears out there causing problems.''
But Seaton admitted the jury is out on the effect of baiting.
''I can see the mechanism that bears can be habituated by bear baiting,'' he said.
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