Bears’ Weakness for Donuts Is Killing Them
The use of pastries to lure bears in hunting is a major controversy—and sometimes reaches ugly levels.
A Florida couple will be sitting in prison for the next few years after being caught using donuts to entice black bears and then recording videos as they turned packs of dogs loose on the creatures. They then posted the twisted videos online.
While the barbaric particulars of the Florida case aren’t common, what is common—and controversial—is the use of pastries by bear hunters to lure their quarry.
“You want to find bear bait that keeps them coming back,” Bernie Barranger, an outdoor writer, hunter, and enthusiast based in Wisconsin says in an instructional video of how to hunt black bears, as he sits, hands clasped together, outfitted in a camouflage hoodie, and surrounded by four bear skulls.
“Some people spend their whole life looking for the best bait, but that’s not the best way to kill bears,” he continues. “A bear is in a state, especially in the fall, of hyperphagia, which means that he is eating a lot of calories, filling up his gut as much as he can with super high carbohydrate foods and he’s putting on fat for the winter. So things that are high in sugar and carbohydrates are good but you can also oversugar the bears, meaning if you just put candy out there, you’re not going to have the bears consistently coming back.”
The rest of the seven-minute video is peppered with trail camera footage of Barranger setting up his contraptions, and black bears happening upon them, then digging into the plethora of treats. The riggings mostly consist of emptied out gasoline barrels filled to the brim with trail mix and pastries such as doughnuts that ooze from a carved out hole at the bottom, like some sort of dystopian hamster-feeder. Others take a different form: logs are spliced together in a square or thrown into piles more haphazardly, and then sprinkled with licorice (apparently anise attracts bears), oats, and pastries. Tree stumps are hollowed out, then filled with buckets of granola. And then there’s Barranger himself, dousing trees and bushes with a gallon jug of what he told The Daily Beast was “used fryer oil.”
“Especially in heavily wooded areas,” Barranger said, “Baiting is the best way to do it. You can’t just walk around the woods and expect to find a bear.”
Using pastries and other delicious snacks to bait black bears is a common practice among bear hunters, at least, in states where baiting is legal—and sometimes even where it’s not. If you’re wondering why hunting bears at all is permitted, Randy Johnson, a large carnivore specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, helped explain. “It all comes down to management. We recognize that all wildlife species have positives and ultimately they all do have some negative effects. Management of the species through regulated hunting is probably the best tool to move the population up in certain areas and down in other areas,” he said.
While bear hunting is allowed on National Forest land, as of this writing, only nine states allow bear baiting—Alaska, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. This is due to a provision from the United States Forest Service (USFS) which delegates wildlife management to the state the forests are in, despite the land being federal.
While environmentalists certainly don’t love the idea of black bear baiting (or hunting) in general, arguing that it violates the concept of “fair chase,” they’ve pinpointed another issue: how black bear baiting can negatively affect grizzly bears, an endangered species.
Environmentalists, like Lindsay Larris of Wild Earth Guardians, an environmental nonprofit based out of Arizona, argue that not only does using pastries and other foods lead to the conditioning of grizzlies to humans as they come to associate these foods with human scents and sounds, but it also puts the endangered species at risk of being misidentified as black bears and being shot over the baiting sites on “accident.”
This is why, in the states of Wyoming and Idaho, and the ecosystem surrounding Yellowstone National Park where grizzly bears are known to exist and there are designated recovery areas, environmentalists are arguing the USFS should step in and manage the wildlife instead of ceding control to the states, which are often more politically motivated than the federal agency.
“The USFS should more frequently manage wildlife on their lands across the country,” Lindsay Larris of WildEarth Guardians, an environmental nonprofit, told The Daily Beast, “but they don’t.”
The USFS disagrees. A spokesperson for the USFS cited the Forest Service manual to The Daily Beast as comment on the issue, essentially allowing the state to make the decision. “Where states permit the use of bait for attracting resident game, this activity is allowed on National Forest System lands, subject to state hunting laws and regulation.”
However, as Larris noted and the USFS confirmed, while the Forest Service allows states to manage wildlife, the USFS does have a responsibility to get involved when an endangered species may be impacted.
In this case, though, they are not taking action. Larris argues “the USFS is simply refusing to connect the dots.”
Johnson, the carnivore specialist, disagrees with this claim, arguing the states are managing the issue just fine and the USFS does not need to step in.
“Adverse effects on other species is exactly the reason why there are limitations on how much bait you can put out and when you can put it out,” Johnson argued. He also argued that baiting affords hunters more time to identify the species of bear, which could lead to fewer grizzlies dying as a result of misidentification.
David Mattson, a retired wildlife researcher for the United States Geological Survey who specialized in grizzly bears and other large carnivores, agrees that in theory, “it should decrease the number of misidentifications,” however, “there isn’t any data to support that claim.”
In its lawsuit, WildEarth Guardians lists 20 grizzly bear deaths in the past 20 years occurring over black bear baiting sites, the likely result of misidentification.
Overall, Mattson is confused about the Forest Service’s decision to allow these baiting sites to occur. He cited the fact that three national forests in the area issued sealed food items orders for hikers and campers in the forest, requiring all food to be sealed in bear-safe containers (or not present entirely), but within this, created an exception allowing hunters to create these baiting sites.
“There’s a certain illogic to this,” Mattson argued. “If you issue a rule to limit human food being available to grizzly bears, why do it at a site where you’re baiting bears to kill them?”
Mattson continued to dissect the problem. He argued that even if grizzly bears aren’t shot over bait sites, the effects of human food can still have adverse effects.
“Bears will associate specific kinds of foods with people. If there’s any similar foods in their home range, they will readily orient to them once they’ve been exposed elsewhere. There’s this likely occurrence of going from a bait site to human residence, which leads to increased conditioning—more conflicts—and much higher odds that bears will die due to habituation.”
“It begs the question,” Mattson said, “Should we stop hunting black bears in grizzly territory, period?”