Does more bait mean more bears?
By Dave Zeug
Wisconsin is known for its thriving black bear population, but this distinction doesn’t come without problems. Parts of the state are experiencing more damage and aggressive bear complaints than ever. These concerns are centered on their familiarity with humans, also known as habituation.
The Burnett County village of Grantsburg in the far northwest corner of the state is one of these areas.
“People are complaining about bears being within a few feet of them when they’re taking walks,” said Sheila Meyer, the village treasurer. “They don’t want to run away anymore and show little fear of people. We’re seeing more and more sows with more cubs, too. One had three and another had four cubs. They seem to hang around certain areas and mothers are concerned about kids playing outside. Some kids don’t even want to go outside.
“We have 10 (culvert) traps in the city now and the DNR has euthanized the most troublesome bears. One was a sow with three cubs that was ear tagged (as a problem bear) from last year. The cubs were taken to a rehabilitation facility near Rhinelander and hopefully will be released later. They’ve been a real problem,” said Meyer.
Some wonder whether the state’s liberal laws regulating bear baiting is contributing to this problem by allowing many tons of food to be put on the landscape for such a long time, thus increasing productivity well above levels that would be allowed by a natural forage base.
Aggressive harvests the last few years has helped. In fact, more black bears are shot in Wisconsin than any other state, but problems still exist.
Unlike neighboring states that handle animal damage complaints themselves, Wisconsin’s DNR contracts with the federal government’s Wildlife Services, a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture, to handle bear complaints.
Because Wildlife Services handles many other animal damage issues, Dan Hirchert, Wisconsin’s Wildlife Services director, said it’s difficult to put a dollar value on the costs of trapping and relocating a bear.
“Our goal is to resolve problems through technical assistance if possible. It’s cheaper than live trapping and relocating bears and a better solution for all concerned,” said Hirchert. “If bears are being attracted to a food source, we try to convince people to remove the attraction. If we have to remove the bears, we do. We average about 500 to 700 bear relocations a year, depending on the amount of natural food.”
Hirchert said bear hunting is much more popular in Wisconsin than in many other states.
“Last year 109,000 people applied for a bear tag, up from about 35,000 20 years ago. This means there’s a lot of bait on the ground. Bears associate this artificial food source to humans. Litter sizes seems to be increasing, too. Bears that are fatter go into winter in better shape and have a good chance of having bigger litters,” said Hirchert.
After a sow has been bred, usually in June, the implantation of the fertilized eggs, called blastocysts, is delayed until the start of the denning season when they go into hibernation. If the sow doesn’t attain sufficient body fat during the summer and fall, the embryos won’t attach to the uterine wall and develop. The heavier the body weight, the more likely she’ll have more cubs – up to six have been documented – than the normal two to three.
How much bait, or artificial food, is used in Wisconsin? Based on the latest DNR survey, 4.6 million gallons of bait were put on the ground in 2014. Converting gallons to pounds is difficult, since a 5-gallon pail of popcorn or bread will weigh less than a pail of licorice or other sugar-laden bear bait products.
As a reference, a gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds. Whatever the formula used, many tons of artificial, high calorie bear bait hits the woods each year. This results in fat sows that produce more cubs than bears forging for only wild foods.
A recent study showed that when sows bring cubs to sources of food offered by people, whether it’s from bird feeders, grills on decks or bear bait, the more likely those cubs will seek foods associated with people. Further proof of artificial baits influence on bears is that a recent blood sample study from harvested bears showed 50 percent of their diet came from bait sites. Experts say this familiarity to human sourced food can lead to problems with nuisance and aggressive bear behavior.
Wisconsin’s bear baiting laws are among the most liberal in the country. Bears can be baited for 145 day before the season opens in early September. Minnesota allows hunters to begin baiting 17 days before the opener; Michigan gives its hunters 31 days of baiting before opening day. In Wisconsin, the bear dog-training season begins July 1, although hound hunters and those who sit over bait often place their bait before that date.
Perhaps the old slogan “a fed bear is a dead bear” is a bit too simplistic, but there’s a realm of truth there, too. Besides those being shot while legally hunting with bait, bears that become habituated – as in the Grantsburg scenario – sometimes have to be euthanized by authorities. Other times, as has been documented, citizens take matters in their own hand without any governmental permission when dealing with problem bears. Often this result is less than satisfactory for all concerned.
Mike Zeckmeister, the DNR’s Northern Region wildlife supervisor in Spooner, has had many years of experience in dealing with bears and the problems they can cause.
“In 2016 the number of bear nuisance complaints started out slow, but steadily increased in Zone D (northwest Wisconsin) as the bear breeding season started. We’ve been trying to reduce bear numbers in this zone by increasing the quota. This year we’ll have 2,480 harvest permits in Zone D. We’re hoping to stabilize the bear population in zones A, B and C and decrease the population in Zone D because of all the complaints,” said Zeckmeister, who also realizes the importance of bears to state hunters. “The last seven bear seasons represent the seven highest bear harvests in state history.”
After waiting for years to get a kill tags, most hunters want a big bear. This doesn’t always happen, but hunters often pass up small bears. Hound hunters are more likely to do so than bait sitters, but overall, 66 percent of bear hunters surveyed by the DNR said they passed up the first bear they saw. Of those, 72 percent said they were waiting for a bigger bear.
It’s clear nuisance bear problems are caused by loss of fear of humans. Hunger drives bears into human environments and when they’re allowed to feed on unsecured garbage, bird feeders or pet food without any consequences, they’ll habituate to this easy food source, said Hirchert and Zeckmeister. Eventually they’ll relax around people, which is the opposite behavior hunting elicits.
Every spring a standard news release coming out of the DNR reminds homeowners that bears are active at that time of year. Homeowners are then urged to take down bird feeders and secure their garbage and pet food. The question then becomes whether the DNR – and perhaps bear hunters – are working against the bears themselves by allowing 145 days of baiting.
The DNR is beginning the process of updating it’s bear management plan. Zeckmeister said bear baiting policies – and their impacts – will no doubt be part of those discussions that will begin in the near future.