Kathleen Parker: Bears, wolves find a voice in wilderness

By Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON — If politicians preying upon your attentions this season fail to inspire, you might seek common cause with the beasts — the four-legged variety rather than those running for office.

Ballot initiatives aimed at protecting bears and wolves from hounding, trapping and other inhumane hunting practices are up for a vote in two states — Maine and Michigan.

Oh, be still thy twitching trigger finger. This isn’t an anti-hunting column; it’s a pro-humanity column. Ours. And the referendums, driven by the Humane Society of the United States, are aimed only at minimizing animal suffering and restoring a measure of decency and fair play in our dealings with creatures.

First the bears. Maine is the only state that still allows bear baiting, hounding and trapping. More than half of the 32 states with legal bear hunting allow hounding, a dozen allow baiting, and only Maine allows trapping for sport.

For clarification, hounding refers to the use of dogs that have been trained to chase bears relentlessly and then to corner or fight the poor beast. The bears have no choice but to turn to face a murderous pack or, exhausted, escape up a tree.

That’s when the hunter, who, thanks to electronic tracking equipment, has been able to follow at a leisurely pace and safe distance, points his rifle and shoots the bear from a tree limb. Frances Macomber, the cowardly hunter of Hemingway’s short, unhappy story, looks like a Maasai warrior by comparison.

Baiting means that a hunting guide strews rotting food in the woods and places a 55-gallon drum filled with jelly doughnuts, pizza, grease, fish guts and rotting beaver carcasses in a target spot. The “hunter,” who likely has paid a fee to the “guide” for a “guaranteed kill,” is provided a comfy seat to wait for the bear. Bam!

It’s ironic — or something — that the same state fish and wildlife agency folks who post signs warning tourists not to feed the bears will allow other tourists to feed them for about $2,000-$4,000 a pop. New signage might read: Kill what you feed.

The problem with baiting, beyond the obvious, is that it perpetuates an unhealthy cycle that only creates more problems — growing the bear population and making the bruins too comfortable around human areas — that hunters then use to justify more baiting and shooting. Avid hunter and writer Ted Williams, who wrote about bear baiting for Audubon magazine in 2005, calls it “garbaging for bears.”

Other states, such as Colorado, Oregon and Washington, meanwhile, have managed to maintain mostly stable bear populations without these inhumane practices. Plus, bear-hunting licenses in these states for fair-chase hunts have doubled or tripled.

A fair hunt may be more dangerous and require greater courage than shooting Winnie in a tree, but isn’t that at least part of the point? It should be noted that the Maasai warrior, who carries a shield and a spear to hunt a lion, does sometimes lose.

In Michigan, wolves are the designated prey.

The Humane Society is campaigning there to stop the reopening of a wolf hunt, which has been deemed necessary largely because of human-wolf stories that were found to be false. In one true case, a farmer who lost several cattle to wolves had left several rotting cattle carcasses lying around. Talk about a baited field. Was he expecting squirrels?

Otherwise, the stories are mostly myths — wolves staring at humans through windows, stalking little girls in red capes, that sort of thing.

Although wolves have been removed from the endangered species list in Michigan, they number fewer than 650. Humane Society President and CEO Wayne Pacelle fears that wolves will suffer the inhumane hunting practices — hounds and traps — seen in other states that are part of what he describes as “anti-wolf hysteria sweeping the Midwest.”

Rather than leaving power in the hands of legislators and commissioners, Pacelle is urging voters to speak up through ballot initiatives. “We need to make a statement that the public — and not just trophy hunters — has a right to have a say in the protection of wildlife.”

The referendum, by circumventing heavily lobbied legislators, sought to resonate with people who are disgusted with politics or who abhor cruelty to animals as sport. And, yes, often for food, but that’s a subject for another day. In the meantime, we can safely say that nobody eats wolf. And nobody eats bear — twice.

Email: kathleenparker@washpost.com

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