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A Wisconsin wildlife advocate questions training methods used for bear hunting

Brittany - stock.adobe.com

Over the next several weeks, Wisconsin's bear hunters will be training their hounds on free-roaming black bears in preparation for this fall's bear-hunting season.

Wisconsin's bear-hounding season goes from mid-September to mid-October, but the bearhound training period starts in July and runs through August. During training and the main hounding season, hunters use bait to attract bears.

Melissa Smith, executive director of the Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf and Wildlife, said bait traps - which can be set months in advance - can spread disease among other wildlife.

"These bear baits don't just attract bears," said Smith. "All wildlife likes high-fat, high-sugar foods. You're congregating wildlife - which, from a wildlife disease perspective, is not good."

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources estimates the state's bear population is upwards of 24,000, and hunters harvested about 3,800 bears last year. According to the DNR, the fall hunt helps curb bear numbers to prevent human-bear conflict.

But Smith contended hunters and their hounds can also be a nuisance to property owners in rural areas. It's a claim backed up by a February investigation by the Wisconsin Examiner, which detailed local law enforcement's struggles to prevent clashes between the two groups.

Smith contended Wisconsin is more permissive than other states when it comes to bear hounding and baiting, which attracts out-of-state folks into northern Wisconsin, where bears are most populous.

"This has been increasing over the years," said Smith. "So, very limited places you can go to do this practice anymore, because the agencies found that it was unregulated, it was unhealthy for wildlife."

In a statewide poll conducted by the DNR in 2018, more than 75% of respondents indicated they think bears "help keep nature in balance," and more than half said they believe Wisconsin should have as many bears as the habitat will support.

Jonah Chester is Wisconsin Public Radio's 2022-2023 Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Reporting Fellow embedded in the Wisconsin Watch newsroom. He most recently worked at Public News Service, a national radio news service, where he covered Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. He previously produced the 6 O'Clock News at WORT 89.9 FM in Madison, where he won numerous awards from the Milwaukee Press Club and Wisconsin Broadcasters Association for his reporting on issues in Dane County and south-central Wisconsin.
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