Spring Bear Hunting in Idaho

By M. Wade Lewis

A few years ago, my cousin invited me spring bear hunting. I had never hunted bear, and did not know what to expect. The area he hunts is open to baiting, which is the technique he typically uses to locate his quarry. The use of bait in bear hunting is a controversial subject both outside and within the hunting community.

Before you jump to any conclusions or make assumptions about baiting for bears, please read the entire article. I will not discuss opinions or philosophy outside of traditional conservation and the legal use of our resources. Traditional conservation allows for the management of wild game populations by hunting as opposed to over-population which results in an increased rate of winter kill and disease. Hunting permits are issued based on actual animal numbers within a specific geographical unit. If standard hunting practices are not effective in controlling the bear population, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game will consider opening the unit to hound hunting and/or baiting. No predator other than humans can impact and control the bear population. There are units where no hunting is allowed, units that permit the use of hounds, and units that are open to baiting. Bear hunters that wish to use bait in units where it is legal are required to purchase baiting permits. The baiting regulations specify where and how hunters can legally place baits, and what types of bait are allowable to use. The revenue generated from the sale of hunting licenses, game tags and (bear baiting) permits fuels the budget for State game management and conservation.

Some time before we embarked on my first bear hunting expedition, my cousin showed me some photographs he had taken in previous seasons. He is a bow hunter, and prefers to still-hunt in an elevated tree stand which he typically places approximately 15′ off the ground. This has enabled him to capture some fantastic pictures. He showed me snap shots of deer, elk, and a multitude of bear. There were black bears, brown bears, blonde bears, cinnamon bears, and mothers with cubs. For my cousin and most other avid sportsmen, the viewing and photography of a diversity of wildlife is as exciting as the hunt itself.

My first observation of spring bear hunting was that it is a hell of a lot of work. For legal and ethical compliance, baits must be physically carried a great distance from any road, maintained trail, or waterway. The terrain is rough and unforgiving, and the bait is heavy. The experience is much like carrying buckets of concrete up and down the stairs of a 10-story building with people in much better physical condition than yourself poking fun at you the entire time. Typically, when we first place baits in the spring there is a great deal of snow, which adds to the physical challenge of the task. The weather is unpredictable, and spring hunters often experience torrential rain, blinding snow, unbearable heat and high winds, sometimes on the same day. And there are ticks. Springtime in Idaho is tick season. One must be diligent and conduct routine self-examinations when hunting for bear. The nights are cold – often below freezing – and many a night I have worn a sweater and stocking cap to bed in addition to my long underwear. Even with all of its challenges, spring bear hunting is one of my favorite outdoor adventures. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the transition from winter to spring than to be in the mountains watching it unfold. It is as if you can actually witness the long gray winter days slowly yielding to the bright and fertile days of summer. The isolated pockets of snow slowly dissipate, choreographing winter’s demise. We seldom see other people in the woods in early spring; it is as if we have the entire forest to ourselves. Everything is alive and new. The pines smell fresh and clean and permeate the atmosphere. The grass is green and lush, the wildflowers bloom and a variety of wild mushrooms begin to show themselves through the forest floor. Fresh-picked Morel mushrooms are a welcome accompaniment to a Dutch oven elk roast in bear hunting camp.

The experience of still-hunting bear is not comparable to any other activity I can imagine. You arrive at your point of destination and attempt to walk quietly

to where you will lay in wait. But despite your best efforts, it is difficult to move without making noise. Sticks crack, pine cones crunch, and the woods become guarded and eerily silent upon your arrival. You sit down by a tree and obscure yourself with bushes and branches. And you wait, completely still. After at least 20 minutes, the forest starts to close in around you. Birds begin to sing, squirrels quarrel with one another, and Mother Nature accepts you as part of the landscape. The solitude and insignificance of your presence is overwhelming. A deer walks within 10 feet of where you sit, looks you in the eye, and casually continues its journey. Time stands still, and you contemplate your existence in the universe. You think about the fact that the only valid cetainty to establish humans at the top of the food chain is the use of weapons. As your awareness increases, you begin to detect the slightest movement and sound. The light begins to fade, and you hear the unmistakable echo of a large bear clacking his teeth and grunting aggressively. The bear has winded you, and is very close. He knows you are there but cannot see you. His ominous voice resonates through the mountains but does not reveal his location. Every sound you hear is magnified with your increased awareness and heightened senses. Suddenly it is completely dark. You slowly rise and commence the long walk back towards camp, the hair on the back of your neck standing on end and an icy shiver running down your spine as you stare blindly into the darkened abyss. The bear is still talking, and has put you on notice that these woods are not yours.

Debate over baiting bears, hunting with hounds, and hunting in general will likely continue until the end of days. In the interim, it is important that we all work together and promote tolerance for our diversity of unique outdoor cultures, practices, and beliefs. So long as it is legal, I intend to continue hunting for bears with bait. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game is charged with determining the ethics and impact on bear populations, and I will place the analysis in their capable hands. If bear baiting is banned – I will continue to still-hunt bears in the spring minus the bait. There may be no better way to hunt and truly experience nature than to silently blend in with the environment. And for me, that is the best part of spring bear hunting.

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