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Duluth, Minn. — Years ago, hunters used dogs to track bears in Minnesota. That was back in the days when bears were considered varmints. Then, in 1971, the state listed black bears as a "big game species," instituted a hunting season, and banned hunters from using dogs to chase bears.
Since then, the bear population in the state has mushroomed. The Department of Natural Resources estimates that at least 20,000 bears live in Minnesota. And the DNR is trying to keep the number from growing.
Wildlife managers say the woods are full, so more bears will mean more bear problems. The DNR has tried to help hunters kill more bears in recent years. The state extended the hunting season, and let hunters take two bears with one permit. But it hasn't worked. Last year the DNR hoped hunters would kill 5,000 bears, but hunters took fewer than 2,000.
Hunters in Minnesota use bait to attract bears. Last year, bears weren't coming to the bait because there was plenty of natural food in the woods. So the DNR says it makes sense to let hunters use dogs to track bears. Then, even if bears aren't coming to the bait, hunters can still get a bear.
"It's currently legal in Minnesota for raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, foxes," says Ed Boggess, the assistant director of the DNR's Wildlife Division. "These hounds are being used to hunt all those species now, and have been for years. So we really don't see what the difference is."
In western states, Boggess says, hunters can shoot bears in open country and on mountainsides without the help of dogs or bait, but he says that wouldn't work on Minnesota terrain. He says hunters in the Midwest would bag very few bears if they didn't use bait or dogs.
Across the country, 27 states allow bear hunting. More than half of those states let hunters use dogs. Nine states allow hunters to use bait. Wisconsin allows bait and dogs.
It's a very inhumane way of hunting.
Dave Samuel belongs to the Minnesota Trail Hound Association, and he uses his dogs to hunt bears in Wisconsin. He says it's like hunting pheasants. A bird dog is trained to find a pheasant's trail and follow it to the bird. The dog either points at the bird, or flushes it into the open.
"Bear hunting is exactly the same thing," Samuel says. "The dog is following the track to the game. If the game climbs in the tree, the dog just sits underneath and barks at the tree until we get there. If the bear decides to stay on the ground, the dogs will hold it there and then the hunter can come in and take the game if he so decides."
Some people say bears suffer when they're chased by dogs. Linda Hatfield has testified at the Legislature on behalf of the Humane Society. She's against all hunting, and she says it's cruel for hunters to chase bears with hounds.
"They have their dogs," she says. "They're radio-collared. More often than not the bear is chased up into a tree. They follow that radio signal, and there's the bear, and they shoot it out of the tree. It's a very inhumane way of hunting."
Many hunters disagree.
"It absolutely is not inhumane," says Dave Samuel of the Minnesota Trail Hound Association.
It absolutely is not inhumane.
"Most of the people who say it's inhumane, they don't look at what actually happens," he says. "They don't have the knowledge to know what's happening. They've never been out and tried the sport."
Beyond the ethical debate, there's another reason some people oppose hunting bears with dogs. They worry about trespassing.
Donna Phelan is with the Bear Interest Group in Minneapolis, and she has a cabin near International Falls. She says her cabin neighbors are all against hunting with dogs.
"We really don't want a pack of hounds coming nearby," Phelan says. "They're not tethered. They would run wherever the bear runs, and the bears could run past the cabins, and we don't know what our dogs would do."
In Wisconsin, DNR officials say they used to get lots of complaints about hunters and hounds trespassing. There was even talk of banning dogs from bear hunting. But the Wisconsin DNR says things have changed in the past five years. Bear hunting groups started policing their own members, and now, the DNR says, there aren't many complaints about trespassing during bear season.
In Minnesota, the proposal to allow bear hunters to use dogs is attached to a fish and game bill in the Minnesota House. If the bill becomes law, the Minnesota DNR says there won't be any bear hunting with dogs for a year or two. It will take that long to draw up rules and to organize training for hunters.