New Hampshire is one of 13 states that allows baiting to hunt bears. But last fall four bears died suddenly in the town of Stark after eating chocolate at a bait site, and now the Fish and Game Commission is considering banning the use of chocolate as bear bait.
To understand this issue, you have to know that people who bait bears do it largely with stuff that otherwise would get thrown away: stale donuts, expired pastries, and the discarded seconds from candy factories. There are around 1,400 registered baiting sites in New Hampshire, more unregistered ones on people’s private property, so we’re talking about tons of Boston cream donuts in the woods.
Wednesday night, Fish and Game held a public hearing asking hunters, in light of the four poisoned bears, what they thought of a total ban on chocolate as bear bait.
The responses broke roughly into three camps.
First: folks who thinks a ban is a knee jerk reaction.
“I can tell you I’ve never found a dead bear, I don’t know any other guides that have,” said bear hunting guide, Ken Dionne from Amherst, “I can tell you if we were killing bears, some of these houndsmen would have found these dead bears over the years, and of course they haven’t.”
Next up, a group represented long-time bear-baiter Chuck Bolton from Weare.
“There’s plenty of bait available that doesn’t have chocolate in it. And I know a lot of hunters that avoid it, they make out fine,” Bolton said in his testimony, “I want to encourage you to do the right thing, and the right thing is to protect these bears.”
And finally, Gerry Pillsbury, a hunter who says nobody wants to see bears poisoned, but banning all chocolate?
“I think that if we did away with chocolates in liquid form, chocolates in a solid form, pulerized, shaved… but allowed hunters to use donuts or pastries, but no types of solid chocolate I think that would do the trick,” said Pillsbury.
There is one last group – which at least at this hearing was definitely a minority –those say they believe in fair chase.
“If I were to pay a guide and that guide were to lead me to a spot with three bears sitting around eating a bunch of chocolate donuts, I’d want my money back,” said Tyson Miller from Canterbury, who opposes bear baiting entirely.
A Practice on the Rise
One thing that’s undeniable is baiting works.
Twenty years ago, fewer than one in five hunters used bait to attract bears, but today, more than half do. Simultaneously, the success rate of New Hampshire bear hunters has doubled.
And bear baiters argue make the perhaps counter-intuitive argument that, beyond being effective, baiting is a more ethical way of making a kill. David Nickerson is a bear-hunter from Concord who has personally taken up the fight against Fish and Game’s proposal to get all chocolate out of the woods.
“The ethical aspect of shooting something moving, potentially just wounding it,” says Nickerson, “The second is if you do shoot a sow, the cub mortality is 80 percent.”
Nickerson has gone to great lengths to show that bakers chocolate, not lighter chocolates, was the culprit in the death of these four bears: he has demanded Fish and Game employees’ emails, asked a court for an injunction, and has spent countless hours researching. So far to no avail.
He says the bait site in question had 90 pounds of straight baker’s chocolate, which contains more of the toxic chemical theobromine. He argues it was all that baker’s chocolate, not chocolate in general, that overcame the bears.
He cites an email from Inga Sidor, the UNH veterinarian that did the necropsy of the dead bears.
“She calculated it all out that ten pounds of milk chocolate would be required by the studies that she did, and she said that it doesn’t make sense, it seems high,” he says, and then reads from the email, “’It could be that the chocolate in the pile was not all the same, maybe a mix of bakers and milk chocolate, so more toxic than straight milk chocolate.’”
Sidor sees the situation another way
“You know there are very few sure things in life,” she says, giving a big sigh.
Sidor says Nickerson has it wrong. Based on lab tests, they cannot know if the four bears that died ate bakers chocolate or not. But they do know this: a sample of chocolate that was left over on the site was milk chocolate, and there was undigested milk chocolate in the bears’ stomach.
“This case certainly suggests that milk chocolate is not a safe compound for bears,” she summarizes. And if milk chocolate is dangerous, she says a lot of other commonly used baits should be banned too, “I found a recipe for chocolate donuts on the internet, and I did the metric conversions and the concentration of theobromine in a chocolate donut is the same as the concentration of theobromine in milk chocolate.”
But the dose makes the poison, and it’s not clear whether mixing chocolate with other baits – think chocolate chip cookies or chocolate frosted donuts – would add up to enough theobromine to poison bears.
In light of this uncertainty, the New Hampshire Guides Association proposed an alternative rule, under which no baits would be banned, but anyone who poisoned any wildlife would be liable to pay fines.
Following this input session, Fish and Game Commissioners will decide on whether to adopt a final rule. They say they’ve had hundreds of comments in favor of getting chocolate out of the woods, but Wednesday night they also got an earful from hunters all over the state.
Emails Between Inga F. Sidor, Senior Veterinary Pathologist at UNH, and Andrew Timimins, Bear Project Leader at N.H. Fish and Game
N.H. Fish and Game Staff Weigh Chocolate Ban