‘BEAR’ hunters form group to police ranks
Problem with public image and efforts to do in sport lead to new focus
By Bill Thornley
Last Updated: Wednesday, April 10th, 2002 12:00:09 PM
SPOONER– Mention bear hunters — even here, in an area where hunting is as traditional as colored leaves in September — and some people tend to bristle. And it isn’t long before complaints about trespassing and rude behavior start flying.
Well, at least that used to be the case.
Bear hunters, once looked upon as being just about as grizzly as the bears, are enjoying a much better public image these days, thanks to … well … thanks to their own efforts to clean up their sport.
The Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association, Inc., has tackled the problem of image like a hound hot on a fresh track. And local hunters have taken it even farther.
Local bear hunter Dave Samuel, a member of WBHA, has helped form a core group of concerned area hunters. Last week they met with members of the Washburn County Forest Administration and the Department of Natural Resources to address the problems facing bear hunters, and discuss how to solve those problems.
They also planned their second annual clean-up of country forest lands, an effort started last year that helped earn the WBHA as a whole the 2001 Wisconsin Ethical Hunter Award.
On June 16, 2001, the Washburn and Burnett County Forests were the site of a unique event, namely bear hunters cleaning up trash. And most of it was not trash that they had created.
Members of the WBHA gathered to collect more that 15 tons of garbage and a semi truck load of white goods from the forest lands. It was the latest chapter in the WBHA effort to change the image of bear hunters and clean up a sport increasingly under attack — for example, Rep. Frank Boyle of Superior has repeatedly tried to shut down bear hunting with hounds — finally the hunters themselves recognized they had to change or lose their favorite sport.
BEAR IS BORN
“There was a perceived problem on the forest with some bait stations that started it,” said Samuel. “There was litter, some baits were illegal … things like grease getting on the vegetation and some of the bait pits being way too deep. There was talk of registering baits. The county board was going to take a look at it, but hunters wanted to address the problem without legislation.”
Better than anyone else, the bear hunters themselves knew who were creating the problems. Maps of “problem sites” on the county forest lands were created and the hunters who created them talked to, hunter to hunter.
“When the hunters talked to other hunters, almost to the man they agreed to clean things up,” said Samuel. “Everybody moved their baits to new spots to give those sites a break, and they cleaned up the sites. Problems dropped significantly.”
Out of that effort, a core group of Washburn County bear hunters decided to form a group which, until last week, was simply called the ad-hoc committee. Following the meeting last week they are now known as the “Washburn County BEAR Committee,” with BEAR standing for Building Ethics and Responsibility — the hunters themselves were a little knocked over by the great title.
“Whewww!” exclaimed one. “Did we think of that?”
They did. But more that just a title, the hunters are letting their actions speak volumes about their love for and dedication to their sport, as well as their deep feelings for a clean wilderness.
BEAR is not in this alone. They have sought out and received backing and suggestions from county foresters and DNR personnel, including Ken Jonas, T.J. Edwards, and Dave Zebro.
“Working together, we can solve problems,” said Zebro, who was in attendance at the meeting.
“Everybody needed to clean up their act,” said Samuel. “On clean-up day we had 75 or 80 pickups and 140 to 150 people, mostly bear hunters, volunteering to clean the forest.”
“We try to meet at least once a year,” said Mike Peterson, Washburn County Forest Administrator. “We sit down, shoot the breeze — our issues are disappearing. Things are very positive.”
“We’ve created recommended ethical baiting situations in Washburn, Price, Burnett, Lincoln, and Douglas counties. We started small, but everybody began hearing what was happening, and they all were very positive. Now other areas want to do what we’re doing. It was a group effort that created this.”
And do the bear hunters, historically tough-as-nails, independent individuals, object to a group of their own making suggestions on how they should conduct themselves? Not a bit, said Samuel.
“You don’t have to ask them twice,” said Samuel. “They get out and do the job. This is growing. I’m getting calls from hunters in other counties asking to come help set up similar programs.”
The 2001 Wisconsin Ethical Hunter Award presented to WBHA, and specifically to BEAR, reads: “For ethical conduct in the outdoors that serves as an example to all hunters in the State of Wisconsin.”
BEAR members asked Peterson if he would mind displaying the award in his office, since they have no real clubhouse or place to display it. The move also stressed the team effort concept.
Aside from cleaning up their bait sites and image, the hunters are even now planning their next county forest clean-up. Saturday, June 15, has been chosen as the next clean-up effort by BEAR.
“When the hunters get out and clean, they clean up everything, not just what other hunters left,” stressed Samuel. “If you’re going to leave it, leave it on the road — it’s easier for us to get to. We had to get down into some huge ditches last year.”
While hunters sometimes take the blame, many people share in the “trashing” of the forest, from out-of-the-area weekenders eager to dump their trash on the way back across state lines, to locals with garages to clean.
Last year BEAR found refrigerators, an engine block, stoves, hot water heaters, tires, sofas, cans, of plastic jugs filled with cooking oil, and … dozens of dirty diapers!
“Oh, those were fun,” laughed Samuel. “But really, we do have fun with it. This year we’ll do Washburn and Burnett counties again, and probably Douglas.”
The hunters treat the day, they say, as a huge scavenger hunt, and they are constantly surprised by the items people will throw out onto the forest lands they claim to love for their pristine beauty. Last year they collected nearly an entire Model T which had been thrown out in pieces.
“We should have kept the pieces and tried to put it back together,” said one hunter.
BFI disposal service pitches in on the effort, donating its trucks and garbage bags for the clean-up. Once the pick-up trucks are filled, hunters meet the BFI loaders, who then haul the garbage away. Last year the groups met at Chicog Town Hall.
“We clean up whatever people throw out, but we’re targeting big piles of garbage and appliances,” said Peterson.
Also on the BEAR agenda for the upcoming season will be the “breaking in” of some babes in the woods, rookie game wardens just hired by the DNR.
“Each year the DNR sets up a different week of training for recruit wardens,” explained Zebro. “They go through different training scenarios. This year we’ll have 12 new wardens here from July 29 to August 1. As part of that training, local bear hunters are going to have them ride with them to let them know what bear hunting is all about and give them a feel for the sport. There will probably be 15 to 20 vehicles involved during the dog training season.”
A July 31 cookout is scheduled for the recruits, set at Leisure Lake Youth Camp north of Spooner. WHBA will pick up the tab, covering all expenses.
“These are 12 young wardens hired in January,” said Zebro. “They are still on probation. “This is designed to give them experience. It is an intense four days, long days.
“They are ages 22 to 35, different ages, different experiences. Most have not hunted bear, some have not seen a wild bear. It is surprising what some of these wardens don’t know. We hope we can show them some bears during the training.”
CHANGES WERE NEEDED
When Frank Boyle and others began going after bear hunters a few years ago, said members of BEAR, it ignited a spark within the bear hunting ranks.
“For years all of us just went out and hunted,” said Samuel. “But we didn’t get active in our sport. Then Frank Boyle started in on us — he is our closest friend. We said, ‘Hey, we have to get out there and say, look, we’re not bad people.’ He woke us up. And it is starting to catch on statewide. We want the new wardens to see how this has benefited everybody.”
Boyle, said Samuel, has been invited to attend the rookie warden event, but has not yet responded.
Aside from litter and bait problems, another big knock on bear hunters has been the trespass issue, especially against hunters using hounds. That was the area Boyle really attacked a couple years ago, and continues to be a soar spot with some landowners, though far fewer than years past.
“The landowner and hound trespass issues are now being dealt with,” said Samuel. “We took a bad situation and turned it around.”
“There is a love of this sport like no other,” said bear hunter Gary Johnson. “If we love it, we need to keep it clean. Bear hunters are feeling the pressure of their own piers and cleaning up their own act.”
“ATV clubs, bow hunters, gun deer hunters, whatever … we hope others can look at what we’ve done and apply it to what they do and turn a negative into a positive,” said Zebro.
“There were some hot issues, landowners poking hunters in chests with their fingers, threats to shoot the dogs, all of that,” said Samuel. “One guy was under the assumption he could shoot dogs on his property. He can’t These dogs are not vicious. So we’re going out to talk to the landowners.”
“We think there is better understanding now,” said Zebro. “If a dog is intentionally released to go on someone’s land, that is a bad situation. But both sides are getting educated now. We’re trying to keep problems to a minimum.”
“Don’t be afraid to pull into driveways and talk to these people,” Samuel urged bear hunters. “And keep cool heads!”
“None of us wants problems,” said Johnson. “The last thing we want is to get yelled at.”
Like deer hunting, the future of bear hunting and all shooting sports rests with the youth who will someday take over. With that in mind, a non-harvest youth bear hunt is now being planned by BEAR.
“They won’t kill a bear, but we want to take youth out and get them some hunting experience,” said Samuel.
BEAR met with Zebro concerning a “Learn to Hunt” program.
“This is for local children who might never have a chance to see this,” said Johnson.
“A lot of kids have never seen a bear,” added Zebro. “They don’t know what hunting is all about. We have to educate them to balance the Frank Boyles of the world. These kids will not actually harvest a bear, they’ll just be learning.”
“We have a passion for bear hunting with hounds,” said Samuel. “To us it is a way of life. We did the clean-up because it needed to be done. If another project comes up, we can add more on to this — as long as we do it before July 1. Then it gets kind of hard to find us.”