Forest Service opposes bear-baiting ban in Idaho, Wyoming

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Federal authorities are contesting a lawsuit filed by environmental groups seeking to ban using bait to hunt black bears in national forests in Idaho and Wyoming. The groups say allowing the use of bait could harm federally protected grizzly bears.

The U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in documents filed Friday say the decision to allow using bait to attract bears should continue to be made by the states.

Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians and Wilderness Watch filed the lawsuit in June, contending the federal agencies are violating the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws because black bear hunters using bait have killed at least eight threatened grizzly bears since 1995 in national forests.

The lawsuit also said the Forest Service is violating environmental laws by failing to prepare a supplemental environmental review to update an analysis from the 1990s allowing the use of bait to hunt black bears. The conservation groups say there's significant new information to be considered.

The groups also said the bait stations get the bears used to human food, which can cause problems when bears expect to find food around humans.

Idaho, Wyoming and the hunting group Safari Club International are siding with the federal government.

Both states have restrictions on where bait can be used to hunt black bears. Idaho prohibits hunting black bears using bait in areas inhabited by grizzlies. Wyoming prohibits the practice in grizzly bear recovery areas.

Both states offer help to hunters in identifying black bears and grizzly bears.

“Distinguishing black bears and grizzly bears in the wild can be a challenge,” Wyoming officials say in their 2019 black bear hunting seasons guide.

In September, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game reported that a hunter from Montana pursuing black bears in northern Idaho shot and killed a grizzly bear he mistook for a black bear. It’s not clear if bait was involved.

The U.S. Department of Justice, which represents federal agencies, in the court documents filed Friday said the lawsuit fails to state a claim involving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Justice Department also said the lawsuit involving the Forest Service should be dismissed because there isn’t a significant reason under federal environmental law for the Forest Service to do a supplemental environmental review of using bait for hunting black bears.

However, the conservation groups say not doing that review is a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. They also say bait is allowed in areas important to grizzly bears, such as between the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem and the Bitterroot ecosystem in central Idaho, and between the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem in northwestern Montana and the Bitterroot ecosystem.

Hunters in Wyoming killed 457 black bears in 2018, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game didn’t have that information immediately available on Monday.