LISTEN TO THE AUDIO VERSION
Clashes with wolves: Wisconsin wildlife is hounded with unbearable cruelty
By Louis Weisberg
The video begins with the image of a small clearing in the woods. The only noteworthy feature is a large, hollowed-out log leaning against another, indicating humans manipulated the setting.
A few seconds into the video, a black bear rambles into the picture. The bear is calm. It seems to be searching for food. For a few moments, the scene is suffused in lazy silence.
Suddenly the quiet is broken by the crack of a discharged firearm, and the bear keels over dead.
The hunter who fired the shot is likely the same person who set the stage for the kill. He or she spent weeks or months leaving food in the hollow log to habituate bears to visiting the site and feeling safe. This elaborate ruse is known as baiting, and it’s one of the oldest tricks in the hunter’s playbook. In Wisconsin, one of 11 states permitting the practice, 40 percent of bears’ diets consist of bait food, according to Melissa Tedrowe, the Wisconsin state director of the Humane Society of the United States.
The practice is controversial, even among hunters. Many consider it unsportsmanlike because it doesn’t involve the element of “fair chase,” which is a cornerstone of ethical hunting. Tedrowe says it’s “like shooting fish in a barrel.” She compares baiting to “canned hunting” — shooting animals in a confined area, animals bred for the purpose of being killed by thrill seekers.
Bear baiting is particularly unfair during September and October, when bears are desperately putting on fat for their winter hibernation, Tedrowe says. Those are also the months designated for the state’s black-bear hunting season.
The setting above is where the black bear described at the beginning of this story went foraging for food — left as bait — and found a bullet instead.
Ironically, while bear hunters say they’re controlling the bear population, bear-baiters supply an overabundance of food that actually increases it, according to Maine’s former lead bear biologist Craig McLaughlin.
Baiting also is responsible for a growing litter problem in state parks, and it leads bears to associate the smell of food with humans. That increases the likelihood of human conflicts with bears, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
Candy that’s used for bait sometimes contains ingredients toxic to wildlife and dogs.
But baiting is not the only way to bag a bear.
Of the 4,682 bears slaughtered by hunters in Wisconsin last year, 96 percent were killed using bait and/or dogs. Hunters teach the dogs to chase bears up trees, where they make for an easy shot. This so-called “hounding” is another practice most mainstream hunters oppose.
The dogs are outfitted with radio collars so hunters can track their location — a fusion of modern technology and medieval barbarism.
The hounds are trained by putting domestic cats in cages and then teaching the dogs to attack as the cages are raised and lowered from trees, Tedrowe said. She doesn’t know what typically becomes of cats terrorized in this manner, but likely it’s not a happy ending.
While 12,850 bear-hunting permits have been issued by the DNR, the total number of bears that have been killed in the state remains a mystery.
Suppressing free speech
Joe Brown, an assistant professor of documentary filmmaking at Marquette University, emailed me the bear-baiting video. He’s not sure who sent it to him, but it probably was sent by someone aware that he’s currently at work on Operation Wolf Patrol (wolfpatrolfilm.com), a documentary about the group of the same name.
Founded by animal-rights activist Rod Coronado, the group has volunteers who hike into popular hunting areas to document illegal hunting and atrocities committed by hunters. Such groups are especially important given that policing the state for wolf poaching is something for which the thinly staffed Department of Natural Resources seems to lack the resources and the will.
Naturally, hunters don’t like the Wolf Patrol. Last year, they persuaded the state to adopt a law that some dubbed the “Right to Hunt Act,” which prohibits people from photographing, videotaping or recording hunters on public land. It was backed by the powerful National Rifle Association and signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker.
Officially known as Wisconsin Act 346, the law closely resembles so-called “ag-gag” laws, which prohibit workers from documenting the horrific conditions and torture of animals on so-called “factory farms.” Courts have repeatedly found those laws unconstitutional because they limit free speech.
Earlier this summer, I became a plaintiff — along with Brown and Wolf Patrol volunteer Stephanie Losse — in a lawsuit filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund against Walker, former DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp and Attorney General Brad Schimel. The suit seeks to overturn the “Right to Hunt Act” for violating the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantee. It also seeks an injunction to prevent enforcement of the law.
ALDF director of litigation Matthew Liebman says the right to try engaging someone in conversation is at the heart of the First Amendment. “To not be able to do that at the place that matters most, the place where animals are being killed, I think is a significant infringement” on free speech, Liebman told The Associated Press.
But hunters claim the law is needed to prevent activists from harassing them in ways that interfere with their “sport.” (Of course, in actual sports, both sides know that they’re playing.)
Liebman counters that laws already in place protect hunters and others from harassment.
Ironically, hunters say they’re afraid of the Wolf Patrol, citing the fact that Coronado spent 57 months in prison in connection with a 1995 arson attack on research facilities at Michigan State University.
Coronado, a Native American, says he’s since changed his ways.
“Let our opposition who believe in violence carry the burden for its justification, but let those who believe in peace and love practice a way of life that our society sorely needs now more than ever,” he wrote in a letter from prison.
Emboldened by ‘Right to Hunt’
The assertion that well-armed outdoorsmen are intimidated by unarmed animal-welfare activists seems ludicrous. So does the implied claim that a hunter’s right to kill an animal on public land supersedes a person’s right to take pictures of them doing it.
Unlike the “fears” of hunters, Brown, Coronado and members of the Wolf Patrol really do face danger.
Since passage of the “Right to Hunt Act,” “the hunters seem much more emboldened,” Brown says. “They have called the police. In a couple of instances, they have demanded (his footage). They’ve tried to grab the camera. There’s a lot of threats on social media, against Rod Coronado especially. It’s nerve-wracking.”
Brown says conflict is already in the air for this year’s bear-hunting season, now underway. “Some of these people have been waiting five to 10 years to get a bear-hunting license,” he explains. “Tempers could flair.”
During a recent meeting that members of the Wolf Patrol held with the Washburn County sheriff and about 10 of his deputies, WP members were warned that the situation is really getting heated, according to Brown. The sheriff iterated that his primary concern is safety, and he wants to make sure no one gets hurt or killed, Brown says.
‘Unimaginable acts of cruelty’
Anyone who’s read the vicious posts or seen the gory pictures that some wolf and bear hunters gloatingly share on Facebook might fear that violence between the hunters and animal-rights activists can’t be avoided. The objectification of animals and the grinning pictures of hunters over the corpses of their prey suggest the violent mindset of serial killers. And, in fact, over-the-top, gratuitous cruelty to animals does correlate with violence toward humans.