FROM THE MANICURED LAWNS OF Suburban Boston to the wide-open spaces of Idaho they swarmed, energized citizens buttonholing friends, neighbors and strangers to sign petitions to place near-identical voter initiatives on November ballots. In Massachusetts they collected 155,000 signatures; in Washington they gathered 228,000; in Michigan, 341,000, all thousands more than required. And what issue so galvanized the supposedly apathetic electorate? Not the right to die. Not gay marriage. Not any other hot-button issue. No: what millions of people have gotten all riled up about is ... bear hunting. The number of anti-hunting initiatives--there are ballot measures in six states--is matched only by those on term limits and taxes. And last week, when the American Society of Magazine Editors condemned owners who dictate editorial policy, what was one of the cases they cited? A decision last July by corporate executives at Outdoor Life to spike, over two editors' objection, an article critical of bear baiting.
If this seems like a disproportionate fuss, well, you probably never owned a teddy bear. The state initiatives all share one ideological premise: call it the fair-fight ideal. Washington's, Michigan's and Idaho's would ban the hunting of black bears with bait or hounds. Massachusetts's would outlaw black-bear hunting with hounds (baiting is already illegal, as it is in 30 of the 40 states with viable bear populations). Colorado would ban body-gripping traps like legholds. Alaska would ban hunting from helicopters and planes. All the proposals reflect a new hunting ethic, one that a few hunters are embracing as the only way to save the sport. Tom Beck, a bear biologist at Colorado's Division of Wildlife, a hunt-er and author of the controversial Out- door Life article (it is running in the November issue, alongside a pro-baiting piece), puts it this way in a new book, ""A Hunter's Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sport'': ""If hunting is to persist in America, it must operate within two sets of rules, one biological, the other sociological. While the biological rules set the outer limits for what we kill, the sociological rules dictate how we kill.''
Increasingly, that ""how'' has come to mean ""as fairly and humanely as possible.'' Sportsmen are allowed to hunt bears in 27 states because fish and game departments believe that without the bear ""harvests'' the animals' population would explode and they would become dangerous nuisances. Bear baiting and hunting with hounds fail the fairness test, say critics, who include not only the usual bunny huggers but also, according to polls, 25 percent of Colorado's black-bear hunters and 45 percent of Idaho's. The idea behind baiting black bears is that hunters have little chance of finding these shy, solitary ghosts of the deep woods.
So the hunter sets out jelly doughnuts, cooking grease, honey, stale pizza or a 55-gallon drum of rotting fish in bear habitat, hunkers down in a blind and waits for a bear to amble into Winchester range. It isn't shooting fish in a barrel, but it clearly improves the odds. In Washington, for example, only 24 percent of hunters used bait or hounds in 1995, but they accounted for fully half of the 1,218 bears killed that year. Success rates depend on the terrain, though. In the deep woods of Michigan, where 96 percent of the black bears killed every year are hunted with bait or hounds, only 1,200 of the 5,000 hunters manage to bag their trophy, says hunting lobbyist Fred Myers: sometimes the hunters miss, often the bears don't show. And without bait, he argues, hunters would get so few bears that the creatures would have more and more run-ins with suburbanites and pets. But that has not been the case in Colorado, which in 1992 outlawed hounds and baiting. The 535 black bears killed last year amounted to more than the average for the five years before the ban.
The truly incendiary issue is the ""how'' of hunting. Or, as Beck puts it, ""How fulfilling is it to shoot a bear with its head in a barrel of jelly-filled doughnuts?'' The different answers to that question have produced some strange bedfellows. Animal rightists find themselves allied with hunters who view both baiting and hounds as unsportsmanlike. On the other side stand the National Rifle Association and, more surprisingly, some conservation groups, including state affiliates of the National Wildlife Federation.
The groups contend that baiting lets hunters get close enough to be sure that the bear in their sights is not a sow with cubs. ""If all you see is a brown blob running through the woods,'' says Myers, ""you can't easily determine its sex.'' But sows often hide their cubs in the brush while investigating bait. As a result, many cubs (no one has an exact count) are orphaned each year at bait sites. Shooting new mothers is not only illegal but, since it creates adorable little orphans, bad PR.
Some of the more enlightened hunters know that. And even if they see little moral difference between leaving rotten fish out for a bear and using decoys to attract ducks, they know one number as well as they know shot gauge. Less than 15 percent of Americans hunt. If they want to continue, they have to convince the other 85 percent that they are engaged in a fair sport that gives bears a fighting chance.