CONCORD, N.H. — In a state with rich hunting traditions, changing the rules can inspire passionate debate, so at a crowded public hearing to discuss a contentious proposal to ban chocolate as bait for bears, the executive director of New Hampshire Fish and Game laid down the law early.

“I expect everyone to be on good behavior,” Glenn Normandeau said before forcefully pointing to the door with both hands, “or we’ll be showing you where to leave.”

With few exceptions, the room full of more than 100 hunters, guides, scientists and citizens behaved last week and conducted a spirited debate over the generations-old use of goodies to lure bears to a specific site where hunters claim their trophy. The practice came under scrutiny this fall after four black bears — a sow and three cubs — were found dead at a bait site in Stark. Toxicology and necropsy reports said they died from a toxic level of theobromine, a chemical found in chocolate products.

The culprit was at first believed to be slabs of baker’s chocolate — which has higher levels of theobromine than other chocolates like semi-sweet or milk — but wildlife biologist Andrew Timmins, who leads the state’s bear project, said test results showed the level of theobromine to be nearer to that found in milk chocolate.

Timmins called the deaths “a landmark event,” the first time they’d found four bears dead at one site and the first time an adult bear was believed to have been killed by chocolate. Scientists had found other dead animals, like raccoons, near bait sites before.

“It can be toxic to some critters at high levels,” Timmins said.

The state in 2011 advised hunters to stop baiting with chocolate but Timmins said a total ban is the most effective and enforceable tool. Thirteen states allow bear baiting and it’s becoming more popular in New Hampshire, where there are 1,400 permitted bait sites. Hunters using bait in 2014 took 52 percent of the total harvest compared with just 15 percent in 1992.

Baiting has made headlines in other states: Maine voters last year rejected a measure that would have banned bear hunting using bait, dogs or traps.

Timmins said New Hampshire recognizes baiting is an important tool to help manage the bear population, which has been growing by 2 or 3 percent a year and is currently estimated at around 5,300. The Fish and Game department will make a decision on any rule changes next month.

Ben Kilham of Lyme, who has been studying black bears for 23 years, said there are plenty of other options to attract bears.

“I’ve been using corn baits to monitor the bears in my study area,” he said. “I get big response, multiple bears coming to that small amount of corn. Bears are extremely easy to bring into bait. It’s not a complicated task.”

Veterinarian Brad Taylor of Canterbury said there’s no question chocolate is toxic to some animals and while the full effect on wild animals is not clear, it’s not worth the risk to let hunters continue to use it.

“We do know it’s a foreign and toxic substance and I don’t think we should be putting it in the woods,” he said.

Several hunters and guides said they’ve been baiting with chocolate for decades with no adverse effects. Ken Dionne of Amherst said his trail cameras show the same bears coming back to bait sites “over and over and over again” and even if a bear wandered off to die, hunters who use dogs would have found carcasses.

“I can tell you I’ve never found a dead bear, I don’t know any other guides that have,” said Dionne.

Hunters said banning all chocolate will drive up costs because they’ll have to buy more treats to make up for the loss. They also fear that a single chocolate chip cookie or candy bar that sneaks into their bait barrel will open them up to a violation.

By the end of the hearing, a theme of compromise emerged: Ban chunks of baker’s chocolate or other concentrated forms of chocolate but allow other chocolatey treats that contain less theobromine.

“I have never seen even a dead mouse at a bait,” said Gerry Pillsbury of Orford, who’s been baiting since 1986. “Now, we don’t use solid chocolates. We use doughnuts and we use pastries. I think if we did away with chocolates in a liquid form, chocolates in a solid form, pulverized, shaved, and allowed hunters to use doughnuts or pastries, I think that would do the trick.”

To which Normandeau, the Fish and Game director, said: “A reasonable man.”


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