VERLOT – She sniffed them out.
The sickly sweet smell of rancid oil deep in the woods was the first clue. The discovery of corn, oats and barley in bear scat was confirmation.
There were hunters illegally using bait to lure black bears.
Deep in the woods as the sun set Friday night, state Fish &Wildlife officers Julie Cook and Jennifer Maurstad tracked down their quarry.
One man was up a tree on a hunting stand, another about 50 yards away.
The pair, both from Silvana and in their 40s, were arrested for allegedly bear-bait hunting.
“This is a very effective manner of hunting bears, but it is illegal,” Cook said.
In bait hunting, animals are lured to an area with aromatic food, then ambushed by nearby hunters. Bear bait typically is sweet and high in fat. Doughnuts are often used.
Unfortunately for the hunters, bear-bait hunting is illegal in all but 10 states, Cook said.
“Bear baiting is egregiously unsporting and inhumane and violators should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” said Andrew Page, spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States.
The society tries to get states to ban bear-baiting or at least phase out the practice. It’s been outlawed in Washington since 1996.
But bear baiting allows hunters to avoid killing sows with cubs, according to enthusiast Web sites.
Still, bait hunting can acclimate bears to human food, Cook said. Once a bear becomes used to the taste, it continues to seek it out, often putting people at risk. Typically, the bear then needs to be killed.
“If they start showing up at campgrounds and are aggressive,” they need to be put down, Cook said.
Since Aug. 1, state game officers have been looking for bait hunters east of Granite Falls on the Mountain Loop Highway.
“It’s bear season, and we’ve had complaints about bait hunters in the past,” Cook said.
About a week ago, she saw evidence not far from Coal Lake Road: rancid, used fryer oil smeared near the base of trees, then licked clean by the bears. There also were empty beer cans, which were not bear bait.
Every morning and evening Cook patrolled the area looking for signs of hunters. On Friday, a pickup truck was parked at a trailhead.
Along with Maurstad, the officers set out for their catch.
Tracking armed hunters deep in the woods is terrifying, Cook said.
“We’re out in the middle of nowhere with no backup,” she said.
The armed officers quietly approached and then started making lots of noise, so the hunters didn’t mistake them for an animal.
“Police!” the officers shouted.
The men were taken into custody without incident.
Officers seized their expensive hunting bows, an oil can filled with oats and rancid grease, and their Dodge Ram 1500 pickup. They also found a wheelbarrow smeared with blood, and in the truck’s bed, the windpipe from a slain animal.
There was a sticker on the back of the truck cab advertising PETA: “People Eating Tasty Animals.”
The men told officers they hadn’t taken a bear, but evidence suggests otherwise, Cook said. The men claimed they had hauled an animal for another hunter.
Cook said the men knew what they were doing was wrong, but they had the opportunity and were going to take it. They wanted a prize animal, she said.
“It’s very selective,” Cook said.
State Fish &Wildlife agents continue to investigate. More people may be involved, Cook said.
Bear-bait hunting is a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and thousands of dollars in fines, said Fish &Wildlife Sgt. Randy Lambert. People also are banned from hunting in most Western states for two years.
For every bear a hunter kills illegally, they are assessed a mandatory $2,000 fine.
Cook, who has been a wildlife agent for 16 years, said it’s a once-in-a-blue-moon experience to catch poachers still in their stands, up in a tree.
Typically, tracking people illegally hunting can take weeks and months.
“It was really satisfying and exciting to catch them in only a week,” she said.
As for anyone considering using bait to catch a prize bear, Cook has a warning.
“You never know when the game warden is watching.”
Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437 or firstname.lastname@example.org.