Brown Bears Not Welcome

How to Limit 'Ursus Arctos' at Your Bait Site

My foot snagged on a deadfall as I walked and I stumbled forward on the grassy path before regaining my balance. Ahead, my hunting partner and his son yelled back that the bait had been hit. This was the second year we’d run this particular bait, and it had yielded two black bears the spring prior. Situated on the floodplain of a glacial river in Southcentral Alaska, the bait site was 150 yards from the sandbar we beached our jet boats on, tucked into a mature stand of birch trees, white spruces, and cottonwoods. This was our second check of our four baits and only one bait had been touched on our first check, so any new hit on a bait was something to celebrate.  

When I saw the barrel, my excitement ebbed a bit; everything I saw told me it was likely a brown bear hit. As we set up a honey burn and emptied garbage bags of bait into the barrel, I pulled both trail cameras and flipped through the photos on the camera display screen. After I quickly passed through the obligatory photos of ravens and magpies mobbing the barrel, I came upon the photo I was dreading. A blonde brown bear sow, with two cubs nearly her same size in tow, had hit the bait multiple times in our one-week absence. Even after the barrel was empty, they continued to tip and sometimes lift the barrel off the ground and turn it upside down in case some new morsels of bait had reappeared since their last visit. We would now need to decide now if this bait was still worth running this season. 

For readers residing in the “lower 48”, some terminology clarification is likely in order. Brown bears and grizzly bears are both the same species, Ursus arctos. However, in Alaska the term “brown bear” is used to describe the bears which reside near the coast and rely on salmon and other marine food sources. Grizzly bears, like those found in Interior Alaska and which are spreading across the western continental U.S., rely more on terrestrial food sources and are generally smaller in body size.  

My effort to avoid brown bears at my bait sites was borne out of legal reasons. When I first arrived in Alaska a decade ago, black bears were the only species which could be harvested over bait. If a brown bear came into the bait while I was in my tree, I had to let it walk and debate my options for safely leaving my tree stand at the end of my sit. Luckily, we enjoy nearly 24 hours of daylight during our spring bear season, so I don’t have to worry about a dark walk back to the boat with a half ton predator lurking nearby.  

Incrementally over the last 10 years, the regulations have loosened to where in most game units where baiting is legal, brown bears can be harvested over bait. Even now that I can harvest brown bears over bait, my hunting partners and I still try to run our baits in a way that we can attract as many black bears, and as few brown bears, as possible. While many people dream of harvesting a huge Alaskan brown bear, there are a few reasons that many residents would rather not have them on their baits.  

Brown bear meat, at least in Southcentral Alaska where salmon are an important part of their diet, ranges from mediocre to inedible with few exceptions. Spring black bear meat is almost always delicious and is the most consistent source of burger for our household. Brown bears can be extremely destructive on bait site equipment (smashed barrels, uprooted barrel trees, broken chains, etc.) and are more dangerous than black bears when coming or going from the tree stand. Finally, our baits are accessed by jet boat and are in remote areas where we can’t re-bait them every day. When a brown bear patterns on a bait, they will generally completely consume all 55 gallons of it in a night or two. The system we’ve developed to harvest black bears along a river system which is home to both species involves a mixed approach of bait content, scents, and terrain we look for. 

The bait and scents are perhaps the most important factor to emphasize when trying to avoid brown bears. To really understand and formulate a baiting strategy, it is important to learn about each species’ nutritional needs and what scents they associate with meeting those needs. Multiple studies have shown that brown bears require a higher protein diet than black bears. Both species are omnivorous, but brown bears’ larger muscle mass and overall size require the more concentrated protein found in meat. Black bears, conversely, can survive on vegetation with occasional infusions of animal protein. In Southcentral Alaska where both species are present, brown bears often dominate the best fishing locations on salmon streams. Feeding along an alder-choked salmon stream puts black bears at risk of being ambushed and possibly killed by the larger, more aggressive brown bears; the best place to hunt black bears in August and September is up in mountain goat country where they can be found gorging on low-bush blueberries and crowberries. Both species feed on ungulates, particularly moose, but predating on moose doesn’t concentrate bears the same way salmon do, so black bears are less likely to be driven away by their larger cousins. 

Based on the facts outlined above, you can begin to formulate a strategy for attracting and keeping black bears while deterring brown bears. Keep in mind that I have never been able to completely exclude brown bears from my baits where a healthy population exists, but most of my brown bear “hits” consist of a single visit, and the bears generally don’t return. When black bears work my baits they are generally satisfied enough with my scent and bait combination to pattern on the bait.  

Early on when I began baiting bears in Alaska, I received what I found to be sound advice: keep it sweet for black bears, but stink will bring in brown bears. When we look at their behaviors and diet, this makes sense. Brown bears do not hesitate to feed on rotting salmon carcasses and they will stash a moose carcass under brush, logs, and dirt, only to return to feed once the carcass has begun to rot. When a friend of mine began running baits targeting brown bears, I gave him some of my skunk-based trapping lures to try, and the brown bears all but tore down the trees the lure was smeared on. Similarly, I have put trapping lures on stumps on my trapline and regularly get pictures of brown bears digging under the stumps, trying to find the elusive rotten morsel of food. 

Every experienced bear baiter has their own preferred scent they swear by, and for me that’s anise scent. I’ve used a variety of other sweet scents as well, but I rarely set a bait without anise being my primary attractant scent. I have read plenty of articles touting the efficacy of beaver carcasses and castor scents at baits, but for me both the carcasses and castor scents seem to be brown bear magnets. This is unfortunate since I can generally obtain beaver carcasses easily from my trapline, but I don’t put them on my baits. My friends who target brown bears have used them with success, and beavers also make great wolf bait.  

The scent regime described above helps minimize the number of brown bears which are attracted to baits, but it is the bait composition which determines if that brown bear will continue tearing up the bait. Here again, I looked at the diet preferences of both species and took in advice from more experienced hunters to develop a system which works. Once again, keeping the bait sweet is a necessity, but minimizing the amount of protein in the bait is just as important. Brown bears need a substantial amount of protein in their diet compared black bears, so a bait high in carbs and sweets will not provide the nutrients needed to sustain a brown bear. As a result, they will need to look elsewhere to fulfill their dietary needs.  

My bait composition is dominated by popcorn sprayed with powdered drink mix. While not the most nutritious, it keeps the black bears at the barrel because it isn’t easy to cart off into the woods and, in my opinion, keeps them hungry by not providing a ton of calories. Behind popcorn comes bread and donuts. I often spray this with powdered drink mix as well, especially if it is plain bread. The final portion of the composition consists of dog food or sweet feed (oats coated in molasses, which is available at feed stores). When available, candy and marshmallows also make a great addition. The portions of each bait type are displayed below: 

I debate every spring whether the dog food and sweet feed is a help or a hindrance. I add it to make the bait more well-rounded nutritionally for the black bears, but dog food’s high protein content is likely an attractant for brown bears as well. The sweet feed alternative is perhaps better, but it is regularly left uneaten by both species.  

Where my hunting partners and I run our baits, the terrain is generally flat between the bait and the river bank so we can drag the bears we harvest out whole and gut them off the boat. Leaving a gut pile to rot at a bait is a sure method to attract brown bears. Additionally, I suspect gut piles may deter further black bear site visits. When our trail cameras show a brown bear is regularly visiting a bait site, “shutting down” the bait for a week before reopening could allow for the brown bear to wander off and not return.  

I don’t profess that my methods of deterring brown bears are flawless. I have to deal with brown bears every baiting season. But, through trial and error, I rarely have a bait site become completely taken over by brown bears. Even when the bait’s first hit is from a brown bear, a couple weeks' patience will usually yield black bears at the same site.