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Bill Quimby COLUMN

Bear-baiting fight creates furor at magazine

You would never know it by reading the November issue of Outdoor Life magazine, but a new feature the magazine calls Sportsmen’s Voices created a furor months before the publication went to press.

As you may have heard, it even resulted in two of the magazine’s top editors quitting in protest.

To understand what has been going on, you’ll need to know that there are ballot issues in six states next week that would ban the use of bait or hounds to hunt bears. These initiatives were organized and heavily financed by the Humane Society of the United States, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other groups that are opposed to all types of hunting.

In Michigan alone, anti-hunting groups have spent more than $1.2 million in an effort to outlaw hunting bears with bait and hounds in that state. One of the opponents of baiting bears has been Colorado Division of Wildlife bear biologist Michael Beck. (Like Arizona, Colorado already does not allow bear baiting.)

Although he also is a hunter, Beck has supported anti-baiting campaigns in at least one of the six states. Beck says there is no biological reason not to use bait, but he believes it is unethical, and can lead to the public demanding an end to all bear hunting.

Outdoor Life got mixed up in the controversy when its editors decided to create a new feature that would ”look at subjects of concern – and often controversy – to fishermen and hunters,” to use the magazine’s own words. The first such feature was scheduled to run in the magazine’s September issue, and it would use an anti-bear-baiting article written by Beck.

When the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America – a pro-hunting group and an opponent of the proposed bear-baiting bans – learned that Beck’s article would appear in one of the nation’s three largest fishing and hunting magazines just 60 days before the Nov. 5 elections, it sent out news releases and posted notices in hunting forums on Compuserve and other electronic services. WLFA provided e-mail and postal addresses and gave the telephone numbers and names of Outdoor Life’s editors. It urged everyone to demand that Beck’s article be killed.

The magazine has never said how many people responded to WLFA’s call to arms, but the number must have been considerable. Within a few days, the magazine’s publisher ordered the executive editor to yank Beck’s article. It would be interesting to know what was said next, because the editor and his next in command quit in protest. Their leaving was chronicled in the New York Times and Associated Press articles in newspapers across the country.

How rare is it for a major magazine’s publisher to order the editorial department to do something? Jack Samson, a retired chief editor of Field & Stream who now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., told me that in more than 20 years of editing that magazine, he could remember only one time when owners tried to dictate what would or would not be published. The publisher wanted an advertiser’s logo to run on the cover, along with a note urging readers to see the advertiser’s 24-page supplement inside.

”I threatened to quit, and they backed off,” Samson said.

The editors’ quitting at Outdoor Life fueled the bear-baiting controversy even more. At least one publisher rushed out a book that included Beck’s article, and sent out press releases alerting book reviewers. Beck’s Outdoor Life article wound up on the Internet, and hunters who believe that using bait isn’t sporting rushed to defend him. Outdoor writers launched debates about the ethics of what WLFA had done. Some wanted to jerk the organization’s affiliate membership in the Outdoor Writers Association of America, saying that what WLFA had done was censorship.

Even today, two months after it started, the debate continues on the electronic hunting forums. The two editors have received awards from magazine editors’ organizations, and presumably now are working someplace else.

In its November issue, Outdoor Life did what journalistic balance demands should have been done in the first place: It presented both sides of the bear-baiting controversy. On the same page with Beck’s article is an article by Maine bear biologist Craig McLaughlin, who not only believes that bear baiting is sporting, but that it also can benefit bear populations. The articles are presented as ”pro” and ”con” and Outdoor Life takes no stand on either position.

Former Citizen Outdoors Editor Bill Quimby writes a weekly column for this page.

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