EAGLES NEST TWP— A conflict over hunting and public safety prompted pickets along Hwy. 169 this past week, as residents here gave voice to concerns that bear hunters are putting them at risk. …
EAGLES NEST TWP— A conflict over hunting and public safety prompted pickets along Hwy. 169 this past week, as residents here gave voice to concerns that bear hunters are putting them at risk.
Residents say they aren’t looking to prohibit hunting in the township, but rather want the town board to establish a safety zone in more densely settled portions of the township. While the township, located about midway between Tower and Ely, has plenty of wild country, it also has pockets of relatively dense residential development. Residents in those areas say it makes sense to restrict hunting there for the public’s safety.
Lorie Kennedy, one of the picketers last Thursday, said she knows of two bait stations near Trygg and Sunshine roads, where she regularly walks, and that the proximity of hunters with high-powered rifles makes her uneasy.
Fred Lineer, a seasonal resident of the township who otherwise lives in Stillwater, has experienced a more direct impact. “We were walking down the grade near the cabin,” he said, “when these shots rang out right next to us. It scared the daylights out of us.”
Others, like Larry Anderson, a member of the five-person township board of supervisors, said he understands the concern and notes that residents have raised such concerns before. He said the issue reflects some of the changes in the township’s makeup. “There are a lot of new people in the area and the complexion of the township is changing,” he said, and he said many of the new residents tend to be more likely to turn to legal solutions when conflicts over land use arise.
Anderson said the town board is taking the concerns seriously. He noted that a group of residents came to a recent town board meeting asking for the creation of safety zones. “We had quite a discussion,” said Anderson. “We did decide to set up a town meeting next month on the subject.”
Some see ulterior motives
The township has been a hot bed of controversy for years over the feeding of black bears at several locations in the township, including at the Wildlife Research Institute, run by bear researcher Lynn Rogers. The feeding has divided the township between those who see bears, and the feeding of them, as a significant part of their northwoods experience, against those who see the bears as a nuisance, and potentially dangerous.
Anderson said the timing of last week’s demonstration, which came on the first day of bear season, was unfortunate and he suggested it could prompt suspicions by some that the group’s push is more about limiting bear hunting in the township than any concern about public safety.
Todd Larson, of Ely, who used to guide bear hunters in the township called the safety zone issue a “ploy.” “They just want to protect their precious bears,” he said. Larson and others in his family have had run-ins over the years with residents in the township over the issue of bear hunting.
Township Supervisor Andy Urban doesn’t dismiss the safety concerns of residents, but he said he does see a definite connection between the current push for safety zones and the desire by some to protect resident bears from hunting.
Urban called it a “complicated issue,” noting that while some residents moved there out of a desire to see wildlife, like bears, others like its rural character and the ability to hunt right out their back door. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s still an offshoot of the Lynn Rogers issue,” said Urban, who has been critical of Rogers, and bear feeding, over the years. He even suggested that the feeding may be contributing to the problem.
“We have a ton of bears here,” he said. “That’s what’s attracting the hunters.”
Anderson sounded less sure of the connection. “As I understand it, they don’t have any special species or person in mind, except they are very concerned about people hunting, whether it’s bear or deer or grouse, near to the housing areas here.”
Anderson said he’d hate to see the issue devolve into the rancorous debate that fueled divisions in the township for years.
“I think that it goes deeper than bears. I know in my mind it does. I know when I walk to get the mail during deer season, I feel as uneasy as I do during bear season,” he said. Some parts of the township do have relatively dense, almost suburban, development, where hunting seems out of place to some residents. “You get along Walsh Road and it’s just like driving down a residential street,” said Anderson.
Supporters of the safety zones deny that they have a hidden agenda, although they acknowledge that they see the bear hunting season as a greater risk to residents.
“Bear season opens Sept. 1, right before a big holiday when lots of people come up here,” said Lineer. “You have hunters shooting close to a lot of people who are also trying to enjoy the out-of-doors,” he added. “I hunt grouse and I’m not against hunters. My concern is they are shooting high powered rifles near where my grandkids play.”
Township resident and fire chief Larry McCray, who has helped organize the push for safety zones, said the bear season also poses particular risks because the leaves are still on the trees and shrubs, so hunters have less ability to see what’s beyond them.
Larson dismisses that concern. He said the hunters he knows about aren’t hunting near residential areas, but are hunting on public lands well beyond the 500-foot buffer between houses and rifle fire required under current state regulations. And Larson said hunters are well aware of the terrain surrounding their bear or deer stands. “There’s not a hunter out there who doesn’t use Google Earth to see what’s around them,” he said.
Safety zone advocates note that Google Earth doesn’t show walkers, runners, bikers, or others who may be nearby, particularly during a busy holiday weekend.
Yet even if the town board decides that the safety concerns are real, Anderson questions what the township could really do to enforce safety zones. The township does not have a constable, Anderson notes, which means any violations of a safety zone ordinance would be left to the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office, which has typically been reluctant to act on local ordinances, or would require civil complaints that could be expensive for the township to pursue.
For now, it appears the town board is at least willing to listen to the concerns, and they hope that the debate doesn’t veer away from public safety into a more divisive direction.
“I would hope that this does not become a B-E-A-R issue,” said Anderson.