By Ted Siefer
CONCORD, N.H. (Reuters) - Hunters in New Hampshire spoke out on Wednesday against a proposal to ban the use of chocolate to lure bears, following the deaths last fall of four bruins that were found to have been poisoned by cocoa-based sweets.
The hunters, arguing that the proposed ban was an over-reaction, addressed the New Hampshire Fish and Game Commission at a packed public hearing in Concord, the state capital.
If approved, the measure would prohibit the use of all "chocolate and cocoa derivatives" as bait for black bears starting with the next hunting season, which begins in September and runs through November.
The ban was proposed in response to the fatal poisoning of two female bears and two cubs last September. They were found dead within 50 feet of a baiting site that had been laden with donuts, chocolate mints and about 90 pounds of baking chocolate.
Subsequent lab tests determined the bears died from an overdose of theobromine, a naturally occurring compound in chocolate that is also poisonous to dogs and other animals.
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Most of the hunting enthusiasts who turned out for Wednesday's hearing, many of them wearing camouflage vests and caps, insisted last fall's incident was an aberration.
"In 45 years of baiting, I've never found anything dead around my sites," Buck Mercier said. "We had something happen here, and it was very unfortunate. But the answer is always punish, punish, punish."
Mercier said hunters would not use chocolate at all if they believed it was as harmful as wildlife officials contended. "I don't think one of these guys wouldn't take their arm off to see a bear not get hurt -- outside a rifle that is."
A number of hunters at the hearing said they would support banning chocolate as bear bait, or at least some restrictions on its use.
Animal rights supporters on the other hand condemned chocolate baiting as cruel and said it violated all principles for ethical hunting.
"Having a (bear) sow and cubs gorge on chocolate and die slow deaths does not meet these standards," said Lindsay Hamrick, state director of the Humane Society.
The commission is expected to vote on the proposed ban next month.
A majority of U.S. states allow for the limited the hunting of black bears. Hunters in New Hampshire, which is home to an estimated 4,800 black bears, killed 784 of the animals during the 2014 hunting season, the vast majority lured with bait.
(Editing by Scott Malone and Lisa Lambert)