N.H.: Chocolate Bait Killed Four Bears

Friday, January 23, 2015
Concord — Four bears were found dead in September because of heart failure triggered by an overdose of chocolate that had been put out as bait.

The results of toxicology and necropsy reports revealing the cause of the deaths has prompted the state’s bear expert to consider putting in place new regulations to control how chocolate is used as wildlife bait.

“We are a landmark example,” Andrew Timmins, the state Fish and Game Department’s bear project leader, told the state Fish and Game Commission on Wednesday.

“The case in New Hampshire perhaps represents one of the most significant cases for two reasons,” he said. First, the concentration of dead bears found at the site is unprecedented, and the direct link between chocolate and the death of an adult bear is rare.

Conservation officers found the dead female bears within 50 feet of an undisclosed bait site in northern New Hampshire. Two cubs and two adult bears were transported to diagnostic labs at the University of New Hampshire, where a necropsy was performed. The necropsy and subsequent toxicology report found the bears had died of heart failure triggered by poisoning by theobromine, a natural and toxic ingredient found in chocolate. The bears were otherwise healthy.

Theobromine can, at high doses, be toxic to bears and other species. Its effects have been studied and documented in dogs, cats, rodents and humans, but its impact on bears and other wildlife species is largely unknown, according to Fish and Game.

There is no perfect formula for determining how much chocolate is too much chocolate, he said. Biologists have to factor in the type of chocolate, the amount of intake and the size and metabolic rate of the animals. While baking chocolate is known to have high levels of theobromine, white chocolate and milk chocolate have low levels.

“The bottom line is all types of chocolate can be toxic. It depends on how much they take in,” Timmins said.

The possibility of death by chocolate first caught Fish and Game’s attention in 2011, after the death of a black bear cub in Michigan was linked to theobromine. This followed the death of a raccoon in Pennsylvania, where biologists determined eating chocolate had killed the animal. This prompted Fish and Game to ask trappers and hunters to voluntarily stop using chocolate as bait, but the amount of chocolate in the woods doesn’t appear to have decreased, Timmins said. It is a popular bait food because it is inexpensive and easy to find.

The recent deaths have led Timmins and his staff to come up with a formal proposal for members of the commission — and public — to consider.

“The most efficient, effective and enforceable way to eliminate this in the future is to eliminate the chances of any species becoming toxified by chocolate, and to remove chocolate from the woods,” he said. “We view bear baiting as an important management tool. It’s not something we want to go get rid of, but perhaps some modifications need to be made to determine bear baiting practices to eliminate the chances of chocolate poisoning our wildlife.”

If Wednesday’s discussion is any indication, the proposal could face some opposition.

Audience member Dave Nickerson was skeptical of the cause of death. He wanted to know whether the lab tested specifically for antifreeze, which wouldn’t show up unless tested for and would have had the same effect as the chocolate.

Chocolate is being used at many sites, and has been for many years in many states, he said.

“This is the first time we’ve had four dead bears at one site,” Nickerson said. “It highly suggests that poisoning could have occurred.”

Krista Belanger struck a similar tone. “A little bit more study has to be done,” she said.

The deaths from chocolate appear to have been unintentional. The male hunter, who was not identified, told the state he has trapped for 15 years and used the same chocolate at other sites this past season. The site had 90 pounds of chocolate and doughnuts as bait. Once the doughnuts were eaten, the bears ate the chocolate. They died nearby.

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