CAMBRIDGE, Minn. - Local bear hunters shoveled candy and nuts into their own 5-gallon buckets and 55-gallon drums this week in the center warehouse at Lucky 7 Bear Bait.
As forklift operators unloaded 2,000-pound totes of jellied fruit snacks from a semitrailer, the do-it-yourself shoppers picked from pallets of circus peanuts, bagged marshmallows, trail mix and pails of cake frosting - strawberry or caramel.
"Good luck. I hope you get one," co-owner Jen Carlson said to a customer Tuesday, the opening day of Minnesota's black bear season.
Walk-up sales at the nation's biggest provider of bulk bear bait are just a fraction of overall operations, but Carlson and her husband, Cory, enjoy their customers' hunting tales and bear photos as much now as they did 21 years ago. That's when they ventured into the unusual niche of buying food industry scraps otherwise destined for landfills, incinerators and hog pens.
Today they buy and sell more than 4 million pounds a year of sweets and nuts unfit for human consumption. Half the sales go to bear hunting guides in Canada, where customs agents at every border crossing have grown familiar with Lucky 7's totes and barrels of mixed bait.
"It sounds crazy but it's true," Jen said. "We've got it down to a mad science."
She is in charge of sales and border-crossing logistics, while Cory handles the purchasing of imperfect food products from U.S. manufacturers and a cohort of food brokers. Together, they've cultivated deep customer loyalty in the bear-hunting world by keeping prices low, providing an array of sweets and building large stockpiles of trail mix - the most sought-after bear bait. Pivotal, too, is the couple's deep understanding of trucking.
"We're in the bait business but trucking is a huge part of it," Cory said. "We're also in the bucket business, barrel business and pallet business."
Bear expert Andy Tri is a wildlife research biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Commercial baits such as those sold by Lucky 7 cut both ways for bruins, he said. It's obviously risky for bears to make daytime visits to piles of cookie shards and Bavarian cream filling. Hunters cause 80% of bear mortality in Minnesota.
But the extra carbohydrates and protein scattered by hunters at more than 6,700 registered ambush sites provide a significant boost to bear diets, Tri said. Much of the time, the baits are consumed at night when shooting is disallowed. Tracking studies of collared bears in Minnesota indicate that a high percentage of the animals visit the sites at one time or another.