Skip to main content
Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Cocaine Bear? In Michigan, it's melatonin bear

two bears
Black bears, like these two in the U.P., are thriving in Michigan after suffering dramatic lows in the 1990s. Hunters and animal activists have differing views on how many bears should be hunted. (Shutterstock)
  • Michigan wildlife regulators want to ban placing melatonin in bait piles after allegations that a bear hunter was doing so  
  • Drugs are already banned in bait piles but melatonin is considered a supplement, not a drug 
  • Hunting groups support the ban, saying that allowing sedatives runs counter to the ethical code of ‘fair chase’

A black bear lumbers over to a hunter’s bait pile and gobbles up a feast including chewy, sweet gummy candy.

A short time later, the creature is full and very, very sleepy. An easy target for someone who doesn’t want to put much effort into bagging one of the limited number of bears Michigan hunters are allowed to kill each year.


The culprit: melatonin, a naturally-occurring hormone that has become a popular over-the-counter sleep aid, often sold as fruit-flavored gummies. 


After receiving a recent complaint that someone was dosing their bait pile with melatonin, Michigan regulators plan to ban bear hunters from using the substance. Cody Norton, a large carnivore specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, presented the proposal to the Michigan Natural Resources Commission on Thursday.

The problem is not widespread in Michigan, Norton said: “This is literally the first time we've ever heard of it being used or even talked about in the state.”

But state wildlife officials want to get a ban on the books before the practice gains steam. They have support from bear hunting advocacy groups, who note that dosing bears with sedatives defies the ethical code of fair chase

Mike Thorman, of the Michigan Hunting Dog Federation, said the new regulations are “absolutely wise,” and condemned the hunters who allegedly used melatonin bait as “low-life.”

“What kind of piss-poor hunter are you, that you’ve gotta feed the bear something that’s going to put it to sleep so you can catch it?” Thorman said.

That would indeed present a very different vibe from the bear portrayed in the upcoming movie "Cocaine Bear," inspired by the apparently true story of an American black bear (aka Pablo Eskobear) that ingested a duffel bag full of cocaine back in 1985. 

Michigan already bans drugs, poisons and anticoagulants from bait piles. But because melatonin is a supplement rather than a drug, it falls through the cracks. Until recently, that wasn’t an issue. But melatonin has quickly become a popular, widely-available sleep aid. 

The proposed regulatory change would add “stupefying substances” to the list of banned bait components. That is, anything  that makes a bear groggy, confused or generally out of it.

It’s not uncommon for state game regulators to adjust hunting regulations to deal with emerging problems, Norton said, but the melatonin issue is an unusual one. 

“Most of the time it revolves around new technologies, like trail cameras and night vision and things like that,” Norton said.

The ban is part of a host of regulatory changes being proposed as part of the state’s biennial review of bear hunting regulations. The Natural Resources Commission and interim DNR Director Shannon Lott could sign off on the proposal as early as next month.

Beyond banning stupefying substances, state regulators are proposing a restriction on small-caliber guns that are more likely to maim than kill, and a “wanton waste” prohibition that requires hunters to salvage edible meat from bear carcasses.

Department officials also want to adjust dates for the northern lower peninsula bear hunting season, which takes place in September. Hoping to reduce conflicts between hunters who lure bears to bait piles and those who chase bears with dogs, the department plans to shift the bait hunting season forward a day and tack on a day for dogs-only hunting onto the end of the season. That would eliminate overlap between the two groups.

Upper Peninsula bear hunting seasons, which take place in September and October, would remain unchanged. 

The changes come as Michigan’s black bears — the only bear species in Michigan — continue to thrive after bouncing back from dramatic lows in the 1990s. The Northern Lower Peninsula bear population has skyrocketed over the past decade, from about 1,300 bears over a year old in 2012 to nearly 2,200 in 2021. The U.P. population has grown by 25 percent over the same time period, to 10,649 bears. 

The Lower Peninsula population appears to be stabilizing, Norton said. State officials aim to continue growing the U.P. population, but more slowly. 

This year, DNR regulators want to let hunters kill up to 1,196 bears in the U.P. and 528 in the Lower Peninsula, a combined 30 more than last year's goal. Tribally-managed hunters would also see a quota increase.

Setting quotas is a delicate balance for DNR managers, who face competing pressure from beekeepers who want more bears killed, hunting groups with sometimes differing views, and animal advocates who see some of the hunting tactics allowed in Michigan as barbaric.

Thorman, of the Michigan Hunting Dog Federation, said his group is comfortable with the new quotas but “not a bear more than that.” Overhunting in past decades wiped the population out, said Thorman, and he doesn’t want to repeat history.


Beekeeper Joe DeKorne disagreed. Speaking to commissioners Thursday, DeKorne said bears are costing him “thousands of dollars in damages” by raiding his hives.

“The solution is simple,” he said. “All we need to do is maybe just hunt a few more bears.”

But Thomas Gilpin, a representative for the Michigan Anishinaabek Caucus, a Democratic party caucus that advocates for Native American interests, criticized state regulators. He said regulators give too much credence to the desires of hunting groups and beekeepers, while minimizing concerns of animal advocates who have fundamental issues with Michigan’s bear hunting rules. 

Gilpin objected to running bears with hounds or luring them to bait piles with sweets and meats, which he called “a deeply flawed shortcut.” In addition to the melatonin ban, Gilpin urged DNR officials to ban xylitol, an artificial sweetener used in bait piles that is toxic to some animals including wolves.

How impactful was this article for you?

Michigan Environment Watch

Michigan Environment Watch examines how public policy, industry, and other factors interact with the state’s trove of natural resources.

Michigan Environment Watch is made possible by generous financial support from:

Our generous Environment Watch underwriters encourage Bridge Michigan readers to also support civic journalism by becoming Bridge members. Please consider joining today.

Only donate if we've informed you about important Michigan issues

See what new members are saying about why they donated to Bridge Michigan:

  • “In order for this information to be accurate and unbiased it must be underwritten by its readers, not by special interests.” - Larry S.
  • “Not many other media sources report on the topics Bridge does.” - Susan B.
  • “Your journalism is outstanding and rare these days.” - Mark S.

If you want to ensure the future of nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan journalism, please become a member today. You, too, will be asked why you donated and maybe we'll feature your quote next time!

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Pay with PayPal Donate Now