The future of Maine bear hunting lays in the hands of state voters. A ballot initiative known as Question 1 would ban the use of traps, bait and hounds, leaving still-hunting as the only legal method. The measure is on the state ballot Nov. 4, 2014. The referendum is funded almost entirely by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the country's largest and most powerful anti-hunting organization.
If Question 1 passes, it would not only take away the state wildlife agency's most effective black bear management tools, it would cripple Maine's outfitter industry. Bear guides rely on baiting and hounds, says Sportsman's Alliance of Maine executive director David Trahan.
"Many, many outfitters will go out of business. That's the untold story here. These are hard-working men and women who have been outfitters all their lives. It's all they know," he says. "It's not like they would be able to get another job. Most of these outfitters live in rural communities with a very limited job market, so they would likely go bankrupt."
Trahan says studies have shown that bear hunting contributes $60 million to the state economy and accounts for upward of 800 jobs.
The loss of bait and hounds as hunting methods won't just devastate small towns and the outfitters who support them. It would cripple the state's ability to effectively manage bears. Baiting, trapping and hounds together account for 93 percent of the annual statewide harvest of about 3,000 bears.
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A ban on those methods would result in an upswing in the state's bear population, which stands at 30,000 animals, and bear/human conflicts will surely increase as they have in other states with growing black bear populations. Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIFW) biologist Gerry Levigne cited examples of the effect of bait and hound bans in other states in a report he wrote for the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine. Hundreds of nuisance bears are now killed by state wildlife agencies instead of by sport hunters. Oregon officials kill 400 each year, and about 600 were killed in Colorado in 2012. One Colorado county went so far as to ban the use of levered door handles because bears have become adept at entering homes fitted with those types of handles. Massachusetts' bear population increased by 700 percent since the bait ban went into effect in 1970. Hunting with hounds was outlawed in 1996. Complaints have more than doubled in Massachusetts as bears encroach on the state's suburban regions.
"If we lose these methods, DIFW loses the ability to control the size and health of Maine's black bear population," wrote Levigne. "A growing bear population that routinely exceeds its wild food supply is a recipe for escalating bear/human conflicts."
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Bears can self-regulate their populations, but what anti-hunting groups don't seem to grasp is that "natural" population control typically involves methods more cruel than any type of hunting. Adult males kill cubs more frequently when populations are at or over carrying capacity, and young males will fight over territory as more bears are squeezed into the landscape, often inflicting fatal wounds on each other.
"As a population grows," wrote Levigne in his report, "competition becomes fierce for the high-quality foods," which results in malnutrition, particularly for younger and smaller animals.
Contrary to claims by Question 1 proponents, the three methods under attack are in no way giving hunters an unfair advantage. The state's 12,000 bear hunters have a 25 percent success rate and spend an average of 15 days afield before they kill a bear. Trappers have an even lower success rate, and success rates for still-hunters are the lowest of all methods.
This isn't the first time the HSUS has attempted to subvert professional wildlife management in Maine. A similar ballot initiative was defeated in 2004 by just a four-point margin. Anti-hunters gathered about 97,000 signatures, far more than the required number to place the referendum before Maine's voters.
Despite that narrow loss, the anti-hunting group has claimed a number of victories related to bear management. Colorado, for example, banned baiting, hounds and a spring hunting season in 1992. The referendum passed by a landslide 70-to-30 margin. Voters in Oregon and Washington also passed ballot initiatives that restricted bear hunting methods, but Michigan, Idaho and Alaska voters rejected similar referendums between 1996 and 2004.
Win or lose, it's all part of the organization's ultimate goal to end all hunting.
HSUS Executive Director Wayne Pacelle said in a 1991 interview with the Associated Press, "If we could shut down all sport hunting in a moment, we would." That may seem like a far-fetched goal, but between 1990 and 2012, the animal rights group backed 45 state ballot measures that related to everything from farming and dog racing to trapping and wolf hunting. They were victorious on 30, including a ban on mountain lion hunting in California, trapping in Arizona and a continued ban on dove hunting in Ohio.
Trahan thinks Maine voters understand what's at stake. A poll conducted in September found that two-thirds of state voters who understood the issue would reject Question 1. To boost the public education campaign, the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine raised $2 million dollars, much of it spent on television, radio and newspaper advertising. Equally important, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has been active in its opposition to Question 1.
"Our state wildlife biologists and wardens have been out front on this issue and what it would mean to the state if it did pass," says Trahan.
Surprisingly, though, the referendum also has wide-ranging support from a variety of in-state businesses, wildlife experts and community leaders. To view a full list, visit fairbearhunt.com.
While Trahan and other bear-hunting supporters are concerned about the outcome, they that agree public sentiment seems to be on their side. That's due in part to a fatal bear attack in New Jersey in September. A Rutgers University student was killed by a black bear while hiking in the Apshawa Preserve with four friends.
"I think that was a game-changer," says Trahan. "It brought a bit of reality to the issue. If we can't successfully manage our bears through the current methods, we could see this sort of thing happen in Maine. No one wants that."
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