BANGOR, Maine — For the second time in a decade, animal rights groups are seeking a public vote to ban three bear hunting practices. The groups have also asked providers of food products used as bear bait to stop supplying leftover food waste to bear hunters.
The Coastal Humane Society, Animal Refuge League and Animal Wildlife Society have joined forces with the Wildlife Alliance of Maine and the Humane Society of the United States in the effort, which aims to place the issue before Maine voters in 2014, according to a Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting press release.
At issue are the three major methods of hunting bears used in Maine. The referendum question would outlaw hunting bears with traps, hounds or over bait.
Mainers voted on a similar ballot measure in 2004, rejecting it 53 percent to 47 percent.
The Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting press release calls the methods used in Maine “cruel and unsportsmanlike,” and claims hunters need not resort to those methods in order to control the state’s bear population. On Tuesday, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist Randy Cross said that since 2005, Maine’s bear population has risen from an estimated 23,000 to about 31,000.
According to Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, the threshold of signatures required to put a referendum on the 2014 ballot is 57,277.
Back in 2003, supporters of the referendum were required to gather 50,519 signatures in order to get the referendum question on the 2004 ballot. That proved to be a manageable task: In March 2004, 97,622 signatures were certified by the secretary of state.
On Tuesday Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting also launched “End Bear Baiting Month,” asking 130 food suppliers, including bakeries and restaurants, to stop providing leftover food waste to bear baiters.
Katie Hansberry, the campaign director for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting and the state director of the Humane Society of the United States, said organizers are working with the Secretary of State’s office to establish the language that will be included on the ballot measure. After that language is reviewed, the signature drive will begin. Hansberry said she expects that signature drives will begin in early to mid-September.
Hansberry is also author of the blog, “Mainely Animals,” which is hosted by the Bangor Daily News.
Hansberry did not take part in the 2003-04 bear referendum. She said she and other organizers think Mainers have changed their attitude since then, and are eager to bring the bear-hunting issue forward again.
“I think we see through legislation or any time positive changes are being made, sometimes you have to make several attempts before the status quo is actually changed,” Hansberry said. “It has been 10 years [since the last referendum] and the demographics in Maine have changed. People have been moving into Maine, and I think that would make a difference.”
In addition, Hansberry said organizers would work harder on educating the public this time around.
“We also think that in 2004, there was some misinformation that was put out,” she said. “As a result, people ended up voting ‘No’ on the issue because of some fear and misinformation and scare tactics.”
In a letter published in the BDN on Monday, David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said organizers seeking a referendum question were acting on behalf of the Humane Society of the United States, a group he says spends millions of dollars nationally that do nothing to support the efforts of local humane societies or pets.
In that letter Trahan suggested that funneling that money to local animal shelters could make a big difference in the lives of thousands of animals.
In the press release, however, one shelter executive said that changing bear-hunting practices could have a huge effect on domestic animals as well.
“As a shelter director, I am concerned about the care, treatment and disposition of hounds used for hunting,” said Patsy Murphy, the executive director of the Animal Refuge League in greater Portland. “We have seen our fair share of stray and owner-surrender hounds during and after hunting season. While all houndsmen cannot be painted with the same brush, dogs used for hound hunting are not typically cared for as family companions the way that most people treat their pets.”
On Wednesday, Trahan said that shelter organizations that have decided to join the referendum effort have aligned with a group that cares little for shelters.
“I think it’s a huge mistake on their part, given the HSUS track record nationally and their lack of support for humane shelters,” Trahan said.
Trahan said he doubted many food suppliers would stop providing bait to guides and hunters.
“I don’t think it will have much of an impact on people that are baiting bears,” Trahan said. “I think it’s more of a PR tactic than anything else.”
Trahan said SAM has begun assembling a bipartisan group of supporters that will oppose the referendum effort, and is confident that his group can prevail as it did in 2004.
“I think we’ll be more organized than last time,” Trahan said. “If they take these three [management] tools away, there will be no checks and balances for the bear population. I believe there will be closer encounters with bears all over the state, not just in northern Maine.”