What to expect during the upcoming bear hunting battle

Posted Aug. 08, 2013, at 3:45 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 09, 2013, at 5:42 a.m.

Earlier this week, we told you that a coalition of groups have joined forces under the “Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting” umbrella, hoping to ban three methods utilized by bear hunters in this state.

The group hopes to place a referendum question on the ballot in 2014 which would end bear baiting, hounding and trapping.

A similar measure was defeated back by statewide vote in 2004 after a heated yearlong battle. The margin was slim, with 53 percent of voters backing the status quo and 47 percent wanting the same three bear-hunting methods banned.

Now, after a decade of relative peace on the bear-hunting front, many of the same players are gearing up for a new battle.

Here are a few observations as we move forward toward a likely referendum.

The referendum will take place.

If you’re hoping that organizers will change their minds, simply go away, or find themselves unable to gather the required 57,277 signatures that will land the question on the ballot, stop wasting energy.

This referendum will happen. Ten years ago, organizers collected more than 97,000 signatures. They’ll easily reach the threshold this time around. And with the powerful Humane Society of the United States expected to help fund the referendum effort, chances are good that those looking to stop baiting, hounding and trapping will have sufficient money to get their message in front of Mainers.

Maine has changed. But how much?

Katie Hansberry, campaign director of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, told me on Wednesday that organizers feel that Maine has changed since 2004, when the first bear referendum was defeated. She said more people have moved into the state, the demographics have changed, and she’s confident that a majority of Mainers will support a 2014 referendum.

Hansberry is probably correct in some of her assessments. What should be of particular concern to those who oppose the referendum: The parts of Maine where bear-hunting takes place (and where newcomers would be exposed to more guides and hunters) are not the same places that have experienced growth in the past decade.

Because of that, the question may again shape up as a “Two Maines” referendum … and the non-bear hunting Maine is getting bigger.

Who’ll get out the vote?

Back in 2004, most Mainers had an opinion (or shared an opinion at the ballot box) during the referendum. But that was during a presidential election year.

This time around, in 2014, there will be no presidential race, and the number of people who show up at the polls will be much lower.

Who will that favor? As always, the side that is more effective in getting its supporters out to vote.

Did organizers make the same mistake again?

For years, people on both sides of the bear-hunting debate have privately said the same thing: If organizers responsible for the 2004 referendum had taken a small bite — for instance, trying to ban either bear trapping or the use of hounds — they may well have won.

But they didn’t. Instead, they opted for a huge gobble, lumped bear-baiting into the mix and lost.

What’s the big deal? Well, hounding and trapping are activities that exists more on the fringes of bear hunting. Few people take part in either. And showing on-the-fence voters images of bears being treed by hounds or stuck in a trap was a powerful tool.

Bear baiting, on the other hand, is the method that the vast majority of successful bear hunters used when they took their bears.

Even with the use of bait, the success rate is around 30 percent, typically. And that fact helps to soften the “shooting fish in a barrel” argument that some referendum supporters have tried to use.

For years, some have worried that referendum organizers would regroup and come back with a more limited ballot initiative focused on trapping, hounding or both.

Instead, those groups are again taking a large gobble instead of a small nibble, and are looking to ban baiting, hounding and trapping.

That may be a costly mistake for organizers.

Things will get ugly.

Trust me on this one: I covered the first referendum and was sickened by some of the stuff I heard … from supporters on both sides. And I get the feeling that things are much more politically volatile now than they were in 2004.

I suppose I don’t fit into today’s political climate.When I disagree with someone’s viewpoint, I don’t typically call them names. I don’t dismiss them as stupid.

Ten years ago, the venom that some showed toward their political opponents was stunning.

Here’s hoping the upcoming battle is more civil.

Unfortunately, I doubt that’s the way things are going to turn out.

John Holyoke may be reached at jholyoke@bangordailynews.com or 990-8214. Check out his blog at outthere.bangordailynews.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnHolyoke.

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