Signature-gathering tactics under fire in bear referendum

Posted Jan. 16, 2014, at 5:29 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 16, 2014, at 1:03 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Opponents of a proposed referendum to ban bear trapping and hunting with bait or hounds are accusing proponents of using deceptive means in their quest to gather the 57,277 signatures needed by Feb. 3 to put the question on the November statewide ballot.

Members of Facebook pages devoted to defeating the referendum have begun sharing stories and have started targeting signature drives in order to see if the signature gatherers are providing accurate information.

Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, the group seeking to ban trapping bears and hunting them with dogs or bait, has staged several signature drives in past weeks. More are scheduled across the state.

Steve Beckwith, a guide from North Berwick, said he was approached by a signature gatherer in the parking lot of the Sanford Walmart last week. He was concerned by the man’s lack of understanding of the issue he was soliciting signatures to support.

“I was approached by a big guy with a clipboard who asked me if I was against animal cruelty,” Beckwith said. “I said to him that I most certainly was against animal cruelty, and then I asked the man if the petition in his hand was to stop the bear baiting in Maine.”

Beckwith, who sometimes guides bear hunters, was astounded by the man’s reply.

“He responded to me that you can not bear bait in Maine, that it was already against the law, that baiting animals in Maine was illegal,” Beckwith said. “I informed him that he was partially correct, with the exception of a few species [when] baiting was allowed to achieve scientific-based harvest goals that are governed by the DIF&W and state biologists, which includes bear hunting.”

Beckwith said the man did not know what the DIF&W or the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife was.

“I then told him to go home and Google it and learn what the DIF&W governs and to learn the Maine hunting lawbook to become more informed,” Beckwith said. “At that point, a woman came up behind him and she said to the guy, ‘Stop talking to people like this who are trying to school you on hunting laws. Move on to the next one who will sign our petition.’”

Katie Hansberry, Maine state director of the Humane Society of the United States, is leading the effort to ban bear baiting, hounding and trapping. She said her group has a network of about 100 volunteers gathering signatures on its behalf. In addition, an undisclosed number of paid signature gatherers who are hired by PCI, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm that specializes in petition management, according to the company’s website. Hansberry said petition efforts were ongoing, but said she did not have an estimate of how many signatures have been gathered so far.

Hansberry said a tight deadline for gathering signatures, combined with bad weather and the holiday season, led Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting to hire PCI.

An effort to find out how many paid solicitors were hired in Maine, and how much a solicitor earns for each signature, was unsuccessful. The PCI employee in charge ot the Maine effort was not immediately available.

Hansberry said she had heard no reports or complaints from people who thought they had been misled by signature gatherers, and said the volunteer solicitors she oversees were trained during a series of “kick-off” events.

“We tell our volunteers to be polite and courteous,” said Hansberry, who said volunteers are told to refer those who have in-depth questions about the referendum to the group’s website or have them call the office.

Hansberry also said that she’d heard no concerns from volunteers that they may have been targeted by referendum opponents who are trying to disrupt signature-gathering sessions.

An event listed as an “independent signature-gathering opportunity” on the Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting website was scheduled to take place at Petco in Bangor on Wednesday. Though the event was listed as starting at noon, by 12:30 p.m. no signature-gatherers had shown up.

Hansberry explained that the list is not meant to be used as a calendar of events, but is posted as a resource for volunteers who may be looking for suggestions for potential gathering points.

In a YouTube video that was shared with the BDN, a signature solicitor tells a person that the petition is about dog safety, and said that dogs are getting caught in bear traps that have teeth like those of a shark. When pressed on the matter, the man misstates the kind of trap that was being used in a well-publicized incident during which a man was bitten by his own dog after it was caught in a trap. He also continues to maintain that sharp-toothed bear traps are being used in the Maine woods, even though they are currently illegal.

Hansberry said she had not seen the video and wasn’t aware it existed. The BDN shared the video link with her, after which Hansberry issued this statement:

“We stand by the accuracy of the information on our website, which is the same information that we provide to our volunteers and shared with PCI Consultants,” Hansberry wrote. “The real issue here is that the practices of bear hounding, baiting and trapping are indefensible. As a result, those opposed to our coalition’s effort are trying to find other ways to divert the conversation away from the reckless, unsporting and inhumane natures of these practices. The secretary of state has rules and procedures in place to address any problems during the signature gathering process and the campaign is committed to following those rules and procedures.”

On Thursday, the owner of the video removed it from YouTube.

Supporters of the petition must gather 57,277 verified signatures and submit them by Feb. 3 in order for the question to go on the ballot in November. A similar effort to ban the three common bear-hunting methods in Maine a decade ago failed.

Matthew Dunlap, Maine’ secretary of state, said there are few actual limits as to what signature gatherers can say to people in order to get them to sign a petition.

“It’s largely covered by two principles: Buyer beware and freedom of speech,” said Dunlap, who will be tasked with verifying signatures that are submitted. “The law mandates that the proposed law be attached to the petition form so that voters can read it before they sign it. If they don’t [read the proposed law] and rely on what the circulators tell them, then they’ve been fooled into signing something that isn’t what they’ve been told there is. Under the First Amendment, you can say pretty much what you want. We have no authority to police that or disqualify signatures gathered using those types of tactics.”

If petition circulators step beyond the law, there are ramifications, Dunlap said.

“If the petition was separated from the proposed statutory language, that’s a different story,” Dunlap said. “We would at the least disqualify the signatures, and could take legal action against the circulator for breaking up the form.”

Dunlap is familiar with this particular issue, having served as executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. He is currently a member of SAM’s board of directors. In 2010, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting wrote a story that questioned the varied roles Dunlap plays while still serving as secretary of state.

James Cote is the coordinator of the Maine Wildlife Conservation Council, the group that has been organized to oppose the proposed referendum. He said he expects referendum supporters have already gathered enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot, but said his group remains committed to its mission.

“Our goal is to be the voice of reason in this debate,” Cote said. “Being the voice of reason means building a diverse coalition of a lot of different parties that support our position, and we’ve done that. At this point, we’re going to continue to talk about the real implications of this proposed initiative from a biological and economic standpoint.”

But Cote did say he was disappointed to hear stories that lead him to believe that signature-gatherers haven’t been honest with Maine citizens.

“I think we all think it’s unfortunate that what the public has been asked to sign in a lot of ways is much different from what they’re being told,” Cote said. “We would encourage them to dig in and understand who the parties are that are proposing this initiative and what their intentions are.”

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