March 23, 2018
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Bear control is a matter of numbers, say both sides

By Douglas Rooks, Special to the Sun Journal

In November, Maine voters will face another referendum to ban three bear hunting techniques: baiting, hounding and trapping.

What would happen if the referendum passed? And how do some states control bears without using the techniques some here abhor?

Randy Cross has been Maine’s chief bear biologist for more than 30 years. If the referendum passes this time, he foresees an immediate increase in the number of bears, one that’s likely to also increase the number of “nuisance” bear complaints that have been on the rise in Maine and elsewhere in recent years.

Mark Latti, spokesman for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said the state receives at least 500 complaints a year, and as many as 800 in 2012. This year, as bears are emerging from their winter dens, the department has already received 20 complaints.

Since the vast majority of bears are killed by hunters by baiting, hounding and trapping — about 70 percent over bait alone — the nuisance bear complaint numbers would skyrocket if the three hunting methods were outlawed, he said.

Maine issues about 11,000 bear licenses, and 3,200 bears are tagged each year — a 30 percent success rate.

“If we don’t shoot 3,000 bears a year, it’s possible that the population could spin out of control,” Cross said.

While he acknowledged that a variety of factors influence bear populations, particularly the availability of natural foods, and that — up to a point — bears reproduce according to the available food, all signs point to an immediate upsurge in numbers, should the referendum pass.

“I’d rather not get to that point,” Cross said. “It’s not a good place to be.”

Jen Vachon, the state’s assistant bear biologist, said while baiting undoubtedly provides more calories than bears would get otherwise, natural food sources are still dominant.

Bear complaints are highest in the spring, after bears emerge from their dens, but before their favorite foods — berries in summer and “mast” in the fall (beechnuts and acorns) — are widely available, she said.

Bears in spring are hungry, and subsist on early vegetation, carrion and occasional deer fawns and moose calves. She agrees that a population explosion is possible, if not certain, if current hunting techniques are banned.

A different perspective is offered by Daryl DeJoy, who heads the Wildlife Alliance of Maine and is part of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, the coalition backing the referendum.

DeJoy, a veteran Maine guide and wildlife rehabilitator, said that it’s the supplemental feeding of bears through baiting that has artificially inflated the number of animals.

“If you’re providing the kind of high-protein, high-fat food sources the guides use in baiting, then you’re going to have more bears, and they will produce more cubs,” he said.

He cites studies published by the Wildlife Society, an organization of wildlife management professionals, to back up his point.

A conversation with a Minnesota researcher produced dramatic evidence. “That study found that females began bearing cubs at much younger ages due to supplemental feeding,” he said. “Do the math. If you have that many more cubs, you’ll also have more bears.”

Although some referendum supporters may feel differently, DeJoy said, “You don’t have to decide whether this is humane or not. Just look at the science.”

State chapters of the Wildlife Society have reached different conclusions, however. Its 2006 technical review noted that the Maine Chapter opposed the 2004 referendum and supported baiting, while other state chapters opposed supplemental feeding, except for research projects.

The 1990s were the heyday for bear hunting referendums, many of them funded in large part by the Humane Society of the United States, which spent $1.5 million in 2004 and is expected to contribute more this year.

The first referendum, in Colorado in 1992, banned baiting and hounding by a 70 percent majority with Amendment 10 to the state constitution. A referendum in Oregon in 1994 was also successful, though by a smaller margin, at 52 percent.

In 1996, the peak year, voters approved restrictions on bear hunting in Washington (63 percent) and Massachusetts (55 percent) but rejected them in Michigan (62 percent opposed) and Idaho (60 percent opposed).

Some states that have bear hunts and allow baiting and hounding — including New Hampshire — do not have an initiative-and-referendum process, so any changes would have to come through the Legislature, where advocates of restrictions have had less success.

Maine faces a second referendum because of the closeness of the 2004 vote, which gave those opposed to baiting hope for victory a second time around, and because it has a much larger number of bears killed each year.

Before the Massachusetts vote, for instance, fewer than 100 bears were taken each year. Hounding had been banned earlier, in 1970. New Hampshire has an annual total of about 300 bears taken — less than a 10th of Maine’s numbers.

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