The wording for the bear referendum, which will be Question 1 on the Nov. 4 ballot in Maine, appears simple enough. But voters shouldn’t be fooled into believing a “yes” vote will promise more than it can deliver.
Here’s the exact language: “Do you want to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety or for research?”
According to the proposed legislation behind this question, here are several ways one easily can be misled by this simple question. The use of the word “or” between dogs and traps is not multiple choice. Voters shouldn’t be fooled into thinking they can somehow choose which of these three hunting methods to ban. A “yes” vote will ban all hunting of bears in Maine using bait and dogs and traps — all three methods, period.
The second half of Question 1 — “in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety, or for research” — doesn’t tell the whole story.
Again, the legislation behind this question prohibits all bear hunting scenarios in which bait, dogs and traps would be used by licensed recreational bear hunters. There are really no exceptions for licensed hunters, or the general public, relating to the use of baits, dogs and traps for legally killing or even relocating bears.
The legislation does allow the use of baits, dogs and traps to protect property, public safety or for research, but it restricts these methods solely to state and federal employees. A hunter shouldn’t expect to ever again be allowed to hunt bears over bait, with dogs or with traps if this referendum passes — unless he or she is employed by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife as a nuisance control agent.
And homeowners experiencing problems with marauding bears? They will not legally be authorized to kill or relocate an offending bear using bait, dogs or traps of any kind. They presumably will need to apply to IFW and get the agency to respond to their problem — possibly at a financial cost to them.
If this referendum passes, the unintended consequences are numerous.
A ban on baiting, dogs and traps can result in chronic under-harvest of Maine’s bear population. These three methods at stake account for 93 percent of annual bear harvests and are the most effective methods for controlling Maine’s large bear population.
The only legal bear hunting method that would remain — still-hunting — cannot come close to making up the difference for a number of reasons. Bears are wary and rarely are seen by hunters in Maine. Our forests are dense, and visibility is limited. A hunter cannot harvest what he or she cannot see.
The loss of up to 93 percent of the current harvest would greatly accelerate bear population growth. Maine’s bear population would increase dramatically until the population exceeds the availability of its natural food supply.
Over-abundant, hungry bears seek alternate sources of food near human habitation. Mainers could expect bears to extend their range to include every Maine town.
The loss of contact with hunters, along with hunger, will diminish a bear’s natural fear of man. One can expect this expanded bear population to be far more menacing to people, whether they are located on the fringe of the big woods or well within a suburban housing development in southern Maine.
With a larger, hungrier bear population, negative interactions with bears will increase to levels far above what we now experience. This includes crop and garden damage; depredations on pets and livestock; invasions of homes, garages and campsites in search of food; and attacks on people.
To respond to increased threats to property and public safety, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will be forced to greatly expand its bear nuisance control program; in addition, municipalities and homeowners could be forced to pay for nuisance bear control.
The loss of bear baiting and the use of hounds will decimate Maine’s bear guiding industry. Loss of bear guiding revenue will put many outfitters out of business entirely. Passage of this referendum will transition the black bear from a $50 million to $60 million annual asset to Maine’s economy to a multi-million dollar state government liability.
Hunting opportunity for deer and moose may be negatively impacted. Black bears are important predators of young fawns and calves. An expanded bear population will result in higher losses to deer and moose.
A ban on the use of baiting, dogs and traps for bear hunting adversely will impact Maine residents, both hunters and non-hunters, at some time and in some way. Question 1 is bad for Maine. Please vote no on Question 1 on Nov. 4.
Gerry Lavigne worked as the head deer biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and now works as a consulting biologist.