The president of the Humane Society of the United States canvassed in Portland on Sunday to encourage “yes” votes on Question 1 on November’s ballot — the referendum to ban the use of bait, traps and hounds to hunt black bear in Maine.
Wayne Pacelle is a veteran of anti-baiting campaigns. He led successful efforts to ban the use of bait and dogs in hunting of bears, cougars and bobcats in Colorado in 1992, Massachusetts in 1996, Oregon in 1994 and Washington in 1996, according to the humane society.
In 2004, however, the same year Pacelle became president of the humane society, Mainers rejected an identical anti-baiting ballot measure, 53 percent to 47 percent.
His visit to Portland on Sunday indicates strong national attention to the latest referendum and Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, the statewide group advocating to eliminate bear baiting in Maine. The group is almost entirely funded by the Humane Society of the United States, which is based in Washington, D.C.
On Sunday, after meeting with Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, Pacelle and a handful of volunteers walked from door to door in a Portland neighborhood, handing out fliers and talking to residents about their opinions on baiting.
Those who oppose the anti-baiting ballot measure say that the choice of location for the endeavor is questionable. That Pacelle and Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting chose Portland, the state’s largest city, to walk door-to-door, shows how “out of touch” they are, said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportman’s Alliance of Maine, one of the leading groups in opposition to the referendum.
“They choose the one place in Maine where there is virtually no bear hunting,” Trahan said. “He needs to travel inland for four, five, six hours into the very remote areas of the state where bear populations exist … To me, it’s just symbolic of their side of the campaign.”
Still, the majority of the residents Pacelle spoke with on Sunday supported ending bear baiting in Maine.
“What we’re really doing is saying there’s a right way to bear hunt and there’s a wrong way,” Pacelle said. “This is not about stopping bear hunting. It’s about making bear hunting more fair, more responsible, more humane.”
That sentiment echoed the message relayed on the fliers handed out on Sunday. The flier’s front read “Hunting is a Maine tradition. Cruelty is not.”
“I understand that hunting is a tradition,” said Connie McCabe of Harpswell, a volunteer for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting. “It’s a part of growing up here in Maine. And I’m certainly not saying that’s something that should go away, but cruelty is just not necessary.”
McCabe was paired with fellow volunteer Lisa Smith of Falmouth, who said she’s concerned the practice of bear baiting is inflating the black bear population.
Maine’s black bear population is increasing. State biologists estimate it has risen approximately 30 percent in the past 10 years, but they attribute this increase to other factors, such as habitat gain and bear hunters not reaching harvest goals.
Another concern of Maine hunters is that if this referendum passes, it will lead to further restrictions on hunting practices in the state.
“It’s not about bears; it’s about hunting. Next they’ll want to stop hunting birds with dogs,” said John Schmidt, bear hunting guide and owner of Bear Creek Lodge in Island Falls. “And it’s not just about hunting. It’s about getting rid of people’s guns. That’s the bottom line.”
Pacelle said his group’s only interest is bears and not other hunts, such as deer or moose.
“I really want to assure hunters in Maine that we are not going to be seeking additional restrictions on hunting — not on bear hunting or other forms of hunting,” Pacelle said. “We recognize and accept Maine’s tradition of deer hunting and moose hunting.”
Pacelle, however, is often described by the media as “anti-hunting” and was quoted by the Associated Press in 1991 as saying, “If we could shut down all sport hunting in a moment, we would.” He said this portrayal is an exaggeration.
“I think what we’ve seen is fabrication of quotes from me that someone puts on the Internet, and then somebody else sees and considers it gospel,” Pacelle said in response to the notion he is against all hunting. “Or they take comments completely out of context — and we’re talking about comments that are 25 to 30 years old to begin with.”
But Trahan says that the Pacelle’s stance is clear.
“For his entire lifetime, Mr. Pacelle has been dedicated to anti-hunting,” said Trahan. “So I was particularly surprised in his comments trying to say he doesn’t oppose hunting.”
In addition, HSUS has long been open about their anti-hunting stance, Trahan said, pointing to the organization’s statement on wild animals, which is posted on the HSUS website under “Our Policies.”
“As a matter of principle,” the statement reads. “The HSUS opposes the hunting of any living creature for fun, trophy, or sport because of the animal trauma, suffering, and death that result. A humane society should not condone the killing of any sentient creature in the name of sport.”
The last time Maine voted on bear baiting, in 2004, the practice was upheld by a 45,000-vote margin. Pacelle called the result a “very close vote,” even though anti-baiting advocates were significantly outspent during the campaign.
During the most recent financial reporting period — May 28 to July 15 — Pacelle’s organization has contributed more than $780,000 in cash to the campaign, which is 99 percent of all cash contributions to Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting during that time, according to the Maine Commission of Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.
By comparison, seven committees established to preserve Maine’s bear hunt and defeat Question 1 in November raised approximately $250,000 in cash in the same reporting period.
These committees include Friends of Maine Sportsmen, Maine Trappers BQC, U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance and Maine Wildlife Conservation Council BQC. Together, these groups have raised more than $1 million in cash to oppose Question 1 so far this year.
Spokespersons for those organizations were not immediately available Sunday.
Pacelle said his organization is more prepared for the campaign than it was in 2004.
“This time, we have seen some of the dirty tricks already, and I think we’ll be ready for them,” Pacelle said.
Trahan however takes issue with the mention of “dirty tricks,” which he says comes from only from those who support the referendum.
“The only dirty tricks they’ve seen come from their side,” said Trahan, referring to HSUS hiring PCI, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm that specializes in petition management, to gather signatures to put the question on the November statewide ballot.
“We’ve been aboveboard and honest,” Trahan said of the opposition. “We’re going to fight hard, but we’re not going to do anything dirty. It’s ironic and insulting to hear that from him.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the Humane Society of the United States is based in New York. It is based in Washington, D.C.