Branches screeched across the windshield of the old Toyota pickup as Troy White drove deeper into the Maine wilderness on an old logging road. Bear bait — buckets filled with crumbling pastries and skinned beaver — rattled against a tree stand in the truck bed. Its pungent, sickly sweet smell drifted through the open windows of the cab.
With Maine’s fall bear hunt fast approaching, White was busy placing bait to lure bears to specific sites throughout the forest. A registered master Maine guide and owner of Mid Maine Outfitters in LaGrange, he has been guiding black bear hunters for the past 25 years. But, depending on the results of a referendum this fall, this may very well be his last season.
His future hinges on how Maine residents vote this fall on Question #1: “Do you want to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety, or for research?”
For White, as for the majority of Maine’s bear hunting guides, using bait to attract bears is the crux of his operations. If the referendum passes, he’ll be out of business.
“As much of a disappointment as that would be,” White said, “it would be more disappointing that my niece and nephew — both 5 years old — won’t have the opportunity to even try this type of hunting and make their own minds up whether they want to hunt bears this way or not.”
The ‘bear referendum’
This past winter, a group called Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting collected 63,626 valid signatures from Maine residents to place what has become known as the “bear referendum” on the Nov. 4 ballot.
If this referendum passes, the use of bait, traps and dogs to hunt black bear recreationally would be banned in Maine.
Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting consider these three methods of hunting to be “cruel, unsporting and unnecessary practices.” The group also believes that the use of bear bait increases the bear population and bear nuisance problems.
“Maine leads the way on a lot of animal welfare issues, but where we fall short is the protection for our bears — our beloved, majestic bears,” said Katie Hansberry, campaign director for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting.
But those that oppose the referendum paint a different picture of the practice.
“If they win this bear referendum, there’s going to be a series of things that will happen that will be bad for our state,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, one of the groups leading the opposition. “A good segment of the guiding community in northern and eastern Maine will go out of business.”
Trahan, echoing the predictions of state biologists, says the bear population will climb if hunters are unable to use these three methods. And he fears it will affect other species in Maine, especially deer and moose, which bear prey upon.
This isn’t the first time that the fate of bear hunting has been in Maine voters’ hands. In 2004, Mainers rejected an identical anti-baiting ballot measure, 53 percent to 47 percent.
“I think we’re starting with a different level with people this time because they at least have some knowledge of it because of the initiative occurring in 2004,” said Hansberry. “We also have 10 more years of research to back our argument.”
Funding the battle
Both sides of the referendum are campaigning to get the word out to voters about why these methods of hunting should or shouldn’t be continued. Thus far, proponents of the referendum have been outspent by their opponents.
Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting is almost entirely funded by the Humane Society of the United States, which is based in Washington, D.C. So far this year, HSUS has given the campaign approximately $780,000 in cash contributions and nearly $100,000 in-kind contributions, which together accounts for 98.7 percent of total the group’s total funds.
Opposing the referendum is Save Maine’s Bear Hunt and Management Programs, a campaign that asserts that bait, traps and the use of dogs in bear hunting is necessary to control a healthy black bear population in Maine.
Save Maine Bear Hunt is funded by seven committees, which have raised a total of about $1.17 million cash and $100,000 in-kind contributions so far this year, according to filings submitted to the Maine Commission of Governmental Ethics & Election Practices.
Prominent among those committees is the Maine Wildlife Conservation Council BQC, which has raised nearly $1 million cash from hundreds of Maine businesses, organizations and individuals.
Also of note, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife biologists and game wardens, as well as all three candidates for Maine governor facing off in the fall election — U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, Gov. Paul LePage and Eliot Cutler — oppose the referendum.
Maine’s bear hunting tradition
Bear hunting has been a part of Maine history for as long as people have walked beneath its tall white pines. The original inhabitants of the state hunted animal by stealth using primitive weapons such as bows and arrows, snares and wooden traps, according to the 1940 book “Penobscot Man” by Frank Speck.
When Europeans first settled in Maine and began clearing the land for farming, black bears were seen as a problem. They damaged property, ate crops and threatened livestock. As a result, settlers generally viewed them as pests. In fact, Maine placed a bounty on bears that continued until 1957.
It wasn’t until 1969 though that the black bear was named a big game animal in Maine, and in 1975, the state began studying the animal in earnest by establishing study areas to monitor bears with radio collars and ear tags.
“The biggest change is cultural,” Randy Cross, state bear biologist and leader of the Maine black bear management program. “In my grandfather’s time, bears were still being persecuted, and now we celebrate them as one of the most valued big game resources that we have in the state.”
Over the past 39 years, the state has gathered a multitude of data on Maine’s black bears, from their biological cycles and territorial behavior to their reproductive rates and natural food preferences. This research has allowed biologist to better estimate the state’s overall bear population, which is crucial in determining the number of bears that can be safely killed by hunters (or, as state biologists say, “harvested”) each year.
By around 1980, bear hunting using bait, hounds and traps had become a popular sport in Maine, according to Cross, and more hunting outfitters were being established throughout the state.
“The real tradition is hunting,” said Cecil Gray, registered master Maine guide who used to guide deer hunts and has been outspoken about his support of the referendum since 2004. “The State of Maine has a grand tradition of hunting and fishing. The commercial baiting industry never really got going and got its super legs until the 80s. Then it went off the charts.”
“Things change,” said registered Maine guide Daryl DeJoy, also a supporter of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting. “There are traditions that should remain, and there are traditions that we should know better, that through science and social acceptance should change.”
The fate of the bear guide
Swatting deer flies away with his hat, Troy White lifted a tree stand out of the back of his old pickup and headed into the woods on a trail only he could see. After 25 years establishing 100 bait sites in the central Maine woods, he knows them all by heart. Until bear hunting season, he’ll be working 12-hour days to get them all set up.
“It’s very ethical hunting going on out here in the woods by 99 percent of the people,” White said. “There are a few that aren’t quite up there, but that’s just the way it is. The majority of us are working hard, respect the animal, and the last thing we want is anything bad to happen to these bears as a population.”
White belongs to the Maine Professional Guides Association, which has about 11,000 members. Of those, about 200 are bear hunting guides.
“It’s safe to say, those 200 would be out of business if the referendum passes,” said Don Kleiner, executive director for the Maine Professional Guides Association. “This is a pretty clear swipe at the economics of northern Maine.”
That includes White, who is hard at work during what could be his last season.
White’s wife, Brenda, dumped a bucket of bait about 25 yards from the tree stand, then walked to a nearby tree to post the site permit. Meanwhile, White smeared skunk essence on a nearby branch — a trick some trappers use to attract furbearers. Not only will bear find the bait, but other mammals like raccoons, pine martens and coyotes.
“I like to put it in the sun, so it heats up and the scent really carries,” White said. “Bears have an incredible sense of smell.”
White guides about 40 hunters a year, setting them up in tree stands to sit for hours at a time. His $1,900 bear hunt package — which includes homemade meals and lodging at his camp in LaGrange — is a week long. In a good year, about 50 percent of the hunters he guides shoot a bear, he said.
“Once I helped someone enjoy what I take for granted every day when I’m out here, I didn’t need to be the one pulling the trigger anymore,” White said. “I wish I could bring everyone out here that’s going to voting on this and let them see what it’s all about.”