EDITORIALS

An interaction takes two: An argument in the bear hunt debate that falls flat

Posted Sept. 11, 2014, at 11:41 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 24, 2014, at 2:54 p.m.

The November ballot measure that would outlaw the use of bait, hounds and traps when bear hunting has fast become perhaps the most heated and emotionally charged electoral contest of the season. It also has become a campaign subject to low-quality arguments that don’t pass the straight-face test.

Case in point is a graphic recently posted to the Facebook page of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife that attempts to make the case for preserving baiting, hounding and trapping as a way to prevent bear-human conflicts.

“States without bear hunting seasons have much higher rates and severity of conflicts between people and bears,” reads the graphic from the department that has assumed a prominent role in the campaign urging a “no” vote on the referendum.

The agency goes on to compare the rate of bear-human conflicts in Maine (17 for every 1,000 bears), Connecticut (695 conflicts per 1,000 bears) and Florida (1,362 conflicts per 1,000 bears). But the agency could hardly make a more disingenuous comparison.

“These statistics clearly show that the number of bears is not the issue,” one commenter on the Facebook thread noted. “There are too many people in both Connecticut and Florida, I would recommend both baiting and trapping of humans.”

Indeed, a bear-human interaction takes at least two: a human and a bear. The bear populations in Connecticut (about 450) and Florida (about 3,000) are far smaller than Maine’s (more than 30,000). But the human populations of Connecticut and Florida are substantially larger and their population densities are much greater. In heavily forested and lightly populated Maine, the population density is a below-average 43.1 people per square mile, according to U.S. Census data. In Connecticut, 738.1 people share each square mile. In Florida, the figure is 350.6.

By the logic so apparent in the department’s graphic, the likelihood of a bear-human conflict spikes with a greater population density, not the absence of bear hunting as a population control measure. That’s exactly why it doesn’t work to compare Maine to Connecticut and Florida and proclaim the difference is the presence or absence of a bear hunt.

To top it off, DIF&W compares Maine to states with no bear hunt at all while the referendum on November’s ballot would ban Maine’s three most common bear hunting methods but would not prohibit bear hunting altogether in the Pine Tree State.

DIF&W posted the Maine-Connecticut-Florida graphic the day after wildlife division director Judith Camuso, during a televised debate on WGME 13 co-sponsored by the BDN, warned against comparing Maine to unlike states to make arguments in favor of the baiting, hounding and trapping ban.

Camuso’s comment came in reference to a comparison of Maine to Washington and Colorado — states that banned bear baiting and hounding in the 1990s. Maine is more heavily forested than those states, Camuso warned, meaning that bear hunting in Maine without the aid of bait, hounds and traps would be substantially less successful.

For purposes of a legitimate comparison on the bear-human conflict front, Camuso noted that Vermont — which allows the use of hounds but not bait or traps — typically experiences 76 bear-human conflicts for every 1,000 bears, more than four times Maine’s rate of 17 conflicts. Vermont’s population density — 67.9 people per square mile — and geography are much more similar to Maine than Connecticut’s or Florida’s.

Both sides in the bear referendum debate have legitimate points to make, though neither side has stuck exclusively to arguing them this campaign season. Voters, meanwhile, deserve the chance to evaluate the debate based on legitimate arguments, not fabricated points that fall flat on even cursory examination.

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