Not surprisingly, the Humane Society of the United States, the most affluent animal-rights organization nationwide, is backing Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting’s second attempt to ban bear hunting with baits, hounds and traps, via referendum. The Portland-based coalition’s first attempt, also backed by the HSUS, was defeated by referendum in 2004.
Though the HSUS admits to being opposed to hunting, its title is nonetheless deceiving. Reportedly, only 1 percent of the HSUS’s annual budget, estimated at $180 million, benefits local humane societies and animal shelters. However, since money talks, between now and Nov. 4 the HSUS’s affluence will speak persistently for passage of the bear referendum, Question 1 on the ballot.
Let’s consider, then, a few bear facts that speak convincingly against the referendum. First off, hunting bears with baits, hounds and traps is essential to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife achieving its publicly derived bear-population objective. The department’s studies show that annual kills of 3,000-4,000 bears are needed to stabilize the increasing population, currently estimated at more than 30,000 statewide. Nevertheless, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting contends that the bear population can be managed by stalking and still-hunting. Granted, bears are shot either way. But the fact of the matter is that stalking and still-hunting won’t produce enough kills to control the population — for two reasons: 1) The thickness of Maine’s woods restricts hunter visibility and silent movement, and 2) bears are extremely wary and elusive.
In response to questions about bears overpopulating if hunting with baits, hounds and traps is banned, proponents of the bear referendum assert that the animals will self-regulate. To clarify that, DIFW bear-project biologists explain that bears can self-regulate only when extreme overpopulation results in malnourishment, fewer cubs born and more dying from disease and starvation. That said, let’s leave it that no animal deserves to die such an agonizing death.
Predation: Considering that Mother Nature’s store is poorly stocked come springtime, bears emerging from dens prey voraciously on newly born fawns and moose calves. Understandably that’s unsettling to some people. But it’s also understandable that ravenous bears — sows with cubs — prefer fresh meat to moldy acorns. Therefore, if bear numbers were to increase out of hand, the number of fawns killed by bears would increase, which wouldn’t bode well for deer herds struggling to recover. That alone should be reason enough to leave the management of Maine’s bear population to the DIFW. Otherwise it will be lost to the misguided votes of people who, for the most part, know nothing about bears, bear hunting and bear management.
Furthermore, word from Galen Ruhlin of Gouldsboro is that bears destroyed 89 bee hives this year on blueberry barrens harvested by Cherryfield Foods Inc. of Cherryfield. Owing to Ruhlin’s 30 years of experience in hunting, trapping and handling bears, Cherryfield Foods hires him to trap and remove the bee-hive bandits. This spring, the company rented 55,000 hives to ensure pollination of the blueberry plants.
Comparatively, a loss of 89 hives doesn’t seem like much. But the cost of replacing them is substantial. Not to mention repairing savable hives. Using culvert traps, Ruhlin and his assistant, Melanie Hurd of Bucksport, removed 28 bears. The animals were sedated — at additional cost — tagged, transported and released at distances of 20-30 miles.
Suffice it to say that Maine’s important bear population requires professional management. Otherwise the animals will overpopulate, creating “nuisance bear” problems that threaten people as well as properties. For instance, when bear hunting was banned in New Jersey the subsequent increase in home invasions resulted in reinstatement of the bear-hunting season. However, because forewarned is forearmed, Mainers can guard against conflicts with bears by voting for facts (science) rather than fiction in the forthcoming bear referendum.
Allowing that the economic, recreational and societal benefits of bear hunting, as is, are immeasurable, Maine cannot afford to lose the bear referendum. To do so not only would encourage the continual erosion of the outdoor traditions, cultures and heritage symbolic of the state, it also would degrade and dishonor the DIFW’s extensive bear-management program — arguably the most respected nationwide. Think about it.
Tom Hennessey of Hampden is a sportsman, writer and artist. He retired as the BDN’s outdoors writer in 1999 and contributed regular columns to the BDN until 2013.