Do you want to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety, or for research?
Maine has the largest — and most studied — black bear population in the eastern U.S. And, because most bears live where the human population is sparse, there are few conflicts between the two. This balance would be disrupted by ending the state’s bear hunt as we know it, which Question 1 would do. Voters should reject this referendum, put on the Nov. 4 ballot by Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting and the Humane Society of the United States, which is on a national campaign to limit hunting.
Although trapping and hounding bears is cruel and of little biological value, Question 1 lumps these techniques in with baiting, which is used, with little detrimental effect, by most bear hunters in Maine. By far, most bears killed by hunters in Maine are taken over bait; hounding and trapping accounted for only 20 percent of successful bear hunts last year.
That’s why it was shortsighted — and irresponsible of IF&W and sportsmen — not to ban these two practices, which a majority of Mainers find objectionable. In 2004, the Humane Society put essentially the same question on the ballot (which highlights that this isn’t a home-grown effort to change Maine’s hunting practices). Bear hunt supporters said then that they understood that most people objected to hounding and trapping and that banning those practices could prevent another referendum to ban baiting. Ten years later, with no action to get rid of trapping and hounding, voters again are being asked to ban all three. This was a risky and unnecessary gamble.
“That rejection was a real gamble,” George Smith, the long-time former head of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, wrote in a BDN blog post last month. “Without question, if this referendum was just about baiting, our campaign would be a lot easier. In fact, there probably wouldn’t have been a referendum at all.”
It is also wrong that IF&W has spent state money and time producing videos and literature against Question 1 — especially because the facts are largely on its side.
Proponents of the ban have portrayed baiting as stuffing bears with junk food for a “canned” hunt and have argued that baiting is responsible for the growth of Maine’s bear population. Bait does concentrate bear — and hunters — in parts of the forest often used exclusively by guide services that pay for the privilege. But bait is only a small portion of bears’ diets, as they visit bait sites sparingly in their quest for food in preparation for their winter hibernation. Even with bait, natural foods, such as berries and rodents, make up the majority of bears’ diets. Bears are resourceful creatures with tremendously varied diets, and they thrive on the regeneration of forested habitat in Maine. The black bear population is growing across the country, including in states that have banned baiting.
Proponents also have argued that hunting over bait essentially guarantees a successful hunt. But only a quarter of bear hunters are successful in Maine, during a four-month season (hunting over bait is allowed for four weeks). By comparison, 70 to 80 percent of moose hunters typically bag their prey in a season spread over six weeks in different parts of the state, with most regions limited to a one-week hunt.
Out-of-state bear hunters far outnumber those from Maine. IF&W should look at the current system, with leased bait sites, to ensure that local sportsmen aren’t being pushed or priced out of the hunt.
Maine’s bear hunt is also an important source of revenue and employment in some of the state’s most rural areas. According to an economic study done for the IF&W and the Maine Department of Tourism and released this week by Save Maine’s Bear Hunt, bear hunting in Maine has an impact on 565 jobs.
Voters should reject Question 1. If it fails at the polls, the Legislature and IF&W need to ban recreational bear trapping and hounding, or risk having this costly fight again.