The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife spent at least $31,000 on campaign materials, television ads, debate coaching and staff time to fight Question 1, the citizen initiative to ban bear baiting, trapping and hounding in Maine.
The spending was detailed in internal agency documents and invoices released to the Bangor Daily News under the Maine Freedom of Access Act. Question 1 was defeated by Maine voters by about 44,000 votes on Nov. 4.
In the campaign against Question 1, DIF&W took an unprecedented advocacy role on the referendum question. Wardens, biologists and other agency staff spoke at dozens of voter forums around the state and in several TV spots to defeat the initiative.
Although this activity was declared legal by a judge when challenged in October, the legality of state departments spending money and resources to influence a vote is still being questioned by referendum proponents Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, who filed a lawsuit against DIF&W in September.
That suit remains pending in Cumberland County Superior Court.
“It’s absolutely inappropriate for our government to be telling us how to vote,” said Katie Hansberry, director of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting. “Regardless of how people feel about bear baiting, trapping and hounding, all Mainers should really be concerned about this overreach by the government and misuse of government resources and power to influence the outcome of an election.”
The pending lawsuit seeks to stop DIF&W from further use of taxpayer resources and staff time to run a coordinated political campaign, and seeks to force DIF&W staff to immediately respond to FOAA requests for records concerning its campaign activities and bear management practices, according to the complaint.
In addition, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting filed a second suit on Dec. 2 against the Maine Commission for Environmental Ethics and Election Practices, asking the the court to review the commission’s decision to deny its Oct. 30 “request for an investigation of the Maine Wildlife Coalition Council for repeated campaign finance violations,” including failing to report DIF&W contributions to the campaign.
The Maine Wildlife Coalition Council was the central proponent of the No on 1 campaign, against Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, a coalition almost entirely funded by the Humane Society of United States, the chief advocate of changing Maine’s bear hunting laws.
“In elections, transparency is very important,” Hansberry said. “We’re continuing to pursue this litigation.”
Leading up to Election Day, DIF&W stated its opposition to the referendum on the state website and aired a number of online and television campaign ads featuring department biologists and game wardens speaking against the referendum.
According to the documents released by the agency to the BDN, in campaigning against the referendum, DIF&W paid:
— $10,600 to Erica Johnson Design of Westbrook for design services, including the creation of a website, YouTube channel, brochures, PowerPoint presentations, graphics for videos and handouts.
— $5,415 to Patra Co. LLC of Brunswick to produce video ads.
— $3,887 to Salient Point LLC of Boston for public communications and debate coaching for representatives of the coalition against the referendum.
— $170 for Maine Proofreading Services.
— $3,256 for the use of state vehicles.
— $7,849 for 165.5 hours of paid staff time.
The numbers don’t tell the whole story, however.
DIF&W staff spent more than 165.5 hours on campaign-related activities. However, these additional hours were unpaid and therefore were not listed in the FOAA request documents, according Christl Theriault, assistant to the commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, who was in charge of collecting documents for the FOAA request sent by the BDN.
“Many of the hours spent occurred after an employee had already worked their eight hours in the day or 40 hours in the week, and often these were salaried employees, so this time was spent at no additional cost,” Theriault wrote in an email to the BDN.
According to state records, the department sent state employees to speak at more than 50 public events, including formal debates, in opposition to the referendum.
“Nobody was asked to do anything that they were uncomfortable with,” said DIF&W wildlife division director Judy Camuso, a leading spokesperson for the agency on Question 1. “In fact, a lot of regional staff were actually frustrated because they wanted to be more involved.”
Camuso spoke at 33 public events in opposition to the referendum, relaying the message that the use of bait, hounds and traps are necessary to control Maine’s growing black bear population.
“Clearly I’m personally invested in the department’s position,” said Camuso. “I adamantly believe that our management tools are the most effective and most humane things for black bears in the state of Maine.”
DIF&W was established “to preserve, protect and enhance the inland fisheries and wildlife resources of the State; to encourage the wise use of these resources; to ensure coordinated planning for the future use and preservation of these resources; and to provide for effective management of these resources,” according to Title 12 of Maine Revised Statutes.
This mandate was referenced by Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler in October, when she denied an injunction request by Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting that asked the judge to order DIF&W to remove all political content from its website, repay funds to the state that were used in campaign activities and remove television ads featuring DIF&W staff from the air.
In her decision, Wheeler said that DIF&W is “mandated to ‘encourage the wise use of [wildlife] resources.’ Thus, DIF&W is statutorily required ‘to attempt to persuade’ the public to make wise use of these resources, or to make wise use ‘more appealing or more likely to happen.’”
The funds and staff time DIF&W spent in fighting the bear baiting ban is only the beginning of what the department ultimately will spend in this battle against the Humane Society of United States and Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting.
In addition to resources spent on the lawsuit, DIF&W also is working to satisfy multiple FOAA requests made by the Humane Society.
This year, DIF&W personnel spent an estimated 571 hours working on FOAA requests filed by the Humane Society of the United States, said Theriault. By law, a FOAA requester can only be billed at an hourly rate of $15 per hour of work in response to the request.
“As you can imagine, many of the employees that worked on this request have a fully burdened rate of more than $15 an hour,” wrote Theriault in an email to the BDN. “So the cost to the licensed sportsmen and women of the state of Maine has been tens of thousands of dollars more than the $8,568.25 the IFW will be reimbursed for.”
“I don’t think people understand how much time we’ve spent reviewing documents, and we’re only like halfway done,” Camuso said. “Outright, I think we probably spent more money in response to FOAA requests than we did on the referendum.”