In a few months, the future of bear hunting in Maine will be in the hands of voters, and proponents from both sides of the debate are turning to science and ethics to convince residents how to vote. Passage of the referendum would ban popular bear hunting methods such as baiting, which proponents of the ban consider to be cruel and unnecessary practices. On the other hand, many are concerned that if hunting methods are restricted, the state’s bear population will rise dramatically, leading to widespread starvation, disease and human-bear conflicts.
November’s ballot places the issue front and center as 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?”
Leading up to Election Day, Nov. 4, voters will hear a variety of theories, opinions and statistics about Maine’s black bears from animal rights activists, biologists, hunters and guides. Here’s what you need to know.
How many bears is ‘too many’?
Despite the popularity of bear hunting in Maine, the bear population has risen about 30 percent in the past 10 years, according to state biologists. It’s believed that 30,000 black bear are living in Maine, a number that is nearing the state’s “cultural carrying capacity.”
“That’s just a fancy way of saying that that’s as many nuisance problems as people are willing to tolerate or accept,” said state bear biologist Randy Cross.
As a general rule, more bears equals more nuisance complaints. Over the past decade, nuisance complaints have risen from 400 to 500 annually.
“There are certain years when you would wonder if we hadn’t exceeded that public tolerance of these [human-bear] conflicts,” Cross said.
State biologists believe the increase in bear population is because of a growth in bear habitat after the recent spruce budworm outbreak. The outbreak spurred logging companies to cut down vast tracts of forest to prevent the tree-eating insects from making the timber worthless. As a result, new-growth forests cropped up that were abundant in natural bear food such as berries, sedges, clover and insects.
The DIF&W’s goal is to keep Maine’s bear population stable, but to do that, state biologists estimate an annual harvest of 3,500-4,500 bears is needed to offset the number of new bears entering the population each year. For that, biologists rely on hunters — successful hunters.
“We need methods that are successful,” said state bear biologist Jennifer Vashon. “And despite having bait, hounds and traps, we have about one in four hunters that are successful at harvesting a bear each fall. If we lose these methods to the referendum, we expect our success rates to decline to about 3 to 5 percent.”
The annual bear harvest has fallen far below harvest goals since 2005.
“If we lose these techniques, the population will increase rapidly, and that’s just the truth of the matter,” Cross said. “It would basically be impossible to remove the number of bears we need to remove without these techniques.”
But Mainers for Fair Bear Baiting disagree. According to the group, Maine’s bear population will not rise significantly if the referendum is passed. In fact, they believe bear bait to be the source of the growing population.
“We have 20 years of data … from other states that have shown that bear populations stabilize [after banning baiting],” said Daryl DeJoy, registered Maine Guide and supporter of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting. “If we want to stop the bear population from growing, let’s stop feeding them.”
Looking to other states
“Of the 32 states and 11 [Canadian] provinces that allow bear hunting, the majority of them allow bait or hounds or traps,” said Vashon.
However, the Humane Society of the United States and other animal welfare groups have been on a mission since the 1990s to ban bear baiting, hounding and trapping throughout the nation. Wayne Pacelle, CEO and president of HSUS, led successful campaigns to ban bear baiting in Colorado in 1992, Massachusetts in 1996, Oregon in 1994 and Washington in 1996.
“The sky did not fall on those states,” said Cecil Gray, a registered Maine Guide from Skowhegan who supports Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting. “Hopefully people look at all the numbers and statistics.”
In a research study conducted for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting focusing on Washington state, bear harvest numbers didn’t decrease after the ban of bear baiting and hounding. In fact, 18 years after the ban, the number of bears harvested had increased by 16 percent, and the number of hunters participating in bear hunts increased by 97 percent.
However, the hunter success rate in Washington in 2012 was 7.3 percent — it took 21,245 hunters to kill 1,558 bears — according to bear harvest reports posted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In Colorado, the still-hunter success rate is slightly higher, between 9 and 10 percent, likely because the more open terrain allows for better spotting of game.
“If I want to go hunting in the fall in Colorado, I pick a spot where there’s a really good choke cherry patch or brush patch,” said Jerry Apker, carnivore biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “I can sit a quarter- to half-mile away on a hillside and set up my spotting scope and locate a bear. I would guess there are very few places in Maine you can do that, and that kind of difference makes comparing Colorado to Maine like comparing apples and oranges.”
Indeed, Vashon expects still-hunters in Maine to have a lower success rate, between 3 and 5 percent, because Maine has a much denser forest, making it more difficult to stalk prey. If her predictions are correct, then it will require 70,000 to 150,000 bear hunters to reach the state’s harvest goals.
About 11,000 bear hunters come to Maine each fall.
“If the referendum passes, we expect half of those hunters to leave because they’re nonresidents that can go and hunt elsewhere,” said Vashon.
Is still-hunting viable?
Brewer native Joel Gibbs, who lives in Lowell, has still-hunted and stalked bear, deer and moose for the past 30 years. He doesn’t think baiting, trapping or using hounds to hunt bear is sportsmanlike.
Still-hunting takes skill, but it isn’t as difficult as people often make it out to be, he said. Most recently, Gibbs killed black bears in five of the past 13 years in Maine, according to DIF&W harvest records.
“If they canceled the baiting and the dogs and all that, in my mind, it would be a great thing because it would put bear back to living off the natural environment — the way they’re supposed to be living,” said Gibbs. “There would be a huge adjustment period, but I don’t think the bear would overpopulate. Mother nature would take care of that.
“The misconception here is that humans need to manage the animal population,” Gibbs said.
Digging through bear bait
Each fall, Maine Guides and hunters dump an estimated 7 million pounds of bait into the Maine woods, Mainers for Fair Bear Baiting state on its website.
While Cross believes that estimate to be high, there’s no way of counting the amount of bait used annually by hunters in Maine. But going with the estimation of 7 million pounds, Cross divided the food estimate by acres of bear habitat in the state to come up with an approximation of food per acre. That amount? One doughnut per acre of bear habitat.
“That gives you a better way of grasping what sounds like this pile of bait that would go all the way from Bangor to Augusta,” Cross said. “It’s not going to upset the balance of nature — just one doughnut per acre.”
Nevertheless, Mainers for Fair Baiting believe that bait is inflating the bear population by providing supplemental, fatty foods to a bear that would otherwise be left to forage for natural foods.
“One thing I don’t think people realize is how much food a black bear needs to eat in the fall,” said Judy Camuso, DIF&W wildlife division director. “They consume 25,000 to 27,000 calories per day, putting on 4 pounds of fat per day. … There’s not enough bait on the landscape to support that quantity of calories.”
To see if bait is affecting the bear population, biologists also monitor the weight of bear yearlings from year to year. This past winter, the average weight of year-old bears measured during the state winter den surveys was 46.6 pounds. By contrast, in 2012, a poor natural food year, yearlings weighed an average of 32.5 pounds.
“The average yearling weight directly correlates with the natural food supply,” Camuso said. “If bait were making an impact, we would expect yearling weights to be consistent from year to year, which they are not.”
When it comes right down to it, both sides of the debate are asking people to look at the facts — the science behind their arguments. And while numbers don’t lie, they can be interpreted different ways.
In the end, some people will vote on this question based on what they believe to be ethical.
Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting call baiting, hounding and trapping “cruel” and “unsporting.”
“We are routinely marginalized as ‘the extremists.’ You read that all the time: animal right extremists,” DeJoy said. “Might it be more extreme to be the guy shooting the bear with its head in a pile of doughnuts?”
On the other hand, state biologists argue that using bait, hounds or traps allows hunters to shoot the bear at close range, where they have a greater likelihood of lining up a clean shot through both lungs. An accurate shot means a quick death.
“If you put the right shot on a bear, [in] 60 seconds, they’re dead,” said Troy White of LaGrange, a registered Maine Guide and owner of Mid Maine Outfitters. “Taking an animal’s life is never something that should be taken lightly, but if you’re going to do it, do it properly. Don’t wound the animal and make it suffer.”
State biologists are worried that if the black bear population continues to grow unchecked, it will reach the state’s biological carrying capacity, which will mean widespread starvation and disease.
“I am one that has to actually go in the field and see bears that are that are in poor shape and having problems with nutrition or injuries or disease,” Cross said. “And when you see it, it’s not pretty.”
At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 4, CBS 13 and the BDN will hold a town hall-style debate about Maine’s bear baiting vote. It will be broadcast live on CBS 13 television and on bangordailynews.com. A limited number of audience seats are available for the debate, which will take place at CBS 13’s Portland studio. To request a place in the audience, fill out this form.