May 26, 2020
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Separating fact from fiction in the debate over Maine’s bear referendum

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

“How should I vote on the bear referendum?”

It’s a question asked of me a dozen times by friends and family. My advice: Study the bear referendum by first questioning claims from proponents and opponents. Ballot Question 1 reads: “Do you want to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety, or for research?”

Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting is seeking a “yes” vote; the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is seeking a “no” vote.

I prepared a simple scorecard and assigned a minus point for each lie, half-truth and misrepresentation. The side with the fewest negative points earns my vote.

MFBH claims that “seven million pounds of junk food” is the reason for Maine’s large bear population. It’s true that better nutrition has led to improved bear productivity and survival rates. However, population growth is not due to “junk food,” as claimed in televised ads. MFBH is docked a point for not being truthful. The increase in bears is due to a boon of natural foods. Forest clear-cuts have created thousands of acres of raspberries, elderberries, chokecherries, blackberries, wild raisins and hazelnuts — a smorgasbord for bears. An abundance of nutritional browse in young regenerating forests has bolstered moose populations, benefitting bears, which eat moose carcasses and calves.

A MFBH televised ad also claims that fair chase hunting is a more humane way to kill bears. If humane is defined as killing an animal quickly, then the MFBH fair chase claim is false. As a wildlife biologist, I interviewed many “fair chase” bear hunters who sought their quarry without dogs or bait. Hunters who killed bears over bait piles were also interviewed. What I learned was this: fair chase, although it sounds noble, results in the highest incidence of injured bears, and the reason is obvious — it’s exceedingly difficult to lethally shoot a running bear. On the other hand, bears attracted to bait piles were killed more quickly and cleanly. So, the relevant question then is, what’s more humane: shooting and maiming a fleeing bear during “fair chase,” or instantly killing a standing bear eating a donut? MFBH was docked a point for falsely claiming that fair chase is more humane.

MFBH claims that as fair chase hunts attract more ethical hunters, the number of bears killed statewide (about 3,000) will eventually match bears killed by current hunting methods. MFBH points to Colorado as a model for Maine to emulate. Colorado, we’re told, has maintained relatively high bear hunting success rates, even after an end to bear baiting. What MFBH doesn’t say is that Maine’s dense forests are the polar opposite of Colorado’s open terrain, where bears can be seen at great distances. Except on Maine’s beech ridges, where bears are hunted “fairly,” it’s difficult to see beyond 50 feet in much of Maine’s forest. Bears here are harder to stalk, see and shoot. Hence, fair chase is very limited in Maine. I docked MFBH a point for falsely claiming that 3,000 bears can be killed in Maine via fair chase.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is docked a point for a televised ad showing a game warden responding to a nuisance bear in a southern Maine neighborhood. The ad leaves viewers with the impression that passage of Question 1 will interfere with wardens’ abilities to respond to nuisance bear complaints. That’s untrue because public safety is covered in Question 1.

IF&W correctly claims that passage of the referendum will result in a spike in bear-human conflicts. Most bears have learned to avoid humans, thanks to hunting-induced aversion conditioning. A “yes” vote win would reverse this conditioning, force bear hunting outfits out of business and lead to a steep drop in bear hunters. Simply put, un-hunted bears habituate to people, and that’s a recipe for trouble.

Maine taxpayers would pay animal damage control agents to remove increasing numbers of nuisance bears. Therefore, isn’t it more logical to allow hunters to kill bears with income supporting struggling Maine sporting lodges and rural communities vs. taxpayers paying agents to kill hungry bears ransacking trash cans, automobiles and kitchens?

My scorecard results: MFBH receives a minus 3; IF&W receives a minus 1. Therefore, I’m voting no on the bear referendum. Maine’s bear management is the responsibility of professional state biologists, not Mainers For Fair Bear Hunting.

Ron Joseph is a retired Maine wildlife biologist.


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