In the 2004 bear referendum, the opposition decided its best strategy for winning was to scare voters.
Instead of trying to defend unethical hunting and inhumane practices that demean Maine’s true hunting tradition, it was decided that it would be more effective to use misrepresentations, self-serving data and false advertisements. It worked. The proponents lost narrowly in 2004 as they could not overcome this alarmist strategy.
Ten years later, the opposition apparently determined early on that the best campaign approach was to double down on this strategy: Scare voters with talk of animal-rights extremists. Scare them with fear of exploding bear populations. Scare them with threats of the beginning of the end of all hunting. Scare them by quoting a self-serving, doom-and-gloom economic report. Scare them with stories of dangerous bears in backyards.
The biggest falsehood, front and center both in 2004 and 2014, is the preposterous claim that passing the referendum will make it more likely that bears will endanger people. To begin with, there has never been one study done to support that premise, and evidence points to just the opposite in three states similar to Maine with dense forests and bear populations, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, which passed similar referendums in the 1990s.
In 2004 the opponents of the bear referendum evoked the slogan and mantra of “science” and “safety.” The opposition released statements and TV ads strongly implying that if the referendum passed, families and pets would be attacked by dangerous bears. One ad featured a bear being shot in a heavily populated section of South Portland.
The TV ads in 2014 have continued with this false premise. Enough. Not one person in Maine has ever been killed or even seriously injured by a Maine black bear. Not one. How do we make this huge leap to imminent danger?
Consider this. Nationally respected bear biologist Lynn Rogers has written, “Black bears are gentle, elusive, intelligent, timid and peaceful animals that avoid human contact.”
Even Bangor Daily News outdoors columnist John Holyoke, a staunch opponent of the referendum, has written about this false safety issue. “The more alarmist among them [referendum opponents] have suggested that bears will attack people, eat their babies and terrorize us all,” he wrote earlier this year. “That’s just hyperbole, and has no place in the upcoming debate.”
If we have a bear nuisance problem in Maine, it will be no more than the nuisance problems we have with deer and raccoons, and under existing Maine law and in the referendum language, a problem bear can be killed. Not leaving food outside, taking in your bird feeder at night and banging two pots together is all the safety you need. Also, as humans continue to expand into wooded habitat, there has to be some social tolerance for these wildlife interactions.
What’s even worse this campaign season is that the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife trumpets the same scare tactic, hardly a surprise given its unethical, if not illegal, coordinated campaign with the opposition.
A department that prides itself on data and reports has zero evidence to support its claim of potential bear-related danger. A claim that it could happen isn’t evidence. But I guess it’s all you need to make the centerpiece of your strategy a scare tactic.
Robert Fisk Jr. of Falmouth is president and director of Maine Friends of Animals. He was campaign director for proponents of Maine’s 2004 bear referendum.