The fate of Maine’s bear hunt was again in the hands of Maine voters on Election Day, who went to the polls to decide 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?”
And as the votes trickled in on Tuesday night, it appeared that once again, the answer was “no.”
For months, this controversial citizen initiative has stirred Mainers into a passionate debate over hunting practices. To answer this seemingly simple yes-or-no question, voters have turned to reasons concerning ethics, tradition, economy and science.
The group that led the pro-ban campaign, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, was almost entirely funded by the Humane Society of the United States, a Washington, D.C. organization that seeks to “eliminate the most inhumane and unfair sport hunting practices.”
Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting has spent months convincing Maine voters that hunting the state’s black bears using bait, dogs and traps is “cruel, unsporting and unnecessary.”
The opposition disagrees entirely, stating that baiting, trapping and hounding are hunting tools necessary to control Maine’s bear population, which state biologists predict is about 30,000 bears. In 2013, hunters using one of these three methods accounted for 93 percent of the bears harvested during Maine’s bear hunting season in the fall.
This isn’t the first time Maine’s bear hunting practices have been placed under public scrutiny. In 2004, Mainers rejected an identical anti-baiting ballot measure, 53 percent to 47 percent. Voters in nine mostly rural counties opposed the measure overwhelmingly, while more southern and coastal parts of the state were divided. Portland voters gave the ban strong support.
In 2004, pro-ban groups raised about $930,000 for the campaign, while their opposition raised just shy of $1.3 million.
This time around, more money was raised by both sides. The pro-ban campaign raised about $2.7 million. On the other side of the debate, groups opposing the referendum raised about $2.4 million, according to financial reports filed to the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.
Polls have shown the “no” side of Question 1 leading, but several voters interviewed by the Bangor Daily News on Election Day had mixed feelings — and divided loyalties.
Portland resident Kyle Allen, 27, a non-hunter who works as a long-term disability specialist at Unum, said he chose to vote against the ban after months of consideration. At first, he was in favor of the ban, but his thoughts evolved after talking to hunters.
“I was going to vote based on the things I thought I knew, but I don’t hunt, so I don’t know anything,” Allen said. “So I talked to people who knew what they were talking about, and they persuaded me.
“Until I entered the booth, I didn’t know how I was voting,” said Roxanne Munksgaard, co-owner of Maine Jewelry & Art in Bangor. “I come from a family of hunters. My husband is vehemently for keeping hunting the way it’s been. But it’s not compassionate — that was my feeling.”
Like many voters that showed up at the Bangor polls, Munksgaard did her research on the referendum. She read newspaper articles, watched televised debates and even looked up information about other states that have passed similar referendums. She listened to the arguments set forth by both sides.
In the booth, she decided her vote was yes, to ban the three hunting methods.
“That’s what my heart said,” Munksgaard said.
The primary group opposing the ban, Save Maine’s Bear Hunt and Management Programs, was endorsed by a long list of state and national outdoor organizations, including the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Maine Professional Guides Association and National Rifle Association. Also of note, all three candidates for governor stood in opposition to the referendum.
In an unprecedented move, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife stated that it strongly opposed the referendum early in the race. The department’s position was clearly expressed by state wardens and biologists through websites, TV and online ads, public debates and media interviews.
“There’s no question that they’ve been our most powerful messengers by far,” said James Cote, manager of the NO on 1 campaign.
“I trust the scientists,” said Tory Gram, 25, of Orono. “I don’t bear hunt. I’m not sure if I ever will. And I’m not going to go bear hunting to decide how I’m going to vote. I’d rather trust the experts.”
DIF&W biologists predict that without these hunting methods, Maine’s bear population will climb, leading to more numerous and severe human-bear conflicts.
That was the main concern for Bangor resident Andrea Lane, who visited the polls with her 12-year-old son, Sam, on election night. They both had strong opinions about Question 1. In fact, they were on “opposite sides of the fence.”
Sam recently wrote an essay for school about why he would vote yes on Question 1, if he were old enough to vote. Much of his essay centered on how these hunting methods, namely trapping, can cause bears to suffer.
Andrea Lane, however, voted no on Question 1.
“We moved [to Bangor] two years ago from Greenville, where we’ve had bears on our doorstep,” said Andrea Lane. “I don’t want bears on my doorstep here.”
However, she wished that bear baiting, trapping and hounding could be voted on separately — a sentiment several voters expressed at the Bangor polls Tuesday afternoon.
“I have a lot of friends who are hunters, and they wished it could have been broken down into three votes instead of the way it was done — one blanket vote,” said Bill Libby, 53, of Orono, who voted no, but “with reluctance” because he wants to know more about how these methods of hunting actually work.
Portland resident Doug Morgan, however, 39, voted in favor of the ban. He said he’s not opposed to hunting, but feels that bear baiting doesn’t meet that definition.
“It’s not a sport, basically,” said Morgan a self-employed musician. The campaign had little effect on his choice, he added. Instead, he based his decision on a face-to-face encounter he’d had with a bear in Sebago.
“I was coming out of a buddy’s basement and I almost bumped into a bear, it was that close,” Morgan recalled. “It wasn’t aggressive at all.”
But Bud Taylor, 80, of Portland said he voted against the ban, letting traditions guide his decision. “My family has been involved in hunting over the years, and we figure we should keep the population of bears down,” Taylor said.
He said the Yes on 1 campaign wasn’t effective. “Not to me, anyway,” he said.
Both sides of the debate have made predictions about the potential economic impact of the ban. More than half of the hunters pursuing black bears in Maine each year come from out of state, and they hire Maine guides and outfitters to aid them in their hunts.
Total spending by bear hunters in Maine totaled nearly $53 million last year, according to a new economic study prepared for the Maine Office of Tourism and Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The study also found that bear hunting has an impact on more than 550 jobs in Maine.
Don Helstrom, a Millinocket native who has been guiding bear hunters since the mid-1960s, was heavily involved in anti-referendum campaign in 2004 and 2014. He was among the crowd of No on 1 supporters gathered at Orono’s Black Bear Inn on Election Night to watch the polls.
“It’s not a job, it’s your life,” said Helstrom, who attended the event with his wife and two daughters. “When you’ve done it as long as I have done it, they’re taking more than just a job away from you.”
In Portland, Yes on 1’s campaign director Katie Hansberry addressed a crowd of supporters in at the Embassy Suites at 9:40 p.m. to offer thanks for an “incredible campaign” and to say she was hopeful. She asked supporters to stay at the Election Night party until 1 a.m. until the results are certain.
Hansberry acknowledged the road to the election has been a “hard fight,” especially in light of the state agencies’ decision to support the opposition.
“We’re feeling so good about this. We are confident,” she said. “Maine voters want to see these three cruel and unsporting practices done away with.”