Contentious referendum is a bear of an issue

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By Erin Place

To bait or not to bait bears, that is the first question on the ballot for Tuesday’s election.

A black bear with its foot caught in a trap.
A black bear with its foot caught in a trap.

The bear hunting referendum has proven to be a contentious issue this election cycle, with coalitions on both sides of the debate raising millions of dollars for campaigns, spending some of that money on a law suit regarding campaign financing for the issue.

As of Friday, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting had raised $1.6 million, according to the Maine Commission on Government Ethics and Election Practices and, to date, the Save Maine’s Bear Hunt and Management Programs, a coalition of organizations and individuals against the referendum, have raised roughly $2 million, campaign manager James Cote said. Both sides have commissioned studies to help strengthen their case.

After gathering more than 78,500 signatures, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting were able to place the referendum on the ballot, which asks, “Do you want to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety, or research?”

“Maine is an outlier when it comes bear management. We’re the only state that allows all three of these cruel and unsporting practices,” said Katie Hansberry, campaign director for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting. She noted that Maine is the only state that still allows bear trapping. Because the animal’s initial reaction is to break free, she’s heard trappers report bears trying to chew their own paws off while snared in a trap. “This is about restoring the fair chase [in bear hunting].”

Mark Lattie, spokesman for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W)—which is against the referendum—said that if it passes, the department stands to lose $1 million a year in revenue from hunting permits and that state biologists posit the bear population would grow, causing more nuisance complaints and costing the IF&W more money.

Jennifer Vashon, lead black bear and lynx biologist for IF&W, said banning the three most effective bear hunting methods would prohibit the state from hitting its harvest objectives, which is between 3,500 and 4,500 black bears annually. In 2013, 2,845 bears were killed with 10,000 hunting permits purchased. She blames the poor economy for the declining numbers of hunters, and for not reaching those benchmarks.

“Without meeting that harvest objective, our population is going to grow even quicker than it’s growing now, and bears will become more common in Southern Maine,” she said, adding that since 2004, the state’s bear population has increased by 30 percent to approximately 30,000 animals.

bear sign
A sign opposing the referendum that would ban the use of bait, dogs and traps in bear hunting is seen on Route 117 in Norway.

Both sides have accused the other of not having sound scientific evidence to back up their claims.

Hansberry and those who support the referendum say that baiting helped the bear’s population to swell in the state, and also habituates them to humans and their food. Seven million pounds of junk food—from doughnuts to pizza to rotting meat—is dumped into Maine woods every year to bait bears, according to a Portland newspaper.

“They have something called delayed implementation. The bottom line is, if a female bear sow goes to den and doesn’t have enough body fat, she terminates her pregnancy,” said Daryl DeJoy, who’s the executive director of the Wildlife Alliance of Maine, has been a registered Maine guide for 23 years and worked as a wildlife rehabilitator for the state. “We’re not saying bait is supporting the bear population. What we’re saying is it makes the difference between bears reproducing and bears just going to den.”

He pointed to a peer-reviewed study released by IF&W and the University of Maine that discovered when beech nuts were abundant, bears would reproduce more, and vice versa. This is before beech bark disease hit Maine around 2004 to 2005, wiping out more than 30 percent of the trees in Northern Maine, he said, which is where most black bears live and are killed in the state. Another IF&W study doesn’t say where or what kind of alternative food sources bears are finding since the decline of the beech tree population in Maine.

“So when you put all these millions of pounds of bait in the woods, it’s having an effect. I’m not saying it’s all they eat. It’s supplementing their food,” said Cecil Gray, a now retired master Maine hunting guide from Skowhegan.

IF&W’s Vashon said her department has no data to support the claim that baiting is helping the state’s bear population grow.

“If their claim were true, we would see our black bears giving birth to larger litters,” she said, noting IF&W visits hundreds of bear dens every winter to monitor reproduction rates. She added that on average, Maine black bears give birth to one to three cubs every other year, which is sometimes fewer than other states.

But for Save Maine’s Bear Hunt and Management Programs’ Cote, it’s about the multimillion dollar bear hunting industry and the jobs associated with that. He pointed to the study conducted by Southwick Associates for the coalition that states $53 million is brought in annually from Maine bear hunting and supports more than 600 jobs.

“So basically when you start talking in those numbers and those terms, it’s almost like another paper mill closing,” he said. “We think that would be a sad day for Maine.”

Hansberry contends the number of bear hunters in Maine will increase in a year or two after the ban, referencing her group’s study done by a research scientist for large carnivore investigation with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. After the 1996 ban of baiting and hounding in the state, not only did the number of bears harvested increase, the average number of bear hunters doubled, and resident bear licenses went up by 343 percent in five years following the ban.

“Voting yes is saying yes for an opportunity for progress in Maine with increased [hunting] licenses, saying yes to a ban on cruelty, saying yes to not dumping millions of pounds of food and saying yes to fair bear management,” Hansberry said.

eplace@advertiserdemocrat.com