Maine's Bear Referendum: What's At Stake?
By V. Paul Reynolds

Remember Maine's bear referendum?

It has been almost a decade since animal rights activists tried to shut down Maine's traditional autumn black bear hunt with a so-called citizen initiative referendum. Championed by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the bear referendum required Mainers to decide whether they favored a ban on bear baiting by bear hunters. To do so would have, in effect, outlawed bear hunting as we know it in Maine. (Bear hunting closure advocates argue that bears can still be hunted by stalking if the referendum succeeds in closing down hunting bears with hounds, traps or over baits. Sportsmen argue that, unlike the open spaces of the West, this just isn't a realistic or effective hunting method in Maine's dense fir thickets).

The 2004 bear referendum contest was a monumental battle in the court of public opinion. On the front lines were the animal rights extremists on one side and, on the other, Maine sporting camps, outfitters, guides and sporting organizations like the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine (SAM), state fish and game clubs, and the Maine Professional Guides Association (MPGA). The challenge for the sporting community was to marshal facts, to educate the average non-hunting voter who could have easily been swayed by the seductive emotional appeals advanced by the proponents of the bear hunting ban.

That was no easy task. Like any statewide referendum, it was a money fight, as well as a political contest. With so much at stake, the sporting community, including the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIF&W), really turned to and pulled out all the stops. When it was over, when the smoke cleared, the voters rejected the bear-hunting ban by a small majority. Some lessons were learned - by both sides. The animal rights advocates discovered a chink in the armor, an area of vulnerability: post election polls showed that, had the referendum been limited to strictly bear trapping, the outcome of the vote might have been different. The sporting community learned that these statewide referendum contests are very expensive. Bear guides, sporting camp operators and outfitters don't have deep pockets. They have just so many of these fights left in them. The opposition, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), on the other hand, is rolling in money.

The fear was, that in time, when conditions warranted, the HSUS would launch another assault against Maine's black bear hunt. It has happened.

This winter, James Cote, the executive director of the recently formed Maine Wildlife Conservation Council, issued this statement: "For those who don't know, the Humane Society of the United States is proposing to ban Maine's three most effective methods of bear hunting- baiting, trapping and dogs. This initiative will appear on the November 2014 ballot, almost identical to the campaign in 2004."

The Maine Wildlife Conservation Council, which comprises the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine (SAM), the Maine Professional Guides Association (MPGA), and some other sportsman groups, is raising the campaign money and spearheading the campaign to educate the Maine voters about what is at stake in this second attempt by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to close down bear hunting in Maine.

Bankrolled chiefly by the national war chest of HSUS, the state bear referendum advocates call themselves Mainers For Fair Bear Hunting. This groups' website states: "Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting seeks to enact long-overdue protections for Maine’s bear population. Bears are majestic and beloved creatures in Maine. Yet it is the only state to allow statewide hounding, baiting, and trapping. These are cruel and unsporting practices that do not reflect Maine values. In just 121 days, with the help of more than 2,000 volunteers, we gathered 78,528 signatures for submission to the Secretary of State's office to place this issue on the ballot."

David Trahan, a former state legislator and current executive director of SAM, has been vocal in his groups' opposition to the referendum. Alluding to HSUS, Trahan writes: " Many of their leaders are ant-hunting militants so extreme, they have been arrested for protesting hunting. Some have even had themselves sterilized as a way to prove their faith and belief in no human population growth as a way to protect animals. The HSUS opposes all hunting and their leaders are devout vegans, having never hunted a day in their lives. They are on a crusade to end hunting and replace sound wildlife management with paid taxpayer funded nuisance control agents. If they get their way, man’s interaction with animals will be that of a spectator."

Conservation Council spokesman Cote notes: "This group of Washington. D.C. anti-hunting extremists has a $150 million war chest that they use to take away hunting rights all over the country- and they don't just focus their efforts on bears. HSUS has taken aim at all kinds of hunting opportunities in other states, including the use of lead ammunition, hunting with dogs for everything from bears to birds, bird hunting in general, trapping, and so much more. "

HSUS has spearheaded a number of successful state-level campaigns to ban bear hunting methods like those used in Maine. Colorado is one example.

Politics aside, what about the bears? Maine has a robust and growing black bear population that is estimated to be in excess of 30,000. Under ideal hunting and trapping conditions, hunters harvest between 2,500 and 3,000 bears, or about 10 percent of the overall population. Maine's bear biologist Randy Cross, a highly experienced and nationally regarded wildlife manager, says that Maine's bear numbers of late have not been stablized by the fall hunt. Says Cross, "To put it into perspective: on average, a township size area might have roughly 62 bears instead of 46 bears 10 years ago. The problem is that every township is not hunted with the same intensity and some townships may have no increase at all in the last 10 years."

Trahan minces no words in his efforts to convince the Maine voters that HSUS does, indeed, have an anti-hunting agenda. Trahan writes: " In 1993, future, and yet to be hired HSUS leader, Wayne Pacelle, lived with two PETA, (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal) workers in Silver Spring Maryland where he worked as Director of the Fund for Animals, the most vocal anti-hunting organization in the country. Up to this point in his life he had participated in “hunt Sabs” sabotages or disruptions of legal hunts on public lands, in addition, he had been arrested fourteen times for various violations, including civil disobedience related to animals."

"In the fall of 1990, a young Wayne Pacelle caught the ear of animal rights extremists with this quote, “We are going to use the ballot box and the democratic process to stop all hunting in the United States … We will take it species by species until all hunting is stopped in California. Then we will take it state by state.”

September is when both sides start spending their television advertising budgets. Although sportsmen have indicated a willingness yet again to reach into their pockets to save bear hunting in Maine, HSUS is expected to outspend sportsmen with campaign expenditures. (Today, the HSUS raises $160 million a year and has $200 million in assets, employing over 630 people.)

It is early in the game, but preliminary polling indicates a tight contest this time around. A number of state leaders have begun to speak out against the referendum. Both Maine gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud and U.S. Senator Angus King have expressed their opposition to the bear referendum. Michaud says, "I do not support the proposed referendum question that would ban hunting bears with bait, traps and hunting dogs. Maine has one of the best, scientifically sound bear management programs in the nation. I firmly believe that decisions about method of take should be left to the experts at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife who have been properly managing our bear population for decades. Current techniques help to maintain a healthy and sustainable bear population. Banning those techniques not only impacts our bear population. It puts our entire wildlife management plan in flux."

Senator King emphasizes the economic aspect: "This is not just a wildlife issue; it is matter of economic justice. Hundreds of Mainers depend on bear hunting for their livelihood. Restricting or banning bear hunting will close businesses and cost many Mainers a source of income, injuring some already-struggling rural communities."

King makes a good point. Maine's annual black bear hunt is said to generate $6.4 million each year to the state's hard-pressed rural economy. Approximately $3.4 million of this amount is new money brought in by non-resident bear hunters, which comprise about half of the bear-hunting community.

Congresswoman Pingree and U.S. Senator Susan Collins refused to take a position, asserting that this was strictly a state-level issue. ( A recent state-wide outdoor column, Outdoors in Maine, reported that Collins had accepted campaign contributions from HSUS and had received a perfect rating from a national animal rights lobby group in Washington.)

The Brunswick Times Record has taken a supportive position on the bear referendum, although it doesn't make a very well-informed or compelling case. Here is is an excerpt: "Bears are too intelligent, and too important to the health of the ecosystem, to be treated so callously. Bears are needed to keep the deer and wild boar population in check; bears will dispatch sick deer and excess feral pigs, keeping their herds healthy."

Huh? Since when has Maine had a problem with feral pigs or an excess of deer?

If past is prologue Maine voters and information consumers can expect two different approaches this fall from the dueling factions in their efforts to win votes. Bear referendum proponents will seek to arouse the emotions of voters in attempts to show bear hunting as cruel and unsportsmanlike. On the other hand, bear referendum opponents - sportsmen and their organizations - have pledged to deal strictly in facts and logic. They will argue that Maine's wildlife management, including bears, rightfully belongs in the hands of trained professionals who have a proven track record of managing Maine's bear populations. They will also point out the economic benefits accrued to rural Mainers from our bear hunt.

There is much at stake in this fall bear referendum, for both sides. With so much money being spent to swing public opinion, voters who pay attention should be familiar with all of the arguments as voting day approaches in November. Meantime, websites are available from both camps for those who want to learn more. They are respectively: savemaines bearhunt.com and mainersforfairbearhunting.com

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program "Maine Outdoors" heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is paul@sportingjournal.com . He has two books "A Maine Deer Hunter's Logbook" and his latest, "Backtrack."


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