Here are the truths about the referendum on bear hunting and trapping. And before I get to them, let’s do a bit of disclosure.
In the campaign against the 2004 bear referendum, on the same issues, I raised the money and my sister Edie managed the campaign. But in this year’s referendum, I have no paid or even unofficial involvement, other than talking with my friends who are active in the campaign and writing about it occasionally in my outdoor news blog.
As is the case in any political campaign, you won’t know much more about bear hunting and management on Election Day than you did before the campaign began. That’s the nature of 30-second TV ads, where most of the campaign money goes.
Even worse, unless you seek out a knowledgeable person and ask good questions, there isn’t much of an opportunity to really learn about the issues. I have been surprised by the number of people who have asked me questions, and grateful for the opportunity to help them understand the issues.
Consider this our conversation on the referendum, written to help you understand the issues.
First, it must be acknowledged that we do not need hounding and trapping to keep the bear population in check. Very few people participate in those activities and they harvest very few bears. I am not saying there is anything wrong with those activities, but simply stating the facts. And, in fact, 18 of the 32 states that offer bear hunting allow the use of dogs.
The Humane Society of the United States, or HSUS, likes to say we’re the only state that allows these practices, and they get away with this because we are the only state that allows bear trapping. Twelve of the 32 states with bear hunts allow the use of bait.
Hunting with dogs is a great heritage but a controversial practice. The largest sportsmen’s group in Montana, two years ago, defeated a proposal to allow bear hunting with hounds in that state. And Maine had to crack down on nonresidents who were coming here with hounds to hunt bears and then going home and leaving some of their hounds here in the woods. That’s when the Legislature changed the law and required nonresidents who hunt with hounds to employ and hunt with a Maine guide.
Second, hounding, trapping and baiting are not cruel or unfair — unless you are among those who think that bears should be armed to have a fair chance. Even the Humane Society of the United States knows this — which is why in their ballot initiative they allow all three practices to be employed in the future to deal with problem bears.
Third, the use of bait is essential to today’s harvest of bears, and in fact has been insufficient in recent years to deliver the harvest that the bear managers at Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife say they need to keep the population from continuing to increase. It is also essential to the bear hunting industry, and all the people — from guides to country stores — that depend on bear hunting for a good portion of their business.
Fourth, it is much better to allow a hunter to bring a bear into his bait site and be selective about which bear to shoot — and especially to avoid shooting sows with cubs — than expecting the hunter to happen onto a bear and shoot it as it races away, with no chance to be selective and to avoid shooting a sow with cubs.
Fifth, you do not need to be scared of bears. I will admit that scaring you about bears was an important part of our strategy in 2004, and remains a powerful issue for those opposing the referendum. If you see a bear in the woods, you are most likely to see its rear end as it flees. I have had quite a few encounters with bears in the woods and never had a problem. Yes, some people are attacked and killed each year by black bears, but that is not something that should worry you or drive your vote on this issue.
Sixth, if the referendum is enacted, to have any chance at harvesting a significant number of bears, we’ll have to offer bear hunting from the time they come out of their dens in early spring to the time they re-enter those dens in the late fall. Maine banned the spring bear hunt about 20 years ago. We’ll have to bring it back.
HSUS likes to say that the states of Oregon and Washington have good harvests of bears without using hounds or bait. But those states now allow almost any hunters — no matter what species they seek — to shoot a bear if they see it. And they’ve extended the bear hunting season tremendously. I do not think we should encourage other hunters to shoot a bear if they happen upon it. They won’t be prepared to harvest the meat and make use of the bear.
An extended bear hunting season will be a problem for landowners as well as other outdoor recreationists who have lots of time now to enjoy the woods without hunting going on there.
HSUS says we should be hunting bears over natural bait. OK, bears love blueberries. But do we really want bear hunters out in the blueberries at the same time folks are trying to harvest those berries? I think not!
The only sensible vote on this issue is no. I hope the no vote wins by a substantial margin, so we don’t have to do this again in 10 years — partly because it’s expensive. The two sides will spend about $5 million on this campaign this year.
Just think what we could have done for Maine wildlife if we’d directed that $5 million into good wildlife management and habitat projects.