The state agency that manages Maine’s bear population is campaigning actively to defeat the bear-hunting referendum on the November ballot.

That’s a stark difference from 2004 when the same ballot measure was defeated by Maine voters. Then the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife remained neutral on the issue.

In both instances, IFW officials and biologists took their cue from Maine’s governor, John Baldacci in 2004 and Paul LePage now.

It is legal for state employees to speak out on ballot issues, according to the Maine attorney general’s office. But political observers say it’s unusual for a department that receives funding from the state to play an advocacy role in a ballot measure.

In the past month on the department’s website, in television commercials, YouTube videos and on social media sites, the department has delivered the message “IFW Biologists and Game Wardens are opposed to the 2014 bear referendum.”

The Nov. 4 referendum asks voters, “Do you want to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety, or for research?” Maine is the only state to allow all three hunting methods to manage its bear population of 30,000 bears, one of the largest in the country, according to IFW.

Historically, the department has received less than 10 percent of its funding from the state’s general fund. The bulk of its funding comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, the vast majority of which are purchased by Maine residents.

In the fiscal year that began July 1, 56 percent of the department’s $38 million annual budget comes from hunting and fishing licenses and outdoor sporting fees. The rest comes from the federal government (25 percent), special revenue such as conservation license plates (12 percent) and the state’s general fund (7 percent).

A decade ago, Gov. John Baldacci decided it was inappropriate for a state department to take a position on a referendum, and Baldacci advised IFW to remain neutral.

“I don’t think it’s the role of government. People rely on their biologists and scientists to be able to say what makes sense in terms of game management. I think it’s more important to maintain that integrity because we all rely on them,” said Baldacci, now a senior adviser on economic development and government relations at Pierce Atwood.

IFW Commissioner Chandler Woodcock, who was nominated for the position by LePage in 2011, said it was a mistake for the department not to speak out in opposition to the 2004 ballot measure. Maine voters defeated the referendum that year, 53 percent to 47 percent.

“I think it is particularly appropriate in this referendum,” Woodcock said. “I think people ought to know the biologists are opposed to it. We have an exceptional team of bear biologists.

“The governor said he is opposed to this particular initiative. We have been allowed to, in uniform, be in opposition to it. He was very specific that he did not want us to say, ‘Vote no.’ We haven’t done that.”

Gov. LePage did not return calls Thursday seeking comment for this story. His office sent a statement that read: “This has been a matter of public policy since the 1990s. IFW is stating its position on the State Bear Management Plan, which has remained virtually unchanged over the years.”

The statement went on to say that the commercials from 2004 were similar to videos IFW has produced this year.

However, there is a difference: In 2004 special-interest groups paid for commercials that stated in an off-camera voice that IFW opposed the ballot measure. This time the department is producing its own videos and broadcasting them across social media sites. Another difference in the videos: In 2004, IFW bear biologist Jennifer Vashon appeared to be off-duty, such as in one where she wore street clothes. This year, numerous IFW personnel appear in uniform, standing as a unified group.

There is precedent for state departments to advocate for the defeat of a ballot measure. The Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game did so in 1996 on the ballot measure aimed at ending the use of dogs and traps in bear hunting. The measure passed, despite the department’s strong opposition, said Marion Larson, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife chief information officer. But Larson said that was in an age when social media was in its infancy, and the department’s message was difficult to get out.

In California, where referendums are common on the political landscape, it’s common for municipal workers to campaign on referendums at the state and local level, said Professor Emeritus Daniel Mitchell of the Anderson School of Management at UCLA. He pointed to 2005, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put four initiatives on the ballot and municipal unions banded together to oppose them. All four were defeated.

But political science experts in Maine and beyond say an entire state department taking a vocal stand on a ballot measure is unusual.

Jeff Siglin at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University could not think of an example of an entire state department lobbying on a referendum. Siglin, a lecturer on public policy, questioned in this case whether IFW could speak for all 73 biologists and 124 game wardens.

“It’s not clear in the (videos). It implies everyone opposes this. If they haven’t surveyed everyone, that’s a problem,” Siglin said.

IFW Wildlife Division Director Judy Camuso said every game warden and biologist was not polled, but not one employee has voiced support of the referendum to her.

“I’ve talked to everyone on staff about this. And unilaterally, they say we are not doing enough, that we need to get out there more. If anything, they are frustrated we are not more aggressive,” Camuso said.

Videos released weekly on the department’s website express the department’s opposition. One featuring Game Warden Kris MacCabe has nearly 13,000 hits on YouTube.

“Who else is going to provide the science, if not the agency responsible for managing the bear population?” Camuso asked. “We’ll be the agency in two years from now or five years. So we want to make sure people have a good understanding of the impact this will have.”

University of Maine’s Political Science Department Professor Mark Brewer said it’s rare to see a state department advocating on a position in a referendum, but in this case it is appropriate.

“It’s unusual, but at the same time there would seem to be a legitimate reason for them to get involved with this,” said Brewer, who specializes in American politics and elections.

Commissioner Woodcock said unusual or not, broadcasting their position is appropriate, and IFW has come just shy of telling voters how to vote. When asked if the department’s message implied its employees wanted Mainers to vote no, Woodcock said of course it did.

“Everything in a campaign is implied,” Woodcock said.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.