Supporters of referendum Question 1 on bear hunting filed a lawsuit Tuesday accusing the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife of illegally using taxpayer money to conduct a political campaign in opposition to the measure.

The lawsuit seeks to force the department to immediately respond to Freedom of Access Act requests concerning its political activities, according to the complaint filed by Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, a coalition of animal welfare advocates. The suit also wants to stop Inland Fisheries and Wildlife from using “taxpayer resources and agency staff time to run a coordinated political campaign.”

Question 1, which will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot, asks if hunters in Maine should be banned from using bait, traps and dogs to hunt black bears. The same referendum was defeated in 2004 by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent.

Inland Fisheries and Wildlife officials interviewed by the Portland Press Herald on Thursday for an article that ran Friday said they have appeared in a number of campaign ads to say they are publicly opposing the referendum, but in the ads they stop short of telling Mainers how to vote. According to the Maine Attorney General’s Office, department officials are allowed to voice their opinion on a ballot measure.

“We will defend the right of members of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and other public officials to speak out on issues of public interest within their regulatory authority and expertise, as permitted by recent case law,” attorney general spokesman Tim Feeley said in an email Tuesday night.

However, in the lawsuit filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, the coalition said the department is doing more than voicing its opposition, and is acting as a political advocacy group.

Katie Hansberry, campaign director for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, said in a news release: “The Maine IFW is using staff time, equipment and agency dollars to influence a statewide election, and this should concern every Maine resident who cares about good government and the proper conduct of elections without heavy-handed intervention from state government. The agency has also been withholding public records that are likely to show an even more widespread use of agency resources in politics.”

Hansberry filed Freedom of Access Act requests in March 2013 and May 2014. The suit says Inland Fisheries and Wildlife “has failed to fully respond” to the requests.

The Yes on 1 campaign claimed in a news release that the department is “providing the public with a steady diet of personal attacks on the proponents of Question 1 and misleading rhetoric, delivered by uniformed IFW employees in partisan television commercials opposing the measure.”

In an email, Hansberry cited several instances in which she said the department has attacked the referendum’s proponents, including a news conference in 2013 in which she said Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock called Mainers For Fair Bear Hunting “a group of well-funded, out-of-state activists who are more concerned about advancing their agenda than they are the welfare of our own residents.”

In a statement Tuesday, Woodcock called the lawsuit a publicity stunt and not founded in fact.

“We are aware of the lawsuit that appears to be politically motivated and designed only to generate headlines,” Woodcock said in an email. “The department will be working closely with the Attorney General’s Office and the attorney general will be defending the department against the allegations. The department is confident that the state will prevail in this matter. There will be no further comment concerning this suit, as this suit appears to be designed to generate publicity and it is not the standard policy of state agencies to comment on the merits of pending litigation.”

Maine has an estimated black bear population of 30,000, according to Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and it is the only state in the nation to allow hunters to use bait, traps and dogs to hunt bear. Fees for licenses to catch, hunt or trap game or fish provided 56 percent of the agency’s $38 million annual budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. Federal funding provides another 25 percent of the budget, special revenues from conservation license plates and other sources provide 12 percent, and the state’s General Fund provides the remaining 7 percent.

Then-Gov. John Baldacci decided it was not appropriate for the department to take a public position on the bear-baiting question when it went to referendum in 2004. However, the agency this year took a different position, with Woodcock saying the department has an obligation to let the public know where its bear biologists stand.

Gov. Paul LePage and his opponents in the gubernatorial election, Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler, all oppose the referendum.

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: FlemingPph

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