I was surprised to read George Smith’s column, “Lessons of the bear referendum,” in the Nov. 26 newspaper, especially since Smith was not involved in the leadership team that defended bear hunting in Maine.

Smith’s actual role was that of a political blogger who was, in reality, often in conflict with Save Maine’s Bear Hunt’s No on 1 campaign.

In one of Smith’s blogs, he claimed the No on 1 campaign was using scare tactics to frighten the public about potential nuisance bear problems if the referendum passed. “You do not need to be scared of bears,” he wrote. “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.”

Leaders of the Yes on 1 campaign used Smith’s comments in their ads supporting the referendum.

Here are some lessons learned from someone who was on the front lines.

• The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is ruthless and willing to deceive the public. I personally witnessed its tactics prior to the referendum. In his column, Smith says sportsmen were offered a compromise to avoid a referendum. This is untrue: We were offered an ultimatum and told other referendums would follow if we didn’t cooperate.

During the last phases of the campaign, HSUS used hound hunting ads showing eight to 10 dogs (illegal in Maine; only six dogs are allowed) tearing a cub apart (illegal under Maine’s animal cruelty laws). Its 30 staff lawyers unsuccessfully attempted to sue the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife twice, and filed an unsuccessful frivolous ethics commission complaint. They also used non-residents to gather referendum signatures, a violation of our state constitution (Article 15, Section 20).

• Prior to the campaign, Smith stated publicly the he didn’t believe sportsmen could raise enough money to win, and pondered whether we should give up dogs and cable restraints for managing bears.

Smith was wrong. Sportsmen and women rallied from all over Maine and the country, and raised nearly twice the cash they raised 10 years before. Rural Maine turned out the vote, and the “No on 1” campaign won 13 of 16 Maine counties. The bear referendum won in only three counties, Cumberland, York and Knox, all heavily settled suburban/urban areas.

HSUS targeted Portland and similar communities, where people have little or no real life experience with bears, because they were easily swayed by emotionally driven, deceptive ads.

More education and money is needed to prevent this from happening again. Sportsmen’s dollars, through license fees, have paid for nearly all programs protecting wildlife ($2.5 billion), since the Pitman/Robertson Act was passed in 1937. Sportsmen will not wait for General Fund money, which never comes. The time to lead is now!

• The core No on 1 campaign message was, “Trust Our Wildlife Biologists.” Maine people understood that an out-of-state, mega-animal rights group with a national agenda was behind the Yes on 1 campaign, and rejected those outside invaders, choosing instead to trust our trained professional wildlife biologists.

I am the proud leader of Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, the state’s largest sportsmen’s organization devoted to the principles of proper conservation, to “preserve, protect and restore the natural environment and ecosystems, vegetation and wildlife.”

Smith and others who say, “If we just give up hounding and trapping, HSUS will leave us alone,” are living a fantasy. More importantly, they are abandoning the foundation of all accepted conservation models, trading it for managing wildlife in a political vacuum — all for a short-term victory.

It is always appropriate for Maine people to debate controversial management tools and wildlife harvest methods. Missing in this post-referendum discussion, however, is an answer to the question: If dogs and traps are made illegal, what tools or options are still available to manage a safe and healthy bear population?

Maine has an all-time high of 31,000 black bears; IF&W biologists say we need to harvest 3,500-4,500 bears annually to maintain a healthy bear population. The annual harvest is already 500-1,500 shy of that goal; banning dogs and traps would lower it an additional 500. How would we reach harvest goals using only bait? The only options left are:

• Expand the bear baiting season beyond one month.

• Create a spring bear baiting season.

• Allow Sunday bear hunting during these seasons.

All these options are controversial, and likely would divide the outdoor community. They also, of course, are opposed by HSUS. But it is irresponsible to continue this debate without asking these important questions.

The most important lesson we all learned in this referendum debate? Complicated wildlife management decisions are best made by trained professionals, not by bloggers and 30-second deceptive ads.

David Trahan is executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Augusta. Email at [email protected].

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