PORTLAND— Bear hunting is one of Maine’s oldest traditions, and residents might be able to do more of it in the future — but not before some claws come out in the Maine State House.

Hunters and animal welfare activists are preparing for a spat over a pair of bills that could potentially expand the bear hunt. Maine has the largest population of black bears on the East Coast, and the population is growing swiftly, leading hunting groups to lobby for longer seasons and looser restrictions.

State lawmakers are set to consider a law change authored by the pro-hunting Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine that would give state biologists the ability to adjust the length of the bear hunting season and the number of animals a hunter can kill per year. The group’s president, former state lawmaker David Trahan, said that could result in more hunting opportunities.

A different bill would bring back the state’s spring bear hunt, which animal advocates have long opposed. The two bills will likely be the source of public hearings in the capital, Augusta, later this winter.

“Right now, they are not taking enough bears,” Trahan said. “They have not taken enough bears to slow the growth of the bear population. All we’re saying is, we’ll have the ability to adjust it based on the best research.”

Maine’s bear population includes about 35,000 animals, up from about 23,000 just 15 years ago. The bear hunt takes place every late summer and fall, and hunters are allowed to take one bear via trapping and another via methods including laying bait and pursuing with hunting dogs. Some hunters also use so-called “fair chase” hunting, in which none of those methods are used.

Animal welfare groups have tried in the past to roll back the hunting methods, which they describe as cruel and unfair. They’ve argued that while many states with bear hunts allow some of the methods, Maine is an anomaly in allowing all three — bait, dogs and traps.

By far the most bears in the state are hunted over bait, which is typically sugary human food such as doughnuts. A referendum to ban bait, as well as the use of dogs or traps, failed at the polls in 2014. The welfare groups have already signaled they’ll oppose attempts to grow the bear hunt this year.

The possibility of adding a spring hunt is particularly controversial because of the chance of hunters killing mother bears with cubs, said Daryl DeJoy, who leads a welfare group called the Wildlife Alliance of Maine.

“If we have a spring bear hunt, there’s going to be a lot of moms with a lot of cubs,” DeJoy said. “It’s easy to disprove the hypothesis that hunters don’t shoot moms with cubs.”

State Sen. Paul Davis, R-Piscataquis, is the sponsor of the bill that could give the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife the ability to adjust the bear hunt. Davis said his bill is designed to let biologists tailor the rules of the season to better reflect the size of the population.

“The idea is to turn it over to the people who study this all the time,” Davis said. “We pay these people big money to run the bear season.”


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