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In Maine, Opposing Sides Gear Up For Battle Over Bear Hunting Referendum

Michael Webber via Flickr CC

Supporters of a referendum to ban the use of bait, hounds and traps in Maine's annual bear hunt began canvassing neighborhoods in Portland over the weekend. Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting say they don't oppose hunting in general, just the use of what they consider cruel and inhumane practices. They plan to contact tens of thousands of voters across the state over the next few weeks to make their case. Opponents are also gearing up.  And both sides are feeling confident as the election draws closer.

This story was originally published by MPBN News.

If it sounds like a familiar issue, it is. Mainers defeated a similar campaign to restrict bear hunting in 2004 by a narrow margin. Since then the state's bear population has risen from 23,000 to 30,000, and the number of bear hunters has dropped by about 3,000.

But Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, the largest animal rights organization in the country and the primary backer of the Yes on One campaign, says he's feeling good about his chances this time around. "You know our polling shows that we're leading and that we've got really strong support with women who are Democrats, Independents and Republicans," he says.

Wayne Pacelle (canvassing): "Hi there, how are are you?"

Sara Birch: "Good, how are you?"

Wayne Pacelle: "Are you a Maine voter?"

Sara Birch: "Yes, I am."

Wayne Pacelle: "Oh, I'll just grab you. I'm with the Humane Society of the U.S. and we are working to stop these inhumane and unsporting bear hunting practices."

Sara Birch: "OK."

Going door-to-door in Portland over the weekend, Pacelle encountered several supporters of Question 1, and others, like Sara Birch, who says she moved to Maine about five years ago and didn't know anything about the referendum or how bears are hunted. Pacelle hands her a campaign brochure and offers a quick description of how bears are hunted with bait, dogs and traps. He tells Birch that Maine is the only state that allows all three methods and asks if he can count on her support.

"Yeah," she says. "That's crazy. I didn't know that was how bad it was. I can't believe people would do (it) that way."

The Humane Society of the United States is a well-funded nonprofit that has worked to end dog fighting, cock fighting, seal hunting and whaling, and has helped crack down on puppy mills around the country. It has also backed successful efforts to end bear baiting, trapping and the use of hounds in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Massachusetts.

Pacelle says the group has a compelling, rational argument about bear hunting that he thinks resonates with voters, especially bear baiting. "Bear baiting is a problem in the state," he says. "It's unfair and it creates problems for bears and people. You're habituating bears to human food sources and you're supplementing their feed, which is going to spur reproduction."

But biologists with Maine's Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department, who have been researching Maine's bear population for 40 years, say that's not the case. Jen Vashon is considered one of the nation's leading experts on the species.

"What we find here in Maine and across North America is that black bear populations respond to natural foods regardless of whether there's bait allowed in those states," Vashon says. "So, in years when natural foods are really abundant for black bears, we actually see fewer bears harvested by hunters using bait. That's because black bears prefer natural foods over bait."

In other words, says Vashon, bears prefer berries to barrels loaded with pastries and other sweets at bait sites. And if they didn't, Vashon is convinced bear nuisance complaints would be higher. That's because Maine has the largest bear population in the eastern United States and the lowest rate of nuisance complaints.

And, despite referendum supporters' assertion that baiting is one of the factors behind Maine's growing bear population, Vashon says there's no evidence to support that. "Maine's reproduction rates do not differ significantly from other states that don't have baiting," she says. "Our litters average about two to three cubs per litter. In some states litters of four and five are also common."

Vashon says her department is concerned about losing what it considers the most effective methods to control Maine's large bear population. She points out that only about one in four hunters is successful hunting bears with bait, so it's not a guarantee.

James Cote, campaign manager for the Save Maine's Bear Hunt campaign, says No on One supporters are encouraged by the fact that their side has support from political leaders across the state on both sides of the aisle and in between.

"We've got all three candidates for governor - Gov. LePage, Mike Michaud, Eliot Cutler support our position and oppose this referendum," Cote says. "In addition, (Sen.) Angus King has made a personal statement that is very supportive of our position. We've got every member of legislative leadership, to my knowledge, supports our position. And both candidates in the 2nd Congressional District support our position."

Cote says he cannot recall any referendum having such broad political support. That said, the election is expected to be a close one, with supporters appealing to voters' emotions and opponents asking voters to rely on the state's bear experts.

Deputy News Director Susan Sharon is a reporter and editor whose on-air career in public radio began as a student at the University of Montana. Early on, she also worked in commercial television doing a variety of jobs. Susan first came to Maine Public Radio as a State House reporter whose reporting focused on politics, labor and the environment. More recently she's been covering corrections, social justice and human interest stories. Her work, which has been recognized by SPJ, SEJ, PRNDI and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, has taken her all around the state — deep into the woods, to remote lakes and ponds, to farms and factories and to the Maine State Prison. Over the past two decades, she's contributed more than 100 stories to NPR.

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