Bear hunting challenged on November ballot

For over 30 years, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) Biologist Randy Cross has devoted his life to the study of Maine’s bear population. Having spent over 150 days in the field and closely monitoring the health and behavior of some individual animals for over 25 years, Cross passionately describes his work as the “proverbial finger on the pulse of the bear population.” This population, however, is perhaps the most hotly debated question on the State’s November ballot.

In 1975, IFW began a 40-year study to examine Maine’s black bears. The information collected from the project is used to maintain balance between the bear population and available resources. The population has been growing steadily, but Cross asserted that “black bears in Maine are very healthy, living in balance with the habitat’s ability to provide sufficient food as a result of managing the population well below carrying capacity.”

Bear hunting is a longstanding tradition in many Maine communities, and Maine is the only state to allow all three methods of trapping: baiting, hounding, and fair chase. Roughly every fifteen years, Maine residents have the opportunity to help IFW set goals for a target bear population and regulate hunting laws to reduce detrimental bear-human interactions. Existing regulations will be addressed in Question 1 on the State’s Nov. ballot. According to IFW, Question 1 asks voters if they want to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety, or for research.

Ten years ago Maine voters were posed with a similar question. A similar level of friction accompanied the 2004 referendum, as conservative parties won by a narrow margin of five percent. This year’s referendum, proposed by animal advocacy groups like the Wildlife Alliance of Maine as well as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), asserts that baiting and hounding hunting methods are inhumane as well as ineffective.

“Other states with large bear populations and strong hunting traditions, including Washington, Colorado and Oregon, have effectively managed their bear populations after banning all of these practices,” said Katie Hansberry, State Director at the Maine Chapter of HSUS. “Not only did they see their bear populations remaining relatively stable and no significant increase in nuisance complaints, they also had the number of bear hunting licenses double or triple as many more hunters sought to engage in fair chase bear hunts. This generated more revenue for those states. Responsible and humane bear management works.”

Hansberry believes that IFW may be, in part, responsible for the bears’ problematic presence in Maine. When voters were posed the same question ten years ago, the bear population was roughly 23,000 with an annual average of about 400 nuisance complaints. Since then, the population has jumped to 30,000 with a 25 percent increase in reported incidents (or an average of 500 per year).
In particular, Hansberry criticized the primary baiting practice—known colloquially as the “jelly doughnut law”—as contributing to the problem. For weeks leading up to the actual hunt, Maine hunters dump tons of old junk food in the woods, hoping to snare an adult black bear in a nearby restraint.

“As demonstrated by Maine’s own data, dumping seven million pounds of donuts, pizza, and rotting food into the woods each year habituates bears to human food and grows the population,” Hansberry said. “That’s why every responsible wildlife agency says ‘don’t feed the bears.’ It’s illogical to say that and then carve out an exception that allows the feeding of bears on a grand scale.”

Cross, however, disagrees. While proponents of the change have repeatedly stated that anthropogenic food draws bears into human settlements, Cross explained that baiting may in fact have the opposite effect. “Bait hunting removes those bears that are the least sensitive to human presence. These bears are willing to expose themselves during daylight in an area where there is some human scent despite the hunters attempts to minimize scent contamination of the area,” Cross said. “The most bold and aggressive bears get removed and the most submissive and shy—showing the greatest human avoidance behavior—live.”

Despite the intense debate surrounding the environmental and biological factors driving this referendum, the conversation itself does not differ much from the one ten years ago. In fact, the issue has served to rehash many of the old issues surrounding the 2004 debate and highlight the intense cultural divide between Maine’s southern cities and the rural counties of the north.
“There’s quite a difference between Southern Maine and Northern Maine,” said Steve Jandreau, owner of Wildlife Artistry, a taxidermy shop in Portage Lake, Maine. “I’m sure this is going to be a big issue with the vote because a lot of people in Cumberland County don’t have to deal with the bears the way we do in Northern Maine. We’re the ones with the bear habitat and they’ve sprawled out and taken over it.”

Wildlife Artistry is one of Aroostook’s most prestigious taxidermy shops. Catering to over 30 hunting outfitters in the North Maine Woods and providing products nationally, Jandreau’s business is a leader in a sizable niche game market, which brings in over $60,000,000 to the State annually.

“It would definitely put me out of business if we lose the bear referendum,” Jandreau said. “75 to 85 percent of my work involves black bears, and the majority of that money is coming from out-of-state—which, for this area of Maine, is virtually unheard of.”
Many of Jandeau’s suppliers and partners are also from the region. Any loss of business for Jandreau would, as he suggests, “trickle down the line.”

“A lot of the outfitters and lodges are family-run, and some of them are handed down from generation to generation,” Jandreau said. “The majority of their business is bear hunting and they couldn’t survive without it.”

Jandreau also noted that the number of hunters has been down since the beginning of the 2008 recession, and the repercussions have had led to tangible consequences for the residence of Portage Lake. “There’s been multiple cases of dumpsters being flipped over—including my own—and trash being spread about. And there’s a couple who have a house just off the lake in Portage, and they ended up having to shoot a bear that was in their garage.”

While Cross alleges that IFW is not politically motivated by the economic factors of this debate, he notes the cultural divide as a key contributing factor. “I think it’s fair to say that most people in Maine are voting on something that they have not participated in, and without that perspective, it’s hard to understand what really happens,” he said.
That being said, Cross also has the welfare of both Maine residents and Maine bears at heart. “What concerns me most is what will happen to the bear population if the referendum passes. Most bears will die of starvation, which I can tell you is a terrible death and not the way we want to manage our bear population.”

Still, proponents of Question 1 are unconvinced that baiting is an effective way to manage the population. “Ending these practices is a win-win for Maine, as other states with large bear populations and strong hunting traditions have done so and seen their bear populations and nuisance complaints become relatively stable,” Hansberry said. “Dumping 7 million pounds of rotting human junk food into the woods every year… is precisely the worst way to manage bears if you want to minimize conflicts with people.”

Looking ahead to Nov. 4, both parties agree that this decision cannot be taken lightly and have urged voters to research thoroughly before checking any boxes. “[Voters should] look deeply into this issue before checking a box,” Cross said. “This decision is not a simple one. Try to base your vote on real information and make your vote an educated vote.”