August 25, 2013

Maine's bear hunting practices back in the crosshairs

Almost 10 years after failing to abolish baiting and other methods, animal-welfare activists want to revisit the debate: Are these cruel or are they viable wildlife management tools?

By Deirdre Fleming
Staff Writer

Bear hunters in Maine again find themselves in the sights of animal-welfare advocates who contend that some of their practices are inhumane.

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A black bear walks past an empty bait barrel in the Moose River Valley of the Jackman area of Maine during the 2010 hunting season. Bait barrels hold trail mix made of raisins, dried fruit and nuts, granola and doughnuts, said Steve Beckwith, a longtime Maine hunter and hunting guide. Opponents of bear baiting are seeking to ban the practice, saying it’s cruel and gives hunters an unfair advantage.

Courtesy of

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Less than 10 years after Maine residents voted down a divisive referendum effort to abolish the use of bear hunting with bait, dogs and traps, the debate has re-emerged.

As hunters prepare for the first day of bear season Monday, sportsmen, politicians and animal-rights advocates are gearing up for a renewal of the referendum battle that spiked passions on both sides in 2004.

Bear-baiting involves placing food in the same location repeatedly for about a month before the season opens in hopes a bear will get in the habit of visiting the site regularly. Hunters also use dogs wearing radio collars to force a bear up a tree and keep it there until the hunter tracks it down electronically. Traps such as wire foothold snares are also used to hunt bears.

Supporters of banning the practices say they are cruel and give hunters an unfair advantage.

Opponents argue that the practices are vital to keeping the state's bear population in check. If they are banned, the population will explode, and conflicts between bears and people will become commonplace, even in developed areas, they say.

Maine has one of the largest black bear populations in the lower 48 states, according to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and is the only state to allow all three controversial practices.

A coalition led by the Maine chapter of the Humane Society of the United States, called Mainers For Fair Bear Hunting, is behind the ballot initiative. It aims to collect as many as 80,000 signatures next month to get a referendum question on the 2014 ballot. The Secretary of State's Office is still drafting language on the referendum question.

In 2004, voters rejected the referendum question seeking a ban on the three hunting practices by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent. Each side spent more than $1 million on the campaign.

Those backing a ban on the practices said last week they think they'll win this time.

"This is a last resort (after trying several times without success in the Legislature). But with the additional 10 years of experience, we're confident we can win on the ballot," said Katie Hansberry, director of the Maine chapter of the Humane Society.

Maine hunters expected the issue to resurface, and that it would involve another expensive ballot fight.

"I think we knew they'd be back," said David Trahan, director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine. "(The Humane Society is) a nationwide group. And (it) raises a lot of money."


Proponents say the three controversial bear-hunting methods give hunters an unfair advantage and that trapping or shooting a bear over bait is inherently cruel.

Maine is a focal point in the debate over bear-hunting practices because it is the only state where all three are allowed.

Robert Fisk, director of the Maine Friends of Animals, which led the 2004 effort to ban the hunting practices, said the public is more familiar with the issues today, and that gives ban supporters an advantage.

"I believe we have an excellent chance of winning this time. The opposition's alarmist strategies and scare tactics that were prevalent in 2004 can be exposed this time around. People are much more aware of animal protection issues than they were 10 years ago," Fisk said.

Proponents say they have data and experiences from other states where the Humane Society successfully banned the use of these bear hunting methods, and that much of the Maine public was educated on the issue in 2004.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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These three photographs of a black bear at a bait bucket were captured by a hunter’s trail camera in 2008. Maine hunters and guides call the practice an efficient way to bag bears in a densely forested state.

Photos courtesy Days Bear Bait in Alfred

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A black bear nibbles on some meat near Greenville. A coalition led by the Maine chapter of the Humane Society of the United States aims to collect as many as 80,000 signatures next month to get a referendum question on bear-hunting practices on Maine’s 2014 ballot.

1998 file photo/The Associated Press

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Katie Hansberry of the Maine chapter of the Humane Society hands out pamphlets at the farmers market in Portland’s Deering Oaks park Saturday. Animal-welfare advocates want to ban three bear-hunting methods: baiting; using dogs; and using snare traps.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer


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