State officials explain 'Bear Referendum' opposition
Hope — If Maine's “Bear Referendum” passes on the Nov. 4 statewide ballot, “It will cripple our ability to control the bear population.”
That message came May 15 during a bear management presentation at Beaver Lodge offered by Jennifer Vachon, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife's lead biologist on black bears and the Canada lynx.
In attendance were numerous hunting group members opposed to the referendum, with one of those groups, Knox County Fish and Game Association, hosting the well-attended event.
The ballot initiative would make it illegal to hunt black bears using bait, hunting hounds, and traps. Yet those are “our most effective methods” for controlling the bear population during fall season hunts, Vachon said.
Bait, hounds, and traps account for more than 90 percent of bears taken and are tightly regulated by Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, according to Vachon. For example, bear baiting, which allows hunters to lure bears closer using anything ranging from jelly doughnuts to beef fat, is limited to four weeks in September. Baiting accounts for 79 percent of successful hunts.
Maine has the largest black bear population in the eastern United States with more than 30,000 — and that population has risen more than 30 percent during the past 10 years, Vachon said. Hunting helps to control the population and thus reduce human-bear conflicts. The state's goal is to see between 3,500 and 4,500 bears culled each year. The average since 2005 has been 2,910.
“There has never been a fatal bear attack in the state,” she noted, while adding that if the referendum passes, “we [will] expect more conflicts.” Inland Fisheries and Wildlife employs 45 wildlife biologists and 124 game wardens who enforce wildlife laws.
A second presentation was given by Don Kleiner, who heads a of coalition of hunting groups known as The Maine Wildlife Conservation Council. Kleiner said the Humane Society of the United States is pushing the referendum with a goal of $3 million in political advertising. To match it, hunting groups need to raise $2.5 million and are close to $1 million already.
The referendum will be fought through television ads that will become prominent after Labor Day, he said. A similar referendum 10 years ago was defeated by a 53-47 margin. This November, many hunters attending the meeting said the tally may be much closer. A Pan Atlantic SMS Group poll in April had opposition to the referendum at at 48.1 percent, 46.7 percent in favor, and 5.3 percent undecided.
Kleiner, who lives in Union and also represents the Maine Professional Guides Association, said monetary support from outside Maine is pouring in to support the referendum. Inside the state, it is negligible.
“All three candidates for governor agree on only one thing: This [referendum] is a bad idea,” Kleiner said.
“It's good to keep healthy harvest on the bear,” said Todd Simmons, a bear hunter from South Thomaston. Hunting guides rely on bear hunting to sustain their incomes, as do restaurants, hotels, and lodges, he added. They stand to lose major revenue if the referendum passes, he said.
A 2004 Inland Fisheries and Wildlife study found that bear hunting contributed more than $70 million yearly to the state economy and supports almost 900 jobs.
“Some day, it [the referendum] is going to pass because there are so many out-of-staters here,” said hunter Philip Morris of Tenants Harbor.
Courier Publications reporter Larry Di Giovanni can be reached at 594-4401 or by email at email@example.com.