Bear referendum debate highs and lows: One man’s view from the front row

On Thursday evening, more than 60 interested spectators took their seats in a WGME studio for a town hall debate on Question 1, which would ban the use of bait, hounds or traps while hunting bears.

The BDN was a media partner in the event, which was live-streamed across the state. If you’ve yet to see the debate, you can find it here.

Brian Cogill, a Maine trapper, takes exception to a panelist's comments. (Screen shot from WGME)

Brian Cogill, a Maine trapper, takes exception to a panelist’s comments. (Screen shot from WGME)

My BDN colleague, Aislinn Sarnacki, and I were seated in the front row; Aislinn is doing the reporting on the referendum during this election cycle. I’ll be writing periodic columns about the issue.

A disclaimer that shouldn’t be necessary, but still is. Columns are opinions. This is mine. Yours may vary. And as always, your comments are welcome.

Here then, are some observations from the front row.

The panelists: Daryl DeJoy, executive director of the Wildlife Alliance of Maine, and Anita Coupe of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting speaking in favor of Question 1, and Judy Camuso, wildlife division director of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and James Cote, campaign manager of NO on 1!/Save Maine’s Bear Hunt speaking in opposition of the question.

Camuso emerged as a key player in the debate that will rage until election day in November. A biologist by trade, she provided the DIF&W with a voice that may resonate with voters.

Camuso is a non-hunter who cut her teeth in the industry while working for Maine Audubon — a group that many referendum supporters likely also approve of.

Camuso was clearly well-prepped for the debate, and had the science down pat. When she really took center stage, however, were when she let her guard down a bit and spoke from the heart.

Key moment: Her emotional defense of fellow biologist DIF&W Randy Cross after panelist DeJoy attempted to paint Cross as a working bear hunting guide who studies bears, but also has a profit motive (Starting at 4:30 in Part 4).

Camuso’s defense, and a subsequent social media blitz, helped create a new Twitter hashtag that you may see used through election day: #TrustRandy. (Starting at 9:55 in Part 4).

On the other side of the table, Coupe also spoke passionately, and clearly believes deeply in the referendum question’s cause. Unfortunately, her pre-debate preparation didn’t seem to be as thorough, and she misspoke on several occasions, especially when trying to describe the trapping practices that Mainers use.

Coupe lives in Biddeford Pool, and is on the board of directors of the Humane Society of the United States, which has helped fund the referendum drive.

Key moment: Coupe told the sad tale of a bird hunter whose dog was caught in a bear trap last fall, and was forced to shoot the dog after it bit him. (Starting at 1:50 in Park 4)

The problem: The trap wasn’t a bear trap. It was a coyote trap. And the trapper was in the audience. That man — Brian Cogill, said he had permission to be on the land, while the bird hunter did not.

The aftermath: Cogill stood to clarify the situation, (Starting at 3:05 of Part 5) but did more than that. He challenged Coupe and told her she had no right to be on the panel, and had misstated facts. That episode was also unfortunate, and could have been handled more diplomatically.

Which led, eventually, to this:

  • Hissing and cat-calling.

For much of the second half of the debate, the crowd — both sides — showed less patience with opposing views. At one point, spectators openly hissed at comments that were made; some in the “No” camp began greeting assertions by “Yes” panelists with “Lie,” and “You lie.”

As you may realize, Mainers defeated a bear hunting referendum a decade ago. The results were striking: In Maine’s northern 2nd Congressional district, the measure was defeated, 60 percent to 40 percent. In the southern 1st Congressional district, the question passed, 53 to 47 percent.

This time around, supporters have added another rationale for banning bait to their debate repertoire:

  • Baiting is causing the bear population to rise.

DeJoy’s premise — a theory that wasn’t advanced during an identical referendum effort in 2004 — is that by allowing bears to be baited, the bear herd is heading into the den season weighing more. Those heavier female bears, he said, are more apt to give birth to more cubs. Therefore, he maintains, the state’s baiting practices are to blame for a bear population that has swelled from 23,000 in 2004 to more than 30,000 today.

Camuso deflected that claim with data: In other states where baiting bears is not permitted — including Vermont — the bear birth rate is higher than Maine’s, she said (Starting at 6:25 of Part 5).

Those that want to defeat the referendum weren’t without their missteps.

At the end of the debate, David Trahan, the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, asked a question that devolved into a “Gotcha” moment.

Panelists disputed Trahan’s assertion — that the referendum question would allow supplemental feeding of bears that is not currently allowed, seemingly in contrast to their stated views. Trahan refused to give ground and remained standing, prompting some in the crowd to angrily ask why he was being allowed to ask more than one question.

A final thought: Back in 2004, the debate on bear hunting practices turned into a working model of the “Two Maines” that so many talk about. Southern Maine opposed trapping, baiting and using hounds to hunt bears. Northern Maine approved of those methods.

Moving forward, it appears that more money will be spent to sway voters on the issue this time around. It also appears that the two sides are as divided as were a decade ago.


John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.