As we get closer to Election Day, the battle over Question 1, which would ban the use of traps, hounds and bait while hunting bears in Maine, is heating up, and tension is starting to build.
At least one state wildlife official is being protected, around-the-clock, by a Maine game warden after receiving threats. Debates have devolved into ill-mannered spectacles.
And some of the claims made by folks on both sides are tough to digest. Those seeking to defeat the referendum, including the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, paint a potential picture of townsfolk overwhelmed by hungry bears.
While I agree that an unchecked bear population isn’t good for people or bears, I’m not a fan of the fairy tale “the bears are going to eat you” tactic.
But the tactic of referendum supporters is even more irritating. This isn’t a hunting issue, they’re saying. This is a fairness issue. Or a cruelty issue. Or an ethical issue. (Pick one … all these buzzwords keep cropping up).
Referendum proponents, led by financial backing and organizational expertise from the Humane Society of the United States, often say that more bears are being killed in states like Washington than were killed before baiting was banned.
That, they say, proves that Mainers don’t need to use bait or hounds or traps to reach management goals.
Maine should be more like Washington, those proponents say.
Let’s look at what that really means.
Are we to believe that the Humane Society of the United States, with a well-documented record of opposing what it calls “sport” hunting, is in Maine to spend millions of dollars lobbying for a change that will actually result in more bears being killed than before?
Washington is the model they keep touting, after all.
And if so, wouldn’t a truthful headline say something like this? “HSUS wants Mainers to kill more bears, just like Washington hunters do.”
For the record, during a meeting with HSUS officials several months ago, I asked a similar question: Does your membership know that what you’re proposing in Maine may result in more bears being killed by hunters?
Those officials wouldn’t address that question directly, instead choosing to focus on methods, not an end result I imagine would be unpalatable to their constituents.
Food for thought.
Bears big business
Neither side of the ongoing bear referendum battle has disputed that bear hunting is big business in Maine.
Whether that’s a good thing is something that has been disputed. Those who oppose Question 1, which would ban the use of traps, hounds and bait say an industry would be destroyed and guides would suffer. Those who support the referendum effort say that the state has turned its bear herd into currency, and makes management decisions based on the almighty dollar.
But just what kind of an economic driver is the annual bear hunt?
As it turns out, a pretty big one.
According to a new economic study — important to note, it was prepared for the Maine Office of Tourism and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife — total spending by bear hunters in Maine topped $53 million during the 2013 season.
That study, conducted by Southwick Associates, also concluded that bear hunting has an impact on 565 jobs in Maine.
The executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association says limiting the bear hunting methods that are allowed would be disastrous.
“In the last few weeks, folks in northern Maine have been dealt two very harsh economic blows,” Don Kleiner said in a press release issued by Save Maine’s Bear Hunt/NO on 1. “We’re seeing paper mills close in Millinocket and Bucksport and now we’re facing the prospect of removing another [$53 million] from the fragile economy. That just doesn’t make sense.”
Al Cowperthwaite, the executive director of North Maine Woods Inc., which leases bait sites to outfitters in the vast northern forest, said he has heard concerns from many he does business with.
“I talk frequently with about 115 sporting camp owners and guiding business owners located in northern Maine who tell me that the future of their businesses is directly tied to the outcome of the referendum,” he said in the release. “Bear hunting-related income is close to 40 to 50 percent of total income for many of these family-owned businesses. If they are no longer able to hold bear hunts, income from guiding fishermen and moose, deer and partridge hunters will not sustain them.”
In a response, Katie Hansberry of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, the group lobbying in favor or the referendum, said that Washington’s model again provided a template for Maine success. In Washington, she said, many more non-resident licenses are sold now than they were before baiting was banned.
“When bear hunting license sales triple, that’s more revenue for the state and three times as many potential clients for Maine guides and outfitters,” she said. “When you expand the customer base by a factor of three, you do a great service for the people involved in the business.”
Without bait, a guided Maine hunt would more closely resemble a deer hunt. And most deer hunters in Maine don’t employ the services of a guide.
There are some exceptions, of course. Traditionally, some non-resident hunters traveled to Maine to stay with the same outfitter their dads and uncles had.
But when the northern Maine deer herd was decimated by two consecutive harsh winters less than a decade ago, an interesting and costly trend followed.
Many of those hunters stopped heading to the big woods. They stopped hiring guides, sometimes after generations of using the same outfitter. They stopped paying money to hunt deer.
The reason: They weren’t even seeing deer.
If bear guides can’t put their clients in spots where they’ll see bears, those hunters will be unlikely to return.
James Cote, the man leading the fight to defeat the referendum, also chimed in in the news release.
“All you need to do is pick up a newspaper to understand how tough Maine’s economy is right now,” Cote said. “But if you’re a Washington D.C. lobbying organization, you don’t need to worry about Maine’s economy.”
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