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Some Opposition to Vote on Bear Baiting
09/23/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Dangerous confrontations between bears and humans could result from proposed changes in Maine's annual bear hunt. That's the argument made by foes of a ballot question that could once again go before the voters.

An identical proposal 10 years ago that would have banned baiting, hounding and trapping of bears was defeated, and members of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and other groups said that Maine's current bear hunting laws are needed to keep state's 30,000 bears under control.

The bear hunting reform effort of ten years ago was supported by groups such as Maine Friends of Animals and The Humane Society of the United States, and would have banned hunting bears by attracting them with bait, and by using dogs or traps. Now those same groups have reunited under a coalition called Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting and are pushing for a new referendum on the issue. Opponents said they'll be ready.

"We oppose the proposed referendum for a variety of reasons," said David Trahan. He iS executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, which vows to fight the proposal if it gets on the Maine ballot.

"Most importantly we believe it takes away the most effective for controlling Mainer's growing bear population," Trahan said.

With an active population estimated at more than 30,000, The Maine Black Bear is the smallest of the three species of bears inhabiting North America. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which is also against the proposed referendum, estimates that 80% of the 3,200 bears taken in Maine last year were killed after they were attracted with bait, such as doughnuts, pastries and other foods. Trahan said that without baiting, the number of encounters between humans and bears would increase.

"Just recently Maine game wardens watch a neighborhood in Litchfield for nuisance bears, a principal in Kennebunk takes precautions with bear sightings near his school and in Michigan, 12-year-old Abby Weatherall was recently mauled by a black bear while jogging near her grandparents' home," Trahan said. "These are just a few examples of why scientific bear management is so crucial."

Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock, who also appeared at a press conference organized by opponents, said voters should be suspicious when out-of-state organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States decides to start pumping big money into an effort that should be decided by Mainers.

"Once again Maine voters are being asked who should be entrusted with the care of Maine's wildlife, should it be our biologists and wardens trained professionals with years of experience managing Maine's black bear population or should it be a group of well-funded out-of-state activists who are more concerned about advancing their agenda then they with the welfare of our own residents our traditions and the natural resource economy," Woodcock said.

And Don Kleiner, executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association, said the economic activity generated by bear hunting is considerable.

"Bear hunting brings jobs and income to a hard-pressed rural economy," Kleiner said. "In 2004, when an almost identical referendum was proposed to Maine voters, we learned that the state could lose between 563 and 770 existing jobs if the question were to pass. We also learned that up to $62.4 million in average annual economic activity could be lost and almost half the bear guides in Maine would have to close their businesses."

Supporters of the proposed referendum said that bear baiting creates problems of its own...and in fact may contribute to unwanted interactions with humans.

"Independent bear biologists recognize that baiting creates nuisance bears and leads to human-bear conflicts," said Katie Hansberry, campaign director for the Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting campaign. She said she's heard the kinds of arguments voiced by Woodcock and others before. She said that hasn't stopped other states from imposing bear hunting restrictions.

"Many major bear hunting states manage their bear populations through fair chase hunting without resorting to the cruel and unsporting practices of bear hounding, baiting and trapping," Hansberry said.

Hansberry's group needs to collect more than 57,000 signatures to get the question on next year's November ballot.

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