By Kaitlin Schroeder
Business owners in central and northern Maine say the economic ripple effect could be drastic for them
John Morris, owner of Pines Market in Eustis, says his store sees heavy foot traffic from hunters from the end of August through September.
The reason is Maine’s bear hunting season.
“They get groceries, bear scent, camo,” Morris said. “If they’re out of state, they’ll get novelties that say Maine on them. They get gas. They stay in the cabins and camp at the campgrounds.”
Count Morris among several business owners in central and northern Maine who oppose the election referendum question proposing to ban bear baiting. Morris said the proposal would greatly reduce bear hunting and drastically hurt the economy of Eustis, population 600. He said bear hunting accounts for a time gap in between summer vacationers and winter snowmobilers and skiers.
That concern over an economic ripple effect recently prompted Wilton selectmen to sign a statement opposing the ban. Selectmen cited the health of the local economy as their reason for opposing the question, saying a ban could harm rural businesses that either directly or indirectly rely on bear hunting.
In 2004, a study paid for by pro-hunting forces said the state would lose $62 million annually without the hunting method, in which enticing food is put out for bears to lure them to a hunter. It said 770 full- and part-time jobs would be lost as well.
Wilton is not the first town to sign a resolution in opposition to the proposal. Millinocket’s town councilors also approved a resolution, posted on the website for Save Maine’s Bear Hunt, which is a campaign group against the measure.
But Cecil Gray, a Skowhegan master Maine Guide, said the economic benefits that come with bear baiting are precisely the problem.
He said between the revenue outfitters take in from bait sites, to the revenue the state generates from tagging, the issue is being championed by people who profit from inappropriate and unethical hunting practices.
He said he is not arguing that the state does not have economic ties to the bear hunting, but is arguing that those ties are the problem.
“I’m not saying it won’t affect them. I’m saying it will affect them,” he said. “There are a lot of people tied to this so-called tradition, but there are other things to do.”
“If you’re making money and its not a kosher thing, (then) maybe you should be making money on something else,” he said.
He said he hunted bear in the 1970s and ’80s and guided hunters for more than 20 years, and is not opposed to hunting in general.
“I’ve just seen bear baiting since its inception and the whole thing is just a nasty business,” he said.
The referendum, which will be on the Nov. 4 ballot, was brought this year by Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, a group backed and almost entirely funded by The Humane Society of the United States.
Katie Hansberry, campaign director of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, said the methods are cruel and unsporting. She said in states like Colorado, Oregon and Washington, complaints about bear conflicts remained stable after similar bans were passed, even though the human population has risen since the ban.
She said the millions of pounds of junk food placed at bait sites around the state have artificially increased the population, which would then shrink if a baiting ban was in place.
“With fair chase hunters in the woods, we can effectively manage the bear population and successfully keep nuisance complaint levels in check,” said Hansberry.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife has countered these points, noting in its argument that 93 percent of bears are hunted annually by baiting, hounding and traps. Biologists with the department said 40 years of research indicate baiting does not increase the now 30,000 state bear population and serves as a management tool to lower human and bear conflicts.
The department states on its website that the example states of Colorado, Oregon and Washington have more open habitat and easier hunting.
At River Edge Sports in Oquossac, near Rangeley Lake, owner Gerry White is convinced that a ban on baiting tactics would “pretty much end bear hunting.”
“There is no question it would hurt business and we would never recover,” White said. “You can’t hunt without baiting and the dogs and the trapping. The woods are too thick.”
White’s variety store and tagging station along Route 16 is filled with rows of sorted fishing lures, camouflaged gear, waders and knives. He said the first two weeks of September are driven by tourism connected to the bear hunt and he tagged 24 bears this year at his weighing station, which he said during the season can count for about a fifth of his business.
A Kentucky tourist at the store who was listening to White outline the issue said he had noticed the political signs on the referendum as he traveled the area while assisting his daughter along the Appalachian Trail.
“I’m sure they’re well intentioned,” he said.
“Oh, I’m sure,” White said, nodding. “But it would end bear hunting.”
Back at Pines Market in Eustis, which also serves as a tagging station, Morris said, “There are plenty of bear around this year.”
“What I don’t understand is why we don’t all believe the biologists,” said Mary Morris, John’s mother. “We pay these biologists, so why don’t we believe them?”