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Maine’s Great Bear Debate

By Dave Mance III

For those of you who aren’t following the battle to ban bear baiting in Maine, here’s a quick recap. The Humane Society of the United States and a coalition of smaller local animal rights groups are pushing a ballot measure that will ask voters this November to ban bear hunting over bait, the use of dogs in bear hunting, and bear trapping in Maine. They claim these methods are cruel, unsportsmanlike, and unnecessary for population control. Opponents, including sportsman’s groups, guiding services, and the State Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, disagree.

I found myself discussing the issue with a friend the other day, who does not hunt and does not live in a rural place. “It’s a moralistic argument,” I was telling him of the proponent’s logic. “They think it’s immoral to shoot bears over a pile of jelly donuts.”

He put his pint glass back on the bar and furrowed his brow in consideration. Then said: “I had no idea that people liked jelly donuts enough that they’d be willing to fight bears over them.”

Jokes aside, this is a big deal to a lot of Mainers, and sportsmen and women in general if you consider the precedent such a ban could set. Biologists in Maine, like biologists everywhere, create hunting and trapping seasons based on how many bears the landscape can support, how many bears people are willing to tolerate (Maine averages 500 nuisance complaints a year), and the desires of people who want more bears (including both animal lovers and hunters). Maine’s bear population has grown by 30 percent over the past ten years and is currently estimated at around 30,000 bears. (Hunters kill around 3,000 on any given year.)

So the ban does not stem from a perceived threat to the overall population of black bears in Maine.

Rather, the ban is being pushed by people who don’t think it’s ethical to hunt bears over bait (or with dogs or traps). From a management perspective, it’s a classic religion-versus-science argument. The state has been tasked with managing the population of bears. Hunting over bait and trapping are two methods they use. Through a clinical scientific lens, they don’t care if an individual bear dies from a car or a bullet or old age, they’re just concerned with the overall growth or decline of the population. And the main reason they’re against the referendum is because at the moment they need more dead bears, not less.

Proponents of the ballot initiative are the religion part of the analogy – they want you to care how an individual bear dies, on moral grounds.

Of course the emotional arguments are not limited to proponents of the ban. I’m highlighting the management side of things because this is a magazine about forest management. But most of the loud voices you’ll hear are from culture warriors on both sides of the debate, and it’s often pretty askew. Aging rock star and hunting zealot Ted Nugent joined the fray yesterday in a Bangor op-ed; he’s trying to rally votes to defeat the measure with his typical articulate nonsense. (“I proudly stand with the good ‘we the people’ families of America fighting for common sense and logic in total defiance of the widespread corruption and criminal abuse of power that runs amok in our government today.” Yes, Ted, but the Gov’ment is on your side in this.) I’m not in Maine to see the politicking that’s going on around the issue, but with millions of dollars in play (much of it from out of state), I’m sure that it’ll soon devolve into cartoonish hyperbole on both sides, if it hasn’t already.

If I lived in Maine, I would most likely vote against the bait-ban come November. I like fair chase hunting. Hunting a bear on a wild mountain ridge seems like a richer experience than luring one in with food scraps (though baiting is illegal in Vermont, so I’ve never actually compared the two). Also, at this point in my life, I don’t need the meat. But I’m not going to judge someone who does bait where it’s legal. Someone who does need the meat. Someone who does derive enjoyment from interacting with nature this way. Someone who’s not physically able to traverse high mountain ridges.

I’d also be very wary, if I were a Mainer, of allowing out-of-state money and ethics to dictate how my state manages their bears. If you find Super-PACs and the corrupting influence of big out-of-state money in politics distasteful, this ballot measure should leave the same tang in the back of your mouth.

But I don’t live in Maine…


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