Rep. Mike Shaw and Rep. Aaron Libby
The battle over November’s “bear referendum” is heating up. Informed voters will have a very clear idea of the impact of their ballot. We only need to look at the experience of other states that have banned the use of bait, hounds and traps to hunt black bears.
If the referendum passes, the state’s huge and growing bear population, now numbering about 31,000, will expand as more bear more into central and coastal parts of Maine. Conflicts with humans, sometimes violent, will increase and effective wildlife management will become much more difficult.
If the referendum fails, current bear hunting laws will remain in place, laws that have been vetted and changed by Maine people over the years. This outcome would delight the state’s wildlife biologists, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, all three of Maine’s candidates for governor and pretty much anybody else who researches the issue.
So the questions arises, who would you rather believe — Maine wildlife experts who have studied and maintained the health of the bear population for 40 years, or the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States, which boasts that its ultimate goal is the elimination of all hunting, of everything, from big game down to barnyard varmints.
Let’s take a look at Oregon.
In 1994, voters in that state, egged on by HSUS, passed a referendum to ban the use of hounds and bait to hunt bears. Since then, Oregon’s bear population has leaped from 25,000 to 35,000, an increase of about 30 percent.
As reported in the Portland Press Herald on Aug. 24, Oregon wildlife biologists are having trouble managing the growing population. The article quoted a state legislator who formerly chaired the Committee on Natural Resources.
He noted, “Wildlife management should be handled by professionals who know how to figure out what is the maximum size of a species population the habitat can sustain.” He went on to say (paraphrasing here) that good wildlife population control should not be entrusted to the “emotional behavior” of voters who have little or no knowledge of the relevant facts.
The Massachusetts experience has been even more striking.
In 1996, voters banned the use of hounds and traps in bear hunts there. The bear population has soared from 500 in the early 1990s to an estimated 4,000 today. According to the Press Herald report, an increasing number of juvenile bears are moving into metropolitan Boston.
The problem is so severe that Massachusetts has expanded the bear-hunting season from two weeks to seven weeks and sells bear tags for just $5 to entice more hunters. The director of the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife said while the number of bear permits has tripled in the last 20 years, “the reality is the inability to use dogs makes the efficacy of the hunt very poor.” Despite the longer season and more hunters, the annual bear harvest has changed little since 1995.
These facts evidently don’t matter to a group called Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, which is pushing for passage of the referendum. In a campaign advertisement the group declared, “States that opted to restore fair chase to bear hunting have continued to maintain relatively stable bear populations.” That, of course, is a flat-out untruth.
In Maine, the bear hunting success rate is around 25 percent despite the use of bait, traps and dogs. That’s a fairly low percentage for a “canned hunt,” as HSUS calls Maine’s hunting methods.
And even though Maine hunters can use bait and dogs, the size of our bear population has increased by 67 percent since 1990, and bear nuisance complaints have jumped from an average of 500 to 870 in 2012. In one case, a family of bears set up their den under a residential front porch.
Bears in Maine grow very large. The largest bear harvested in 2012 was nearly 700 pounds.
Here are a few other points that voters might want to consider.
— According to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the only legal traps to use for bears are the same ones used by wildlife researchers. These traps are considered safe and humane by animal care committees across North America. Leg hold snap traps were banned years ago.
— Forty years of research by Maine’s bear biologists have shown that the availability of natural foods, not baiting, influence bear populations.
— In states that allow bear hunting, 23 out of 32 permit one or more of the methods used in Maine.
— This referendum would eliminate the three most effective hunting methods to control the bear population: baiting, hunting with dogs and trapping.
— If the referendum passes, the bear population in Maine will dramatically increase, leading to more confrontations with people and more threats to public safety.
As the bear debate rages until Election Day, you will be subjected to millions of dollars worth of hyperbole, mistruths and emotional appeals from HSUS, which – remember – wants to prohibit all hunting. On the other side stand the state’s esteemed wildlife biologists who like bears as much as anyone, but want to maintain a sustainable population.
As for us, we’ll stick with the Maine experts who know what they’re talking about.
Rep. Mike Shaw, D-Standish, represents House District 102.
Rep. Aaron Libby, R-North Waterboro, represents District 139.