A referendum to repeal the use of baiting, hounds and trapping for bear hunting in Maine will appear for the second time in 10 years on the ballot this November. The campaign is being financed primarily by the Humane Society of the United States, but with logistical support from people in Maine. This article looks at what I think the real questions are in this debate.
The referendum reflects two main trends occurring simultaneously in American society. One is the impact of big money in American politics. The other is urbanization. The Humane Society of the United States represents both sources of change grinding away at our institutions and what is left of Maine’s rural way of life.
First, the Humane Society of the United States has no real connection with local animal shelters like the Coastal Humane Society. It is a lobbying organization that seeks to protect animal rights through political campaigns throughout the country.
The view of the organization towards animal rights should not be confused with wildlife biology, science or conservation. The organization works mainly in the political arena, whereas wildlife biologists and conservationists seek to protect wildlife populations and their habitats as part of a larger ecological system.
The Humane Society’s view of bears reflects the lack of knowledge that an urbanizing population has about nature in general. The Society seems to believe that wildlife populations somehow regulate their own numbers or that nature somehow always acts to keep populations in check. That is not always true. In Maine, black bears are healthy and thriving. During bad years, a scarcity of food mainly affects cubs, but for bears over two years old the only significant cause of mortality is hunting.
Hunters, guides, registration stations and other residents and business owners in rural communities are partners with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in gathering information about bear populations, the quality of habitat and management. In contrast, the Humane Society often treats people in rural communities like the enemy.
The bear hunting methods used in Maine have a long history, and it may be that we have simply grown accustomed to them. But it is also true that the scientific management of Maine’s bear population depends on hunters using these methods to keep the bear population down to manageable levels. Without them, the hunter success rate will be much lower and we will need to dramatically increase the number of hunters going into the woods.
If the referendum passes, we may have to undertake aggressive marketing to attract more hunters. We may have to increase the bag limit. We may have to open up a spring hunting season. But one way or another, IFW will strive to maintain the size of the bear harvest we have now. Does it make any real difference to the bears which way we do it?
How we manage bears is not a good subject for simplistic solutions enacted through referendum. If the referendum wins, then it is not the Humane Society who will suffer the consequences of a bad policy. That burden, as usual, will fall upon our rural communities.
If people really oppose baiting, trapping and hounds in bear hunting, then we need to have a long discussion about it with the people most affected by this decision. We will need to work out a solution that gives people time to adapt. The alternative, which is having this idea forced on us from the outside, is a bad process.