By John Holyoke
In less than a month, Maine voters will decide whether they want people to hunt the state’s bears or not.
That’s not what the referendum question actually reads, of course. But it’s time to clear the air a bit, and to start calling ‘em like I see ‘em.
Officially, Question 1 asks whether you, a Maine voter, want to ban the use of hounds, traps, or bait by Maine hunters.
But here’s what it’s really saying: Do you want to ban bear hunting in Maine, except in extremely rare cases during deer season, when a bear ambles in front of a hunter who decides to shoot it?
Some folks say that more people will hunt bears if Maine changes its ways. Some folks also say that other states cull as many bears from their herds as they did before they outlawed baiting.
Others say Maine isn’t like those other states. And if that turns out to be true, the fictional ballot question I just posed will be closer to reality than many of us are willing to imagine.
Consider: A year ago, hunters shot 2,845 bears in Maine. Of those bears, at least 2,633 — a whopping 93 percent of the total harvest — were shot using the methods that may be banned come November.
Why do I say “at least”? Well, it’s likely that the percentage is even higher. State wildlife officials know that 81 bears were shot during deer season — those extremely rare cases I referred to earlier — but another 131 bears were taken by “unknown” means.
An official at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife told me that often means that the tagging agent forgot to fill out that section of the tagging form, so many of those bears also may have been taken with bait, with traps, or with hounds.
Of course, referendum proponents will tell you that it’s entirely possible to successfully hunt bears without the three methods in question on the ballot.
That group, it’s important to note, doesn’t seem to include many avid bear hunters — or deer hunters, for that matter — who you would expect to know how easy, or how difficult, that task may prove.
And that’s an important consideration.
Because if it turns out that the referendum does pass, and hunters don’t shoot as many bears as they have been, the state’s bear management program will be turned inside-out.
According to the most recent long-range management plan, Mainers, including stakeholders on both sides of the current referendum, decided that the bear population ought to be about 23,000.
Yes, the DIF&W gathers a diverse group of people and asks that question (among others) every 15 years. How many bears do you want? And how do we achieve that goal.
It’s called management. The process balances the desires of hunters and wildlife-watchers, store-owners and activist groups. And it works.
It turns out that since the 1999 management plan for bears was formulated, Maine hunters haven’t been culling enough bruins from the herd each year. Now, 15 years later (and on the cusp of the creation of another 15-year plan), we’ve got a thriving herd of more than 30,000 bears roaming the state.
According to that 1999 plan, we ought to be shooting more bears each year, not less.
Who gets hurt if we decide to do away with bear hunting (save for the total of 212 “deer season” and “unknown method” bears)?
The list is long. And nobody’s talking much about it.
But today, let’s start with the guides.
At least one fervent referendum supporter calls those guides “money grubbing.” Others say the profit motive (both by the DIF&W, which sells licenses, and the guides) has created a corrupt system. And still others say that Maine’s bear hunt isn’t for Mainers, and that the vast majority of bear hunters are from out of state.
On that final point, they’re nearly right: A year ago, 1,786 of the 2,845 successful hunters were “from away.”
I’m not sure why that’s a bad thing.
More than half of the two million annual visitors who flock to Acadia National Park have got to be out-of-staters, after all. We proclaim ourselves “Vacationland.”
And, according to the governor, Maine is open for business.
According to the DIF&W, 1,785 of the successful hunters a year ago employed the services of a registered Maine guide. At about $2,000 a pop for a guided hunt, that’s not chump change: Just the hunters who filled their tags put more than $3.5 million into those guides’ pockets, according to my rough math.
And that’s just the successful hunters. Unsuccessful hunters also pay for their adventure, whether they shoot a bear or not.
Bear hunting — even over bait — isn’t shooting fish in a barrel, you see. The success rate hovers around 25 percent, according to the DIF&W.
Been there. Done it. Succeeded one year. Failed miserably another. And for the record, while deer hunting over the past decade, I have never, ever seen a bear in the woods.
The guides I met? They weren’t money grubbers. They weren’t wealthy.
But if your truck broke down on an abandoned woods road, each of those men and women would have pulled over to help, and done so with a smile on their faces.
Many guide part time. Then they find other work, driving trucks, or cutting wood, or doing other dangerous jobs that most can’t or won’t do.
Referendum proponents will keep describing these methods as “cruel” and “unethical.” They’ll say they want Mainers to hunt bears the right way.
Funny word, “ethical.”
Bait a fish and it’s ethical. Bait deer in Texas and it’s ethical. Hunt a moose in Maine while it’s so lovesick it’ll mistake a roaring chainsaw for the amorous bellow of an eager female, and it’s ethical.
But hunt a bear over bait, which makes it less likely you’ll shoot a female with cubs and allows you to make a safe, clean shot, and it’s cruel and unethical.
At least, that’s what some folks will tell you.
Which leaves that question again, not that this is the way you’ll read it on the ballot: Do you want to outlaw bear hunting in Maine, except in extremely rare cases during which a bear shows up to spice up a deer hunt?
Think carefully. Because that may well be exactly what you’ll be voting on.