Welcome to the Circus That is Black Bear Politics in Maine
In Maine, there’s more than one way to kill a black bear — for now. A November referendum would ban three hunting methods that supporters say are cruel, unsporting, and ecologically unsound. Opponents say the measure would all but end Maine’s bear hunt, bankrupting outfitters and exploding the bear population. Passions are high, motivations tangled, and bedfellows strange. Oh, and did we mention this already happened 10 years ago?
By Brian Kevin / Illustration by Hanji Chang
Here is what you need to know about this fall’s ballot measure to prohibit baiting, trapping, and hounding of black bears in Maine: It’s being pushed by radical, out-of-state animal-rights activists who are banking on the naïveté of bleeding-heart urbanites and will never be satisfied until all hunting is banned and a New Vegan World Order is installed.
No, wait! Here is what you need to know: The ballot measure is a common-sense proposal to stop inhumane hunting practices, opposed by a shifty cabal of hunting guides and state wildlife managers whose only objective is to cash in on mobs of boorish, out-of-state hunters by making it as easy as possible to shoot a bear — ethics, ecology, and the will of the people be damned.
Such is the rhetoric you’re likely to encounter in the coming months — in newspaper editorials, on Internet comment boards, and around your less repressed lunch counters — surrounding Question 1 on this November’s ballot, which asks voters to approve or reject an Act to Prohibit the Use of Dogs, Bait or Traps When Hunting Bears Except Under Certain Circumstances. It’s the defining characteristic of modern politics, this tendency to turn any debate, even over something as seemingly niche-y and wonkish as wildlife management, into a values battle between us on the one side and them on the other. And it is, to borrow a term from wildlife biology, total bear scat.
That’s because the reality of the issue is far more complex, dependent on ecological assumptions, data that are subject to interpretation, and a fair amount of conjecture about how both bears and humans will behave in this or that imagined future scenario. What’s more, the people driving both sides of the debate are, as a rule, decent human beings who care deeply about Maine and the long-term health of its bear population — regardless of your take on their personal or professional agendas.
This, anyway, is my impression after two months of visits and 30-ish hours of interviews with guides, hunters, activists, state and independent biologists, lobbyists, and spokespeople from both Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting and Save Maine’s Bear Hunt and Management Programs campaigns. I mention my research time here — and, indeed, I refer to myself at all — only because of this tendency toward credibility attacks that seems to accompany the bear hunting debate. For the same reason, it seems wise to lay out my potential biases up front:
I am not a hunter. I am a lousy fisherman. I am a somewhat active hiker, biker, paddler, and otherwise non-consumptive user of Maine’s forested lands.
I am, however, a graduate of the state’s hunter education course. I am also the author of a series of educational children’s books about firearms.
I am from away. I have lived in Maine just shy of four years. Prior to that, I lived in Oregon, Montana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Of those four states, only the latter two allow baiting, only Wisconsin allows hunting with hounds, and none allow the recreational trapping of black bears.
From a cruelty standpoint, I have no particular beef with any of these practices, although I admit to feeling profound twinges of sympathy while watching YouTube videos of bears caught in foot snares. If I’m being honest, baiting has always struck me as a somewhat lazy and low-rent way of hunting big game — if not necessarily inhumane — although this is likely influenced by a kind of swashbuckling, backcountry-adventure ethic that’s arguably more pervasive among hunters in my former Western haunts.
I’ve done a fair amount of reporting on public lands and wildlife issues, during which I’ve met devoted state and federal wildlife managers whose hands I’ve been proud to shake and others who I thought were total boobs.
For better or for worse, I can say with 100-percent candor that, as of this writing, I have no idea how I will vote on Question 1.
Here is how bear trapping works: A hunter selects an area that s/he feels a bear is likely to frequent (often a bait site; see below) and sets there what is called a cable trap — also known as a foot snare, the only type of bear trap that’s legal in Maine, aside from a very large cage trap that virtually no one uses. When a bear steps on the concealed trap’s triggering pad, a loop of cable tightens around its leg. The cable’s other end is fastened to a nearby tree, holding the bear in place until a hunter arrives to shoot it at close range. Maine hunters are required to check their traps daily, so a snared bear won’t linger too long in captivity.
Here is how hounding works: Packs of trained hunting dogs pick up the scent of a bear in an area where one has been spotted (again, often a baited area, and often spotted by trail cameras). The dogs are then released to chase the bear and are followed by hunters, in vehicles and on foot, who are frequently guided by GPS signals from their dogs’ tracking collars. In a successful hunt, the dogs eventually tree or otherwise corner the bear, after which the hunters arrive to deliver the killing shot.
In 2012 (the most recent year for which harvest data is available), these two methods respectively accounted for 2 percent and 11 percent of the fall bear harvest. The overwhelming majority of bears killed in Maine — 81 percent in 2012 — are shot by hunters over bait. Baited hunts, moreover, are the lifeblood of Maine’s commercial bear guiding industry. Paid guides led nearly 2,100 clients on bear hunts last fall, of which more than 1,700 hunted over bait. Which is why, of the three, baiting is the real lightning rod behind Question 1. Even fierce critics of the referendum like Don Kleiner, executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association, acknowledge it would be hard to rouse the same level of opposition to a referendum that sought only to ban trapping and hounding.
So here is how baiting works: Beginning 30 days before the opening of bear season (this year’s starts on August 25), hunters, guides, and sporting camp owners will begin placing containers full of bear-enticing foodstuffs at various bait sites on their own land (rarely), public land (occasionally), or privately owned timberland leased for this purpose (most often). A bait site costs between $30 and $100 depending on the landowner and whether it’s for personal or commercial use, and there is no centralized system in Maine for keeping track of their number. The North Maine Woods organization alone manages some 2,300 sites for its various landowner clients. Earlier this year, Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz used an algorithm of his own design to estimate a statewide total of around 5,200 bait sites — a number that officials from the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (IF&W), the guides association, and North Maine Woods all suspect is swollen, but not by more than a few hundred.
The bait itself is a kind of putrid parody of a child’s Candyland fantasy: fragments of stale pastries, crumbled bits of muffin, white-bloomed chocolate chunks, glops of honey and syrup. And, of course, doughnuts.
The presence of doughnuts in the bait mixture is a point that receives conspicuous emphasis by both opponents of baiting and the media. In the latter case, I suspect this is simply because doughnuts are silly — colorful, whimsically sprinkled — and the image of a bear eating one is funny in a monkey-riding-a-tricycle sort of way. For baiting’s opponents, meanwhile, invoking doughnuts may be a way of emphasizing the intrusion of the crass commercial world into the natural one. Like all indulgences, doughnuts also evoke vague notions of sin and shame — there is really never a circumstance when eating one is a responsible decision — and because they are so tantalizing, using them as bait can seem like a cheap trick. Who, after all, can resist a delicious doughnut? Of course, this is a bit of projection on the part of humans and their sweet tooths. As it turns out, there are a number of foods a bear would likely select over a doughnut in a taste test, but more on that later.
Doughnuts are, in any case, a prominent component of most every bait bucket in Maine, which Bob Day of Day’s Bear Bait, in Alfred, explains is mostly because of their ubiquity. In the old days, hunters could get them free. Today, Day buys old doughnuts and pastries from bakeries all across New England, then sells them in 55-gallon, 400-pound barrels for $170 per barrel. Most outfitters will buy a barrel to a barrel and a half for each site they’re baiting (an individual hunter may have one or two sites; the largest sporting camps have close to 200), and some augment this cache with nuts, granola, and other high-energy fare (Day himself preaches the gospel of trail mix, which he buys wholesale in 22-ton tractor-trailer loads). The rare hunter will source his or her own bait materials directly from a local bakery, but the majority turn to middlemen like Day. For some guides, concocting the perfect bait mixture is both an art form and a trade secret. One guide I recently called on was partial to oats drenched in molasses; another swore by drizzling fryer oil over his bait buckets, then spilling some on the ground, so that visiting bears would step in it and leave a trail.
A site is baited when a hunter or guide dumps a few gallons of bait into a drum (often chained to a tree), plants a baited bucket in a hole in the ground, or maybe fastens a bagful to a tree or a strung cable. The site is then replenished periodically in the weeks before the season and usually daily during the season itself, conditioning bears to return. A hunter sets up in a nearby blind or tree stand, camouflaged and as silent and scentless as possible, and if/when the right bear ambles up for a snack, the hunter makes the kill.
And here we run into our first point of contention between the two camps — but first, a word about those camps: There is an inherent confusion of terms built into any discussion of this issue that even those most deeply embroiled in it sometimes have trouble navigating, which is that supporters of the referendum are those who stand opposed to the continued use of these hunting methods, while, of course, to oppose the referendum is to be a supporter of the hunting status quo. Further complicating things is that die-hard hunters’ rights types across the country have long referred to animal rights activists as “antis,” but of course those “antis” would in this debate actually be pro-referendum. And so it quickly becomes difficult to suss out which camp is being referred to. To minimize head scratching, then, I avoid the supporter-opponent binary altogether and will hereafter refer to the “Fairsies” — those sympathetic to Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, which initiated the referendum — and the “Savesies” — those who side with Save Maine’s Bear Hunt and Management Programs and would prefer things to stay as they are.
What the Savesies will tell you is that the success rate for hunting a bear over bait in Maine hovers between 25 percent and 30 percent. This number comes from IF&W, an agency that is unwavering in its support of the Savesies. While IF&W is not an official endorser of the Save Maine’s Bear Hunt campaign — a coalition that most prominently includes the Maine Professional Guides Association, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM), the National Rifle Association, and the Maine Chapter of Safari Club International — the state’s wildlife management agency has been vocal in its insistence that prohibiting baiting will rob it of its most effective tool for keeping the bear population down to a number that it says most Mainers deem acceptable.
Right now, IF&W estimates that number is somewhere just north of 30,000. To keep it there, says IF&W, requires an annual harvest of around 15 percent of the bear population. Over the past decade, however, that harvest has rarely surpassed 10 percent, a fact that IF&W officials attribute less to low hunter success rates and more to a decline in the number of bear hunters since a peak in the early 2000s (the Great Recession often takes the blame for this, although the numbers don’t necessarily render the economy a clear culprit).
So the Savesies toss out the one-in-four-ish success rate as a way of saying, look, we’re not taking enough bears as it is, so how can we possibly eliminate this extremely popular hunting method? But it is also a way of countering one of the Fairsies primary critiques, which is that — setting aside population goals for a moment — hunting bears over bait simply isn’t sporting, that it contradicts the near-sacred doctrine of fair chase, “a balance that allows hunters to occasionally succeed while animals generally avoid being taken” (this definition from a pocket-size book called Beyond Fair Chase, which is issued to prospective hunters enrolled in state-certified hunter education courses — the author of which, it seems fair to note, has spoken out against baiting and is a Montanan).
On the face of it, a 25- to 30-percent hunter success rate would seem easily to meet fair-chase criteria. However, as Fairsies like Wildlife Alliance of Maine executive director Daryl DeJoy points out, those rates include Mainers hunting in their own backyards, folks hunting in marginal bear habitat, and casual hunters who may only bait one or two sites with an old 5-gallon bucket — not to mention everyone who bought a tag and never made it into the field. The all-but-guaranteed failure of these folks, say the Fairsies, statistically obscures the far-too-likely success of the overwhelmingly out-of-state hunters who pay for guided, baited hunts.
“I know a guy who baits bears on Deer Isle,” says DeJoy, himself a Registered Maine Guide. “I can’t imagine his success rate over time is very high, and they’re counting him along with Maine’s trophy outfitters. Those numbers aren’t giving you the real fact that the people who are making the big money, the people putting out all the bait, are really having success rates of 85 percent, even 90 percent.”
And, indeed, you don’t have to surf many outfitters’ websites to see that claims of such rates are commonplace. I recently accompanied one veteran guide on his bait-setting rounds who told me candidly that his clients have a 75- to 90-percent chance of filling their tag. The number fluctuates with the availability of natural food in a given year, since contrary to our vision of the irresistible doughnut, consensus among biologists is that if things like berries, tree fruits, beechnuts, or acorns are abundant, black bears are less likely to bother with human foods — even easily accessible ones.
Still, the question remains: Despite all the work and advance planning that goes into a baited hunt, if a guided client has only a 10- to 25-percent chance of going home empty-handed, does this meet the ethical threshold of fair chase?
Here is how SAM executive director and Savesie captain David Trahan defines an ethical hunting practice: One that is legal and that a hunter has made an informed, personal decision to use. Another sportsman may not approve, of course, but in Trahan’s mind, ethics boil down to individual choice, so if an individual has thought it through and it isn’t against the law, then it is ipso facto ethical.
Katie Hansberry, campaign director of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, does not share this view. Not only can a legal practice be unsporting, say the Fairsies, it can also be reckless and inhumane, and any of these three attributes is enough to make it unethical. As state director of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Hansberry has particular concerns about animal cruelty, and Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting materials use some fairly menacing terms to describe the mechanics of hounding and trapping in particular. Bears hunted with dogs are subjected to “a terrifying and exhausting chase.” Bears caught in a foot snare “could be suffering for hours in excruciating pain until the trapper returns.” In conversation, Hansberry points out that foot snares are “indiscriminate” — that is, they can close on something other than a bear. She laments that hounds are sometimes “treated more like hunting equipment than the animals they are,” and she namechecks Maine animal shelters that have taken in abandoned and mistreated hunting dogs.
It seems to me there’s little rational argument to be had on the cruelty point, because unless you take dramatic exception to the extent of this perceived wrongdoing (e.g., surely most houndsmen are kind to their dogs, and so on), it ultimately all boils down to a mix of ideology and gut reaction: Either you find these practices inhumane or you don’t.
What’s more interesting is the language that Trahan and Hansberry use to talk about themselves and one another. Hansberry, for her part, emphasizes repeatedly during our conversations that Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting consists of a coalition of groups — most prominently the HSUS, yeah, but also Wildlife Alliance of Maine, Maine Friends of Animals, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and many others. She is candidate-like in her repetition of the phrase “my fellow Mainers,” as in, “Nearly 64,000 of my fellow Mainers signed the petition to put this referendum on the ballot.” Hansberry, as many Savesies will happily point out, grew up in Massachusetts, graduated from Bowdoin College, and practiced litigation in Massachusetts before returning to Maine two years ago. Despite her pride in her own coalition, she refers to Trahan’s SAM and to Save Maine’s Bear Hunt and Management Programs (also a coalition campaign) interchangeably.
Trahan, for his part, never once utters the phrase “Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting” and instead refers only to the HSUS, which he invokes in roughly the same tones that Superman might use to refer to the Legion of Doom. Although it doesn’t have the radical pedigree or the scare-factor name recognition of, say, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the HSUS is the number-one bogeyman for the Savesies — and not without reason. The national organization has sparked and funded similar campaigns to ban bear hunting methods in a half-dozen other states since 1992, half of them successful. The HSUS donated nearly $500,000 of the $1.3 million that the Fairsies group raised back in 2004, the last time Maine considered a referendum to ban trapping, baiting, and hounds.
That referendum was defeated 53 percent to 47 percent, but not before much of both sides’ prodigious bankrolls were spent on graphic and hyperbolic TV ads, the most egregious of which suggested none too subtly that if bear hunting methods were restricted, black bears would begin eating children (they will not — fewer than 20 humans have been killed by a black bear in the lower 48 since 1900). Nor were the Fairsies alone in raising significant cash from outside Maine. The 2004 Savesies accepted significant donations from the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, Safari Club International, and a national NRA fund — although only around 40 percent of the Savesies’ donations came from out of state, compared to more than 90 percent of the Fairsies’.
But it isn’t the HSUS’s fundraising abilities that truly strike fear into the Savesie heart. It is the impression, real or imagined, that the organization’s long-term goal is to end all hunting of any species by any methods whatsoever. To the extent that this is an actual concern and not just a slippery-slope scare tactic, it is based largely on statements to this effect that the HSUS’s now-president Wayne Pacelle made as a 20-something activist in the early 1990s. If it seems to strain credulity that a politically savvy, Washington-based advocacy organization might view a nationwide prohibition on hunting as an even remotely achievable goal, not everyone is so skeptical.
“The Humane Society of the United States is a propaganda and fundraising powerhouse,” Trahan has written, “ . . . [but they] cannot hide the fact that they are on a crusade to destroy hunting.”
“They want everybody to become vegan,” one hunter told me, without any hint of exaggeration. “The line for them is no hunting, no harming of animals, period.”
The HSUS’s official response to this is brisk: “We do not actively oppose all forms of hunting. The Humane Society joins with all hunters in opposing cruel and unsporting practices” — such as the three on this referendum. If statements like this really do mask a secret plan to someday launch an all-out campaign against hunting as such, at least one Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting–endorsing organization will feel betrayed.
“We didn’t want to support something that was going to totally end bear hunting in Maine,” says Shannon Donahue, executive director of the conservation-focused Great Bear Foundation. Though based in Montana and Alaska and global in scope, Donahue says the group gets many requests to back East Coast initiatives, but rarely lends its support. “We’ve had all kinds of people contacting us to try and stop bear hunting in New Jersey, for example, but we don’t want to endorse something that’s just a blanket ban on bear hunting. This was kind of a different situation.”
Regardless of how each side likes to paint the other, both the Fairsies’ and Savesies’ campaigns are indeed coalitions. And in some cases, the make-up of those coalitions is surprising. In addition to the biggies, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting is endorsed by a predictable list of a couple dozen regional and national animal welfare groups, along with 80-plus veterinarians, animal control officers, clergy, and community leaders. More left-field allies include the pop star Ke$ha — who inexplicably endorsed the campaign at a concert in Bangor last year — and Citizens Opposing Active Sonar Threats (COAST), a group formed in Hancock in 2000 to address risks to marine life posed by ocean noise. Says COAST spokesman Russell Wray, “The mindset that thinks it’s okay to put bait out for bears and then shoot it is not far removed from the mindset that says, ‘Well, we need this sonar, so we’re going to use it, and if whales die, so what?’”
On the Savesie side, Save Maine’s Bear Hunt and Management Programs is endorsed by a long list of local, regional, and national organizations explicitly focused on hunting issues (including a random smattering of state hunting associations from states other than Maine). But Team Savesie is impressively diverse, with endorsees that include the Maine Farm Bureau, the Maine Snowmobile Association, the Maine State Council of Machinists, and other groups that don’t — on the face of it, anyway — have any explicit stake in hunting or wildlife management issues.
If you choose to read into this that bears are perhaps just a proxy for the larger culture war — that regardless of the wildlife in question, what’s really being fought here is the same clichéd battle pitting northern Maine against southern Maine, conservatives against progressives, rural folks against urban ones, and so on — you would not be the first person to see this narrative at work.
“I am avoiding that at all costs,” declares James Cote, chief Savesie lobbyist and Save Maine’s Bear Hunt campaign manager. Sure, he acknowledges, his side might fetch some votes out of little more than perceived rural or working-class solidarity, but “this shouldn’t be about northern Maine versus southern Maine, it shouldn’t be Republican versus Democrat. I’m going to make a bold claim here: I don’t think that anybody could go out and identify a stronger political coalition than the one we’ve got.”
Bold, but not baseless. Save Maine’s Bear Hunt and Management Programs endorsees include all three candidates for governor, both the Republican and Democratic candidates for the 2nd District Congressional seat, and a roster of more than 80 sitting state legislators that breaks about a quarter Democratic. Of course, a cynic might point out that if indeed there is a leftward lean among the Fairsies, a Democratic candidate who’s likely to get their vote anyway has little to lose and much to gain by coming out as a Savesie. The same cynic might explain the endorsement of the nominally progressive Maine AFL-CIO — which, if nothing else, seems to have little reason to weigh in on wildlife management — as an expression of its blue-collar ranks, but it upsets the easy Left-versus-Right storyline all the same.
And, of course, the Fairsies are not all white-collar, Prius-driving urbanites — though this is an easy epithet for some Savesies to hurl. Cecil Gray, for example, is a Master Maine Guide from Skowhegan who founded a group called Hunters for Fair Bear Hunting during the last referendum in 2004. He isn’t reprising his role this year, in part because he doesn’t need another year of taunts from his fellow outdoorsmen about “obeying his vegan masters.” Gray is less concerned about cruelty than science and sportsmanship, to the point that he rolls his eyes at what strikes him as the sometimes namby-pamby, those-poor-bears approach of his fellow Fairsies. “You don’t want to put yourself in a category,” he says, “where people are just going to say, ‘Oh, they’re PETA.’”
Both sides have lobbed accusations of bullying. Last July, Trahan wrote an editorial in the Bangor Daily News accusing the HSUS of extortion, saying he was summoned to a closed-door meeting attended by five “ruthless” lobbyists who told him that if his group didn’t support a bill to ban trapping and hounds, the Fairsies would take it to referendum and add baiting. This is nonsense, says Hansberry. The bill was an attempt at compromise — “a good-faith effort on our part to see if we could find some version of legislation to move forward on and forego going to the ballot.” At the bill’s public hearing before the Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, she and DeJoy say the committee allowed the bill’s opposition to holler and catcall. This, says DeJoy, is a common bit of disrespect in hearings where any group mounts a challenge to SAM or IF&W: “We are marginalized as bunny huggers.”
Trahan, meanwhile, takes offense to a line of text on the Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting website, which states that “Maine’s current bear hunting laws allow hunters to target pregnant bears and cubs.” This is a shameful and dishonest attack, he says, since this season’s bears are eight months old by the time hunting season comes around, not cubs but almost yearlings, and even females who’ve mated don’t implant the embryo until they den up for winter, so technically they’re not pregnant during the hunt. Anyway, he says, most hunters would discourage taking those shots.
Is this hair-splitting? It doesn’t matter. Trahan is angry that his hunters are basically being called baby killers — and if that doesn’t summon the specter of the culture war, then I don’t know what does.
Of such insults from the Fairsies, Trahan says, “They’re painting everybody with this broad brush because it serves their agenda . . . and they lack credibility.”
Of slander from the Savesies, Hansberry says, “It’s a distraction. They’re not able to defend these practices on their merits, so they resort to attacking the messenger’s character.”
So there you have it — something that both sides agree on.
Here is an important question: If the Fairsies don’t want to ban the bear hunt altogether, then what do they suppose bear hunting will look like should they win the referendum?
“It’s going to be really hard,” says Gray. “Are guides going to lose those predictable clients? Yeah, because those guys aren’t hunters anyway. They come to shoot a bear, not hunt it.”
What’s left in the absence of baiting, trapping, and hounding are the hunting methods known as still-hunting and stalking. There’s some overlap there — the basic idea is that hunters will head out and look for bears in the places that bears are naturally known to frequent in search of food: beech ridges, oak ridges, stands of apple trees, blueberry barrens, maybe the margins of agricultural land. It will require no small amount of patience, a lot of walking across potentially gnarly terrain, and an acceptance of success rates substantially lower than with any of the referendum methods.
Dangerously, unacceptably lower, say the Savesies — particularly the wildlife managers of IF&W. Recall that IF&W’s population-growth model mandates a 15 percent annual harvest rate in order to maintain a stable population size. Of the 3,207 bears harvested during the 2012 fall hunt, only around 100 were taken using still-hunting and stalking methods, plus another 60 taken by deer hunters who simply happened upon a black bear. It wouldn’t matter if every bear hunter in the woods used these methods, says IF&W, because the success rate is only 3 percent. Still-hunting and stalking might work in the 20 bear-hunting states where baiting is banned, argue the Savesies, but Maine’s terrain is just no good for it — the underbrush is too heavy for reasonable navigation, the woods are too thick and the hills too low for spotting bears at a distance.
“You can definitely spot and stalk,” acknowledges IF&W wildlife biologist Jennifer Vashon, “you’re just not going to harvest the number of bears that we need with a 3 percent success rate.” If a state like Colorado has a 12 percent rate with these methods, she says, it’s because terrain there is more open, so it’s simply easier to do.
What’s more, argue the Savesies, we can expect drastically fewer hunters if the only way to take a bear is to slog up a beech ridge, wander around for miles, and still likely come home empty-handed. Sure, there are a few hearty, backwoods-lovin’ Mainers willing to invest that kind of time and effort, but with a 3 percent success rate, we’d need some 150,000 hunters each year to keep the population stable — and Maine hasn’t hosted that many bear hunters in the last 10 years combined.
“There’s no way we’re ever going to attract the number of hunters that proponents of this measure think we can,” says Cote. “People will not come to Maine to fair-chase hunt for bears. It won’t happen.”
“It’s not realistic,” adds the guides association’s Kleiner, in part because that kind of hunting is a hard sell for casual sportsmen. “I run fishing tours that are three hours long — it’s not because I think three hours is the appropriate length of time. It’s very often not enough. But that’s what people a) have time for and b) can stand.”
(Here is an irony perhaps worth noting: That the Savesies are just as devoted to courting out-of-state hunters as the Fairsies are to soliciting out-of-state dollars.)
Maine’s carrying capacity for black bears, argue the Savesies, has been augmented by forest practices that reduce clear-cutting and lead to brushier forest with few older trees — a habitat that favors bears. IF&W bear biologist Randy Cross says he wouldn’t be shocked if the population could reach 65,000 before hitting the ecological wall. At that point, says IF&W, Mainers can expect nuisance complaints to skyrocket as bears venture into more populated areas in search of food.
“Most of the people there would have to adjust how they lived,” warns Cross. “Not just stop feeding birds — they’d have to protect their beehives, their pets, their livestock. Everything would be up for grabs if bears infiltrate those areas and they’re hungry.”
By way of example, IF&W wildlife division director Judy Camuso points to increased nuisance reports in Colorado and Oregon, states that passed referendums to ban baiting and hounds in 1992 and 1994, respectively (trapping was already illegal). “States have passed nuisance complaints on to local municipalities” because they couldn’t handle the volume, she says. “The city of Aspen in 2012 had over 1,100 complaints about black bears. It’s the number-one call for service for local police departments. Their complaint level has increased by 1,000 percent since 1993.”
The Fairsies, as you might imagine, have a number of responses to these points, starting with what we should actually glean from the examples of states out west.
Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting argues that bear populations have, in fact, more or less stabilized in those states since their referendums. And indeed, while Colorado Parks and Wildlife carnivore biologist Jerry Apker is cautious not to read Maine’s future into his own state’s past, he estimates that Colorado’s black bear population has risen from around 15,000 in 1992 to just 18,000 today. The state’s harvest numbers dropped initially, but returned to pre-referendum levels in a couple of years, and they’ve since increased further. As for nuisance complaints, yeah, they’ve got them, but Apker says the driving factor is actually the expansion of the human population, the rapid growth of suburbs and desirable resort communities surrounded by excellent bear habitat — like Aspen, for example.
“People who sit there and point to all these conflicts as a consequence of Colorado’s vote,” Apker says, “that’s B.S. That’s just totally untrue.”
And that’s not all, say the Fairsies. The elimination of baiting can actually attract people to still-hunting and stalking methods. Look no further than Oregon, which estimated its black bear population around 25,000 in the early 1990s and puts it between that and 35,000 today (an admittedly large range). While the state saw its hunter success rate fall from a paltry pre-referendum average of 7 percent to an even paltrier 3.1 percent, hunter participation has doubled. Not only does the state release more tags, its number of actual fall hunters has grown from an annual average of around 15,000 before the referendum to 30,000 today.
“Hunters learn different techniques on how to hunt,” says Doug Cottam, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. He draws a distinction between the coastal forests of his district (“this unbelievably thick habitat type from the Cascades to the coast”) and the more open plains and mountainsides elsewhere in Oregon’s bear country. “Here on the coast, in this jungle, the houndsmen and using bait was how it was traditionally done, because hiking and spotting them here seemed almost impossible. But a lot of these western Oregon hunters have adjusted . . . . If you know what you’re looking for and where to go, you can hunt bears effectively without bait or hounds.”
What’s more, the Fairsies ask, if the population does increase to the point that bears are suddenly plentiful in more developed areas, won’t that make it much easier for still-hunters to harvest them? And might still-hunters find bears more easily if they’re not all congregated around remote bait sites during the hunting season?
Objections remain, of course. Oregon has a spring hunt, which helps boost its harvest numbers, but Maine’s referendum would prohibit this. Colorado increased hunter participation by removing its tag quotas, but Maine already has no quotas to remove. Some still-hunters I spoke with noted that they can’t be as choosy about their bear or their shots as bait-hunters with better vantage points, and indeed, Maine’s crippling rate (animals injured, but not killed) is quite low compared to non-baiting states.
So ultimately, the Fairsies look to the west as less of a model and more of a vague affirmation — hey, those guys figured it out, so why can’t we?
Here is a line you’re going to hear a lot in the next couple months: Our position is based on science, while the other side just plays on emotion. You will likely hear this from the Savesies, although there’s plenty of playing on emotions to go around.
It’s no secret that the optics of bear baiting — and perhaps of hunting in general — do not work in the Savesies favor. This very magazine, in fact, declined to publish a photo of a bait bucket, for fear that to do so would be tantamount to condemning it and violate impartiality. Not to worry — if you own a television, you will be seeing plenty of bait buckets soon. Smooshy and mottled contents, with residue clinging to the side like something out of a neglected public restroom, bear bait can be a profoundly unappetizing sight.
Back in 2004, TV spots for the Fairsies played unabashedly to public disgust. One ad showed a trapped bear in its death throes after being shot and was banned by several TV stations. Tactics like this earn criticism from the Savesies, who urge voters to privilege science over sentimentality. And to emphasize that the scientists are on their side, this year’s Savesie ads will feature testimony from IF&W biologists, whom the LePage administration is permitting to appear in uniform in support of the cause. The agency runs one of the nation’s longest-running black bear studies, argue the Savesies, and to overrule their expertise is to let fickle public sentiment guide policy instead of science.
Of course, people get to vote on all kinds of things they’re not experts in, respond the Fairsies — that’s how democracy works. And one has to wonder how many hunters decrying “ballot box biology” are as yielding to scientific authority when scientists are advocating for, say, carbon emissions standards or endangered species protection. Moreover, the Savesies make some emotional appeals of their own. Note the news crawl of nuisance bear reports on the Save Maine’s Bear Hunt website. SAM and others often stress the “traditional” nature of these three hunting methods, appealing to Mainers’ sense of cultural heritage.
“We used to hunt for food, now we hunt because we want a bear rug,” says DeJoy. “Don’t call that tradition. The intent is not what the traditional intent was.”
Bear hunting is an ethical issue and an emotional one and a biological one, DeJoy insists, and what’s more, IF&W does not have a monopoly on science. Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting’s position is that the millions of pounds of bait set out in the woods each fall is itself inflating Maine’s black bear population. Fairsies point to studies showing that supplemental feeding of black bears with human-sourced foods decreases cub mortality in lousy natural food years, lowers the age at which female bears breed, and possibly conditions bears to seek out human-scented foods. Stop chumming the woods every year, argue DeJoy and company, and the threat of population explosion disappears — or is at least substantially mitigated.
“They said in 2004 that these practices were necessary for bear management in Maine,” says Hansberry, “but look at their numbers. It’s not working. The bear population in the last 10 years has grown 30 percent. Go back to 1975 when baiting started to take off in Maine — the bear population has grown 253 percent in that time.”
Hogwash, say IF&W biologists. The recent population growth is explained by too few hunters, the long-term growth by changes to habitat. Biologists Vashon, Cross, and Camuso all draw distinctions between the baiting that happens in Maine’s woods and the kind of supplemental feeding that they agree tends to boost bear numbers — folks setting out feeding troughs all year long, for example, without culling any of the bears that feed there. Maine hunters can place bait for just three months each fall, and most stop after two (after which it’s only for trappers and houndsmen). This is not long enough, says IF&W, to have a substantial impact on the population, and the bait doesn’t represent enough calories anyway. Sure, the state biologists admit, bait might help the occasional bear cub tough out a lean fall, but if it were having large-scale effects, they would be seeing red flags in their study data.
“For 40 years we’ve been radio-collaring female black bears in three to four study areas,” says Vashon, “and what we’ve learned is that our reproductive rates have changed a little over time, but not to the degree you’d expect if baiting was leading to more fit individuals.” Litter sizes, breeding age, and cub survival rates are all broadly in line with other states, according to IF&W, and any changes are so closely correlated to natural food fluctuations that they just can’t point to baiting as a factor.
The trouble, say DeJoy and the Fairsies, is that IF&W only has monitoring data — without setting out to prove this or that hypothesis, there is a risk of reading into the numbers what one wants to see. In other words, it’s a bit like giving your kid a soda every day, then monitoring his weight and exercise habits before deciding that those two things correlate so well, the soda can’t be having an effect.
“You go out, you snare the bear, you dart, you weigh it, you check the teeth, you probably know it by name,” says Gray. “Been doing it for 40 years — I respect that. But what does that mean? You don’t know what they weigh over there where they haven’t been baited for 25 years. You don’t want to know that.”
Of course, reading into data cuts both ways. DeJoy points to a study in Minnesota suggesting that female bears with access only to natural foods breed at 6.4 years of age. According to Vashon, Maine’s female black bears breed between four and six years, depending on natural food conditions. Does this mean there’d be fewer 4-year-old bear moms in the absence of bait? Maybe. I don’t know. But I speak from journalistic experience when I say it is easy to tumble down a rabbit hole of assumption while navigating a thicket of isolated data points.
The Fairsies accuse the IF&W of being too cozy with the hunting, guiding, and outfitting communities. Because the agency gets its funding from permit and license fees, say the Fairsies, it has an interest in seeing the woods managed to sportsmen’s benefit. Many IF&W employees are also guides, Gray points out, or at the very least, they run with that crowd. But guides and IF&W still disagree on plenty, respond Cote, Kleiner, and others. Sure, both have a lot riding on this referendum economically. Bear hunting is the “mortgage lifter” for at least 200 guides association members, says Kleiner. Margins for guiding are not large, and the lucrative bear-hunting season is often what pushes an outfitter into the black. And losing the bear hunt, says Cote, will remove $5 million from IF&W’s annual operating budget. So yeah, he says, there’s common interest there, but why is that a problem?
“If contractors and developers in this state were that close with the Department of Environmental Protection,” asks Cote, “would that be a bad thing?”
Cross, for his part, delivers a passionate defense of his motivations. He does hold a guide license, though it’s been decades since he took clients on a bear hunt, and he laughs at the notion that he ever made any money off of it. “I feel comfortable saying that nobody cares more about bears than I do,” he says. The prospect of a swelling population worries him, not just as a biologist, but as a wildlife lover. “I don’t think we can talk about cruelty when, down the road, you’re going to have just the same bears dying of starvation that now get executed by bullet — a very quick, humane death. Because I’ve seen starvation, and it’s not pretty. I’m the guy that has to look them in the eye.”
And so, it all comes back to emotion.
Here is the underlying irony of the whole gonzo black bear squabble: While the Fairsies and Savesies want profoundly different things, it is the very same scenario they’re trying to avoid. Hansberry, DeJoy, and company all bristle at the notion of a wild bear becoming just another commodity, and they worry that these hunting practices display an unwise callousness to the natural world. Meanwhile, Cross, Camuso, and others all acknowledge that what they’re afraid of is a day when black bears are once more seen as mere varmints, when too many nuisance complaints erode the respect for bears that Mainers have developed since the bad old days of paid bounties.
“I want people to care about wildlife,” says Camuso. “I want them to be engaged in it, I want them to value it, and I want them to see it as positive.”