AUGUSTA, Maine -- A proposed referendum that would ban bear hunting in Maine using bait, dogs or traps would lead to a large growth in Maine's bear population and put residents in serious danger, officials from Gov. Paul LePage's administration and outdoors groups said Monday.
A coalition including organizations like the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine has formed in response to the recent announcement that Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting is gathering signatures to put the bear baiting referendum on the November 2014 ballot. More than 60 Democratic and GOP lawmakers, as well as the Republican governor, have joined the opposition to the proposal.
Backers of the referendum say methods like bear baiting, or using rotting food to attract bears to a single spot to hunt them, are inhumane and unnecessary. But opponents said Monday that banning those methods would compromise the state's ability to control the bear population, estimated at more than 30,000. State wildlife biologists estimate that banning them would mean about 2,000 fewer bears hunted each season.
"We would see an increase in the number of bear-human conflicts that would cost the state and residents money," said Chandler Woodcock, commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. "We would have to remove more bears lethally from problem areas."
But Katie Hansberry, campaign director for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting and Maine state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said that when other states, like Colorado, Washington and Oregon did away with hunting using bait and dogs, bear populations remained stable and states actually saw an increase in bear hunting participation.
"It's proven that these practices have no place in responsible bear management and they can very much manage the bear population without resorting to these," she said. Baiting is actually part problem because habituating bears to human food and smells and makes them more likely to seek out humans in the wild, she said.
A similar referendum effort failed in Maine in 2004, but Hansberry said they now have 10 more years of data from other states that have banned these practices to make its case. The group, which is backed by the Wildlife Alliance of Maine and several local humane societies, says it plans to get 80,000 signatures, well-exceeding the 57,277 valid signatures needed to get a measure on the ballot. It's holding an event on Tuesday in Augusta to kick-off its campaign and begin collecting signatures.
But opponents say that Maine's heavily wooded terrain sets it apart from other states and makes the methods essential to hunt bears. They also say that stifling bear hunting will hurt Maine businesses and take away desperately-needed jobs in rural Maine. When the referendum was proposed in 2004, it was estimated that almost half of the bear guides in Maine would have to close their businesses, said Don Kleiner, executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association.
"It's no secret that the recent recession hit rural Maine and our small businesses hard," he said. "Taking away the economics of Maine's bear hunt would only compound the difficulty that many of these businesses are experiencing today."