The totals may not come close to those in the three-way race for governor, but both sides of the debate over whether Maine should ban the use of bait, traps and dogs for bear-hunting are quietly raising and spending significant amounts of money leading up to a November referendum.
Supporters of the ban have already committed just over $1 million in advertising buys, while opponents have allotted about $625,000. Those commitments are for Maine’s entire television media market, which includes stations in Portland, Bangor and Presque Isle.
The ads are not likely to hit the airwaves until after Labor Day, but the pre-purchased amounts are likely just the beginning, and the early spending could mean a lot of 30-second spots starring bears this fall.
For the second time in 10 years, Maine voters will be asked to weigh in on how bears should be hunted. A similar ban was rejected by 53 percent of voters in 2004.
In February, opponents of bear-baiting who believe another vote is needed delivered nearly 80,000 signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office to put the question on the November ballot.
Question 1 will read, “Do you want to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety, or for research?”
The ballot measure would prohibit hunting with bait, in which a pile of food is put out to attract bears to a specific location; hunting with hounds, which are used to tree bears so hunters can shoot them; and with traps, in which bears are snared and shot later.
Voters in four states have approved similar bans, while four other states, including Maine, have rejected them.
Supporters of the ban, represented by a ballot-question committee called Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, say baiting and trapping are cruel and unsportsmanlike methods that do nothing to control the bear population.
Katie Hansberry, campaign director for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, said the state’s bear population has not stabilized since 2004. It has actually grown from an estimated 23,000 to 32,000 and is still climbing. And, she said, nuisance complaints involving bears have increased about 20 percent over the past decade.
“We think baiting actually increases the number of bears and increases the likelihood of human-bear conflict. We’re teaching them to lose their natural wariness,” she said, noting that nearly 7 million pounds of junk food (usually doughnuts and other sweets) are dumped into the Maine woods every year to attract bears.
The other side, led by the Maine Wildlife Conservation Council/Save Maine’s Bear Hunt and supported by various sportsmen and Maine Guide groups, says trapping and baiting are needed to control the bear population. They believe bear hunting in Maine contributes to the state’s rural economy and represents an important piece of Maine’s outdoor heritage. Ban supporters are using alarmist tactics to confuse the issues, the opponents say.
“We want to be the voice of reason in this debate,” said James Cote, campaign manager for the Maine Wildlife Conservation Council. “We want to be educational and that will be the focus of our ads.”
Cote also said nearly all of the money from the support side is coming from the Humane Society of the United States, which is true, while donors to his group are largely Mainers.
“We are a grassroots campaign, and they are funded by a group in D.C. that wants this so bad,” he said.
Hansberry said support for a ban is not tied to the sources of her group’s money. She said the fact that nearly 80,000 signatures were gathered in a relatively short time period this winter is a sign of broad support in the state.
The latest campaign finance reporting deadline was July 15, but the reports will not be made public until next week. As of May 27, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting had $463,000 in cash on hand, and the Maine Wildlife Conservation Council had about $622,000.
The last major citizens initiative – the successful same-sex marriage campaign in 2012 – generated a significant amount of donations on both sides. Supporters raised more than $4.5 million, while opponents gathered about $1.5 million – but those amounts were for the entire campaign.
A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll commissioned in June by the Portland Press Herald suggested the bear-baiting referendum results will be close.
Among 527 likely voters polled June 12-18, 48 percent supported the ban and 44 percent opposed it. The 4-point difference was within the margin of error of 4.3 points.
The poll also revealed that support or opposition was directly related to how much people knew about the issue.
Voters who knew a great deal about it opposed the measure by a wide margin, 67 percent to 31 percent. Those who had heard some information favored it 55 percent to 32 percent, and those who had heard nothing about it were in favor by 54 percent to 37 percent.