FALMOUTH — A short history of bear hunting and Maine’s hunting lobby provides a common thread for why voters face a second referendum to end baiting, hounding and trapping of Maine black bears.
To begin with, baiting of bears only began 40 years ago, so this is no Maine tradition. It was a way for primarily a few guides to make some money from mostly unskilled, lazy, out-of-state trophy hunters.
During the many years that Maine Friends of Animals has been working on various animal protection measures, we have been constantly pushed back by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the Maine Trappers Association on all wildlife issues. It became increasingly apparent that this hunting lobby would accept no changes in any of their hunting practices, regardless how unfair, needless or cruel.
Year after year, we sponsored and supported bills regarding leghold traps (since banned), the gruesome practice of coyote snaring (also now prohibited), canned hunting, bear hounding – legislation addressing only the most egregiously inhumane hunting practices. Year after year, the bills were killed in committee – a committee in which the majority of the 13 members also belonged to SAM.
The committee that heard our bills, the department that advised the committee’s members and the hunting lobby that opposed the bills were a powerful group of like-minded individuals. It became painfully apparent that the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and SAM and the Maine Trappers Association were an unholy alliance of people who were philosophically, politically, socially and financially connected.
Then in 2003, the same legislative committee again killed a bill to ban bear baiting, hounding and trapping, once again not allowing even discussion before the full Legislature.
We then took our case to the Humane Society of the United States and, with the 2004 referendum, the public finally was able to see the ugly business of bear hunting in Maine that never could see the light of day legislatively. A handful of legislators, the IF&W Department and the hunting lobby circled their wagons and barely beat back the 2004 referendum.
In 2005, there were eight bills before the committee on bear hunting, including separate bills on baiting, hounding and trapping. Given the new public awareness and close margin of victory in the 2004 referendum, one would think that perhaps this would be time for SAM and other hunting organizations to come forward to make some concessions on inhumane hunting practices.
But no. The committee took the eight bills and created a working group to report back to the committee, the political equivalent of deep-sixing them all. The working group, which I served on, was three-quarters stacked with referendum opponents.
In 2007 and 2009, bear bills again never got out of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee. In 2013, HSUS and Maine animal advocates approached SAM with an offer to forgo another referendum if they would support a ban on just the hounding and trapping of bears, which in total only accounts for 15 percent of the animals taken. SAM’s response: No. So here we go again.
Through it all, I have often said the Achilles heel of the hunting lobby in Maine was the intransigent, no-compromise position they maintained while dismissing any criticism as the work of animal rights extremists.
The fact is that most Mainers are against needless animal cruelty and suffering. It is the hunting lobby in Maine that are the extremists, adhering to positions of some of the most extreme hunting organizations in the country that all refuse to give any quarter, even if it demeans Maine’s true hunting tradition.
Moreover, non-consumptive user groups of Maine wildlife – such as wildlife viewers, kayakers, primitive outdoor campers, bird watchers, hikers and wildlife photographers – outnumber Maine sportsmen by 5-to-1, yet they have little or no say in wildlife issues. Maine’s wildlife decisions are made by this small cadre of individuals who will not accept any changes in their hunting practices.
As both sides debate bear management, one must not just accept the word of biologists and decision-makers at the Maine IF&W Department. History has shown time after time that the department is not an independent body, but part of an unholy alliance of a few to maintain their hold on outdated and inhumane hunting practices. Finally, this Nov. 4, you can vote “yes” on Question 1 and send a message that Maine’s wildlife belongs to all Mainers.
— Special to the Press Herald