A group that puts a citizens initiative on the ballot carries a heavy burden of proof. Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting hasn’t met theirs, so we are urging a “no” vote on this year’s Question 1.

The referendum would ban bear hunting with the use of bait, hounds and snares, replacing these methods with stalking and still hunting only. Proponents call this “fair chase,” but what they are proposing would effectively end hunting of Maine black bears, a non-threatened species with a growing population. Hunting is an important wildlife management tool that keeps bears out of the state’s more populated areas. It’s also a key economic force in rural Maine. Changing hunting rules should be done with caution, and that’s not the case with the sweeping changes proposed by this referendum.

The proponents make two major arguments: The first is that these bear-hunting techniques are unnecessarily cruel and unsporting. The second is that putting out barrels of food, often stale doughnuts, upsets the natural cycle of life and actually increases the bear population by introducing food into their environment. We are not persuaded on either count.

BAITING LESS CRUEL

People can disagree over the what constitutes cruelty, or “indifference to suffering.” Hunting a bear when it is attracted to bait is no more cruel than shooting a deer while it eats browse. It may not be as aesthetically pleasing to see a black bear eat from a bucket of junk food, but the law should not be concerned with how things look. Hunters have a better chance to get a clean shot at a bear that’s eating than they do at one that is running through the woods and could escape in a wounded state. In that respect, hunting with bait is less cruel than stalking the animal.

While we don’t find the practice of baiting to be cruel, it would be a much tougher call if the referendum called only for a ban on hunting with dogs and traps.

A bear that’s chased by hounds has to run for its life and spends its last minutes terrified. A bear that steps in a cable snare can spend as long as 24 hours tethered to a tree before a hunter returns to shoot it. Neither method results in a significant number of bears killed, and so these practices are much less necessary wildlife management tools than baiting.

But because of the all-or-nothing nature of referendum questions, we can’t pick which elements of the law we want to support.

Since 80 percent of the bears that are harvested are shot over bait, we have to conclude that bear hunting should not be effectively outlawed on the grounds of cruelty.

The effect of bait on population growth is a less subjective issue. We don’t believe that “feeding the bears” is growing the population.

Bears are opportunistic omnivores that can eat everything from grass to a moose. When great swaths of the northern Maine forest were clearcut to eradicate the spruce budworm, better bear habitat was created. The bears have more than enough food to support their population without the extra calories donated by hunters.

Most of Maine’s 30,000 bears never get near a bait site, and the ones who are attracted to it are the most likely ones to be shot. There are no reliable measurements of how much bait is introduced and eaten by bears that are not killed. Without that kind of evidence, it doesn’t make sense to overrule the wildlife management experts and change the law.

BIOLOGISTS OVERREACHED

State biologists with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife have been more than bystanders in this debate. At times they have been active advocates against Question 1, and their very public role has itself become an issue in the campaign. Advertisements featuring uniformed state employees warning of a public safety crisis that could occur if the referendum passes were unnecessarily alarmist.

But the wildlife officials are still the best source of information on this issue, and their opinion matters. They predict that banning these three hunting practices would reduce the bear harvest by 93 percent, effectively ending hunting as a management tool. Maine would be left with a host of unpleasant options if bear populations continued to rise.

These questions are not well suited to the referendum process – not because voters can’t understand complicated issues, but because these issues don’t lend themselves to a single yes-or-no answer.

The referendum has roused deep reactions from Mainers who are offended by hunting practices that seem unfair and brutal. Unfortunately, these concerns were raised 10 years ago when this referendum was first put before Maine voters. Since then, several legislatures have avoided addressing this complicated, emotional issue, which is why it’s on the ballot again this year.

That’s not a good enough reason to pass this overbroad initiative. Mainers should vote no on Question 1, and then push their legislators to do their jobs and create a balanced wildlife management plan for the state.