Opponents of the statewide ballot measure seeking to ban the use of bait, traps and dogs in bear hunting claimed victory early Wednesday morning, and its backers conceded “it appears we came up short.”
Question 1 asked Maine voters: “Do you want to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety or for research?” Maine is the only state that allows all three bear-hunting practices.
The outcome was too close to call early Wednesday morning. With 64 percent of Maine precincts reporting, Question 1 was headed to defeat by a margin of 52.3 to 47.7 percent.
“We have a great victory,” said David Trahan, who heads the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, speaking to a group of more than 25 sportsmen, many of them hunting guides, at the Black Bear Inn in Orono.
James Cote, the No on 1 campaign manager, praised the campaign’s supporters.
“We faced an incredible amount of adversity in this campaign. They threw everything at us they can,” he said. “I am proud to say that we prevailed.”
Katie Hansberry, director of the campaign for Mainers For Fair Bear Hunting, the proponents of the measure, said early Wednesday “there remain votes to be counted but it appears we came up short.”
Tuesday’s ballot question marked the second time in 10 years that Mainers were asked to vote on the proposed ban. In 2004, voters rejected a similar referendum by a margin of 53-47 percent.
“It was very difficult to overcome the significant spending and involvement of the state agency, which caused a lot of confusion for voters, despite the fact Maine is the only state to allow all three cruel and unsporting practices,” Hansberry said in a phone interview.
Hansberry added the coalition supporting the referendum would not give up, although another referendum at this point was uncertain.
This year’s bear referendum has been more than an ethical debate between animal-welfare advocates and those who support hunting traditions. The campaign has been marked by different fundraising approaches, out-of-state interests, high-profile spokespeople, vocal state biologists and a contentious lawsuit.
Supporters of the referendum say stalking black bears without the use of bait, traps and dogs is enough to control numbers without these methods, which they call inhumane.
Opponents say that without current hunting methods, the black bear population in Maine will swell and bears will threaten public safety.
Mainers who went to the polls Tuesday were passionate about the referendum.
Kaila Ripley, a 24-year-old trapper from Oakland, voted no because she said the animal-advocacy groups that put Question 1 on the ballot won’t be satisfied until all hunting and trapping is outlawed in every state. “This is only the beginning,” she said.
Meanwhile, Gayle Warren, a 69-year-old hunter from Gardiner, described the early morning breakfasts before family hunting trips as some of her favorite times. But she said she voted “yes” on 1.
“I don’t believe in baiting,” she said.
The most striking difference between the two campaign sides this time around compared with 2004 is the source of their campaign funds.
In 2004, proponents raised $1 million and opponents collected $1.6 million.
This year, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, the referendum proponents, raised more than $2 million in campaign funds, with just 3 percent – $59,717 – coming from Maine donors, according to the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.
The proponents of the ban received 97 percent of their donations from the Humane Society of the United States, based in Washington, D.C., leading opponents to view Maine as a political battleground over hunting traditions.
The coalition of groups opposing the referendum raised $2.8 million, with 39 percent of the money coming from Maine and 61 percent from at least 41 other states, according to campaign finance records.
Opponents of the referendum said the ballot measure was based on an anti-hunting agenda pushed by the Humane Society. This time, unlike 2004, the proponents were represented by the CEO and president of the Humane Society, Wayne Pacelle.
The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife actively campaigned against the referendum. It is legal for state employees to speak out on ballot issues, according to the Maine Attorney General’s Office. But IFW employees were noticeably more outspoken leading up to the election than they were 10 years ago.
In 2004, commercials showed state biologists in plain clothes in residential areas speaking about black bear management.
This time, videos on the department website and TV commercials showed Maine bear biologists in uniform, working with their equipment in the field and standing side by side with Maine game wardens as a large, unified group of state employees visibly standing in opposition to the ballot measure. In both cases the commercials were paid for by the group formed in 2004 to fight the referendum, the Maine Wildlife Conservation Council.
That approach led to a court challenge when Mainers For Fair Bear Hunting filed a lawsuit on Sept. 30 in Cumberland County Superior Court accusing IFW of illegally using public funds to campaign against the referendum. The group also filed for an injunction forbidding the department from continuing to use state funds on the campaign and a Freedom of Information Act request for department emails.
But Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler ruled that Mainers For Fair Bear Hunting failed to demonstrate that the department’s opposition to Question 1 caused “irreparable injury,” and that department employees’ free speech is protected under the First Amendment.
Staff writers Tom Bell and J. Craig Anderson contributed to this report.
Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: